Political Notebook

Can Janz beat Nunes? Few think so, but the Democrat says ‘Let’s try something new’

Andrew Janz discusses his final months on campaign trail

Fresno Democrat Andrew Janz lays out his plan for the two months leading up to the Nov. 6 election.
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Fresno Democrat Andrew Janz lays out his plan for the two months leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

In an affluent northwest Fresno neighborhood, two lawn signs jockey for position at a curve in the road.

To the left, a Devin Nunes for Congress sign sits front-and-center on a traditionally landscaped lawn. To the right, an Andrew Janz for Congress sign is nestled near the front of a drought-resistant yard.

On a particularly hot night in July, more than 50 neighbors and friends filed past the Janz sign and into the home of Newton and Sue Seiden.

“He’s a good neighbor,” Newton Seiden, a physician and self-described labor Democrat, said of his Nunes’ supporter neighbor next door. “We get along. He has his sign, and we have our sign.”

Unlike Seiden, the 34-year-old Janz is not a doctor. He is a prosecutor with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office.

But he does make house calls.

Janz spent several hours introducing himself and answering questions in Seiden’s living room, kitchen and backyard — as he has in houses throughout Fresno and Tulare counties pretty much every week (and sometimes two or three times a week) in 2018. The smallest such meeting thus far took place at a house in Visalia, where Janz delivered his campaign talking points to all of four people.

The first-time candidate is determined to outwork Nunes, the 16-year incumbent from Tulare who — as Janz routinely tells it — has not held a public forum in years.

As Nunes dominated national headlines with memos and secret trips to the White House, Janz rode a wave of publicity and fundraising cash that placed the Visalia-born son of immigrants among the most visible House challengers in the country.

And yet, Nunes’ victory seems almost a foregone conclusion.

Few political forecasters even list the Nunes-Janz race. As of Sept. 5, election analyst Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Janz less than a 5 percent chance of winning.

Nunes trounced Janz by nearly 26 percentage points in the June primary, and beat all challengers by nearly eight points. Republicans outnumber Democrats in voter registration by nearly 10 points.

Nunes has raised more than $7 million, and even Democratic polls put Janz behind.

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The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has become a darling of the Right, with powerful friends in both Congress and the White House, while Janz has received little public support from his party.

But Janz continues to soldier on — determined to change the minds of as many living rooms as he can before November.

“Look, I am not a career politician,” Janz said in a Sept. 5 interview with The Bee. “I am not a political pundit. All I can do is my best. All can do is go out there and talk to voters.”

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Democratic Congressional candidate Andrew Janz discusses issues during an editorial board meeting, Tuesday Sept. 4, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Sacrifices

Heather Janz remembers the moment her husband decided to run. He woke her up in the middle of an April night and asked her what she thought about him wanting to run for Congress.

“You know when you wake up in the middle of your sleep and you’re just trying to process? … I think I said something like I understand why, and it’s really important, let’s talk about it tomorrow,” Janz said with a laugh.

Andrew Janz, who works in the Fresno County District office, woke up his wife in the middle of the night to share his thoughts about running against Devin Nunes in California's 22nd District.

The decision did not really surprise Heather Janz, who runs her own marriage and family therapy practice in Fresno. The couple first met at a leadership camp in 2005 and got to know one another through student government work while attending Stanislaus State.

Janz said she felt confident in her husband’s decision, but she was also a little jealous. From an early age, the two shared a belief in helping people. She does so one person at a time through therapy, but now Andrew would attempt to aid others on a much larger scale.

The couple has sacrificed more of their time together in the months since that night. Janz’s relatively steady DA job gave way to a chaotic campaign schedule that has him traveling all over the district, state and country at all hours.

In October, doctors discovered an unexpected bone tumor in Heather’s body. An emergency surgery was scheduled on the same day her husband had a campaign event in Washington, D.C.

“We had to have a serious talk about what comes first and what kind of sacrifices are we going to have to make as a family,” she said. “And we decided then that him running is a very big, important journey that he has to take for the greater good. And he could be there holding my hand but he needs to go and make a difference on a bigger scale.”

Her husband stayed in Washington during the surgery.

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Democratic Congressional candidate Andrew Janz discusses issues during an editorial board meeting, Tuesday Sept. 4, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

The couple also put plans to start a family on hold for the election season.

“For now, our priorities are winning this race,” Heather Janz said. “And when we start a family, that will be so important — to make change in the world for them.”

The race has also taken a toll on Janz’s career as a prosecutor.

Although he refers to himself as a violent crimes prosecutor in speeches and campaign materials, he’s actually been reassigned to lower priority casework in the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office’s felony unit. According to Janz, he also gave up a promotion to run for office.

Janz’s former boss in the violent crimes unit, Bob Whalen, has found himself in an interesting position this election cycle. He’s happy to gush over Janz’s legal chops, but he’s also rooting for Janz’s speedy defeat.

Whalen, who is also the mayor of Clovis and a longtime Nunes supporter, was on the panel that interviewed Janz prior to his hire in March 2014. He took notice of the young attorney while he was working in juvenile cases.

When the district attorney created the violent crimes unit and put Whalen in charge, Janz was among Whalen’s first choices for the unit. Typically, Whalen said, a deputy district attorney works misdemeanors, then juvenile cases, then adult felony cases. Janz’s appointment meant he skipped the usual middle step.

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Fresno County prosecutor Andrew Janz at work in court, Friday morning, Aug. 16, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Early in his campaign, Janz often claimed he had not lost a case as a violent crimes prosecutor. Whalen said he discourages thinking in terms of wins and losses among his attorneys, but added that he could not recall a time in which Janz lost a case.

“We tested him early on an incredibly difficult attempted murder case,” Whalen said. “He didn’t hesitate. He did his homework. He presented well, and he got an excellent conviction.”

Janz secured an 80-years-to-life sentence for Tabarri Townsend, who seriously injured two people in a June 2014 shooting.

“From that moment on, I knew he had potential,” Whalen said.

And that potential is part of the reason Whalen opposed Janz’s decision to run.

“Based on the demographics, it was highly unlikely he could win,” Whalen said. “I felt the greater good would be served by him staying focused on these violent crimes.”

However, Janz’s rise has surprised his former boss.

“I did not know he would be as successful (on the campaign trail) as he’s been,” Whalen said. “He may prove me wrong, but I think he’s swinging at windmills in this particular district.”

He continued: “I hope he loses, because I want him back (on the violent crimes unit). It’s frustrating a bit. I admire his desire to serve, but there are a lot of ways to serve.”

Service

At a glance, Janz’s resume appears to have been constructed in a lab for future politicians.

He went from Redwood High School in Visalia (Class of 2002) to Stanislaus State, where he received his bachelor’s degree in economics in 2006 and a master’s degree in public administration in 2009. He was also student body president.

Janz was active on campus, serving as student body president. Dave Colnic, the department chair of political science and public administration, said he could not recall if Janz was a student of his but definitely knew of him during his time at Stanislaus.

“It’s not a surprise that he would run (for office),” Colnic said. “He really seemed to like working in governance and getting things done.”

After Stanislaus State, Janz earned a law degree from Southwestern Law School in 2012.

The legal and public administration degrees would seem to indicate Janz had an eye on elected office, but he said the decision to run came only after he learned Nunes made a secret visit to the White House to discuss an active investigation.

Office was not necessarily the goal, Janz said, but service was.

“My dad’s influence on me was profound,” Janz said. “He always talked about public service and serving your community. He talked about his time in the Peace Corps.”

He continued: “My dad always taught me that people who are uniquely positioned to improve the lives of others have the responsibility to step up and do that.”

Janz’s father, Dirk, met his mother, Sirigun, while serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand. They eventually married and immigrated to the U.S. Dirk was born in Canada.

Janz grew up speaking Thai, and had to take extra English as a second language courses to catch up to other students.

His father worked at agricultural processing plants throughout Tulare County, while his mother worked various low-paying jobs.

Janz remembers watching his high school classmates receive cars from their parents. When he asked for one, his parents told him he would have to work for it, so he began a part-time job at a McDonald’s restaurant.

After graduation, Janz said he told his father he had been promoted to assistant manager and would thus not need to attend college. His father told him he would be quitting McDonald’s and going to college.

Democratic congressional candidate Andrew Janz speaks at the Fresno Rotary luncheon Aug. 20, 2018 in Fresno.

“That is the type of person he was,” Janz said of his father, who died in 2012. “He always wanted to make sure that I had a better life than he did, and he knew the key to success was for me to obtain higher education.”

Janz characterized his upbringing as being typical for a central San Joaquin Valley immigrant — parents who worked hard so their children can succeed.

Janz said he only ever wanted to be a prosecutor, but he began to consider a congressional bid when accusations and policies he did not agree with began to add up for Nunes and President Donald Trump.

“Part of the reason I got into this race was because I saw my member of Congress not working for the people of this district,” Janz said. “Part of doing the job has to include meeting with the people you’re supposed to be representing.”

He continued: “When I found out Devin Nunes hadn’t done a real town hall in years, that really frustrated me. Then I looked into how easy it is to get meetings at his office, and it’s nearly impossible.”

Nunes’ campaign did not respond to The Bee’s request for a response to Janz’s statements.

Moderate plans

Although he entered the race in response to Nunes’ actions, Janz has spent months developing his proposed solutions to various local and national issues.

Some, such as his clear belief in climate change and demand for reduced college costs, match up pretty well with the “D” printed next to his name on the June ballot. Mailers from the Nunes campaign have sought to paint Janz, who is never referred to by name, as a Democratic operative recruited by the Far Left.

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Andrew Janz, left, chats with a Rotarian before the start of a Rotary Club luncheon Monday, Aug. 20, 2018 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

But many of Janz’s positions — including those on hot-button topics such as immigration and gun control — are far more moderate than many other Democrats seeking to flip Republican districts.

On immigration, Janz does not support an amnesty program. Instead, he supports “an earned pathway to citizenship.” Those seeking citizenship should be paying taxes, and veterans should be given priority. A violent crime conviction should disqualify a candidate, and everyone should have to get in line behind the thousands of people already involved in the complicated process.

Janz praised Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both Valley Republicans, for recently attempting to push a more moderate immigration bill with a solution for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program participants.

Janz does not support “a wall to nowhere,” saying that most illegal trafficking takes place through legal points of entry.

He also refused to throw his support behind the increasingly popular “Medicare-for-all” movement.

“Most people out there screaming for ‘Medicare-for-all’ haven’t actually read the legislation,” Janz said. “I would need to know how much it would cost, if you can keep your private insurance, how it would affect employers … I am not willing to sign on to anything until I see it.”

Although he is generally in favor of the Affordable Care Act, Janz believes provisions that make it harder for small-business owners to hire more employees and expand should be removed.

Janz said he supports above-ground water storage, including the Temperance Flat dam proposal.

When asked how he would succeed in finally pushing through a project Nunes has spent years working on, Janz said that he, unlike Nunes, has not burned bridges with both state politicians and California’s Democratic U.S. senators.

Janz expressed his total opposition to the Trump administration’s tariffs and mounting trade war.

“I have an economics degree, and first-year economic students learn tariffs are bad,” Janz said. “They are taxes on the consumer. I’ve talked to farmers, and they don’t want a $12 billion buyout. They want open markets.”

He continued: “Our growers and growing associations have worked for years on relationships with China and other overseas countries. Trump is using the Central Valley’s key industry as a way to pick fights with other countries and get his way.”

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Janz was critical of the Republican tax plan, which many Nunes supporters view as a victory. He said the removal of the health insurance requirement will increase insurance premiums, negating any perceived tax break from the bill.

Perhaps Janz’s largest divergence from contemporary Democratic thinking is on gun control. He said that his experience prosecuting Fresno County’s gun crimes have given him a unique perspective on the issue.

Janz is a gun owner who says people who have not been convicted of a violent crime have a right to arm themselves. He noted long police response times, particularly in rural areas.

However, Janz said he is in favor of universal background checks increasing penalties for those who do not correctly store their firearms.

“We’ve had cases of infants shooting themselves with improperly stored guns,” Janz said. “Those cases should be prosecuted.”

He added that many gun crimes are committed with stolen guns.

Janz said his positions — and perhaps his unwillingness to accept any outside positions — may have alienated him from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

The party has not had much involvement in Janz’s campaign since Day One. In public, Janz chalks this up to a “I go my way, they go their way” agreement. But in his Bee interview, he had a slightly different response when asked about the relationship.

“You’d have to ask them why they’re not involved in my race,” Janz said. “The national Democratic Party doesn’t like that I don’t spew their talking points — that I’ve refused to hire their people and bring in their consultants. They don’t like that I don’t support (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi.”

Janz continued: “I am a registered Democrat, but I don’t owe them anything. I am my own person. I am my own candidate. And that should give you some insight into why they’re not supporting my campaign.”

Fresno Democrat Andrew Janz explains what drew him into the race for California's 22nd District against Rep. Devin Nunes, during an editorial board meeting at the Fresno Bee, Aug. 4, 2018.

The party may agree with him.

When asked about these allegations, spokeswoman Amanda Sherman said in a statement: “The DCCC trusts candidates to run campaigns that work best for their individual districts, which is exactly what Andrew Janz is doing.”

Path to victory?

Janz’s moderate positions — particularly regarding Pelosi — have been enough to secure the support of at least one longtime Nunes supporter and donor.

Howard Broadman, a retired Tulare County judge who supported Nunes in all eight of his previous elections, hosted a meet-and-greet for Janz at Broadman’s Visalia home on Sept. 6.

Broadman, whose colorful, 13-year term on the Tulare County bench included trying to force a convicted child abuser to use birth control as a condition of her release, said Nunes’ unwillingness to talk with his constituents had affected his allegiance.

He also accused Nunes and Trump of being cozy with Russia, which “is disgusting.”

Broadman requested a meeting with Janz, who responded and shared his policy views with the registered Republican.

“If he was a total left-winger, I wouldn’t and couldn’t support him,” Broadman said. “But he’s not a Pelosi fan. He can work across the aisle.”

Broadman likened the Janz-Nunes race to the contest between Cal Dooley and Charles “Chip” Pashayan for the Fresno area’s congressional district nearly 30 years ago.

Dooley, a Democrat, upset the six-term Republican incumbent in 1990.

“I was a big supporter of Chip before Dooley unseated him because he lost sight of his base,” Broadman said.

Broadman said it was “hard to be disloyal” to the Republican Party, but “my first loyalty is to the Constitution.”

Lisa Bryant, an assistant professor of political science at Fresno State, said she believes Janz’s positions are well-suited to the district.

“He presents as tough on crime and pro-Second Amendment, which are popular opinions among moderates,” Bryant said. “He’s probably not as progressive as most progressives would like, but that’s what makes him more competitive. He has a wide appeal.”

Janz will need to do well in urban areas, Bryant said, which have become more and more Democratic in the last few election cycles.

Urban Democrats and independent voters are more likely to turn out for the general election, Bryant said, which should give Janz a boost.

“That could make for a pretty tight race,” she said. “It should be much closer than anyone would have predicted two years ago.”

Bryant said Nunes’ sizable war chest and high ranking in the party could be tough to overcome. Voters like knowing that their representatives are in positions of power and have more clout within Congress.

However, voters also like being able to put a face and personal experience to the name on the ballot.

“We consistently find in political science research that the best way to turn out voters and win votes is for voters to see and interact with the candidate face to face,” Bryant said.

Democratic candidate for the 22nd Congressional District, Andrew Janz, talks about his strategy to unseat incumbent Devin Nunes during a Fresno Bee editorial board meeting.

She added that Janz’s many public and media appearances have likely increased his name recognition, which is often a major hurdle for candidates challenging a longtime incumbent.

“If people are unsure, they tend to vote for the name they know,” Bryant said. She added that Janz will likely step up his appearances and ads in the final few weeks, when many young voters and independents are finally familiarizing themselves with political races.

But former state Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, a Republican and longtime supporter of Nunes, said she has not seen any evidence of Janz changing Republican minds in her area.

“A lot of people know to come to me if they need something” from government, said Conway, who also served as a Tulare County supervisor, as her father did. “The circles I travel in, the people I know — we support Devin Nunes.”

Conway, who said she has not yet met Janz, attacked his frequent claim that he does not accept money from “corporate elites” or political action committees.

“These typical commercials about not taking corporate money — he’s taken Hollywood money and a lot of out-of-district money,” she said. “That’s elite money.”

Janz has received thousands in donations from Rosie O’Donnell, Barbra Streisand and others.

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The day after appearing in the Seidens’ living room, Janz campaigned at a Hollywood event that included celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti and actress Alyssa Milano, both of whom are among the dozens of stars who’ve come out in support of Janz through social media. That list also includes actors Jim Carrey, George Takei and Mark Hamill.

Conway said several of her Democratic friends plan to vote for Janz, but they always vote for whatever Democrat enters the race. She praised Nunes and Valadao for taking time away from their families to serve the community.

Whether Janz will be successful in marketing himself as a bridge between Republicans like Conway and Democrats remains to be seen, but he is happy to use the partisan climate to appeal to the pragmatic voter.

“The Democrats are probably going to win back the House,” Janz said. “If that happens, who do you think would have a seat at the table for water, immigration and those issues — me, or Devin Nunes?”

Janz said Nunes has alienated both House and Senate Democrats, whom he is happy to work with if elected.

“Look, we’ve given Devin Nunes eight terms in Congress,” Janz said. “I’m only asking for one. We’ve tried Devin’s way for nearly 20 years. Let’s try something new.”

Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan and graduate of Fresno State. He covers politics in the central San Joaquin Valley. Since 2016, his work has earned six California News Publishers Association awards, including best investigative and best in-depth reporting. He can be reached at: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics

How we reported this story

The reporting for this story included one formal, one-hour interview with candidate Andrew Janz, as well as several informal interviews at Janz’s events and through phone communication off-and-on over the past three months.

The reporter attended a Janz campaign event at a home in northwest Fresno on July 30. He also interviewed Janz’s wife, Heather, at her central Fresno office.

Several additional interviews with Janz acquaintances were conducted, but were not included in the final story. Bee archival stories, federal election documents and other online sources such as FiveThirtyEight were also consulted.

Rep. Devin Nunes’ campaign did not respond to an email request for an interview or comment. Tulare City Councilman Carlton Jones, a Democrat who has voiced support for Nunes publicly, also did not respond to several requests for an interview.

A similar look at Nunes’ tenure and background was published on Aug. 23.

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