Yesterday was a great one for Justin Kanew.
He and I haven’t talked, but he surely knows it. The gubernatorial turns. The local race upheaval. Everything pointed to the beginning of an anti-Donald Trump movement; a screaming for normalcy and decency and compassion.
Am I being overly optimistic? Perhaps. But it felt real. Feels real.
On paper, Justin Kanew is a long shot’s long shot to win next year’s congressional race for Tennessee’s 7th District. He’s a Los Angeles transplant; a young Jewish man running in a historically conservative neck of the woods. Even though Marsha Blackburn, the incumbent, has since announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate (This interview was conducted before the change—I left Justin’s original answers, then added a few extra updated questions), the betting man would probably have to go with the new far-right nut job on the block—Mark Green.
And yet …
Justin Kanew has something snappy. He’s engaging. He’s embracing. He wants voters to send e-mails—and promises to respond. He’s a two-time contestant on The Amazing Race; a longtime media presence with a winning personality and genuine integrity. I’ve known Justin for a good while, and he happens to be a legitimately nice human being. Sincere. Honest.
Again, can he win? I don’t know. But today’s Quaz subject is willing to discuss all issues, ranging from Trump to health insurance to Tommy John v. Old Navy. You can follow him on Facebook here, Twitter here, and visit his website here.
Justin Kanew, win or lose, you’re the 334th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Justin, you’re running for the congressional seat held by Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee’s 7th District. And, just being 100-percent honest, from afar I see no way you can win. She’s a well-known, well-funded incumbent in a conservative district in a Republican state—and you’re a Jewish Californian who has barely lived in Tennessee. Tell me what I’m not seeing?
JUSTIN KANEW: Well good morning to you too, Jeff! A lot going on in this one so let me try to unpack it. First of all, you’re right, I’m definitely a major underdog here. Marsha has been in the seat for 16 years, has $2-to-$3 million sitting in the bank, and people know who she is. There’s no question about any of that. But what’s also true is if you ask anyone on the street what she’s done to help improve their lives, for the most part they don’t have an answer.
Marsha gets on the shows and spouts her party talking points, but I don’t think that’s what most people on either side of the aisle are looking for these days, and I think this past election showed us that. Marsha takes big money from big oil, big telecom, big everything. She’s not fighting for the working families of Tennessee. I am. I’m running a grass roots campaign, and I’m not for sale. To get that message across we’re putting together an army of volunteers—we have close to 200 already—and yes raising money, and most importantly traveling the district and listening to the concerns of everyone in the district no matter who they’ve voted for in the past. And in this moment, with the renewed spirit I’m seeing out there, and with some other great state-wide candidates campaigning like Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh for governor and James Mackler for Senate, I think we have a greater shot at turning people out than we have had in the past.
As for the rest of your question—yes I’m “Jewish,” my grandparents survived Auschwitz and the holocaust on one side, and my grandpa was a World War II tailgunner on the other. But I think people here are less concerned with where you pray than that you pray. They’re looking for a man or woman of faith who believes in God and embodies the spirit of togetherness and community Middle Tennessee genuinely stands for, and who carries the main message of the bible which is taking care of our neighbors and the poor. Sometimes that message seems to get lost.
As for “Californian” part—yes, we moved here from California. Before that I lived in Chicago. Before that I was born in New York. I’ve been an American my whole life, and my wife and I moved to Tennessee over a year ago with our baby because we were looking for a community-oriented place where people look out for and take care of one another. Middle Tennessee is that place.
It’s a really special place, Jeff. We love it here. This is our home. I didn’t grow up here, but my baby girl Kaia will. And by no means are we the only transplants here. This area is exploding. Sixty percent of Williamson County wasn’t born in Tennessee, and that includes Marsha who’s from Mississippi. We came here for a reason, and the bottom line is this special place deserves to be represented by someone who embodies the love and compassion and mercy I see here every single day. I think most people are less concerned where a representative was born than they are about being represented by someone who will always put their interests ahead of my own and tell them the truth, and not become compromised by corporate donors just for the sake of keeping a seat, which to me is the fundamental problem this country faces every single day. It’s corporate interests vs. the interests of the people, and I know where I stand.
Sorry for the long answer, but you asked a lot there.
J.P.: You were preparing yourself to run against Blackburn. Then, bam, she announced a senate run. Now you’re up against Mark Green, a state senator/Iraq war vet who loves Donald Trump and has referred to anti-transgender measures as a chance to “crush evil.” How does that change your approach? Does it make a win more likely? Easier?
J.K. There’s no question running for a now-open seat helps our chances. Now it’s our job to do the work and get our message out there. As you mentioned, Mark Green was even too extreme for Trump’s team and had to withdraw his cabinet nomination. I believe if you’re too extreme for this president, you’re too extreme for District 7. For instance, Williamson County voted for Rubio in the primary. I’m hopeful that the moderates and independents in the district who aren’t interested in taking that extreme turn and who may feel left behind by the party will take the time to get to know me and see that we have a lot more in common than they realize. So I don’t want to say the race got “easier” necessarily, but I do hope we can find more people on both sides of the aisle who think we need to get back to talking to one another and are tired of all the division, and who are ready to put country over party, which is what I intend to do every step of the way.
J.P.: You seem particularly agitated over Blackburn’s town hall in Fairview, then her appearance on CNN. Why is this such a huge deal to you? And do you consider her to be a dishonest person?
J.K.: The town hall in Fairview was a huge deal, because it spoke to her character in a very real way. That place was full of people who lived in her district. She ID’d them at the door. It didn’t go well (and by the way—she hasn’t done one since). Then she had the nerve to go on CNN with Wolf Blitzer and tell him “less than a third” were from her district—when those people were on video raising their hands saying they were. Then, when she gets busted for the lie, she says “big deal, we have more important things to worry about.” Well guess what, Marsha? It is a big deal. Integrity matters. If your child was caught lying, would that be a big deal? As a father I say yes.
That was the moment i started thinking “someone has to run against her.” She had very clearly started to feel invincible, and had stopped listening to the people she’s supposed to represent. And yes i think It spoke to who she is, and what she’s willing to do and say.
It didn’t stop there either—recently she held a “tele-town hall” where she didn’t tell anyone it was coming, then sent out robo-calls at dinnertime mainly to her supporters. We heard from a few people who were on there, probably by mistake, and it was just Marsha spouting her talking points with pre-screened questions. She then posted results of a bogus “poll” she ran saying 80 percent of our district wanted the ACA repealed no matter what, which is the opposite of reality (and of a real poll she herself had run on Twitter), and used that as the basis for a media blitz.
So do I consider her to be a dishonest person? Let’s just say this isn’t the stuff honest people do. This is someone who voted against bipartisan Harvey relief under the guise of being concerned with “playing politics,” and resisted a military climate change study with bipartisan support while telling us the earth is in a “cooling trend” (which might have something to do with the big oil money behind her). Someone who told us the generals were behind the transgender military ban when they weren’t. Let’s just say honesty is quite clearly not her strength. Honest people would stand there and face the music no matter how tough it gets, which is what I would do if I were in there, and what I have done and plan to continue to do as we campaign.
J.P.: You seem to be in a tight pickle, because you’re clearly not a fan of Donald Trump, yet you’re running in a region that he won easily. So is it more now a matter of convincing people you’ll find ways to work with the president, or convincing people the president sucks?
J.K.: Here’s the thing—I’m not running against Donald Trump. Do I agree with him on everything? Of course not. But would I love to see him succeed and do right by this country. That’s a resounding yes. I’m not out there calling for his impeachment, which may put me in the minority in the party—I think we need to see where the various investigations go and then see where we are, and if we’re going that route there better be a smoking gun, because if the evidence isn’t inarguable we’re going to have a real problem on our hands in terms of almost half the country losing faith in the system, and possibly reacting violently. I’m truly afraid of that.
As far as bipartisanship, I’m a big yes on that. I think we need to get back to working together. I’m hopeful that a bipartisan ACA fix is coming. It was good to see a bipartisan decision to back Harvey Relief. John McCain’s “No” on ACA repeal was heartening, and I hope he stays consistent with this Graham-Cassidy bill we’re now facing. I think people really do want to see their government stop making obstruction the No. 1 goal on both sides and get some stuff done in a real way. There’s a “Problem Solvers” caucus in congress now, and I’d be really interested in being a part of that. I’m old enough to remember when bipartisanship wasn’t a threat.
Now that doesn’t mean I’ll stop being a critic of the president—even his staunchest Republican supporters criticize him at times. But I’ll also commend him for doing things like talking to “Nancy and Chuck” about DACA. I think we need to reward that when it happens. The bottom line for the sake of this race is I’m a non-politician who wants to fight for the working families no matter who they vote for.
J.P.: Raising money sucks. Sucks, sucks, sucks. That said, I don’t really know how one goes about it. So, Justin, how does one go about it?
J.K.: It does suck. I’d be a vote for campaign finance reform every step of the way. But it’s true this is the system we have, so we have to play by those rules.
As for the “how,” it’s just grinding. Calling people you know, people you don’t know emailing, holding fundraisers … ultimately this becomes the thing you do more than almost anything else when you’re running, which absolutely sucks. It also sucks that it’s what you do when you’re actually in office, too. It’s a damn shame, and it seems to only be getting worse. We absolutely need to fix it.
It would be a lot easier if I could just knock on big-dollar donors’ doors and say, “What do you need from me? I’m your guy,” and then just do what they tell me to do when I get in there like some people do. But I’m absolutely not going to do that. Donors looking for something in return shouldn’t even bother calling me. No amount of campaign donations is worth not being able to look my daughter in the face when I tuck her in at night, and know I did what I could to help the most Tennesseans. The most Americans.
Here’s the good news—Trump didn’t out-spend Hillary. Eric Cantor got beat by a guy with nowhere near as much money as he had. I think if you have a genuine message, and people really believe in what you’re saying, you can overcome that gap. Granted, I still need money to get the message out there, and I hope anyone who hears our conversation will kick in what they can, but what I’m mostly hoping is people will embrace this campaign as their own and give us their energy rather than their money. Don’t get me wrong, both is better! But we need their belief and their energy as much as anything else.
J.P.: You appeared twice on The Amazing Race with your pal Zev Glassenberg. Soup to nuts, how did that happen? How’d you wind up on the show?
J.K.: Zev and I met at Camp Greylock in Becket, Massachusetts when we were both counselors. I had gone there as a camper for almost a decade. Zev’s cousin Greg was a good friend of mine, but Zev was younger than us. When we finally met, we hit it off immediately. Zev has Asperger’s Syndrome, which puts him on the autism spectrum, and one of the things about that is he doesn’t know when he’s not supposed to say stuff society frowns upon, which is at times awkward for people, but most of the time it’s genuinely hilarious. He’s literally the funniest guy i’ve ever met.
Funny makes for good TV. Zev knew our relationship was unique, and his favorite show was the Amazing Race, so he kept saying “We should go on the race.” He said this every day for four years. One thing about people on the spectrum, when they get something in their head it’s hard for them to let it go. So after four years of this, I finally said, “Find out when it is and we’ll apply” … figuring either we’ll get on or he’ll stop talking about this thing once and for all, so it was a win-win for me.
We made a video about our relationship, my dad shot it and I edited it and we sent it in, and I kinda thought, “You know, that actually was kind of interesting, who knows …” But then we didn’t hear anything for like five months. In the interim people kept telling Zev to get a job, and he kept going, “I can’t, we’re going on the race.” Sure enough, five months later, we get a call out of the blue to come in for final interviews. We went to a hotel with like 20 other teams, and other teams started disappearing, and the next thing we knew we were in.
It was an incredible experience, right up until I lost his passport in a monastery in Cambodia. Thankfully they brought us back a second time, because otherwise that would’ve been the other thing I never heard the end of!
J.P.: How do you convince people you’re not an outsider—when you’re an outsider? Because it’s an issue that has plagued MANY politicians who have resided in an area far longer than you’ve been in College Grove, Tennessee.
J.K.: It’s true that I didn’t grow up here, but my baby girl Kaia will. This is our home. My wife Nicole is a behavioral therapist for kids with autism and mental health issues in Rutherford County. We love this area and want to help it be the best it can be in every possible way.
By the time the election rolls around we’ll be working on our third year here. Some people may have an issue with that, and I get it, but what I’d say to those people is tell me what you think I need to know. So far what we’ve learned is people here genuinely care about one another, and they take care of their neighbors, and they’re guided by a love and mercy that I don’t see reflected in the things Marsha Blackburn stands for.
The word I keep hearing from people is “misrepresented.” Marsha talks a good game, but I don’t think the thing she stands for represents how the majority of the good people here feel, especially the youth. So what I’d say to anyone who is focused on that is this: Would you rather have someone who has been here longer but whose strings are being pulled by corporate puppet masters? Or someone with a new perspective who has a deep love for this community and would never sell it out under any circumstances?
And if you have concerns about me, come meet me. Email me—email@example.com is my email. I’ll be more accessible than Marsha has ever been in her life, and we’ll be doing an “Amazing Race Through The District” to hear from everyone in every county—counties Marsha has probably not been to in over a decade.
Yes, I’m the outsider in this equation. Trump was an outsider, too, running against an establishment candidate in Hillary. He preached a message of draining the swamp, getting rid of all the do-nothing politicians who fill their campaign accounts with corporate donation—that’s Marsha. In the end this isn’t just about me vs. Marsha, it’s about what kind of District they want this to be seen as.
J.P.: How do we convince skeptics that climate change is real? And is that an issue you can run on in a region that, again, doesn’t particularly seem to buy it?
J.K.: First of all, I think this is an issue that people are coming around on more and more, especially with the storms we’re seeing lately. I think deep down they know it’s common sense that what we’re putting into the environment is having an effect. Even the military will tell us that. Hell, even Exxon revealed that they’ve known it for 40 years.
Follow the money. It’s no coincidence that climate change deniers like Marsha get the most money from big oil. This is a long, sustained attack on reality that puts our children and our grandchildren at risk – and the kids know it. Almost every young voter I talk to on the trail tells me climate change is their biggest concern. They get it.
Ice caps are melting. Water’s rising. The planet is heating up. We have a choice: invest in America’s cheap, renewable energy economy now, or fall behind the rest of the world. Let’s not fall behind. This should not be a partisan issue. This is the future of our planet for our kids and our grandchildren.
This is also an economic issue. Clean energy is where the jobs are. There are far more solar jobs than coal now, including nearly 4,000 here in Tennessee. India will be selling only electric cars by 2030. China is heading that way too. The fact is the world is moving away from fossil fuels no matter what we choose to believe.
Meanwhile Marsha voted against a military study of climate change that had bipartisan support. Her record on the environment is abysmal. I wonder if support from people like the Kochs has anything to do with that?
As you’ll hear me say often, this isn’t about left vs. right, it’s about right vs. wrong. We need to stop letting carbon polluters dominate our public policy. I’m not willing to let my children and grandchildren’s futures be decided entirely by special interests and corporations who covered up what they knew for 40 years.
J.P.: In 1993 you played “Rob Lansing” in the Mel Gibson film, “The Man Without a Face.” OK, Justin. Do tell …
J.K.: My acting career began and ended with that movie. Mel was awesome. I don’t defend the things he said and did, but my experience with him couldn’t have been better. That’s really all I have to say about that. And Braveheart is still one of the greats.
J.P.: Why did you leave LA for Tennessee? I mean—the beaches, the Mexican food, the weather. What was the impetus? How big of an adjustment was it? What’s the biggest change?
J.K.: Southern California was good to us. I met my wife there. But the wholesomeness and community and people here in Middle Tennessee are amazing, and the quality of life is great. Our baby girl growing up around rolling green hills and cattle and parks and horses and festivals is everything we ever wanted for her. I can’t express enough how happy we are we did this. It was a big change, but a great one, and the people here could not have been more welcoming.
On multiple occasions I’ve had women come up to me at the store and take my child out of my arms uninvited, and I didn’t even want to call the cops! It’s that kind of place.
J.P.: You seem like a very optimistic dude. Which I love. I, on the other hand, am losing hope. Trump, greed, environment, unsustainable population growth, drought. On and on and on. Justin, why should we be optimistic when so much seems to be heading down the toilet?
J.K.: My optimism comes from the people I meet on the trail every single day. It comes from my conversations with my neighbor, a conservative who probably won’t vote for me, but who I’m able talk to about the things we disagree on. Granted, every day something new and awful seems to happen, and we need to stay awake and keep calling things out and pushing back, but I think there’s a sustainable energy in this country right now, and I’m confident that as long as we keep caring and keep doing everything we can to keep this country headed in a positive direction, ultimately we’ll be OK.
That’s why I’m running—because this is something I can do, and my daughter is worth it. I’m hopeful that just like Ossoff inspired me to do this, maybe there will be some younger people with a fresh perspective who’ll see what i’m doing and think to themselves, “Hey i can do that too.” It’s time for some fresh perspectives, people willing to go to Washington and put country over party, and people over profit, and say what needs to be said. That’s what I’m here to do. Not just on behalf of Democrats or Republicans.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JUSTIN KANEW:
• First three things you’d do if you win: Help support the push for universal health care, do everything I can to support the autism/disability community, help combat minority voter suppression, stop the over-criminalization of nonviolent drug offenders, push for paid family leave, expand veteran benefits however possible and be of service to them, get the wage raised to a living one, stop the fight against net neutrality, stop Marsha & co. from coming after Medicaid, Medicare and social security while pushing their trillion-dollar corporate tax cuts … is that three?
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Kaleb Cowart, Dionysus, “The Golden Child,” chicken fried chicken, Phil Bredesen, bottled water, Old Navy, deer ticks, Jonathan Eig, Tommy John, raw eggs, Adidas: Adidas, The Golden Child, Bredesen, Tommy John, Chicken Fried Chicken, Dionysus, Kaleb Cowart, Jonathan Eig, Eggs, Water, Deer Ticks, Old Navy
• One question you would ask the members of H-Town were they here right now?: “Is your family OK in Houston?”
• How did you propose to your wife?: On a show i used to do called “Let’s Get Digital!”—the video is on YouTube. Krayzie Bone from Bone Thugs N’ Harmony brought in the ring. Zev was there, as were our dogs, and her parents got to watch it all happen online. Pretty great moment.
• Four things the average person wouldn’t know about reality television: I can only speak for the Amazing Race: 1) The camera guys and sound guys who run around with all that equipment are the real heroes; 2) They can’t “make you look bad” if you don’t give them stuff to do it with; 3) Phil Keoghan is the best; 4) My wife forces me to watch the Bachelor and Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. I swear
• Why haven’t Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle reunited?: Couldn’t tell ya—this one’s above my pay grade.
• Three all-time favorite political figures?: Lincoln, MLK, FDR.
• The world needs to know: What was it like working with Megan Boone on “Welcome to the Jungle”?: Megan is an awesome person who genuinely cares about the country and the world. Plus she has a great sense of humor, which is what made her such a great fit on Jungle. We had some world-class comedians there and she kept right up with them. She also wasn’t intimidated by Jean-Claude Van Damme at all, which was a plus. Or by Zev.
• What do your hands smell like in the morning?: Baby diapers.
• Greatest single line from any speech you’ve ever heard?: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” comes to mind.