Congressional candidate Justin Kanew with his wife, Nicole and daughter, Kaia/ Photo courtesy of Justin Kanew
By BROOKE WANSER
If you haven’t heard the name Justin Kanew yet, you’re not alone. After moving to College Grove, Tennessee, last summer, the Los Angeles expatriate decided to run for the 7th District congressional seat when Donald Trump was elected president.
Kanew admits he has no political experience, but insists this is a draw, given the current state of political affairs.
The 38-year-old Democrat’s platform includes taking action on major issues like climate change, affordable health care and fighting for equal rights. More than anything, though, he is building a campaign around a message of non-partisanship.
“We need to get back to talking to people who don’t agree with us,” he said.
Kanew and his wife, Nicole, had a daughter in Los Angeles before deciding to move to Tennessee. Kanew acknowledges that his recent move may prove a hindrance to his campaign: “I think one of the biggest things that’s going to be a knock on me is that I haven’t lived here that long. Which is true, I didn’t grow up here,” he said, continuing, “But my baby’s growing up here. She’s going to go to Page Middle and Page High School. This is our home.”
Franklin Home Page: What is pertinent to voters to know about your background?
Justin Kanew: I’m not a politician, I think that’s the most pertinent part of this whole thing. I think we learned from this last election that people are looking for less politicians to go to Washington and more people who are going to put country over party and put people first. I honestly think I wouldn’t be doing this if Donald Trump hadn’t done what he just did. I don’t think people are looking for polished politicians and career politicians. I think they’re looking for someone to represent their interests and tell them the truth. I’m not a politician, I’m a husband and a father, and I’m just somebody who wants to see this country and state heading in a positive direction.
FHP: Since you moved here last summer, what have you been doing for work?
JK: I’m a freelance, independent producer and writer. I’ve sold scripts and have been back and forth to LA. I was working from home a lot anyway, so I didn’t necessarily need to be in LA. When my wife got offered her job in Rutherford County working with kids on the autism spectrum, it just felt like, let’s go serve that and I’ll support her in what she’s doing, and when I need to be back in LA, I’ll be back in LA.
FHP: Why did you move to this area of Tennessee?
JK: We moved to Tennessee because we were looking for a great place to raise our family. And this place is a special place where people care about each other, where there’s a community environment and it’s wholesome and faith-driven. We live out in College Grove; rolling hills, it’s beautiful, there’s cattle everywhere. We wanted to give our baby girl a great place to grow up, that was the most important thing for us. This place fits the bill, and there hasn’t been one second where I regretted that decision.
FHP: What are the most important issues to you in this race, and what values do you hold that inform your platform on those issues?
JK: I think the thing that got me to jump in was the healthcare debate. That is about empathy and taking care of one another. When I saw Marsha Blackburn championing these bills that had a 12 percent approval rating that took healthcare away from tens of millions of people and hurt seniors and veterans and poor people and pregnant women and the most vulnerable people in our county, that just didn’t sit right. That didn’t feel like what a representative was supposed to be doing. That’s what initially got me to jump in.
And then the other part of it is accountability and accessibility. I don’t want to keep rehashing Marsha, she isn’t why I’m doing this, she got me motivated to jump in. But when she stood there in Fairview [at a town hall] and lied to people and said they weren’t from her district, that felt like another thing where integrity matters.
Integrity, accountability, getting people healthcare, these are the big ones. And then, obviously, economic opportunity which touches a lot of different things. It’s about not throwing the book at nonviolent drug offenders and ruining people’s lives early. Doing something about the school to prison pipeline. Bringing jobs here. Rural broadband is another part of the economic opportunity thing. And then equal rights. I’m a big believer in equal rights for all Americans. That’s something that I think gets thrown away in the divisive things that we see happening out there. I’m about representing everybody, no matter who they love or what they look like.
FHP: Can you point to examples in your community of things you want to work on fixing?
JK: The debate we should be having about healthcare is how we cover everybody, not how we take coverage away from tens of millions of people. I think getting rural broadband to everybody in this state, treating it like electricity, is important.
FHP: Can you talk about that [rural broadband] and explain what it is?
JK: So rural broadband is basically just getting high speed internet to the recesses of our whole country. There are a lot of people in this country who don’t have access to fast internet. You go to parts of the state, it’s just not economically viable for some of these companies to put broadband in these places. In a lot of places, there’s a fight against having competition. Big companies don’t want competition because it drives their prices down. So we have a bit of a monopoly issue going on in a lot of the country. Making sure that there’s competition and there’s incentives to get people broadband so that people who don’t necessarily live in these cities can compete.
Rural broadband comes up a lot, and touches another theme which is net neutrality. Which is something that Marsha was against, but it’s about not letting big companies be able to pay to keep small companies from competing by having faster sites. The principle of net neutrality is really important, it’s a principle of democracy to let everybody compete in fairness.
FHP: You grew up in a very elite part of Manhattan, how did you come to your current belief structures?
JK: I was very fortunate in the way I grew up, my parents did well and I did go to good schools and I was lucky enough to do that. But my parents also always taught me that, you can do anything you want but you’re not better than anybody else. That’s something I carry with me every single day. I’m no better than anybody else out here, I’m no more deserving. I’ve always felt that we should be taking care of the people who need it, first and foremost. I think that’s a Christian principle as much as anything else, I think that’s what people here really believe. No matter who they vote for, they really do want to take care of people, they just have different ways of looking at it. The biggest problem right now is that we’re not listening to each other anymore. We’re only talking about our differences and we’re not talking about our similarities. A lot of the issues that I talk about- equal rights, climate change, better wages for workers, health care for everybody- these shouldn’t be partisan issues. It’s not about left versus right, it’s about right versus wrong.
FHP: What do you think you have to do to convince voters in this district-part of which is in Williamson County-to vote for you? What are you doing now and what do you think you you need to do?
JK: A big part of it is getting out there and talking to them. I’ve had people who are really against me at first reach out to me on a website, who I’ll then sit down and talk to. Just talking to them and looking them in the eye and listening to them is a big part. People want to be heard. Right now it’s a pretty conservative district, which I understand, but what’s just happened in the last week in the Republican party, they’ve taken a hard turn to the right. So moderate Republicans like Haslam, our governor, and Bob Corker, they don’t have a place in their own party anymore. Marsha, who is running for Senate, and Mark Green, who was too extreme for Trump, is now running in our district. They’ve sort of told us what they think this state is about and what this country’s about. I don’t think that’s what this state is about. I think this state is closer together than that. What I’m trying to get across is yes, I’m running as a Democrat, but that the “D” stands for decency more than anything else, and that we can find common ground with moderates on both sides. Ultimately, all I’m trying to do is take care of people. My heart is in the right place.
I’m not taking corporate PAC money. It would be easier for me to go knock on the doors of all these big companies and say, you know what, when I get there, I’m your guy, give me some money. I’m not doing that. I’m doing this in a grassroots way. I have zero dollars from any PACs. Eighty-five percent of my donations last quarter [out of $100,000] were $200 or less. Marsha had three percent. I’m not running against Marsha anymore, but it just tells you where the dividing line was.
60 Minutes and The Washington Post just put out a big report on the opioid epidemic. Marsha co-sponsored a bill to make it harder for the DEA to crack down on big pharma and what they were doing to put opioids in the hands of people who didn’t need it. People were dying, and they did it anyway, while she’s taking $150,000 from the pharmaceutical industry to get re-elected. That’s why I’m doing this, that right there. We can’t let that happen.
My message is about talking to each other, taking care of each other and I don’t think that’s a partisan issue. Everybody wants to get back to talking. There are people who will hate me just for that “D” next to my name. But that “D” doesn’t define me any more than an “R” would define somebody sitting in this coffee shop right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
- Kanew was a history major at Northwestern University.
- After college, Kanew moved to Santa Barbara, before working in the film industry in Los Angeles as the vice president of production and development for comedy production company National Lampoon.
- Kanew competed on Season 15 of the Amazing Race with his best friend, Zev Glassenberg, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. They were eliminated after Kanew lost his passport. They later competed in Amazing Race: Unfinished Business in 2011 as fan favorites.
- Kanew’s father is Jeff Kanew, the director of movies such as Revenge of the Nerds and Troop Beverly Hills, among others.
- Kanew’s wife, Nicole, is a behavioral therapist for children with autism and mental health issues in Rutherford County.
For more info about the campaign go to www.KanewForCongress.