Cover Image from the Saratoga City Council website.

 

Rishi Kumar is a first generation Indian-American who is running against Congresswoman Anna Eshoo to represent California’s 18th district. Sathvik Nori recently interviewed him to discuss why he is running, the COVID-19 pandemic, and what specific proposals he has for youth in the district and across the United States.

 

Why did you decide to run for Congress in the first place? What makes you better than Congresswoman Anna Eshoo for the job?

For many years, I have observed a broken political system and have witnessed elected leaders who don’t deliver people-centric policies but lobbyist-driven policies that favor the special interest groups. Elon Musk recently tweeted, “The gerontocracy is out of touch with the people.” I strongly agree. American politics is tainted with special interest groups that subvert the agenda of the American spirit. That is one of the reasons I am running. 

We need elected leaders who have the backbone and moral compass to make decisions of national importance, rather than looking to the establishment to make their decision. We need an effective leader who will fight for our interests, not for special interests. We need a leader who is accessible and accountable and who will bring energy and innovative ideas to the tough challenges that lie ahead for America. I hold those values. I have a track record of fearless people-centric values. As a Saratoga City Councilmember, I organized a neighborhood watch program holding over a hundred neighborhood meetings, identifying new neighborhood leaders and creating a neighborhood agenda that brought down burglaries by 47%. I stood up against San Jose Water Company to impact seven water rate increases that reduced the water bill for a million people in Silicon Valley.

I am proud to be one of the few candidates running for Congress – the only candidate in this race – who has pledged to never accept any special interest group money or PAC money. We have a clear vision, a plan and the energy to address our COVID-19 challenges, reduce the cost of healthcare and grow our economy.

Representative Anna Eshoo, the current representative of California’s 18th District in an op-ed piece published in the San Jose Mercury News took the credit for Pandemic preparedness. “Fortunately, we have the tools to prepare for this threat and for the next one. For nearly 15 years, I’ve led the charge in Congress to develop preparedness plans for pandemics and other public health emergencies. ”  America wasn’t prepared and it brought us down to our knees. This is why I propose that we should develop a National Pandemic Preparedness Program to avoid a disaster of such scale happening again. I think that doing so would be a critical first step to prevent the situation we’re currently experiencing.

What truly drives me to run for Congress is the constant cycle of career politicians failing to understand Silicon Valley’s changing economic and social needs. My professional background is that of a tech executive for companies like Cisco Systems and IBM, not a career politician. I have always been an activist fighting for the people. My background as an immigrant has given me a profound understanding of the struggles in our society, and that has influenced me to stand up for those whose voice has been stifled.

Congresswoman Eshoo is the chair of the House Health Subcommittee, and yet she is also the #1 recipient of Pharma money in the United States Congress. Instead of fighting for us, she has passed legislation that increases the price of healthcare and pharmaceuticals for the American people. I have pledged to never accept PAC money or Special Interest Group money and operate with integrity. We haven’t been combatting our challenges here in Silicon Valley such as housing, traffic and burglaries. In fact, I haven’t seen a vision plan to address it. Rep Eshoo has been in office for 28 years now, and the number of things that have been unaddressed made me realize that it was time for a change. 

Covid-19 has clearly pointed out the inadequacies of the American healthcare system. It took a pandemic and social unrest to highlight the urgency of shifting and transforming America to address the core challenges of our society.  It has highlighted to America how important it is to have great elected officials at every level of government. That is why I’m running for Congress in the 18th District.  Silicon Valley deserves a congressman who is working for the people, not special interests. Silicon Valley deserves someone who is keenly interested to solve the big challenges.  I am asking you to stand with our campaign for change.

 

What specific proposals do you have that would affect youth especially those who are in or about to go to college?

 Youth empowerment has been a key component of my agenda since 2008 when I joined the city of Saratoga’s planning commission, my first step towards public service. My summer internship program is in its 6th year and has empowered hundreds of area students. This year’s summer internship has really come together and engaged many youth with our work with the pandemic crisis. We continue to add new students into our internship program daily. Many of our college student interns are managing teams and discovering a leadership opportunity that is lining them up for future success. Our interns have been calling seniors to see if they need help with information, medication or groceries. Some of our fellows are engaged with mask making, or using 3D printers to make face shields, PPE much sought after by our front-line warriors. Our fellows have played a key role in organizing these. We even have a pandemic manager who runs a “pandemic war room” composed of many high-energy interns to help neighbors who request help, working with hundreds of NPPT volunteers.  Whether it be the podcast, the newsletter, or even the NPPT, fellows have been integral to the success. They are discovering new skills, and adding a new energy, innovative spirit to our efforts.

 My efforts regarding youth have been centered around encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, providing young people an opportunity to grow their soft skills and showcase their talents. I have promoted computer science skills that will aid high school graduates not only in college but also throughout their entire life.

Our highschools need to provide a solid education in computer science. I worked with the California Department of Education Computer Science Strategic Implementation to help launch the Computer Science curriculum for California public schools, which will go live in 2022, empowering every public school child in California with a computer science education.  

I believe in equality for all, and I’ve worked to promote this for our youth. Historically, low-income youth haven’t been exposed to opportunities to learn entrepreneurship. To resolve this, we ran the entrepreneurship boot camps for disadvantaged youth and trained over 2,000 youth in the art of a startup. We also ran the annual Silicon Valley Youth Tech Day for young startup teams to get exposed to the operations of Silicon Valley and ultimately earn seed funding.

 As congressman, my main goal for youth will be making education more accessible and available. My executive experience in the tech economy will allow me to empower youth in every part of America. Our plan is to expand STEM education and extend STEM skills to all of America, preparing high school graduates to find a place for themselves in the high-tech economy and creating opportunities for millions. I will also seek to expand vocational, career, and technical education, and make public colleges more affordable. We have a plan for the youth of our country and have the energy to make it happen.

 

What have you been doing during quarantine to keep yourself busy?

 With the shelter-in-place, the angst of the community was apparent. We stopped our campaign and put together a plan to help our neighbors. One of the first steps we took was to launch the Neighborhood Pandemic Preparedness Team (NPPT) based on the Neighborhood Safety Watch Program that had been a huge success in Saratoga. The NPPT engages neighbors to help neighbors by empowering neighborhood leadership to take charge. I am very proud of what our team has achieved these few months. We have helped thousands of neighbors of our district. We are very close to calling every senior of our district, checking if they need help with groceries, medication or anything else. Our NPPT team began the process of making masks, procuring fabric, elastic and thread from wherever we could, established a pick up and drop off point, and very soon we had dropped off thousands of masks to the local hospitals. Adversity is the opportunity to serve – and we have gone all out to help thousands.

Another issue with the pandemic was misinformation. To combat this, we put together a Coronavirus info page at rishikumar.com/coronavirus – a hub for any information related to COVID-19. It’s easy to find anything from the CDC’s recommendations, to county information, to senior care and how to join the NPPT. Additionally, to provide a more dynamic way of dispersing information to the public, we published an online newsletter with various hyperlinked resources that were easy to find and access  – this included resources for small businesses, a senior section, online shopping resources, and a lot more. 

We also initiated a daily videocast – Reality Check with Rishi – to address our community’s concerns about healthcare, politics, technology, small businesses, stimulus package, college admission process of a new world and even job search resources. We brought the experts and that has led to some great conversations, and unique ideas. For our youth we offered online education resources for parents and students. We even launched a shelter-in-place coding program that taught the students of our community Java, Javascript, Python and the art of startup.

The reason we did what we did is the very reason I am running for Congress – when I see a problem, it is an opportunity to make it better. The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly brought about a uniquely troubling situation. When we saw the need for help juxtaposed by the lack of engagement by some of our elected leaders, we swung into action. My pledge is to demonstrate the similar enthusiasm and engagement when our district finds itself in a crisis as the next congressman of district 18.

 

The coronavirus pandemic has permanently changed the way our society functions. If elected what are your plans for a post-COVID future?

 One of the largest issues we’ve found with Congress is the misallocation of funds in the CARES Act. Although the legislation was critical in saving the economy, some of its provisions, such as a $135 Billion tax break for the top 1%, were clearly off the mark. Many small businesses were unable to navigate the system to apply for loans, while the allocated money dried up. If elected to Congress, one of my top priorities regarding future pandemics will be to ensure that money allocated to help average Americans actually ends up in their hands. Another issue that deeply concerns me is something US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar noted – that vaccines might not be affordable to all. I find it absurd that although America is the most prosperous nation in the world, basic healthcare services aren’t guaranteed to everyone. I’ve supported Medicare for All, and I think COVID-19 only highlights the critical reasons for why healthcare must be a fundamental human right. If other countries of the world can do it, why not America?

In the long-term, one of the biggest issues I want to address in Congress is our inadequate pandemic preparedness program. It is pretty clear that America was unprepared. In fact, this is exemplified in a rather ironic quotation from Representative Anna Eshoo, the current representative of California’s 18th District in an op-ed piece published in the San Jose Mercury News: “Fortunately, we have the tools to prepare for this threat and for the next one. For nearly 15 years, I’ve led the charge in Congress to develop preparedness plans for pandemics and other public health emergencies. I knew we needed to prepare because it’s not a matter of if, but when, an outbreak hits.” Unfortunately, we learned that Congresswoman Eshoo was wrong, and that we weren’t prepared to face the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why I propose that we should develop a National Pandemic Preparedness Program to avoid a disaster of such scale happening again. I think that doing so would be a critical first step to prevent the situation we’re currently experiencing.

As  COVID-19 impacts the country’s health and economy, addressing the fallout is priority-one for our country. We absolutely have to enhance our health care system to prepare for any future pandemic challenges. We need a secure Federal Electronic Medical Record system, and robust Healthcare Analytics that will prevent America from dropping to its knees with a future pandemic or epidemic. We must never again be caught short of virus tests, or such basics as cotton swabs and common reagents. It is critical that we create a self-reliant supply chain system and greatly reduce our dependency on China, especially when it comes to raw material for drug manufacturing. This is also the time to invest in infrastructure, education, manufacturing, including technology to ensure our technology domination for the foreseeable future. This is the time to make bold moves and strengthen America’s position in the global economy, providing opportunities for every American, while reducing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. That is the opportunity we have!

  

You have criticized Congresswoman Eshoo for taking too much money from big Pharma. What are your plans for dealing with the pharmaceutical industry?

 The biggest problem with the pharmaceutical industry right now is that it has far too much control over American politics, and Congresswoman Eshoo is a prime example of that. Congresswoman Eshoo is the chair of the House Health Subcommittee, and yet she receives the most Big Pharma money out of all of the U.S. Congressional Representatives, and her track record reflects this. Instead of fighting for us, she has passed legislation that increased the price of healthcare and pharmaceuticals for the American people. In 2009 Representative Eshoo introduced Legislation that  gave a 12-year monopoly for brand-name biologics in addition to patent production. Actions like these have hiked up drug prices, making it more and more difficult for Americans to get access to the drugs they need. This is a huge problem that I will fight to resolve. 

The first step that needs to be taken is separating government from special interests, which is why I’ve refused to take any special interest money for my campaign, ever. I have pledged to never accept PAC money or Special Interest Group money and operate with integrity. This pledge allows me to assure my constituents that I’m working for them alone. 

On a broader scale I think that medicare for all is the best policy to curtail the pharmaceutical industry, and this is made very clear by the challenges that Covid-19 exposed. We have added a net new 30 million people in this country that do not have health insurance today. The pharmaceutical industry should not be allowed to charge absurd amounts of money for the drugs they produce. We should be able to provide quality healthcare to all Americans at a reasonable price. If elected to office, I will fiercely support medicare for all and fight for it to become a reality.

 

What caused you to turn down any PAC money for this campaign? What is your policy on campaign finance reform?

I firmly believe that current campaign finance policies are flawed because they give far too much power to businesses. It is no secret that businesses donate to campaigns in exchange for favorable pieces of legislation. As long as corporations can spend infinite sums of money on campaigns, politicians will be influenced to work for business interests, which is a huge problem.

 I believe in serving the people, and the only way to preserve that mission is to ensure that I’m not obliged to serve anyone else. That is why I have pledged to turn down all PAC money and special interest money.  I support a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United v. FEC, a Supreme Court case that ruled that corporations and other outside groups can spend unlimited money on elections. 

 

Sathvik Nori

Sathvik Nori is a junior and first-year journalist with the Chronicle. He enjoys writing stories about sports, the M-A community and youth issues in general. In his free time, he loves to debate, read, and spend time with friends.

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