Q&A: Farr’s local legacy starts with national park

Congressman Sam Farr speaks to the crowd at a redesignation ceremony honoring Pinnacles becoming a national park on Feb. 11, 2013.

Congressman Sam Farr is retiring after 23 years of representing San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in Washington D.C. Some of his accomplishments include helping to establish Pinnacles National Park, obtaining federal funds for the local airport and advocating for affordable housing.

He currently co-chairs multiple caucuses, including the House Oceans Caucus and the Congressional Organic Caucus. He served in the California State Assembly for 12 years before advancing to the House of Representatives.

Farr recently spoke to the Free Lance over the phone about his time in office, plans for retirement, and parting words of wisdom.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment while in office?

A: There are many. I’ve been in elected office for 43 years and I’ve accomplished a lot. And I think that the three crown jewels are Pinnacles National Park, which was initiated by a conversation in the San Juan Bautista Rotary Club. You can do wilderness designations by the president, but only a Congress will create a national park. And there hadn’t been one created in a decade. I think it’s the only park that’s been created in the Obama administration. It was significant because national parks are forever and we’re having the 100th anniversary. I think it’s helping the economy of both sides of the park, both San Benito County and southern Monterey County.

So the park is one. I think the other is growing up in this area, not having a school of higher education that was within a short commute, making that accessible and affordable. Creating the university, Cal State University of Monterey Bay, was probably one of those top things.

And then I think all the ocean protection legislation that I’ve done: The sanctuaries, the rocks, islands, monuments all along the entire coast. So those are physical things you can point at that are institutions that’ll be here for a long time. That’s always something you’re proud of creating and having your hands on doing.

I also think there’s just a lot of human stuff that I’ve done too that I’m proud of. Essentially, before it was ever popular, talking about affordable housing for the workforce, workforce housing. Housing that people who earn the salaries of whatever level can afford to buy property here, buy places to live as it was historically possible to do, but not anymore and insisting that the communities, cities, and counties really develop strong inclusionary zoning. Affordable housing is a local issue, but the federal government can bring a lot of pressure and money to the table. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve done, obviously, worked with San Benito County on the Hollister Airport. I still think that could be a real economic magnet for the county.

What are your plans for retirement?

Well I don’t have any. I mean that’s the reason I decided to retire. I’ve reached the age of 75. I have one daughter and two grandchildren. My grandchildren are 8 and 13 and I just thought if I stay commuting to Washington every week, I’m not going to have much time with them. So I wanted to retire, I thought the time was right.

Almost everything I wanted to go to Congress I got done. I think you run for office using that office as a tool to fix things. Congress is just a tool; so is the state assembly; so is the board of supervisors. They’re all tools and they all have different tool boxes. They can do wonderful things. You ought to figure out what is broken that you need to fix. So I went to Congress with a whole list of things—particularly, passionately involved in the reuse of Fort Ord when it closed. And I knew the federal government owned it all and they could screw it up. We didn’t have a strong voice from the community, and we’re still working on that. I’ve been in Congress 23 years and we’re still working on Fort Ord. We’ve created state parks, universities, huge regional parks for bicycling and horseback riding and jogging. And now we’re essentially building small communities all over Fort Ord, thousands of new houses.

You know people don’t think about it, but I think our counties are so connected. As they say we are all one county at one time and we’re still sort of philosophically connected if nothing else. There are a lot of people living in San Benito County that work also in Monterey and Santa Cruz County, not just Santa Clara County.

Could you give your perspective on how Congress itself has changed since you first took office?

I think it’s changed significantly. The change has come about with the Tea Party elections—sort of ultra-conservatives who want to stop government. My experience in public office is that, normally, Democrats and Republicans will agree that there’s an issue, that there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. So it’s a debate on how you’re going to fix it, what the laws are going to be governed in, how much money you’re going to spend, taxpayers’ money and all that. It’s sort of a debate over style I guess, but here you have now people who are in the minority of the Republican party, but because of party rules they are able to stop things. So we can’t do immigration reform, although there’s enough votes to pass it. We can’t even do our budget and our appropriations bills because there’s enough votes to pass it, but it can’t get to the floor. So what is really changed in the institution is people who are getting elected but don’t want to fix things, don’t want to solve problems because they don’t like government.

Do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share with the candidate who takes your place?

I hope that whoever’s elected, they’ll have an idea that this is a really special area. We have the capacity, this congressional district and part of California, has the capacity to solve the root causes of poverty. The root causes are not having access to education at an early age, so you can learn to read and write. Access is not just physical; it’s got to be in a distance you can reach, but also has to be affordable. The same thing for healthcare. If you want people to have a chance in life you have to have three things: you have to have education, access to healthcare so when you’re sick or have a broken bone you can get it fixed, and access to a safe place to sleep. That comes to the whole issue on housing and affordable housing. If you have housing, education, and healthcare, you’ve got a chance. You’ve got a chance. And frankly in America, and California, you got a good chance and you can see that with what the immigrants have been able to do. This is where California began, we were the first. And I think that’s the key, that this district, this region of California, is the first in history. We’re the first in almost everything. I think we can be the first region in the United States that has eliminated the culture of poverty, the root causes of poverty.

That was my dream. I went from being a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America to being a Congressman in Washington. I still think it’s possible and I think I’ve done a lot to add to the infrastructure so that you do have safe places to sleep and access to affordable healthcare and affordable education.

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