By Blake Neff - 03/03/14 06:00 AM EST
When Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) was running for office in 2012, his website marketed him as a “Teacher of Congress,” so it is hardly a surprise the former educator has made the nation’s schooling a top priority for his time in Washington. It almost wasn’t that way, however.
However, during his years in Massachusetts, Takano found his attitudes evolving. Work as a substitute teacher led him into education instead of law, while the Republican Party’s stronger emphasis on social conservatism and his own rejection of laissez-faire economics led him to switch parties after graduation.
“My switching parties, I think, reflects a shift from the idea of strict individualism to the idea that we’re all in it together. That philosophy resonated with who I was,” Takano told The Hill.
After graduating, Takano returned to Riverside to begin his teaching career. For the next three decades, he taught a variety of subjects to middle and high schoolers, including American history, remedial English, and his favorite subject, British literature. (Jane Austen is a personal favorite.)
Takano’s interest in politics remained after his party switch, but he originally planned to make a very ordinary entry into the field, starting at the bottom.
“The model that I’d always seen as a little boy, as a teenager, as I watched other political careers, I saw people who’d start off in local government, gain experience, move to state government, and then on to federal office. I’d always believed that kind of experience was important,” Takano says.
He initially followed this pathway, with his first elected office being a spot on the Riverside Community College Board of Trustees.
Takano’s slow road map was suddenly junked, however, when a redistricting in 1990 created a new open seat in the Riverside area.
Takano rolled the dice and challenged Republican Ken Calvert. Though the district was created with a Republican tilt, Takano ran a shockingly close race and was defeated by just 500 votes in one of the closest elections in California history.
Emboldened by the close finish — and by Calvert getting caught in compromising circumstances with a prostitute in 1993 — Takano tried again in 1994. This time, things got ugly. While attacking Calvert with mailers asking voters “It’s Midnight … Do You Know Where Your Congressman Is?” Takano had to cope with his sexuality becoming a campaign issue.
Takano, who is gay, had remained closeted throughout the 1992 campaign, but in 1994 research by journalists and the opposition forced him into the open.
Bright pink pro-Calvert mailers warned that Takano was “A Congressman for San Francisco” whose “secret agenda” included gays in the military and same-sex partner benefits. His candidacy suffered greatly. He lost by 17 points.
The severe defeat would be Takano’s last scrape with Congressional politics for nearly 20 years. Instead, along with his work as a teacher and college trustee, Takano busied himself during his “wilderness years” by expanding his horizons through travel during his time off. Takano says travels in Latin America were particularly eye-opening.
“The perspective I picked up on was just how important America is to the rest of the world, and how important it is that we have leaders who have a connection to a global perspective and a global vision,” he said. He also drew motivation from the poverty of Brazil’s favelas.
“You can’t not be changed by the experience of seeing extreme poverty. You start to want to think about ways in which you can make the world better,” Takano said.
As the 2000s wore on, Takano perceived that the chance to run for office again could be arising. Demographic shifts were changing Riverside County, as the number of Democratic-leaning Hispanics grew.
Also helping, he said, was a major shift in public acceptance of homosexuality that would allow him to run without being severely hindered.
In addition to Riverside’s demographic shifts, Takano also benefited from the redrawing of California’s congressional districts after the 2010 Census. His home city of Riverside was removed from Calvert’s district and placed into a newly-drawn 41st District that favored Democrats and had no incumbent.
Takano entered the jungle primary for the seat, initially finishing second to Republican John Tavaglione with 37 percent of the vote. In the general election, however, higher Democratic turnout came to Takano’s rescue, and he triumphed with 58 percent of the vote. With the victory, he became the first non-white openly gay Congressman in history.
Now in Washington, Takano’s aspirations remain focused on education and issues he sees as closely related, such as job training and anti-poverty measures. He supports “blurring the line” between high schools and colleges as a means to encourage more students to seek technical and other job training.
Takano acknowledges that education is primarily a state and local issue, and decries No Child Left Behind’s imposition of high-stakes testing as a well-intentioned “failure.” He says the best use of the federal government in education is not to micromanage standards, but rather to improve educational equality and opportunities for the less advantaged.
“The federal role is really to focus on equity,” he says. “We need to pay attention to equity in terms of the condition of these students, the number of kids in poverty, as that affects learning. We need to create the conditions for everybody to learn.”
In a similar vein, Takano says Congress could act to make sure the disabled and those in special education receive sufficient funding from the federal government.
Takano acknowledges that major accomplishments in Congress typically require a degree of seniority, but is otherwise loath to forecast how long he will remain in Washington.
“I think it’s presumptuous of me to speculate how long I’ll be here,” he said.
Whenever he does leave Congress, Takano says he wants to leave a legacy of improvement.
“I would be very pleased if I set the tone for the nation to improve its educational performance … and that we close the gaps in performance, especially between certain minority groups.”