Born and raised in Riverside, Mark Takano’s commitment to public service began at an early age. His family roots in Riverside go back to his grandparents who, along with his parents, were removed from their respective homes and sent to Japanese American Internment camps during World War II. After the war, these two families settled in Riverside County to rebuild their lives.
Mark attended La Sierra High School in the Alvord Unified School District, and in 1979 he graduated as the school’s valedictorian. Mark attended Harvard College and received his bachelor’s degree in Government in 1983. As a student, he bussed tables to help make ends meet. During his senior year, he organized a transcontinental bicycle ride to benefit the international development agency Oxfam America.
Upon graduation, Mark returned home to Riverside and began teaching in the Rialto Unified School District in 1988. As a classroom teacher, Mark confronted the challenges in our public education system daily.
In 1990, Mark was elected to the Riverside Community College District’s Board of Trustees. At RCC, Mark worked with Republicans and Democrats to improve higher education for young people and job training opportunities for adults seeking to learn a new skill or start a new career. He was elected Board President in 1991 and helped the Board and the District gain stability and direction amid serious fiscal challenges.
In 2012, Mark became the first openly gay person of color to be elected to Congress.
Mark represents the people of Riverside, Moreno Valley, Jurupa Valley and Perris in the United States House of Representatives. He serves as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and as a member of the Education and Labor Committee.
1. Tell us about your role Representing California’s 41st?
I am the first Member of Congress to represent Riverside to have actually been born in Riverside. Not only is it an honor to represent my hometown, but also my constituents are the neighbors, friends, and colleagues I’ve known all my life. I see it as my responsibility to bring the CA-41 values of hark work and love of community to Washington, while making decisions and creating policy to make the district an even better place for future generations.
2. As Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, how have you been inspired by the people you serve?
My inspiration began with people like my Great Uncle Monso, who 75 years ago this past April, died in combat as a member of the 442nd Infantry Battalion. I continue to be inspired by today’s veterans and servicemembers like Charles Seitz, a constituent and retired member of the Coast Guard who recently passed away. I met Charles when he contacted my office to share the story of a gentleman who saved his life while in Vietnam named Richard Gilliam. Due to health complications, Charles wasn’t able to travel to Washington to see Richard’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so I went myself to take an etching of his name and deliver it to Charles. It’s these moments and these stories that inspire me.
I also look forward to celebrating the 75th anniversary of President Truman’s executive order ending segregation of the armed forces. In the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I’ve made it a priority that VA prepares itself for the growing diversity of the veteran population in terms of race, gender, and LGBTQ+ status.
3. Has your experience as a public school teacher affected the way you work as a Member of Congress?
As a teacher in the Rialto Unified School District, I was keenly affected by decisions Congress made with regard to high testing and federal education mandates that had unintended consequences on teaching and learning. I also saw first-hand the harmful impact of predatory for-profit colleges on my own students. Now, in Congress, I am able to bring the sensitivity of a public school teacher who wants to ensure that all students have an opportunity to pursue the American dream.
4. How have you (and your team) adapted your work surrounding the pandemic?
I was among the first few Members of Congress and the first Committee Chairman to direct that my personal office business and committee staff business be done largely through telework. When I’m in Washington, DC, I may only have one staff member present in the office, and in my district office, all work is done remotely. The Veterans’ Affairs Committee was the first to ever hold a live, entirely virtual and bipartisan forum.
I’m thankful to have received a Democracy Award from the Congressional Management Foundation for innovation and modernization. Now more than ever, it’s necessary for offices to utilize new technology in order to effectively serve constituents.
5. Message to young folks who are interested in getting involved in public service.
It’s very important for young Asian Americans to step up in the world of politics and government service. If you are a young person interested in such a career, it’s important that you gain experience by working on campaigns, interning in local, state, and federal offices, and applying for fellowships in which you can deepen your understanding and experience. Public service is a privilege that affords tremendous opportunities for those who choose to pursue a career in this field. We need young people to bring new ideas and fresh energy to public service.
6. How has your identity played a role in work that you do?
It’s important to understand your past to help find direction for the future. For example, Japanese American internment during WWII occurred 80 years ago at a time when there were no Asian Americans in Congress or in positions of influence within federal, state, and local governments. For most of our nation’s existence, Asian immigrants had no pathway to becoming naturalized citizens and were prohibited from owning land for more than half of the 20th century. Reflecting briefly on this history brings one to the realization that representation matters. Of course, there’s much more to say about the intersection of my LGBTQ and Asian identities together, but it really does make a difference having a diverse Congress.
7. What are the biggest challenges Veterans are facing?
In recent years, the rate of veteran suicide has largely increased. The Veterans’ Affairs Committee has spent the past two years seriously evaluating veteran suicide and prevention in order to support our veterans and provide them with access to mental health services. In the next Congress I also expect to take on protecting the integrity of the GI bill through closing the 90/10 loophole and building broader public support for addressing the issue of toxic exposures of our servicemembers in a comprehensive manner.
8. Favorite Taco joint?
Right now, I’m thinking of a taco joint known for its $1 Sunday special on their shredded beef tacos, but I’m lucky that almost every day of the week in my district is a taco night.
9. What were some of the barriers you faced in running for public office?
As the first openly gay person of color elected to Congress, I have been a witness to progress. During my second campaign for Congress in 1994, I was outed by a right-wing state senator who said he didn’t want a homosexual representing him in Congress before a meeting of conservative clergy. 18 years later, I won my seat in congress on my third attempt. Back then, my district was not as progressive as it is today, but a fairly drawn Congressional district because of California’s Independent Redistricting Commission was a plus, and the fact that our national attitudes on LGBTQ people had changed also helped.
10. As more AAPIs become civically involved, where would you say is the best place to start?
Young AAPIs need to reflect on their skill sets, the needs of their community, how they will make their livelihood, the partner and friends they want in your life, and then sit down and make a plan. It’s also important to get involved in campaigns, volunteer with local groups, and attend public meetings or forums to develop a sense of the issues and topics you’re passionate about and want to pursue further.
11. What do you like to do in your down time?
I like to read, tend to my garden, cook, and get in touch with family and friends. One of my favorite activities is when my family comes together each year to make a giant batch of our famous Takano Teriyaki.
12. What has been your most memorable moment on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee?
There are so many, but beyond passing significant suicide prevention legislation, I would say participating in Speaker Pelosi’s Congressional delegation trip to observe the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, and then leading my own Congressional delegation to the South Pacific and Afghanistan.
13. What are the most critical changes that we must make to face the future effectively?
We need to get serious about listening to scientists on the pandemic and on global climate change, and strengthening Congress’s ability to consume scientific expertise. We need to address income inequality and restore faith in government institutions.