June 3rd, 2017
Our guest today is Dan Helmer. Dan is currently running for Congress in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District to challenge Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock. Dan is a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from West Point and then supported counterterrorism and intelligence operations with multiple deployments overseas. He lives in Fairfax, VA with his wife Karen, a public school teacher, and his two sons Harris and Aaron.
Let’s see, when I was young, the first thing I wanted to do when I grew up, there was an old Looney Tunes cartoon in which I think Daffy Duck repairs baseballs, he’s a baseball doctor, and that seemed pretty compelling to me. So I think that’s where I started!
All of [my family] described coming into New York City, which was the port they all came into, and they recall...the buildings. They had never seen buildings more than two stories high, and here’s this country where you have these amazing skyscrapers and clearly amazing opportunity. You get that sense of awe from the ship, that this is a place where if I put my nose to the grindstone...I have a real opportunity to succeed and survive and people will welcome you here. It’s not a place that’s been blighted by the same wars and divisions that have been fought in Europe, where they came from.
My father was born in Israel, he came here as a child. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors on the other side of my family. So I came up in an immigrant family. My mother wanted to follow in her own mom’s footsteps, so she is a medical doctor... So I’ve grown up surrounded by these amazing strong women and business people. My family founded a number of businesses...my dad is an attorney who has a law firm up in New Jersey, and other members of my family have founded their own businesses. So it’s a great mix of people who came to this country or who were first generation Americans who have found just amazing opportunity here, and that’s what I grew up surrounded by.
[Running for Congress] is a deeply humbling experience, one in which you are putting yourself out there not as an individual, but as a channel for the desires of the people in your District to serve them better and to make sure Congress works again. The hardest part, my goal is to be a representative of every American living in VA-10, and there are 800,000 plus people in this District. It’s my job to reach out in new ways to all of them and hear what they have to say, and then together to find new and novel solutions to the chaos and gridlock that’s in Washington today. That is the hardest part, to get out there, to make sure every voice is heard, and that everybody knows you’ll be a representative of their voice in Congress, even if you don’t agree on everything.
[Politics] isn’t the study of the people, it’s the service of the people. We need to listen in order to understand what people need, and we have to have a deep sense of history to understand what has come before and what works and what doesn’t, and we need to have a deep sense of innovation and problem-solving in order to figure out new solutions that can build bridges instead of walls and actually help people collaborate to solve problems.
The Constitution is very clear about the legislative branch being the branch of the people. It should be the most powerful branch in the government. We need to make sure that it restates it’s primacy in matters of war and peace...
My first experience in the Army was [when] I was stationed in Iraq. I recall deeply being there that we were getting reports of Weapons of Mass Destruction. I would go out with teams and would literally be walking around with Geiger Counters and metal detectors looking for WMDs that didn’t exist. This is a country in which within months of my deployment, I would lose a number of friends. What struck me, especially as I left and I’ve been further away from it...is how devastating it was in terms of human cost. The friends I lost and their families, their wives, and in some cases their children. We did it for the wrong reasons, we had no real reason to be there. We should never again send Americans to war for the wrong reasons.
I think that American voters, and from everything I’ve heard in this District, they’re tired of the same old politicians doing the same old things that have made people so distrustful of their government that a guy like Trump is in our highest office. I’ve heard that from Republicans, I’ve heard that from Democrats. They are frustrated with a government that doesn’t work, that stopped serving them, and they are ready for a change and a new generation of dedicated public servants who are going to put them first.
During World War II, my great-grandfather went into hiding with his family...and survived in hiding for a couple of years. [They] emerged from hiding and were actually then pursued by the Soviets, so they escaped into Berlin and in Berlin met a young U.S. Army officer in the context of providing translation services for HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], which was an organization that helped refugees resettle. [They] decided based on advice not to immigrate into what was then Palestine, but instead to come to the United States... In the United States he had to [re-attend] college, even though he had been a lawyer in Poland, and came out of that as a business person who was very involved in the toy industry of all things, and made a great life for themselves here.
My job is to serve the people of this District. My job is to hear them, and if I do something that merits criticism, I want to hear that too. It’s not hard, it’s the job... So it’s not difficult to get criticism. This is about listening, and listening is about hearing the good and it’s about hearing the bad. All I want the people of Virginia to know in those discussions is regardless of whether they vote for me or not, there will be no fiercer advocate for them in Congress than me.
I’m a dedicated public servant, I’m all in. I just left my job with BCG (Boston Consulting Group). Every day what I’m trying to do is reach as many voters and people in VA-10 as I can. Whether it’s by phone, whether it’s by being at events. Every day is chock-full of the opportunity of what we’re trying to do here. Which is to restore the ability of our government being able to work, it’s about making sure that all Americans are served by our government, and that we’re working together towards an effective government that delivers on American values while providing value to the American taxpayer.
On the other side, my grandfather, that side of the family actually immigrated out of Poland much earlier, before World War II, to what was then British Palestine. He served in the British Army during World War II. My grandmother, his wife, actually escaped on what would be the last ship that would leave Eastern Europe for Palestine during the war. She was actually imprisoned by the British when she got there.
So they fought in World War II, my grandfather was posted throughout North Africa with the British Army. Then between [1945-1948], he fought as a member of the Haganah against the British [for] Israel’s independence. When war broke out between the new Israeli state and the Arab countries that surrounded them, my grandfather was a soldier in the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces. Then a few years later, after serving in the Israeli military for a long time, [he] had the opportunity to come to the United States. Came here, started as a worker in a garment factory, and then moved on to actually manufacturing garments. So there’s a line somewhere of very 60s looking Helmer coats somewhere in the world that are probably in somebody’s closet.
An engaged America is a safe America, and an America that doesn’t have a seat at the table is going to be an America that doesn’t have the ability to influence world events in our favor.
There are many complicated challenges in the world. We are not responsible for solving all of them, but we are a part of the solution. The Middle East Peace Process is just like that. We need an engaged country. We need an engaged set of diplomats who can help the parties who need to work this out come to political solutions. We can speak truth, we can give reasons, we can base our policy on facts when others have turned only to ideology. We should be involved, we should be engaged.
This is not a real estate negotiation. This is a negotiation that involves years of work, real deep study of the issues, and an understanding of how we can build bridges and reframe problems so that people can work together to solve them. That’s what we need abroad and frankly, that’s what we need at home.
My family owned a factory in this town of Zloczow, in what is now Ukraine, but at the time it was Poland. Based on Soviet ideology, his father was effectively killed by the Soviets, we don’t know exactly what happened to him, because he was a factory owner, so he was a member of the bourgeoisie class. Essentially after the war, my great-grandfather who had run the factory after his Dad’s death was put in that same position. So [after the] Soviet invasion, [a time in which] they didn’t like Jewish people, just a little bit [less] than the Nazis did, they were not excited to have a Jewish survivor in their midst and one who at one point was a factory owner. So they decided he was an enemy of the state and he had to actually escape in the night, separate from the family, and the family was able to escape a couple of weeks later.
We specifically need to make sure that we regenerate and reset our politics in every generation. That’s going to require a new generation of dedicated leaders who are willing to make sure that this government serves all Americans.
I do vividly remember my parents taking myself and my brother and sister David and Rebecca, to the voting booth with them every year as we participated in elections. [They impressed] how important they thought it was that we understood the civic tradition. The other thing I remember pretty deeply when I was a little older were the scandals of the Clinton years. The country really turned on its head and focused, instead of the real problems, it focused on what Bill Clinton was doing in his bedroom. At the time it was an education I’m sure my parents would have preferred I not have... As I reflect back, al-Qaeda was building a presence in the world, [it was] a real distraction from the security and economic challenges we faced in the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union and the new economy that was emerging. It was the start of what I think became a really bad turn in our politics, one we are still recovering from.
I do believe if we bring in new demonstrated leaders who really want to serve more than they want to self-aggrandize, we have a real opportunity to reset our politics and refocus on serving the American people, get a government that works for America and restore our pride in our system and our politics.
This is a state (Virginia) of vast political transformations and we are seeing one right now. As this party, as our Democratic party transforms and moves away from appointed insiders as the foundation of all elections, as we become more inclusive, and as we refocus on an economic message about what we will do to help all Americans, I’m expecting you’ll see [Virginia] turn an even deeper shade of Blue.
Clinton’s message certainly resonated over Trump [in VA-10]. But the other half of the equation is that Barbara Comstock still won by 6 points. What’s clear in this District is voters are very sophisticated, they are willing to cross party lines, and what they are looking for are dedicated public servants who are going to listen to what the people have to say, stand up for them in Congress, and make sure we continue to protect our economic and national security. We as Democrats didn’t deliver that message locally, we didn’t get voters to cross party lines, and we relied on a national message that wasn’t focused enough locally. LuAnn Bennett was an amazing candidate...but what we needed though was someone who was actually going to tell the truth about what was going on in our District, and a current Congresswoman, Barbara Comstock, who is deeply out of step with our values and hasn’t stood up for us.
I’m a big Teddy Roosevelt fan. I love the national parks, which he has left as his legacy. I think he really saw himself as a person who was restoring American democracy and reinvigorating a sense of service and reinvigorating a dedication to America. He stood at a great moment of renewal for our country. This is a time today where I think we need that kind of new leadership and fresh perspectives in Washington.
I learned it’s too easy for us to [use military force]—we look too quickly to a military solution when diplomacy is still on the table.
Part of the way into my tour advising the Afghan national police I was called up to Kabul by the commanding general who said, “Hey look, we need to do something different. We are not training soldiers properly for this country. I’ve heard that you’ve spent a good amount of time studying the kind of warfare we’re encountering here, do you think you can put something together that can fix the way we’re training military leaders?” I did, and I knew that if we were going to succeed we were going to have to do things differently. So one of the things I did is we pulled together in the same classrooms, not just American military leaders, but also their Afghan and coalition partners, and what I really witnessed was that when we hear the voices of the many, with everybody having a seat at the table, we actually find new solutions to our most pressing problems. Those are the kind of solutions we need in Washington today. Too few people have a seat at the table. It’s become a rarified air, with too few Americans sitting there. We need to fix it, we need to transform it, and that’s something I’ve taken with me from my military experience.
We’ve seen devastating proposed cuts to our State Department. We have seen a war between our President and the intelligence agencies and the intelligence professionals who serve us everyday at risk to their own lives. We’ve seen a lack of real respect for military service despite rhetoric to the contrary. What we need is a combination of those things, of a real doubling-down and focus on diplomacy. The cost of sending cruise missiles to Syria or anywhere else in the world is enormous! That level of investment in diplomacy can make such a huge difference.
What the Israelis did wrong, and what I’m afraid of our country doing wrong, is that they were very good at winning the initial phase of a war, but terrible about translating that into a political peace.
We should avoid war at all costs. We should focus on using our diplomatic and our intelligence power in order to transform the world and make sure it continues to be a place where America can be the dominant power on Earth, because that’s good for us. We need to remain engaged and we need to make sure that the values that have dominated since World War II, which have kept us out of nuclear war, which have kept most of the major threats at bay, that we continue to maintain that post-World War II order. At the same time, we need to confront the ideologies as well as the people involved in terrorism that do threaten our country.
We have been very good at going after the individual people—I myself have helped with that. What we need to do is have a broader strategy that actually counters the ideology, gets rid of the conditions that inspire hopelessness and hatred. We need to really focus on aid, we need to focus on diplomacy, and only as a last resort do we need to resort to our military power.
As one military officer said, “It’s a crazy world in which there’s more members of military bands than there are foreign service officers in the State Department.” That’s something we need to correct.
This is a varied and diverse District. It is an incredible place to live. I remember when my wife and I, we were stationed here with the Army, we were looking for a house, and I remember looking out the back yard of the place that would become our home, as our boys Harris and Aaron swung on a tire swing in the backyard. As we looked around, we saw a diverse community, full of dedicated public servants and business people. It is a place where all of us share a desire to make our country better. It’s a place where all of us want a better future for our children.
We’re just outside the beltway, [the District] extends all the way to rural parts of Virginia along the West Virginia border. It’s a place where you have the needs of a very diverse set of people economically. You have incredible diversity, a large and growing immigrant population...and many folks from all walks of life, all colors, all religions, people of all different types of backgrounds. They are also incredibly sophisticated, well-educated, and they are looking for someone who is going to represent their interests and actually listen to them.
[President Trump’s immigration policies] are an attack on our values, to be honest. It’s a major issue. We need to stand up for our democracy. This is a country founded on the great work of immigrants. We need to make sure there’s a safe place for them.
Just in our District in the last couple of weeks, a woman [Liliana Cruz Mendez], an undocumented immigrant, she has lived here for many years, she pays taxes. A few years ago she got pulled over for a taillight that was out. There aren’t too many of us who don’t have a traffic ticket out there. She’s a mother of two, she’s paid taxes, she’s gone in regularly to ICE to do her check-ins, just like she’s supposed to. This time around she went in and they arrested her on the spot. They’ve now put her in a detention facility. They’ve separated this young mother from her children. That’s not our country. That’s not what we stand for. Even on a pragmatic basis for Liliana’s detention, we are spending money on detaining this mother of two instead of focusing on making sure that our country is safe from terrorists, and gangs, and cartels. That’s not who we are as a country and that’s not going to stand in our District.
From the age of 17, I’ve been serving our country in uniform. I went all over the world, I served in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Korea, and we were stationed here in 2013. We absolutely fell in love with this place. My wife Karen is a public school teacher, deeply dedicated herself to public service, it became increasingly difficult to move our children, and for her to [get] teaching certificates. Nobody really understands better than us the deep sacrifices and the deep challenges faced by military spouses. So in the line of falling in love with this place, wanting to offer her an opportunity to carry her own professional career as a dual-career household, and the desire to raise our children in a wonderful place, I decided to get out of active duty and we knew, for the first time in my adult life...that I wanted to live here in Virginia’s 10th District. It’s a great place to raise your kids.
I’ve been a business person, I’ve actually served as a strategic advisor with BCG (Boston Consulting Group), to some of the most successful companies in America and also to our government in various capacities, working with them on their most difficult problems. I’ve had a real opportunity in business to see much of what I saw in the military. When we bring diverse groups of people together, we have real opportunities to solve the seemingly unsolvable. For me, in private industry now, I’ve also seen that ensuring a living wage, and making sure there’s equal pay for equal work, are not just the right thing to do, but they’re actually an economic imperative as we think about how do we make sure everyone has a seat at the table in solving the complex challenges that drive economic growth in the 21st century and make sure there are great jobs for our daughters and sons in coming years.
We’ve seen a lot of talk recently out of the Trump Administration about bringing business principles to government. But not a lot of talk about what the government ought to be doing, and that’s where we need to start first.
Let’s talk about health care for a second...Americans often agree with Democrats’ ideas. What we need now to do is actually take those ideas and have a ruthless focus on execution. Because in business and government having the right ideas isn’t good enough. You have to actually do the work and make sure it’s carried out properly. So it’s inexcusable that on day one the health care exchanges didn’t work.
I’ve got an eclectic set of books that I like. I read everything from history to science fiction to a good spy novel here and there... My favorite? Let’s go with the spy novel genre, which I really love. There’s a great book by Charles McCarry called The Munich Dossier. It talks about separating the signal from the noise, as all these different things are coming in you’re trying to figure out the story. It’s a great one. By the way that’s also a good one, Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise. It talks about how we can use a real sound understanding of probability and statistics to actually make better policy. That’s not happening right now and certainly we could use people who understand what probability means.
A great example of [extracting the signal from the noise] is education investment. The [Montgomery] GI Bill that came out of World War II had a huge return on investment. For every dollar we put into the GI Bill we had multiple dollars in return and economic opportunity. That’s a real thing as we think about how do we ensure that every American, regardless of color, regardless of economic background, regardless of where they were born, has a chance at educational opportunity from pre-K all the way to college. Why do we do that? We do that because it’s not only the right thing to do, but we can also look and statistically say that the return on investment, in an era in which we will face a shortage of millions of college-educated, we have millions of jobs that require college-educated workers, that we can’t fill. We know we’re going to get a huge return on investment for that, we’re going to give people the dignity of work, and we’re really going to see a boom in our economy. That’s the reason you invest in those things. That’s the kind of scientific and rational-based policy that we need to bring into Washington.
I’ve been reading a lot about the end of the Roman Republic, which is a sad thing to contemplate but we certainly have some bad things happening we need to make stop happening so we can preserve our own Republic.
The first [person to have dinner with] that comes to mind is Abigail Adams. I think back to our early history, she’s famous for telling her husband John in the midst of the discussions around our form of government that he should not forget women. She was an amazing person who throughout her life remained politically active. [She] remained a moral guide for her husband as he traveled all around the world. Karen and I, along with our boys, have actually taken them to see the Adams’ burial place as well as their hometown in Quincy, MA. What an incredible person. Would love to sit down with her and talk about her perspectives on the revolution besides what we captured in letters and what she thinks about what became of our country.
I think Martin Luther King would be a great [person to have to dinner]. He was an important and critical civil rights leader, but also he played a major role in opposition to American foreign policy and what he saw as our wrong-headed involvement in the war in Vietnam. I would love to sit down with him and understand what gave him the bravery to stand up for what he believed in. I would love to understand what he views as the next steps in this very challenging period of race relations in our country.
Another one that stands out for me is Harry Truman. Here’s a President who really helped set the foundation of the economic order that has left America as the most powerful country in the history of the world, and one that’s able to protect, broadly, a peace that serves our country and serves Americans. He did so at a time when he wasn’t well liked. It took a lot of political courage to do many of the things he did. History has treated him very well, but his contemporaries didn’t. So I often think about what would he think about that judgment, what would he think about the brave steps he took to ensure America’s well being. How would he view the judgment of history?
I’ve been getting involved in the homebrew movement, so I have 5 gallons of beer sitting in my office waiting to get bottled, although that may be a post-campaign thing. It may be a different style of beer by the time we get done bottling that from where it started unfortunately! I would say right now I’m a big fan of the Black Ox and Golden Ox, two very different beers that are coming from Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, VA.
We love Paradise Springs Winery, which is a winery just down the street here from our house here in VA-10. We love going out there. You can have a great glass of wine, you can sit on the lawn, you can really appreciate the beauty that is this country out here as well as the great wines that we’re making here in Virginia.