Edgy Interview: TJ Zane
TJ Zane is one of those guys who has accomplished a lot in a relatively short amount of time. Working backwards, he’s currently serving his second term on the Poway Unified School District Board. As you’ll read, it’s a position that TJ is passionate about and he’s been very active while on the Board. Before that, he served as the president of the highly influential Lincoln Club, getting the Club involved in many winning efforts during his tenure. One of those was the 2012 pension reform campaign — which TJ branded as the fight for comprehensive pension reform (CPR for San Diego, get it?). It was while he was Lincoln Club president that TJ earned a reputation for developing and employing innovative campaign tactics like maximizing the effectiveness of slate mailers. He also launched a Club project to deeply understand the electoral motivations of independent voters and the factors that are vote determinative for them. Prior to that TJ led the campaign to retain Mt. Soledad as a war memorial overlooking La Jolla. He’s done a lot more stuff, so check out this interview.
Who would you want to have play you in your biopic?
My mom used to call me her “Little Robert Redford” when I was a kid, but I’d be hard-pressed to choose between Steve Carell, Will Farrell or Brad Pitt… if forced, however, obviously I’d have to choose Brad Pitt because he’s the only one who looks even remotely like me.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An astronaut. I was crushed by the Challenger disaster. By the time I was a senior in high school, I wanted to be a United States Senator. But now I’m a Republican living in California, so there’s that.
If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic?
Taking liberties with this question and naming someone who was perhaps one of the most influential Founding Fathers in the shaping of America as we know it but who never was President: Benjamin Franklin. A truly fascinating historical polymath, Franklin was an inventor, author, entrepreneur, scientist, political theorist, humorist, printer, postmaster, statesman, Freemason, civic activist, diplomat, and founder of “America’s First University” (the University of Pennsylvania… to which I’m a bit devoted.) There are just too many topics to list about which I’d enjoy chatting with Ben, but who wouldn’t want to have a beer with the first guy to make the Dad bod such a coveted status symbol?
If you could repeal one law, which would it be and why?
The Current Tax Payment Act of 1943 that re-introduced the requirement to withhold income tax in the United States. I believe if all wage earners had to literally write a check to the government monthly, quarterly, or annually for their “fair share” of taxes, there’d be another Boston Tea Party and government spending would quickly be reined in.
Which accomplishment as an elected official are you proudest of?
I think I’m proudest of my leadership in the areas of student wellness and campus safety – a platform on which I first campaigned in 2014 – and the efforts to make many positive improvements throughout Poway Unified School District. The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that happened on February 18, 2018, really was a turning point that quickly galvanized the district and the community around the importance of prioritizing student safety. As board president at the time, I requested the superintendent organize a community forum to listen to parents’ concerns and for the district to share what it was already doing, and planning to do, to ensure our children’s safety; worked with Poway Mayor Steve Vaus to launch 844-PUSD-TIP (844-787-3847) for students, parents, teachers and community members to report potential threats to PUSD schools; worked with County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar to secure grant money for the installation of new security cameras throughout the district; and worked with fellow board members to allocate millions of dollars over the next few years to make necessary infrastructure improvements, hire more counselors, and implement new programs. There is still so much more I’d like to accomplish in this area, and I continue to attend as many seminars and conferences regarding campus safety and threat assessment as possible.
What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what are you listening to now?
Classic rock was, and still is, my favorite. One of my favorite groups is Pink Floyd (including the solo work of Roger Waters and David Gilmour), however I really enjoy just about every genre – excepting heavy metal and rap. I love the blues, too. And I’m a sucker for 1940s jazz and big band music by the likes of Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw.
Tell us about your artistic talent(s).
I quit piano after two lessons as a kid. Does whistling count?
First concert you attended and how did it make you feel?
I believe the first concert I ever attended – at least for a few songs – was in high school, and it was the Black Crowes at the iconic Toad’s Place (New Haven, CT). I was nervous… because I used a fake ID to get in. The first concert I remember attending for its entirety was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Into the Great Wide Open” tour in Philadelphia, PA. I’ve been to more U2 concerts than any other group and I’m really bummed I still haven’t gotten to see Paul McCartney and probably never will.
If you were a competitive eater, which food would be your specialty?
Häagen-Dazs coffee-flavored ice cream. I don’t think there is limit to how much of that stuff I could put down. And I seriously resent the downsizing of their single-serve cartons from 16oz to 14oz.
Favorite cuisine and where do you get it?
Probably close to 90% or more of the people in the town in which I grew up were 1st and 2 nd generation Italian, so a clear favorite cuisine of mine from just about anywhere is Italian. It’s my ultimate comfort food, capped off with a quality cannoli and/or some spumoni. And I don’t care who I offend, but the best apizza in America is in New Haven, it’s birthplace… this is not up for debate, capisci?! Also, I’m blessed to have married a Latina-Filipina who is a FANTASTIC cook and knows how to cook – and loves to cook – just about everything; we rarely eat out.
What three things are must-haves in your fridge at all times?
Craft beer (IPA), Tabasco sauce, spring water.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve received and who gave it to you?
“Loyalty above all else.” “Be guided by your ideology, not blinded by it.” “Do your best.” “Never give up.” “Tough times never last, but tough people do.” All from my Dad, but I know he stole the last one from the late Rev. Robert Schuller.
Most people say they got a lucky break at some point. Tell us about yours.
I’d say I’ve had a few, but two stand out. I had just moved to Washington, DC, after graduating college and needed to find my first real job, so I walked to dozens of lobbying/government affairs firms in and around K Street to give them a copy of my resume. Yeah, seriously old school stuff right there, I know. Meanwhile, I had taken an internship at a public relations firm in Alexandria, VA. A couple months later, when I returned home to my studio apartment, the red light was blinking on my answering machine. (again, old school.) It was a message from someone in the Legal Department of the Republican National Committee asking me to come in to interview for a position in their office. I went, interview went well… but later I received a call and was told that the person who then held the job for which I was interviewing had decided to stay on. “However,” I was told… there was a job opening “down the hall” and because I interviewed so well, they were referring me for a position in the Chairman’s office.
Soon after, I was hired as an Assistant to the Chairman… to the Honorable Haley Barbour, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. It wasn’t until after a few months of being on the job that the RNC’s General Counsel, David Norcross, walked by my desk and told me he was responsible for referring me for the job in the Legal Department (that led to my job in the Chairman’s office, and ultimately my career in politics). “But how?” I wondered. Seems I dropped one of my resumes off at his downtown lobbying office months earlier, he saw it, felt I’d be a better fit at the RNC and forwarded my resume along. That, and, he shared, he too went to Penn and “Penn blood is thicker than water.” Lucky break #2 was one really hot August day in 1997 in El Centro, CA, when I met the most beautiful dark-haired, brown-eyed girl I’d ever set eyes upon.
Who shaped your thinking most on politics?
My Dad. He served in the Air Force and later was an industrial electrician at Sargent Manufacturing Company in New Haven. A member of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he had more than a few good stories about the ribbing he’d get for being a Republican. A ‘blue collar’ man, my dad went to work most mornings before my sister, brother and I even woke. My thinking about politics was formed most acutely by him, the 1979 Oil Crisis, and the few years that followed. Many homes in New England, like ours, were heated by an oil-burning furnace located in the basement. When the ’79 oil crisis hit, oil prices went through the roof and my family and many other families were hard-pressed to afford the oil needed to heat the house in the cold of winter. So my dad maxed out a credit card, bought and installed a wood-burning stove/fireplace in the basement, and most every winter day after work would bring home (free) wooden pallets from behind the company warehouse to cut up and burn in the fireplace. I knew he’d gotten home when I’d hear the chainsaw start. That was my queue to put on my jacket and go get wood to carry and stack downstairs next to the fireplace; that’d be the wood used to heat the house overnight.
After carrying and stacking wood, we’d have dinner as a family around the kitchen table, and after dinner we’d retreat to the living room to watch ABC World News with Peter Jennings. (I think ABC was the least left leaning of the major networks for years.) For years I’d listen to my dad complain about Jimmy Carter and Congress (and later praise Ronald Reagan). It was my first exposure to politics, and it was not lost on me how decisions made in “faraway” places like Washington have real, tangible impacts on families across the nation. My Dad also would quote Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative somewhat regularly. I was hooked.
Name a living person you admire. Why do you admire them?
Three people immediately come to mind, and I admire each of them for their trustworthiness, mentorship, sincerity, kindness, unwavering loyalty, generosity, honesty, humor and friendship: Tom Sudberry, Bob Watkins, and Dan Hom.
What would you change about yourself?
I would stop procrastinating so much. And I may. Eventually.