Scientist and entrepreneur Sean Casten is running in the March 20 primary against several other Democrats looking to eventually unseat Republican incumbent 6th District U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam. Among Casten's opponents are Becky Anderson Wilkins, Jennifer Zordani, Kelly Mezeski, Amanda Howland and Carole Cheney.
Windy City Times: What prompted you to run?
Sean Casten: I have spent the last 20 years trying to do something about climate change with more success than most people have accomplished in their life. I became concerned that the primary issues involved in reducing climate change were not technological, but were problems with business models. That led me to the entrepreneurial end of things. I founded and ran two separate companies; we invested over $200 million, over 80 projectsall made money and all reduced CO2 emissions. The idea was that if we could make money on CO 2, people could copy our success.
… I crossed paths with Roskam as a clean energy advocate periodically, because when people said we need somebody, a CEO who represents jobs in the district, to talk to this guy voting on a tax bill that affects the district. I don't agree with almost anything that he stands for, but my biggest issue with him as an advocate is that he lacks intellectual curiosity. When the conversation shifts to something he doesn't want to talk about, that's the end of the conversation. So I just think that if you don't enjoy knowing things, get a job that doesn't require you to know things, don't become a representative in Congress.
[After the Nov. 2016] election, I was thinking about what I was going to do next, and at the same time, here was this guy I didn't particularly care for. Here's a Republican Party that stands for almost nothing I believe, and I'm living in one of the top-five targeted districts to flip.
WCT: You discuss what you call Roskam's lack of intellectual curiosity and your campaign platform speaks about the importance of "critical thinking"what does that really mean for you?
SC: Let me put a question back to you, because I think it highlights an answer. Would you ever ask that question in any other field of endeavor? You would never ask somebody who was working in a scientific lab, "So you have some results you disagree with, are you still going to use them? Or are you going to use the other results?"
If you start from the perspective of, "What are the facts on the table, and how does one use them," that is a really low bar for a bare-minimum requirement in any job, and it is only in politics that that is deemed a viable approach. Let's look at health care: The U.S. sends more per capita on health care than any other industrialized country and has worse outcomes than any other industrialized country. Why are we having any conversation at all about whether or not we can afford to improve our health care system? The answer is, we're having a conversation based on politics instead of policy. You can can go through and look at other countries that have better outcomes and spend less, and ask what the features are of those systems. … That approach is something that you would do as a matter of course in any other industry.
WCT: What are some issues that are most important for the district?
SC: Let me frame it nationally, because what I do in the district will be a part of what's nationally important. I've spent my whole career wanting to do something about climate changeit is the [most important] existential challenge that we face. There are a ton of policy barriers to doing things that are both economically and environmentally beneficial and that have not been addressed because there are not many people in Congress who understand how many win-win things there are out there. Those range from federal purchasing rules to nuances of the Clean Air Act.
Also, it is shocking to me how many people lost faith and doesn't think that they're vote matters. If, come the 2020 election, people have less confidence than they did in the 2016 election, I think it's how democracies die. I don't mean to be hyperbolic about that. But, how in God's name is it not the priority of every member in Congress to get to the bottom of whether a foreign government that's hostile to our interests hacked our election and frustrated the ability of American voices to be heard? The fact that they have not done that is making it look like a lot of people may have been complicit in that happening, because why else would they handle it the way they did?
I'm not making any accusations here, but what I'm saying is that, if that view is held by a significant number of American voters, that is the path to revolution in the streets. I find myself thinking that we need something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with full amnesty for anyone who comes forward, and get to the bottom of that, to make people confident. Second, how do we get something to like what we have for land warfare, that says if you engage in an act of cyber-warfare in another country, there's an international consensus that there are consequences that are enforceable? We clearly don't have those rules right now, and Russia or others have figured out that you can hack American democracy, and there's a sufficient lack of backbone among elected officials, so you can get away with it.
WCT: Have you done any work or had any engagement with the LGBT community?
SC: [Laughing] Statistically, 10 percent of all my experiences with people. Seriously, a handful of things. All through high school I worked in an art gallery. The two guys who owned it were a gay couple. They were a "pre-Stonewall" couple, living together and were publicly out. They had grown up in the gay world of New York in the and '60s and '70s, and were out but not "loudly" out. One of them died from AIDS. I spoke at his funeral. His partner spoke at my wedding. We have been friends forever. … None of that earns me a cookie, but those were my bosses growing up, who taught me how to do hard work.
More recently, we have a family foundation that has a mission to do international education. One of the things we did was assist a kid from Peru who moved here undocumented and was looking for anyone to help him process the paperwork to stay here, because he didn't trust that his life was safe as a gay kid in Peru. We ultimately helped, through friends in the State Department, to help him get a visa.
WCT: What issues do you perceive as being important for the 6th District's LGBT community?
SC: Let's start with the positiveI think that this district is vastly more socially tolerant than the majority of Republican districts in this country. It's not the issues don't exist here, but it's certainly better than a lot of other places. There are a lot of people who are out, proud and totally safe, and that's very different from the way it was a long time ago.
The stuff that I feel we drop the ball on nationally is the stuff pertaining to equal protection clauses in the constitution. In theory, it's illegal to discriminate. In practice, its really difficult to enforce. What do you do if a law is not enforced, if you're a member of Congress? It's not obvious what the answer ishow do you get the judicial system to be more engaged? As a general rule, I don't think anything good has ever come from the legislative branch injecting themselves into the judicial process. But there's no question that the spirit of EEOC laws, for example, are not being implemented the way they should be.
See castenforcongress.com .