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.Rep. Zoe Lofgren faces primary challenge from tribal leader

In sit-down interviews with Metro, two 18th District candidates discuss their candidacies and views

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If anyone understands the power of an underdog, it’s Zoe Lofgren.

In 1994, former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery was so heavily favored to secure an open congressional seat that his campaign cleaned out all the balloons at local shops for the victory celebration. Lofgren’s supporters, for whom a positive outcome seemed but a glimmering hope, scrounged five balloons to tie behind the podium where she declared her upset win.

Following that nailbiter, 18th District representative in Congress has coasted to victory in 14 successive elections, enjoying the benefits of incumbency in one of the last political offices without term limits. Her opponents have generally been attention-seekers or libertarians and Republicans with the same likelihood of success as a meteorite triggering another Ice Age.

Now coming up on 30 years in office, Lofgren at age 76 is more tenured than 95% of her colleagues. It assures her of plum assignments as the ranking member of judiciary, immigration, science and other committees, along with the leverage to wrangle favorable outcomes for her home base. 

A congressional staffer during the Nixon impeachment and a committee member during Clinton’s, Lofgren served as Congress’ memory as it sifted through a hairball of foreign election interference, the blackmailing of Ukraine and storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

Zoe Lofgren is one of the nation’s most powerful Democrats, but power in a democracy devolves to the people who cast votes, and Lofgren appears to be looking towards perhaps the most contentious election season since she was elected to office in the mid 1990s.

Lofgren faces Republican former San Benito County Supervisor Peter Hernandez, as well as Muwekma Ohlone tribe chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh, who has been running a lively and aggressive campaign, giving the district race for the first time in three decades the trappings of a competitive contest and prompting team Lofgren to counterattack. 

Nijmeh jumped into the race after a meeting with Lofgren’s staff that discussed the tribe’s bid for recognition, which, as the chairwoman tells it, derailed over Nijmeh’s refusal to forswear gambling in order to gain federal status. “I met with them in January last year. That’s what they were stressing to me. And I said, we’re done taking more rights away from our people. You took our land. You took our language. You took our culture. You’re not going to take the future away from the next generations if they choose to use that tool,” the businesswoman and mother of five recalls.

A year later, mailers have popped up in district mailboxes calling attention to Lofgren’s age and support for Big Tech and foreign wars, and calling for a government crackdown on online pornography. Controversially, one of Nijmeh’s associates produced and home delivered 60,000 copies of a 24-page newsprint tabloid, The South Bay Chronicle, attacking Lofgren and promoting Nijmeh.

As of Dec. 31, Lofgren had raised almost $1.3 million for her campaign, modest by congressional standards, and Nijmeh had raised less than 10% of that, $106,330, most of it self-funded or friends and family donations.

Nijmeh, who if elected would become California’s first elected indigenous representative in D.C., thinks there should be age limits on legislators. “I think anybody over 70 years old or 75 should retire,” she says. 

Lofgren isn’t riding off into the sunset, however. During a sit-down interview on a friend’s patio on Feb. 18, the congresswoman was energetic after shedding 70 pounds and showed command of details on a wide range of issues, implicitly rebutting efforts to cast her as forgetful or out-of-touch. 

Lofgren defended President Biden as well. “He’s done very well, and he’s currently doing well. I mean, all the speculation is, you know, maybe at some future point he would not have good judgment. Well, his judgment’s been pretty good so far. And I would say that his likely opponent has never shown good judgment,” Lofgren said. “So between the two, I don’t think there’s a close call.”

During an interview the next day at the Morgan Hill home Nijmeh shares with her daughters and husband, Kennedy, the tribal leader sought to characterize Lofgren as the face of a government that hasn’t successfully addressed contemporary challenges. “She’s been there too long. My question is: What is she waiting for? Nothing has changed in this community. We’re suffering from a high cost of living, homelessness, crime on the street. We need change.” 

Nijmeh offers few specific solutions to the environment crisis, crime, housing and homelessness and says she’ll work on those issues once elected. She wants to build six million homes in five years though doesn’t detail a program, saying that there needs to be incentives and suggesting that zoning needs to allow more high density construction. When asked about violent crime, she says, “There needs to be relationship building with the police force and the communities, developing programs like community watch groups and building trust.”

On the environment, Nijmeh says, “I wouldn’t call it climate change. We’re not being sustainable. … And Mother Earth is pushing back hard.”

Lofgren, for her part, discussed her goals if she is reelected, but says it will depend on the legislature’s makeup. “I am hoping the Democrats regain the majority in the House, keep it in the Senate, adjust the filibuster rules so we can actually do something and keep a Democratic president. If that is the case, I have been trying for so long to reform the immigration laws, which are just a mess from top to bottom. I want to get that done.

“It would be great to do something further on gun violence. Talking to some kids in Hollister recently, I asked, ‘Well, what are the things you think about every day when you go to school? They’re afraid they’re going to get shot every day. And I think every parent and grandparent in the country is worried every single day about what could happen to their kids in school.

“That shouldn’t happen. We can make a difference on that,” Lofgren says.

Lofgren serves as ranking member on the Science, Space and Technology Committee and, while allowing “this is nerdy,” believes “we are on the doorstep of three very important things,” which she identifies as fusion, quantum computing and artificial intelligence. 

“I went up a few weeks ago to Seattle to visit some fusion companies. One of them, Helion, has signed a contract to produce fusion energy in 2028. Whether they can do it, I hope they can. But we’ve got ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Lab like four times in the last six months. There are all of these companies that are getting close. And if we score on that, it changes everything in terms of climate change, not just energy sources, but removing carbon from the atmosphere, which is what we need to do.

“I mean, it’s too late to just change emissions, although we need to do that and we’re doing well with alternatives, but we do need an energy source for carbon removal. And then quantum computing, with AI, is going to, if we can put guardrails on the threats—and there are real ones—and we could harness the productivity, it would be amazing in terms of health care, energy and a number of other things.”

One charge leveled by Nijmeh is Lofgren’s coziness with Big Tech. Google is her largest contributor, delivering $105,550 in contributions during the latest campaign cycle. The company also employs the congresswoman’s daughter in its legal department.

Nijmeh has come under attack by Lofgren’s campaign because of the piece produced and distributed by an upstate New York political operative, who Nijmeh describes as her executive assistant and chief of staff on projects ranging from green energy contracts with her businesses, as well as hoping to construct a native village for the 600-member tribe.

Matthew Ricchiazzi, who sent a photo of a Canadian identification card verifying his Lower Cayuga first nation status, says he paid for the publication, which Lofgren allies call “fake news” and an illegal campaign piece. Ricchiazzi considers himself a journalist and publisher who has launched other political websites and publications in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York state. “Nobody funds my journalism besides me,” Ricchiazzi said.

The Chronicle articles are un-bylined and there is no staff box. Materials are lifted from the web, such as a photograph of former Watsonville Mayor Rebecca Garcia, which was republished uncredited and without permission from The Pajaronian newspaper, which is part of the Weeklys media group along with Metro. 

“I don’t have a formal role on the campaign,” Ricchiazzi says, “though I do volunteer to help out whenever I can.” 

Critics have tried to link Ricchiazzi to Donald Trump and operative Roger Stone, who was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison for political crimes but pardoned by Trump before he served time. Ricchiazzi says of Stone: “I introduced myself to him at an event once a couple of years ago, but I would be shocked if he remembered me. I’m sure he is a very busy guy with lots of other things on his mind.”

Though he sometimes posts MAGA talking points to social media, Richiazzi said via email that he isn’t involved in Trump-aligned political activities. “I do work for several clients, including for-tribal clients in the United States and Canada. My political activities are very much focused on indigenous political liberation projects.”

“My political views are different than Charlene’s political views,” Ricchiazzi said. “She is kind enough to respect my right to have political opinions and my right to vote for whomever I choose. Charlene is a ‘moderate-progressive’ Democrat, and I’m not registered with any party.”

Jamie Moses, who published the Buffalo, N.Y. alternative weekly Artvoice for 25 years, said by telephone that libertarian Frank Parlato stepped in 2015 after the publication faced financial challenges and “started writing all these right wing editorials.” Ricchiazzi was part of the team, and recently anti-Lofgren pieces have begun appearing on Artvoice.com.

“Both of them are bad news,” Moses says, and calls them “untrustworthy and shady.”

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