It ‘opened my eyes’: Rep. Jim Costa on the summer of ’73

California Democrat was a Hill intern who attended Watergate hearings

Rep. Jim Costa, shown here in 2014, first came to Capitol Hill as an intern in the 1970s. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Jim Costa, shown here in 2014, first came to Capitol Hill as an intern in the 1970s. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 31, 2022 at 6:15am

“That’s pretty, isn’t it?” asks Rep. Jim Costa, pulling up a photo of his almond farm in Fresno with all the trees in bloom. In the age of Zoom, he likes his screen to tell a story.

While the almonds have brought a steady income to his family through the years, that was not always the case. His grandparents on both sides came to America from the Azores Islands as dairy workers. “You never want to forget where you came from,” the California Democrat says. 

That goes not just for his family roots, but also for his early days on Capitol Hill, when he stood in line to get a back row seat at the Watergate hearings as a young intern. Later, he worked for Rep. John Krebs, an immigrant himself who escaped the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“I had incredible mentors,” Costa says. “John was a risk taker. My grandfather was a risk taker. I grew up among a lot of risk takers.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: How did you end up interning on the Hill?

A: My grandparents, on both sides of my family, came from the Azores islands off the coast of Portugal. You had two industries there, fishing and dairy — and my family didn't fish, so we milked cows. 

My sister and I think that if we’ve had any modicum of success, it’s because our mother had dreams and aspirations for her children. She was always interested in current events and felt that as children of immigrants, if you had some success, you’re supposed to be involved in participatory democracy and give back.

I’d always worked on our family’s farm on weekends and during the summer. Between my junior and senior year, my mother said, “How would you like to work in Washington, D.C., this summer?” Because we’re in the dairy business, we knew Joe Branco of the Western Dairymen’s Association, and his nephew worked for Congressman B.F. Sisk. 

His nephew was a person by the name of Tony Coelho, who was working as chief of staff at the time [and later served in the House himself]. 

I said, “Well, that would be cool.” There was a formal application process, and I came to D.C. in the summer of 1973.

Q: What do you still remember from that summer? 

A: I got to see the Watergate hearings in person. There were seats in the back if you got in line early, so I got to see John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman testify live before Sam Ervin and the various senators. It was fascinating.

And I participated when they recruited interns and others from the Hill for White House receptions to greet heads of state. I got to see President Nixon with the shah of Iran and with Prime Minister Tanaka of Japan. I was one of about 800 people out there waving little flags.

I also got to work on casework, help out a little bit on legislation and go to the lecture series at the Library of Congress. That summer of ’73 opened my eyes to how our government works.

Q: Then you went back to California. How did you start working for Krebs?

A: I’d never worked in a campaign before. So I got involved in John Krebs’ campaign for Congress, running against an American athletic hero, Bob Mathias, who won the decathlon at the Olympics in 1948 and 1952. 

Bob was very well liked, of course. He was in office for eight years until John beat him. And John was one of two Jewish Americans elected to Congress west of the Mississippi that year. It was him and Henry Waxman in 1974, they were part of that Watergate class. 

Waxman was expected to be elected, but John Krebs was not. John had an interesting story, another immigrant. His parents were Jews from Berlin and were fortunate to get out in the early 1930s and go to Palestine as part of the British protectorate.

I became just a campaign gofer — you know, go for this, go for that. I worked my way to one of the full-time paid staff, and when John got elected, I wanted to come back to Washington, and he gave me an opportunity.

Q: Krebs famously took on the Walt Disney Company. He fought to keep them out of the Mineral King Valley. Did you work with him on that?

A: Yes, I did. And it was hard. John [risked] his support from labor to make that wilderness area a reality. The Disney company had worked very closely with labor to try to build this state-of-the-art international ski resort up at Mineral King, and labor never forgot and in some cases never forgave John. They opposed him in his third run for reelection, and that may have been one of the factors why in 1978, when I was being elected to the State Assembly, he was losing his congressional seat.

I had the honor as a member of Congress to dedicate Mineral King as the John Krebs Wilderness Area, and we had a ceremony up there for John.

Costa poses with John Krebs in 2009 at the dedication of the John Krebs Wilderness Area near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. He played a major role in having the area named after his former boss. (Courtesy Hannah Krebs)

Q: Did you and Krebs ever talk about his immigration story?

A: He was in the Haganah [as a teenager in British-mandated Palestine]. John used to tell me they had these bandit stations — in other words, unlicensed radio stations to inform the Jewish communities about protests and how to mobilize against the British. His job was to be a lookout, so they would put up a little radio tower on high ground, and then John would be out there looking for British patrols. His parents felt if he stayed any longer he was going to get into real trouble. 

He went to Berkeley as a zoology major, and ended up getting his law degree. But John was a risk taker. My grandfather was a risk taker. I grew up among a lot of risk takers. 

When my grandfather said goodbye to his mother and his father in the village, he didn't tell him that he was getting on a boat to go to America. He didn’t look at or embrace his mother, because he felt if he did, he would give it away.

If you look at our history, so much of our success in this country has been because of people willing to take great risks. I’m very fortunate to represent the San Joaquin Valley, where immigrants have been coming for generations. 

The American story is the story of immigrants, past and present. It’s kind of the secret sauce of America, this accumulation of immigrants.