Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA) recently sat down with DSA Executive Vice President Adolfo Franco to talk about his career and the principles that motivate him. Representative Cardenas is a member of the Direct Selling Caucus, and his previous experiences as a small-business owner and their impact on his policy views will be of special interest to DSA members.
Rep. Cardenas is the son of immigrant laborers who raised their eleven children to work hard and aspire to lives beyond the modest circumstances of their childhood. He reveres their example of hard work, captured in a photograph displayed in his Capitol Hill office. His father and grandfather are holding sacks of potatoes they had harvested. They are smiling for the camera.
“You know that is backbreaking work,” Rep. Cardenas observed. His father had a first grade education and his grandfather, no education at all. “I have my chair face that photograph so that I have to look at it and think, ‘who am I to complain.’”
Rep. Cardenas recalls how his parents tirelessly encouraged and supported their children. The Congressman has an engineering degree, so do two of his brothers, and his sisters have degrees. “We were able to live the American Dream. For me to be a Congressman — I pinch myself sometimes and ask is this really happening to me.”
Before he ran for office, Rep. Cardenas ran a successful real estate firm. That experience helped him tremendously, he recounts. “Most Americans don’t know what it’s like to be on both sides of a pay stub. Being your own boss, you toughen up and realize you have to depend on yourself and make it happen. When you own a business like I did — and like direct sellers do — the buck stops with you.”
Rep. Cardenas’ background distinguishes him from many of his colleagues. “At every level of elected office, nine out of ten of those I serve with have never been a proprietor,” he pointed out. While he acknowledges there have been times when he’s been tempted to return to business, he has persevered because, he says, he’s one of the few members of Congress who “knows what it’s like to be a person who creates jobs, who actually helps create the economy.”
Rep. Cardenas described how his parents instilled in him the value of it not always being about how much you get paid for the job you do, but how much pride you have in doing it. He attributes that same value to direct sellers today.
“To me, direct sellers are the spearhead… of what it means to live the American Dream; people who say, ‘I’m going to chart my own course. I’m going to go without if I have to. And then… look on the other side and say, I’m actually making this. I built my little company. I employ people. I provide.”
Drawing from that appreciation for direct sellers, Rep. Cardenas spoke about the challenges confronting them and the negative impact government policies can unwittingly have on them.
“Support for direct selling and independent contractors is bipartisan. Every congressional member has thousands of individuals in their district who are part of the direct selling community. That means that every one of us has constituents who speak up when Congress doesn’t get it right, when we’re overbearing to a community or the business environment. They speak up because they feel it immediately.
“The average American deals with taxes at the end of the year, but when you’re a business you’re dealing with taxes at the county, city, state, and federal level all year long. Too many of my colleagues wonder what’s wrong with a half-percent [tax increase] when it comes to the overall gross sales of an industry. Well, half a percent [might be] the entire profit of that particular business model. To say we’re just going to tax people by a half a percent — we could wipe out an entire industry.”
His affinity for direct sellers who, like he once was, are independent contractors, Rep. Cardenas expressed appreciation for the role played by DSA in representing their interests before the federal government. “You remind us that you can’t paint communities with a broad brush. You can’t regulate with a one-size-fits-all approach. The independent contractor is the epitome of the American Dream, and I’m going to keep working as hard as it takes to get the job done.”
Rep. Cardenas spoke about his efforts to mentor fellow Latinos, with one of his most important accomplishments being to inspire other Latinos to be leaders of their community, whether at the local level or all the way to Congress. “I became the first person of color — the first Latino — to represent the San Fernando Valley,” he recalls. “I’m representing people who otherwise wouldn’t identify with their representatives. My parents would never have thought of talking to an elected official. My staff and I are actively out in the community making sure people understand I’m their servant.”
Rep. Cardenas closed by evoking the American Dream that he and his family live, and that is the aspiration of all Americans. “Every family wants to have the means to keep a roof over their head, buy food, raise their children, and see the next generation do better.”