Topher Brennan is challenging long time California Senator Dianne Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat in 2018.
Background and Politics
A Former English teacher in Korea and current software engineer, Brennan works in the San Francisco Bay Area. A millennial, he was heavily impacted by the Iraq War and Great Recession, telling the Progressive Army, “I’ve been relatively lucky, but I’ve known guys about my age who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health issues, or not being able to play guitar anymore because of nerve damage in one hand. I’ve had friends who graduated college with a bunch of student debt then struggled to land a retail job.” He explains that this has motivated him to fight and learn about issues. Of the Great Recession, Brennan said that it taught him to “never be too confident that the past is the past. Before the recession, everyone thought nothing like the Great Depression could ever happen again. Everyone was wrong. This stops me from being complacent about things like the risk of nuclear war, or Trump’s authoritarianism.”
We asked Brennan about his participation in political movements and activism. He said he “was part of the protests at [San Francisco International Airport] against the Muslim ban. That was a scary time, but also exhilarating.” Discussing what the response was after Trump’s Muslim Ban was announced, Brennan explained, “I work in an industry that’s majority-immigrant, so a lot of my co-workers were suddenly afraid to visit their families because they might not be allowed back in the country. Even ones who weren’t from the targeted countries were putting off travel because they were afraid they might be next.” Of his experience protesting the ban, he said, “at the protests at SFO and elsewhere, we got to see people coming together from all over America to say no, this is not acceptable. That was inspiring to be a part of.”
Brennan indicated that he respects politicians “who’ve shown a willingness to speak out even when everyone else in Washington, or almost everyone else, is on the opposite side of an issue.” Listing examples he said, “I think of Russ Feingold’s vote against the Patriot Act, or Barbara Lee’s vote against the 2001 [Authorization for Use of Military Force], or Bernie Sanders’s recent vote against the sanctions bill, which was billed as an anti-Russia bill, but also includes sanctions against Iran and North Korea.” Expanding on this, Brennan said of Sanders’s vote against the sanctions, “At the time of the vote, Sanders explained that he was worried the bill would endanger the Iran deal, and got a lot of grief for the vote anyway, but lo and behold, a few days later Iran has announced they think the bill violates the deal. So when I find out someone like Lee or Sanders is voting against something everyone else thinks is great, I’m inclined to listen very carefully.”
Brennan’s first dive into politics was spurred by Trump’s victory in 2016. After Trump was inaugurated, he started the Defend Democracy PAC with a focus on pressuring swing-state Republicans to oppose some of the most horrifying of Trump’s policies. That lasted for three months, but fell apart because he “naively thought we could count on Democrats in Congress to consistently vote against things Trump wanted.”
A Senator’s Role and the Incumbent
“In terms of the role of a U.S. Senator, there are the obvious things—passing legislation, voting on presidential appointees—but there are some less obvious things that will be especially important as long as Democrats remain in the minority.” Brennan said. He continued:
One is Congress’s watchdog role. The executive branch is supposed to share a fair amount of information with Congress, including members of the minority party. Sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Trump administration tried to change that in the future, but they haven’t tried to cross that line yet. So if elected to the Senate, one of my goals will simply be to be nosy, to make it harder for Trump’s people—or people working for whoever comes after him—to slip something awful in under the radar while we’re being distracted by something else.
Another thing is that I think it’s important for members of Congress to work on crafting not just legislation they want passed this year, but legislation that might get passed two, three, four years down the line, maybe even more. There’s been research on [how] Congress operates that’s found that most of the time, the status quo reigns supreme, but when you finally get momentum for change, the changes can be huge. So the idea that we should think small out of pragmatism is wrong. It’s worth spending time developing policy ideas which maybe seem impractical now, but once there’s an opening to actually get something done, you’ve got the plan ready to go.
If elected he says that he has “no intention of ever voting ‘yes’ on anything Trump wants, not even budget bills. Our system of government requires compromise, yes, but as long as the GOP controls both branches of Congress, let Trump worry about compromising with swing votes like Susan Collins—there’s no reason for Democrats to give him any help getting 51 votes in the Senate on for anything.”
Brennan believes that Feinstein falls short on what Californians want. “I think Dianne Feinstein is a relic of a time when California was a much more conservative, much less diverse state. She’s also still pushing tough-on-crime policies that align with the racist, xenophobic policies of the Trump administration,” he said. Elaborating, Brennan explained:
For example, one of the most recent actions from the Trump administration that has immigration advocates worried is an announcement that local law enforcement will be cut off from certain federal funds unless they share information with ICE. It turns out Dianne Feinstein was pushing a similar a similar policy just two years ago.
She’s also made a series of truly inexplicable votes to confirm Trump nominees including Bush-era torture apologists like Mike Pompeo, and unqualified Trump cronies like Linda McMahon, the pro-wrestling mogul, who seems to have been appointed to run the Small Business Administration mostly because she’s a major Trump donor. Feinstein voted to confirm both of them, and many other Trump nominees.
He also told us that his first priority as Senator “will be making sure whoever’s president at the time I’m sworn in doesn’t start a nuclear war—assuming we haven’t had one already. I wish I were joking about that. With Trump, though, I have to worry.” Referring to President Trump’s tendency of having little regard for the consequence of his statements and actions, Brennan said, “In the weeks leading up to his inauguration, Trump was talking like he was going to pick a fight with China over Taiwan. Then he backed off that, but after several attacks on Assad’s forces in Syria, I started having to wonder if he was going to stumble into a confrontation with Russia through sheer incompetence. Most recently, Lindsey Graham just gave an interview claiming Trump wants to bomb North Korea. Who knows what he’ll do next. Tweet that he wants to invade Pakistan?”
Based on this, Brennan listed his intentions, were he to serve as Senator while Trump is President:
I’m going to be doing three things. First, do whatever I can to convince Trump it is not in his interest to go starting a war without Congressional approval. Second, vote against any stupid wars Trump asks Congress to authorize. Third, work on getting him removed from office. Hopefully, Democrats will retake the House so we can get impeachment proceedings going. Trump has given Congress multiple excellent reasons to remove him, and the day when he no longer has access to U.S. nuclear codes needs to come as soon as possible.
Once Trump is removed, Congress will still need to be vigilant. Pence appears to be quite gung-ho about war, and I suspect the same is true of Paul Ryan, if we’re doing the full reenactment of Nixon’s presidency (which it often feels like we are). So no matter who’s president—and this goes for Democrats too, once we’re looking to 2021 and beyond—Congress needs to insist that only it has the right to declare war, and refuse to pass the sort of open-ended authorizations for military action we saw during the Bush years.
On the Issues
Brennan’s platform includes defending the environment, maintaining net neutrality, comprehensive immigration reform, ending the drug war, enacting a guaranteed basic income, and single-payer health care, to name just a few issues.
On the topic of health care, he acknowledged “a pressing need to take on pharmaceutical companies, for-profit hospitals, and others who profit off America’s sky-high health care costs (which don’t lead to us being any healthier than people in other developed countries).” Brennan said that the Affordable Care Act “did far to[o] little to control costs, because too many members of Congress are in the pockets of corporate lobbyists—or at best, they’re afraid of Big Pharma running attack ads against them. That needs to change.”
With regard to the climate, he stated that “the science on climate change and fracking is pretty clear, and straightforward solutions are available. We should enact a carbon tax, and eliminate the exemption for fracking from the Clean Water Act.”
Expanding on the topic, Brennan said that pipelines “raise additional issues involving the rights of tribal governments and local landowners. The federal government is supposed to have government-to-government relations with tribal governments, something that is being ignored in the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Pipeline projects also frequently rely on eminent domain to seize privately owned land for the benefit of big corporations. Both of those things are indefensible.”
On foreign policy, and with regarding to military spending, Brennan said that “beyond not rushing to military action before exhausting other options (which is expensive on top of being immoral), I think there’s probably waste we could cut without making the United States or our allies any less safe. We spend more on our military than China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom do combined—it’s hard to see what we’re accomplishing by doing that.”
Discussing diplomacy, Brennan wants “to see the United States continue to stick up for our allies in the democratic world, while cutting off military aid and arms sales for autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia. And military action always needs to be a last resort.” Speaking more about the 2001 AUMF, he says it was “in retrospect, clearly too broad.” He continued, saying,
It’s been used to justify military action with the most tenuous of connections to the September 11th attacks, and I think it’s time to repeal it. Congress needs to take responsibility for figuring out what further assistance we’re willing to offer Iraq in recovering from the mess the Bush administration created there, rather than passing the buck and letting Trump (or Pence, as the case may be in the near future) do whatever he wants using the AUMF as justification.
Brennan supports “continuing to help Iraq in some form, at least for now—Iraq is no model of democratic governance, but as far as I can tell that isn’t the fault of the current government in Baghdad. A lot of the problems are local, and rooted in sectarian conflicts. Now that ISIS has been kicked out of Mosul, I’m cautiously optimistic that the wounds from those sectarian conflicts can heal.” Drawing contrast to Afghanistan, though, he said, “I’m not sure we can, in good conscience, continue to support the government in Kabul given the evidence linking the government to the country’s recurring pattern election fraud.”
On the Syrian civil war, Brennan said that “Assad is terrible but I see no reason to think U.S. military intervention would make the situation any better. This would be true even without the fact that Syria is a Russian client state and overthrowing Assad by force would require risking confrontation with another nuclear power. I view the situation as similar to the Hungarian Revolution in the 1950s—the Soviets sending in tanks to suppress the revolution was terrible, but if the United States had intervened militarily to protect the revolution it could have sparked World War III.”
He compared Israel to Turkey and the Philippines, saying that “All three are U.S. allies that, in different ways, are headed down troubling paths. But they may yet be able to pull back from the brink, and I think diplomatic pressure from the U.S. could help with that.” Further explaining, he said:
In Israel’s case, the number one priority should be ending the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which is a flagrant violation of international law and a threat to the entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Given the amount of money we give to Israel in foreign aid, and the amount of weapons we sell them, we have the leverage to ensure that that happens, if we choose to use it.
With regard to the investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election in the U.S., Brennan emphasized that it is not an area of expertise for him, “but based on what I’ve read from cybersecurity experts, the digital forensics linking the DNC hack to the Russian government is strong. Some of the rhetoric you hear about this is overblown—in terms of casting doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s election, it’s nothing compared to the voter roll purges Republican state governments have been conducting.”
He cautioned that “Trump’s obstruction of the investigation into Russia’s election interference is a very serious issue,” and that “You can’t have the president giving the FBI orders about who to investigate, who not to investigate. The FBI and the Department of Justice needs to be independent.” Brennan pointed to Congressman Brad Sherman, who “introduced articles of impeachment for Trump’s firing of James Comey,” and told us that if he was elected to the Senate, “I would absolutely vote for removal on those charges.”
Stating definitively that Vladimir Putin is “a brutal tyrant who’s plundered his country and had people murdered for working to expose his corruption,” Brennan said that “Putin has also worked to fan the flames of anti-LGBT hatred in Russia, which hits close to home for me because I have a Russian friend who’s LGBT,” but that he doesn’t “think we should be picking unnecessary fights with the Russian government—but let’s have no illusions about who Putin is.”
Making His Case
Drawing a contrast between himself, Feinstein, and the other candidates in his race, Brennan told us that “there are other strong progressive candidates challenging Feinstein, but as far as I know I’m the only candidate who has come out in favor of a basic income guarantee, a policy that would give every American a fixed amount of money every year, unconditionally. That would fix a lot of problems with our current welfare bureaucracy, where you have social workers whose entire job is to help people navigate the system, where people with serious disabilities need to apply for disability two, three times before they convince the government they’re really disabled, and so on.”
Finding time to hit the campaign trail has been hard for him while working a full-time job. He intends to take a leave of absence early next year ahead of the Democratic Primary to devote all his energy to the campaign. “For the past two and a half months, every hour I can spare has been spent on behind-the-scenes stuff that will lay the groundwork for more visible stuff later on.”
The primary for Feinstein’s Senate seat is on June 5, 2018. In order to vote in elections in California, you need to be registered 15 days ahead of the election. Party affiliation does not matter, as California has a nonpartisan blanket primary. Voting by mail is allowed.