An Interview with Jason Overman

Jan 29, 2011 No Comments

Ariel Boone: How did you first get involved in Cal Dems?

Jason Overman: I was coming out from DC and I remember seeking Cal Dems out before I even got to Berkeley.  I went online to look for organizations and did my research.  I was still in Washington and I just knew before I even moved out to Berkeley that this was something that I wanted to be part of, and I spent five years in Cal Dems.  My first event was the big barbecue you guys did, the annual barbecue.

AB: Do you think that working for Ted Kennedy influenced your desire to be in a Democrats’ club or could you say a little bit more on how that might have driven you to be involved like you were at Cal?

JO: I think it was the other way around. I knew from a pretty young age that I was a Democrat and I think that’s what I needed to go and intern for Senator Kennedy when I was in high school. When I was looking at schools to go to, the fact that Berkeley was a place with such a legacy of social justice and social movements—the campus itself drew me and, from that reason alone, I knew that, when I came to Cal, I would need a space that felt natural to me where I could do my political stuff.  In high school I didn’t have really anything. I know some high schools, had a young Democrats club. Back in Maryland, there wasn’t anything really like that, so I knew that it was something I wanted to be part of. I wouldn’t say that it helped me want to be more involved, I’d say that I wanted to be more involved, and then sought out internships, sought out Cal Dems, and ran for office.

AB: Did you find Berkeley to be as progressive, or more progressive than you?

JO: The campus threw me! It was not nearly as progressive as I thought it would be.  I imagined it as a progressive movement, and a lot of it struck me as very mainstream.  You walk out on Telegraph and you find counterculture and remnants of the sixties.  And you walk on campus and you find a lot of pretty normal, mainstream people with pretty moderate political views.  I think that’s a big reason that Cal Dems was so important to me is because I needed a way to filter 30,000 peers and find a space where I could actually spend time with people who were like-minded and shared my values. One of the things that sort of bothered me about Berkeley is that there were so many liberal causes that were under all these different groups, and they all worked separately and didn’t do things together.  Part of being a Democrat is taking these different values, and trying to coalesce them into a unitary paradigm of how you see the world and trying to act on your beliefs.  So I think being a Democrat for me was about trying to join together and have one solid group of folks who, you know, didn’t just want to protect the environment or stop war, or didn’t just want economic justice, but people who believe in all of those things and, for me, that’s what being a Democrat is all about.

AB: Cal Dems has a reputation for being more progressive than the state party and more progressive than the leaders we elect.  How was the transition to city and state politics?

JO: Working in the world of professional politics definitely makes you a little jaded.  And I think that Cal Dems is so full of folks who are passionate and idealistic in order to survive and it creates a foundation that you need to survive in a world that is so cutthroat.  If I didn’t have that, it’d be a lot harder to really stay strong in my beliefs.  But the fact that I had this family around for four or five years gave me a kind of basis in my idealism.  After college, keeping your idealism—it weighs a little bit.  Without Cal Dems, if you were just jumping into professional politics without that experience, you would just become so jaded. I think the fact that Cal Dems is so progressive and is a family reminds you where you came from and the beliefs that you’re drawing upon, that it helps you to not sacrifice them, and remind yourself why you’re doing it.

AB: What compelled you to run for office and what role did Cal Dems play?

JO: Cal Dems gave me access to some of the local politicians who have a fair amount of influence.  I was recruited by certain local politicians who saw Cal Dems as a place where young bright and like-minded people can really form a team and [Cal Dems] members developed a reputation of having very sharp skills and being really articulate. If I hadn’t been in Cal Dems, I probably wouldn’t have been recruited by people to run for office.  By being in Cal Dems and by speaking up I was noticed by folks who wanted young people to get more involved.  Most people go to college and that’s that.  But because of Cal Dems, and I pretty much credit solely Cal Dems, I had the opportunity to do something that I never necessarily thought I would do, or at least didn’t think I would do until I was much older.  People who do professional politics around the Bay Area say, “Hey, where can we find young up-and-comers, folks we can train for local powerhouses?” and they look to Cal Dems. That’s something that’s helped to make the organization special.  It’s not just a place where Democrats come just to hang out once a week, but it’s a place where they come, get jobs, have access to campaign work, and get to hear all kinds of inspiring speakers. It’s something that’s unique to Cal Dems compared to other organizations.

AB: You’ve been in Cal Dems, you were involved in CalSERVE for a short time, you have worked in the state legislature—what do you think needs to happen to fix the UC system and what role does UC Berkeley need to play in this?

JO: You’ve got an electorate that notoriously wants smoother roads and better schools and, at the same time, wants lower taxes.  Everybody wants more for less.  But, there are certain things that will only really improve in quality with a significant front-end investment and I think that education is one of those things. We’re going to continue to have a high rate of unemployment and the underutilization of the work force. And so, to fix the UC system to improve the workforce overall, we’re going to need to make a significant investment.  There’s really no way to get around that fact—it costs a lot of money.  And we don’t just have to convince Republican legislators in other parts of the state that it’s worth it.  We have to convince the voters of the state of CA that they should pay more for something that will be of direct value to them—whether or not they have kids in the UC system. I think people will generally support paying more for higher education, but you’re talking about huge boondoggles like Proposition 13, and some really deep-rooted policies surrounding taxation.  You can’t just change the 2/3 majority rule in the legislature and assume that we’re going to have this investment.  We have to change hearts and minds of the state, and really the country, because young people are worth our money. The fewer students that we turn away from UCs, CSUs, and community colleges, the fewer people that will go to prison, or the fewer people will be on the unemployment rolls, sucking resources from the state. I think that Cal Dems obviously does a lot of important work with legislative advocacy as far as visiting legislators and convincing them that they need to vote to increase the budget, for example.   I think that Cal Dems has a lot of key roles to play in making sure that things that the 2/3 rule get changed and continuously advocating for more resources for the UC system, to the state legislature, to the governor,and to the Regents. But, on a much larger scale and over a much larger period of time, I think we need to convince Californians as a whole; this is a system worth investing money in. It’s going to create huge gains for our economy for the years to come.

AB: So what’s the single most revolutionary thing a student can do to start working on this? (You are supposed to say, “Join Cal Dems!”)

JO: Nobody can do this by themselves.  This is the power of having an organization that is fifty years strong.  Students can join the bandwagon and really make meaningful change.  I’m not just talking about writing another few letters to your member of congress.  I’m talking about real, substantive—not just community organizing or student organizing, but broad scale change—to create a new movement for human destiny and public resources.  We’ve come to this place where people say, “Cut my taxes, cut my taxes.”  I say, “All right, fine, we’ll cut your taxes.”  But you’re going to pay for it one way or another.  Do you want to pay for it up front and have people educated that can lead the world?  Or do you want to pay for it on the back end with welfare, prisons, and all that crap?  It’s really up to them and we have to show them that.  And, you know what, there’s nobody better to do that than a Cal student.  Cal students are some of the brightest and most creative people I have ever met.  If I was hiring, the first place I would want to look is a Cal student— a Cal Dem.  Whether in 2003 or 2010, it’s still a crew that you know you can count on and rely on and you know will produce quality and will produce results.

AB: That’s really touching, Jason.

JO: I mean it straight from my heart!  There are very few organizations in the world I have real allegiance, special pride, and connection to. The Cal Alumni Association calls me and wants money for football, and that’s great.  But, I want to support (for years to come) the training of a new generation of leadership among young Democrats.

Fall 2010

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