Maj. Steven Mac never had any political aspirations, until a vacant congressional seat in his hometown Los Angeles district opened up last fall.

The presidential election stirred up all kinds of concerns, on both sides of the aisle, for the Afghanistan veteran and son of Vietnamese refugees, he told Army Times.

"After November, I was just concerned about the military and what new wars we were going to fight, our relationship with Russia, and how intelligence was in the news a lot, and still is," he said in a Feb. 23 phone interview. "I just felt like I needed to do something, and especially have veterans in Congress, and have veterans represent veterans in L.A."

The 2016 election sent former California Attorney General Kamala Harris to the Senate and 34th Congressional District Rep. Xavier Becerra to Sacramento to replace her, opening up a congressional seat in Los Angeles that will be decided in an April special election.

Mac, a 35-year-old former intelligence officer and current Army Reserve judge advocate, decided in December to throw his name on the ballot, going up against 18 other Democrats as well as one candidate each in the Republican, Libertarian, Green and Independent corners.

"Saying that it’s hard is just not giving credit to the fight," said the political neophyte, who has been learning how to run a campaign as he goes. "I’m going up against a lot of establishment, L.A., California politicians who have all this infrastructure already."

Mac's top priorities, he said, are protecting access to health care, advocating for veterans and immigration reform, issues he understands at the local level as a son of immigrants in Los Angeles as well as an Army officer.

He compared his experience to any other veteran trying to come home and find a job.

"People tell you, ‘You don’t have experience.’ And I’m like, 'wait, I don’t have experience?' " he said. "I understand that you’ve stayed here in L.A. and worked in some city councilman’s office for 10 years or five years, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have experience."

Uncle Randy

The Army is the reason Mac's parents were able to make it to the U.S., he said, and that experience is the reason he joined ROTC at the University of California at Berkeley.

"They were in a refugee camp, and the way they got to the U.S. was my uncle — he was a Swiss citizen, and he joined the Army to get his citizenship when he came to the U.S," Mac said. "He was sent over to Vietnam, where he met my aunt. When communism started taking over, my Uncle Randy was basically able to get my parents over to the U.S."

His mother repeated the story often, he said.

"Every time we’d visit Uncle Randy’s, she’d tell this story about the Army and how that’s why we’re in the U.S.," he said.

After graduation, Mac joined the 368th Military Intelligence Battalion, based in Oakland, California, where he worked his way up to company commander while in law school. After completing law school and transferring to the JAG corps, he was assigned to the 311th Sustainment Command, based in L.A., and deployed with them to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2012.

When he came back, he transferred to Oakland's 426th Civil Support Battalion, where he's still assigned.

Army Reserve Maj. Steven Mac is running to represent California's 34th Congressional District in central Los Angeles. Mac, a veteran of Afghanistan, faces a tough primary field that features 18 other Democrats.
Photo Credit: Courtesy photo via Steven Mac

Mac's experience, as a second-generation immigrant whose parents struggled to make ends meet, is a common story in his neighborhood, he said, where the two biggest demographics are Hispanics at 65 percent and Asians at 19 percent, according to census data.

His ethnicity, however, has proven to be an issue.

"I’m not Hispanic. I’m literally born in this district. I grew up in South L.A. We’re poor families. Same type of experience. My dad is a waiter," he said. "But every time we talk to somebody, it’s, 'You’re not Hispanic. Can you represent the whole district?' "

Thirteen of Mac's 18 Democratic opponents are Hispanic, according to Ballotpedia, but Mac argues that his national security experience and Army leadership skills make him better prepared to legislate at a national level.

"Great, you’re a Democrat in California. Good job being a leader here," he said. "When you go to Congress, it’s an adversarial system. You’re trying to convince people who are from different parts of the country than you. Having served with people from all over the country, and being from where I am, there is a lot of common ground."

"I'm not a politician"

If he makes it to Capitol Hill, Mac said, he's got several items on his to-do list.

First up is health care reform.

"There’s no doubt that what the administration did for the last eight years is going to change," he said. "The goal posts have changed. We all realize it’s important for Americans to have health coverage."

To stoke competition, he said, Congress should look at changing health insurance market borders.

"I use Tricare as an example because Tricare is what I’m on," he said of the regionally organized military health care system. "Making the borders of California the market is just artificial. Why do we have that than just making the whole West Coast a market?"

He also believes he has a better grasp of national defense than his opponents.

"If we’re going to go somewhere, one, we have to go for the right reasons. Two, we have to go with the right resources," he said. "That’s the lesson we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of surging in the middle, why don’t we surge in the beginning?"

And as President Donald Trump's immigration policies roll out in immigrant-heavy Los Angeles, he said, he is at ground zero.

"What’s happening right now in terms of what we’re dealing with with the ban, or how the ban is being implemented — also how we’re expanding deportation in LA — it’s destabilizing our communities," he said. "Everyone’s scared."

He compared the feeling to the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s.

"I lived in the neighborhoods where the riots happened. Fear changes a whole community," he said. "I’m a prosecutor. I’m all about holding people accountable. I’m all about the law, but that’s different from justice. Justice is something we need to see the big picture on."

His opponents are advocating to keep Los Angeles as a sanctuary city, but that is only a short-term solution, he said. Paths to citizenship are needed, he added, perhaps through military service.

If he doesn't win, he said, he'll continue to serve in the Army and in the district attorney's office, rather than wait his turn in L.A. politics.

"There’s people telling me to run for city council next," he said. "That’s not my skill set — I’m not a politician. I’m not here to get the next thing."