How Rep. Sean Casten went from ‘Licensed to Ill’ to climate policy pragmatist

‘The second concert I went to was the Beastie Boys,’ says Illinois Democrat

Democrats tend to understand environmental science, Republicans tend to understand the energy system — and the gap is a problem, says Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats tend to understand environmental science, Republicans tend to understand the energy system — and the gap is a problem, says Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 2, 2022 at 6:30am

Sean Casten once gave a speech on the House floor riffing on Fergie’s “Fergalicious,” with the goal of getting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to embrace renewables quicker

But long before he was making dad jokes, the Illinois Democrat could claim some street cred. Look close enough and you can spot him in a Beastie Boys video, at a show opened by then-unknown rap group Public Enemy. 

Casten’s love of rap and the issue he is best known for — climate change — help explain how he evolved from a Republican-leaning businessman to a pragmatic, if outspoken, liberal politician. We sat down with Mr. FERCalicious in December to talk about music, cutting deals on climate change and the redistricting that pits him in a primary battle against Marie Newman

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’re a big rap fan. I’ve heard you were so angry at Tipper Gore for her censorship push that you voted for Bush in ’92 and Dole in ’96. Is that true, and what’s your favorite rap album?

A: The first concert I went to was Billy Joel. The second concert I went to was the Beastie Boys on their “Licensed to Ill” tour, when they were just blowing up. Ad-Rock came on and said, “We’re gonna play ‘Rhymin & Stealin’ five times because we need a lot of B-roll for a video.” It was a little club in New Jersey, and when I was a kid, I could find myself in the video.

The opening act for them was Murphy’s Law, the hardcore thrash band — they did an awesome version of “Steppin’ Stone” — and the other opening act nobody had heard of. We came home and told all our friends, “You gotta follow this band.” It was Public Enemy. That would have been before “Fight the Power,” really early on.

I grew up in that era when rap was transitioning from the sort of braggy Run-DMC rap into the Big Daddy Kane and Rakim and more socially conscious rap. And then N.W.A. came out, and parental guidance stuff started being slapped on records. Not trusting people to make judgments about what sorts of art they can listen to — that sounds like a very Republican idea now. 

My views haven’t really changed at all since the ’80s, but the parties have changed. I’ve done town halls where I said, “The day America stops welcoming immigrants to our shores is the day America stops being American.” Half the room started booing at me and then I said, “That was Ronald Reagan.” 

I care about climate, and I actually thought the Republicans in the Reagan and first Bush White House did some of the best climate policies ever — the Montreal Protocol, the [1990] amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Q: Your father, Tom Casten, is pretty well-known in the renewable energy world. Is Congress a way of not following in his footsteps?

A: It’s a fair question, but that really has nothing to do with it. My dad was president of his student body class in college, and his mom and aunt used to call him “governor” because they were convinced he was going to be a political figure someday.

I thought I was going to get into biofuels, because he’d done the heat and power thing, so I did my master’s thesis on trying to make cellulosic biomass. 

Fast forward, and I ended up spending a while in the heat and power space [with my dad]. We ultimately sold [RED, our company], and along the way I came to appreciate lessons I hope no one ever has to learn. You do business with folks where there’s a standard of what’s ethical, there’s a lower standard of what’s legal, and then there’s an even lower standard of what’s cost effectively prosecutable. And in the course of going through the transaction to sell, I ended up spending way too much time with people who lived in that nether zone between the bottom two. 

Being passionate about climate change and having 20 years of experience in how the energy system works, I was completely petrified at the prospect of Donald Trump — because he wasn’t willing to advocate for things that are scientifically indisputable, but also because I recognized in his personality those people I’d been dealing with.

Q: Climate change is obviously your No. 1 issue. But you catch a lot of flak from the left because you oppose things like the Green New Deal or a ban on fracking. 

A: We know without any ambiguity that we have already emitted too much CO2 into the atmosphere, that getting to zero CO2 by 2030 or 2050 is already too late. We need to get back to where the atmospheric CO2 levels were when I was getting out of college — you know, Bill McKibben, 350 parts per million. The question becomes, how do we get there, when our absolute highest priority has to be that goal?

If you come to me and say, “I’m willing to reduce the risk of climate change, but only if XYZ,” I’m probably not going to be totally receptive. “We’ll only address this if we also address other societal issues” — like, no, we’ve got to address climate change first and foremost. At the same time, because climate change has become so politicized, the folks who really understand the energy system tend to be Republicans, and the folks who really understand environmental science tend to be Democrats. And there’s a gap in talking to each other. 

The framing in Washington is, “Well, we know addressing CO2 is going to cost money, so let’s make sure the pain of this transition isn’t unduly borne by historically marginalized communities.” The framing is wrong. Because the minute you have access to solar energy is the minute you stop paying for electricity. The minute you have an electric vehicle is the minute you stop paying for gasoline. Right? 

We do have an allocation of the gain problem. But a lot of the policies that have come out of only one side of our political environment are blind — either to the environmental urgency or to the economic realities. 

Q: You won in 2018 as part of the blue wave, beating a sixth-term GOP incumbent. But unlike a bunch of your colleagues, you also had a pretty solid win in 2020, by 7 points. What did you do right?

A: Sometimes as Democrats we get caught up in saying, “Well, where’s the public on critical race theory? If they’re nervous, we have to be sensitive around it.” I don’t have any problem leaning in and saying, “Look, I was a molecular biology major, and every year I had to buy new textbooks because they kept adapting it with new science. We learn new things in history too.” 

Tom Malinowski, Katie Porter and I were the first three frontliners to come out publicly in favor of starting an impeachment inquiry [in 2019], and every single person told me it was politically stupid. But I announced I was going to do a town hall and explain to people where I had gotten the view. When it was done, I got a five minute standing ovation.

People will respect you if you have a strongly held set of moral convictions, even if they disagree. That’s the Casten theory of political survival. I don’t know if that’s why I won, but it’s how I sleep with myself at night.  

Q: You have new maps in Illinois this year, so I want to ask you the same question I asked Marie Newman: What did you do to piss off Democrats in Springfield that they’re pitting you guys against each other?

A: Well, I’ve got no problem with anybody in Springfield. I go from a purple district Biden won, to a purple district Biden won. It fits my personality pretty well to be representing a purple district. But putting Marie into Chuy García’s district — why Springfield decided to do that is a question for the folks in Springfield. It put her in a position where she didn’t have a lot of good choices. But I don’t feel like I was mistreated at all.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “The Upswing” by Robert Putnam. 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? The only reason to be in this job is to do the right thing. You gotta figure out a way to get it done.

Least popular opinion? I’m going to get in a lot of trouble. The single best pizza in the world is made in New York. It’s the only thing I agree with Antonin Scalia on. He said Chicago pizza is not pizza, it’s tomato pie.

If you could do any other job, what would it be? The piano player in the E Street Band.

Closest friend across the aisle? I don’t know if he would say the same, but I really enjoy Andy Barr.