On Sunday, José Cortés marched in solidarity with the Palestinian people, saying in El Cajon he supports demands that America “stop funding genocide.”
On Monday, the Rancho San Diego resident hailed “the Cuban people’s struggle for socialism and liberation from imperialism!” in a tweet, adding #VivaFidel and #UnblockCuba.
Not exactly what political experts would call winning messages in the deep-red — as in conservative — 50th Congressional District.
(Not to mention he says the ultimate goal of fellow revolutionary socialists is to “seize the reins of power from the capitalist class and put it into the hands of workers.”)
Sixteen months after taking 0.9% of the vote* in the 2020 primary, Cortés is running a pauper’s campaign to take down one of the richest House members — Rep. Darrell Issa — in the 2022 race for East County’s rep on Capitol Hill.
But there’s no challenging his passion for the working class, the lynchpin of his quixotic quest as a candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party.
“The policies we are advocating for are policies that the working class desperately needs,” he said in an email interview before the weekend march near the “We are Israel” rally. He cites a right to housing and health care, among other things.
Born in Los Angeles County, Cortés, 30, is the oldest of three children — son of a Colombian father who moved to the United States at age 3 and graduated from El Cajon Valley High School.
“He is an engineer that works on equipment for many local hospitals,” Cortés said of his father. “My mother is Mexican-Italian and a third-grade teacher in Lakeside. Both my parents are supportive of my campaign and the work PSL does in the community, which I am very grateful for.”
Cortés, who is single, attended Lakeside Farms Elementary, Hillsdale Middle School and Valhalla High School in El Cajon. He earned a full ride scholarship to the University at Buffalo to play football but didn’t graduate. (He studied U.S history with the aim of being a high school history teacher.)
Before moving in with his parents, he rented a home in El Cajon. He’s now saving money from his insurance call-center job to buy a home somewhere in East County, “preferably in El Cajon.”
He traces his introduction to socialism to protests of an El Cajon police shooting in 2016 of a refugee from Uganda suffering a psychiatric emergency.
“When Alfred Olango was killed in the parking lot of my dentist office, it was the first time I was personally confronted in my own community with blatant police terror and a violent, militarized crackdown on peaceful demonstrators,” Cortés said.
He was no socialist when this happened, he says, although he recognized what he called real problems with the economic and political system in this country.
“It was at the uprising demanding justice for Alfred Olango that I met socialist organizers for the first time,” he said. “It was members of the PSL who brought protesters into their home to offer protection while police were actively terrorizing the community. I was inspired to join and never looked back!”
Not yet listed as a 2020 candidate on the FEC site, he says federal rules require that campaigns register when they have raised $5,000 or more.
“We will submit federal paperwork when we cross this threshold,” Cortés said, $510,000 behind Issa for cash-on-hand.
In 2020, Cortés briefly earned attention by attempting to crash a Valley Center debate, where sheriff’s deputies eventually removed from the stage — with Carl DeMaio falsely offering to debate him one-on-one immediately afterward.
The following month, March, he finished seventh* of 10 candidates with 1,821 votes. In February 2021, the Peace and Freedom Party claimed 1,657 registered voters among a CA50 two-county total of almost 450,000.
This interview was conducted over several weeks after his June 1 announcement of his candidacy.
TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: You tweeted support for the Cuban president amid public protests. Do you have any sympathy for the demands and concerns of the Cuban protesters?
JOSE CORTES: The only reason we’re hearing about anti-government protests of a few hundred people in Cuba is because the U.S. government and corporate-controlled media want to see the Cuban Revolution overthrown. The reality is that these tiny protests have been vastly outnumbered by hundreds of thousands of Cuban citizens rallying in support of the government and demonstrating against the U.S.-imposed blockade.
The imposition of new sanctions by the Biden administration is just another extension of this economic warfare being waged against the Cuban people by U.S. imperialism. I think whenever we talk about Cuba, it should be within the context that the U.S. has been imposing a genocidal blockade on the country for six whole decades.
In fact, just last month — and every year — the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the blockade, which only the U.S. and their lapdog, Israel, voted against. Seemingly against all odds, the heroic Cuban Revolution eliminated illiteracy, ended racial segregation, and to this day provides housing, free health care and free education for all.
Despite constant economic sabotage, the Cuban people have remained resilient and take to the streets to defend their Revolution whenever it is threatened. I don’t say this to downplay the seriousness of the challenges Cubans are facing. Like the rest of Cuba, the few people who took to the streets to protest the government on July 11 are confronted with real problems: electricity and medicine shortages, as well as economic stagnation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike the crisis in our country, however, Cuba’s problems are not a result of mismanagement or corruption. It is because of the blockade that Cubans are facing these troubles, just like the “Special Period” in the 1990s. That is why there are so many more protesters in the streets defending their right to sovereignty and calling for an end to the criminal blockade!
If socialism were truly unpopular or if it were failing the people of Cuba or Venezuela, the U.S. government would not need to fund pro-imperialist opposition leaders in those countries or impose economic, commercial and financial blockades on the people who live there. That is why I fully support the revolutionary Cuban leadership and stand with the overwhelming majority of Cubans who also support them.
You sprinkle your speeches with terms such as “bourgeois media and politicians,” “Revolutionary movements and analysis” and even “comrade.” How do you translate socialist policies into terms working class people can appreciate and not be lumped in with communists? How do you counter stereotypes of socialists?
I believe that no translation is required for working class people to appreciate our platform. The policies we are advocating for are policies that the working class desperately needs: the right to housing, so that people don’t live under the constant threat of homelessness; the right to health care, so that people aren’t threatened with bankruptcy when a medical issue comes up.
These are things that working people already know that we need, and we know these vital reforms cannot be achieved without a movement that challenges our current profit-driven economic system.
From an ideological standpoint, the fog of McCarthyite anti-communism is lifting: it is estimated that over 7 million Americans, myself included, openly identify as communists and around 40% of all people in this country already approve of socialism — in large part because they are living through the horrors of capitalism and want to see it end. Those numbers are growing too, and so are the ranks of many socialist organizations, even beyond PSL and PFP.
You were endorsed by DSA Democrats of San Diego last time. But you slam the Democratic Party, saying: “Enough of the lesser of two evil isms.” Can you peel off more Democrats or Republicans?
Regarding DSA, they are a multi-tendency socialist organization with members belonging to various parties, including the Peace & Freedom Party in many cases. We have worked with them on many issues over the years and look forward to continuing to do so.
Currently, we can see a conflict within the Democratic Party between the liberal and conservative wings. Whenever they control both the House and Senate, as they do now, they are blocked from taking any meaningful action by the more reactionary elements of their own party.
Working class people are beginning to recognize more and more that neither corporate party is actually capable of addressing their needs in a meaningful way, and we believe that our platform already appeals to a wide section of the population.
It is also worth noting that voters without any party affiliation constitute a significant portion of the electorate. To be frank, those people are our primary target audience.
You don’t stop at wanting to abolish ICE. You want to abolish the Department of Homeland Security. How would you protect America from cyberhacking and other threats?
The Department of Homeland Security does not protect the people living in this country. It serves as a surveillance and terrorist organization for Wall Street and the big banks. The DHS has spied on and cracked down on Occupy Wall Street protestors and Black Lives Matter activists, and it actively terrorizes immigrant communities here in San Diego and in U.S.-Mexico border cities across the country.
There is no evidence I’ve seen that it has ever done anything to the benefit of working class and oppressed people.
You want no taxes levied on the working class. How do you define working class, including income level? How do you define the ruling class? How should the tax system be restructured?
Working class people are defined not by income, but by their reliance on working for wages in order to survive. The ruling class in this country is the capitalist class, which can be defined as the “employer class” — those people who hire workers to produce all the value for their business or otherwise exploit labor or resources to generate income.
People who hoard more wealth than they could spend in a hundred lifetimes should be prevented from doing so. The resources they control would be put to far better use developing infrastructure to improve working class people’s lives. This idea is not as radical as many people believe. In 1945, the tax rate was as high as 94% of income above $200,000 ($2.5 million today).
You want to decriminalize drug laws and “laws against consensual sex.” What drugs should be legal? What “consensual sex” is illegal that you would make legal?
We support the full legalization of marijuana, but we also recognize how drugs have been pumped into our communities and can be deeply harmful within them. So we support the decriminalization of all drugs but think that the full legalization of any drug should be addressed on a case-by-case basis with a scientific analysis.
Drug addiction should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one. The so-called war on drugs has been an excuse to terrorize working class and oppressed communities; I believe all non-violent offenders should be released immediately.
With regard to laws against consensual sex, anti-sodomy laws have been used to persecute gay people as recently as 2019 despite officially being struck down by the Supreme Court 16 years earlier.
Through struggle, this country has made progress with regard to LGBTQ rights, but as long as the capitalist class holds power we will see constant attacks and attempts to roll back history — like the wave of anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation being pushed by conservative politicians around the country. Even Democrats like Tulsi Gabbard have partaken in the attacks on trans rights. It is a very real threat and it fuels anti-LGBTQ violence such as the murder of trans people.
You want “free and accessible abortion for all” — which is anathema to many people of faith. What is your own faith tradition, if any?
A growing number of religious people are recognizing the right of women to control their lives and their bodies. This is reflected in our campaign volunteers, too. We have Jewish, Muslim and Catholic volunteers who are both proud of their religious background and proud feminists. I personally am not religious, but anyone fighting for true justice and human dignity is a comrade of mine — regardless of their background.
Darell Issa has the power of name recognition, incumbency, GOP leaning district and $509,000 cash on hand. How do you begin to counter that advantage?
It is abundantly clear that Issa has done very little at all to meaningfully improve the lives and well-being of his constituents. But realistically, there is little any working class third party campaign can do to compete with that type of unabashed affluence.
One of the reasons we are running is to expose how the working class really has no say in U.S. politics. We’re fighting to change that, but we can’t do it with our campaign alone; the campaign is just one part of a larger movement to fight for the system we need.
At your Wells Park campaign kickoff, you said you were “chosen to be the representative.” How were you picked for this seat? Or did you volunteer? What was process for running again?
I was asked by my comrades in the Party for Socialism & Liberation and Peace and Freedom Party to run in this election to bring attention to the important struggles in this region and to help spread our working class platform. I was and am honored to have been chosen as the candidate for this district.
Are you a PSL member or P&F or both?
Like last time, I’ll be on the ballot as a Peace and Freedom Party candidate. I am a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and I’m on the Peace and Freedom Party California State Central Committee. While the PSL is on the ballot in many other states, we work in a coalition with other socialist parties and organizations here in California to carry on the legacies of the anti-war on Vietnam movement and the Black Panther Party— which were foundational to the formation of PFP.
How is your brand of socialism different from that practiced in some European countries? Which country is the best model for your style of socialism?
We define socialist countries as those where the working class has seized and retains social, economic and political power. Unlike today’s European countries, all of which we believe to be capitalist, a socialist society is built on a planned economy, where everyone’s basic needs are guaranteed and legally protected.
Many European countries have enacted reforms which have tremendously benefited the working class. Livable wages, access to health care, paid vacations and family leave — all of these are the most basic and fundamental building blocks for social well-being and the right for people to have a family if they so choose.
In Vienna, Austria for example, over half of the housing is publicly owned and evictions are banned. However, these reforms are under constant assault by the capitalist class in those countries.
We are revolutionary socialists, meaning our ultimate goal is to seize the reins of power from the capitalist class and put it into the hands of workers. We try to learn from the Russian, Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, which overthrew capitalist rule and colonial exploitation.
While these countries had their problems, they were able to greatly improve the living standards and life expectancy of the people living there despite centuries of exploitation, oppression and colonialism.
We can look to Cuba and China’s response to COVID-19 for contemporary evidence of this as well. Recently the Communist Party of China celebrated their centenary and the life expectancy in China has more than doubled since they led a united front that took power in 1949.
In your last run, you said: “Housing, health care, education and a job should be a Constitutional right.” How could socialism achieve this?
To give a real example, these have been guaranteed rights in Cuba since their revolution in 1959. In 2019, a referendum was held after a long, democratic process to rewrite their constitution and it once again guaranteed these rights.
We can do this here in the U.S.! There is no divine mandate preventing us from creating a new Constitution, this time one that is written by and for the people, rather than by a few wealthy landowners and slaveholders.
You also answered a survey with this: “The working class people of the United States want peace; end the wars and occupations, close U.S. military bases overseas, and bring the troops home!” Under what circumstances should the United States go to war or defend its allies overseas? Would you pull out of NATO and other mutual-defense pacts?
Our campaign is internationalist, meaning we believe the allies of American workers can be found in every nation amongst the working class and oppressed people who live there. The U.S. should not go to war against any country under any circumstances, because wars waged by this country don’t benefit the working class here or in the countries under attack.
NATO is a pro-imperialist united front led by the U.S. It was created to combat the socialist countries of the 20th century and only continues to exist as a way to impose the interests of multinational corporations upon sovereign nations in their quest for total world domination.
We would not only pull out of NATO but would also advocate for its dissolution, as well as the dissolution of the U.S. Africa Command and the Asia Pacific Command. U.S. troops belong at home with their families, not in Korea, Okinawa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or anywhere else!
You’ve said the capitalist system is a “rigged game.” Are elections also rigged?
Yes, elections are rigged in countless ways. Gerrymandering of districts, absurd super PACs, campaign finance laws and so many other barriers stand in the way of attaining actual political representation for the working class.
However, we believe hope is to be found outside the ballot box. For example, Supreme Court rulings have very little to do with the political makeup of the constituent members. Instead, their rulings in many cases side with the people when there are mass mobilizations and demonstrations in the streets.
Just recently, we have been able to successfully organize with other community groups to pressure the county to pass eviction protections during the pandemic. Through sufficient organization and motivation of working class people, we can enact meaningful changes regardless of who holds office.
Many of your fellow 50th District residents voted for Trump and believe his “stolen election” claims. How do you counter such beliefs while also talking about a “rigged” economic system?
These right-wing conspiracy theories are crafted to keep workers from seeing the real inner workings of the ruling class against the vast majority of people. For example, the big oil lobby and military industrial complex that are destroying our planet is really controlled by a handful of billionaires who are willing to continue the environmental destruction so they can continue hoarding wealth.
It is the billionaires of Wall Street and the big banks who are responsible for the exploitation of our communities and decline in living standards in this country — and they do it right in the open. It’s not like these corporate giants have much of a choice to do good if they wanted to, anyway.
If a big oil executive fails to exploit our natural resources and prioritize the profits of the company over the planet, they will lose their position. That’s why we need to put resources under the control of the working class with a socialist society that prioritizes environmental restoration, health and human dignity over profits.
What chances do you give yourself of engaging with Issa and others on a debate stage? Have you had any in-person contact with Issa?
I would love to be able to join in the regularly scheduled debates and present our ideas, but candidates like myself are often deliberately excluded. Many debates, for example, require participants to have tens of thousands of dollars in campaign spending — a threshold which is nearly impossible for any working class third-party candidate to meet.
It is clear that no mainstream candidate will debate us unless they absolutely have to, because they know their entire career is built on telling the very lies we expose every time we take the streets or intervene in their halls of power.
We were very grateful last time around to partake in a debate with the League of Women Voters, but Issa, DeMaio and Campa-Najjar couldn’t be bothered to show up. They seemed unwilling to confront us on a level playing field, probably because they knew we would win over large chunks of their supporters if they tuned in.
What did Ammar Campa-Najjar do right in his 2020 campaign? What did he do wrong?
To be frank, I can’t think of anything that Campa-Najjar did right in his campaign. His entire career is built off being a shill for the right wing of the Democratic Party, and that clearly showed during the 2020 race.
Right before the election, Campa-Najjar even tried to court the likes of the ultra-reactionary group Defend East County, which no doubt caused many progressives to abandon their support of him.
His hawkish rhetoric against Iran, such as saying during the Valley Center debate that we should consider pre-emptive strikes against the country, is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible for anyone— but especially for a candidate seeking to wield the power to authorize sending our neighbors to war.
What did you learn from 2020 — both from Campa-Najjar’s race and your own?
There is so much that I learned during the 2020 race, but if I could focus on one thing it would be that we should never compromise our values to try and appeal to those who are clearly our enemies.
There are so many working class people who want a better life for their families and access to basic necessities such as housing, health care and education. By focusing on issues that really impact the everyday lives of working class people we can build a real, permanent movement that wins these rights and prevents them from ever being taken away from us again.
How will you finance your campaign and how will you spend any money raised?
Our campaign will be fully funded by and for working class and oppressed people. We rely entirely on community support, rather than big landlords and corporations. We plan to spend the money we raise on outreach materials to deepen and expand our engagement with the community, which is one of the primary goals of the campaign: to meet and organize with new people and put a human face to socialism, because many people in our district have never even met a socialist.
Have any campaign aides? A spokesman, strategist, social media chief?
We have a very dedicated volunteer campaign team composed of members of the PSL and the Peace and Freedom Party, and we are excited to have several individuals from the community volunteering for our campaign as well. This includes a campaign manager, social media coordinator, treasurer, among other formally and informally named roles.
What are your hobbies, or recreational or sports interests? How do you relax?
I try to take at least one day of the weekend to spend time with friends and I’m also very close with my family and loved ones. Whether it’s spending the day at Chicano Park, playing board games, or just sitting around having a conversation, I really enjoy being in the presence of others and making real human connections. It’s rare that I will be able to get through such events without politics coming up in conversation, though — especially since running for Congress in 2020!
If elected, would you caucus with Democrats? What committees would you like to join?
I would be willing to work with anyone who is fighting to pass reforms that benefit the living conditions of working class people in this country. (Rep.) Cori Bush, for example, recently proposed a resolution on public power that would greatly improve the lives of people across the country.
I would be interested in joining the Medicare for All Caucus, and some committees I would be willing to join are Budget, Education and Labor, or maybe even Foreign Affairs. That being said, we know that the Democratic Party is a fundamentally anti-worker institution, just like the Republicans, and I won’t shy away from criticizing what needs to be criticized.
What else should readers know about you or your platform?
We don’t just organize during election season! PSL is active across the country fighting to end the blockades on Cuba and Venezuela, defund and demilitarize the police, end all aid to apartheid Israel, end mass incarceration, free Leonard Peltier and all political prisoners, cancel rents and mortgages—among countless other struggles.
You can follow us on social media @cortes4congress and stay updated on what PSL is doing by following @pslweb and @pslsandiego.
*Correction: An earlier version of this report listed only San Diego County result figures. The 50th district includes part of southwestern Riverside County.