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Exclusive Interview: Political newcomer Walter Berbrick is running for Congress
"I fundamentally believe climate change is an existential threat to our economy, our environment, our national security, and the future of our planet..."
I'll be interviewing as many candidates as I can ahead of the special election to fill the House seat vacated by David Cicilline. My first interview is with political newcomer Walter Berbrick, who may have the most extensive foreign policy experience of any announced candidate. [If another candidate wants to contest me on that we can discuss it in another interview.] Berbrick is a father and Navy veteran who has spent the last 15 years as an educator and researcher at the United States Naval War College in Newport.
We conducted the interview in person outside Custom House Coffee in Middletown.
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Steve Ahlquist: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. First question - Why you and why this job?
Walter Berbrick: Well, running for Congress wasn't in the plans for me, that's for sure. But I have friends, leaders in Washington [and] here in Rhode Island encouraging me, saying "Hey, you really need to think about running for Congress." So, I did. I was like, all right, let me do some homework. So I spent the next two weeks speaking to as many people as I could, in confidence, to get an understanding of what the requirements are, what the process is, and what the timeline is, asking, "Is there a path for someone like me?" And the more people I spoke with, the more I realized people are hungry for change and hungry for someone different. Then I thought, "It's time to have a serious conversation with my wife and my family." If I could get them on board and if they're supportive, and if I could get a great team together - then I'll do it.
And honestly, if this makes sense, it was one of the hardest decisions, but also one of the easiest decisions. It was hard, because I'm at the pinnacle of my career - 15 years in federal service - lots of stability for the family. But at the same time, it was one of the easiest because of the problems that we're facing as a country. The opportunity to serve the American people and the people of Rhode Island doesn't come around often. So as a father, as a husband, as a educator, as a veteran, I am constantly thinking about the world that I'm going to leave my children, the world we're all going to leave our children. Are they going to grow up in communities where the cost of living or the fear of living outweighs the joy of living? Are they going to grow up in a country torn apart by political divisiveness?
When folks were encouraging me initially, they said the country is just so divided and so polarized. I'm not a politician, and I hate politics because of how polarizing and how divisive our politics are today. It doesn't have to be like that. It shouldn't be like that. Our kids are going to grow up in a world that's constantly under threat from climate change, constantly underwater. So for me, it's answering the call to service. I feel I have an obligation to step up and answer the call and to make sure that our kids and our grandkids answer those questions with a resounding "No."
Steve Ahlquist: You spoke about polarization. What does confronting that look like?
Walter Berbrick: For me, it gets back to the basics. It gets back to my upbringing. I grew up washing dishes and waiting tables in my family's restaurant, a restaurant founded by my grandfather and opened in a racially divided neighborhood. My grandfather, on the day after Pearl Harbor, signed up for the Navy, joined as a cook, sailed throughout the Pacific. As a cook, you're in the kitchen and you're dealing with everyone, Blacks, whites, everyone. Back then, in the forties, the military was very segregated in terms of job professions. But growing my grandfather had a passion for people and a passion for cooking, and he wanted to bring that passion with him to his communities.
He opened his restaurant as a way to bridge the divide between Black and white neighborhoods. I grew up in that environment, with the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to have a seat at the table and should have an opportunity to share their story. Working, washing dishes, and waiting tables instilled the value of hard work and community and service in me. Values I have carried with me in a lifelong commitment to public service. It's the reason why, after 911, I enlisted in the Navy to focus on Intelligence.
I always wanted to do intelligence, but they didn't have intelligence billets open at the time so I became an operations specialist, working on shipboard communications, and then cross rated to the intelligence field. That's what took me to Newport almost 20 years ago, without any political connections, without much money. I came here as an enlisted sailor living on base, not making much money. I moonlighted as a bartender in the evenings and on weekends, basically a second full-time job, while going to school at Salve, earning my Masters in International Relations. That's where I met my wife, who was also working in downtown Newport. The service industry instills dedication, commitment, and hard work. From there, in 2009, I became a civil servant, joined the Naval War College as a professor and I've been doing that for the last 15 years.
Teaching has been one of the greatest honors because I have the opportunity to make such a big impact. Which is why leaving to run for Congress was one of the hardest decisions. To be able to mold the minds and educate our nation's leaders, being able to brief members of congress, brief senior leaders across our government, civilian and military - I was actually able to inform them.
I split my time between the classified war games that I led, and my work on climate change. In both cases it's about bringing leaders together to reach common ground, reach consensus, and deliver real results and practical solutions to solve real world problems - knowing that everyone is not going to always get what they want. But if we can agree to disagree, if we come to consensus and have the same vision moving forward, there's no problem we can't solve.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me ask about climate change, because that's the focus of the book you wrote that I'm reading. We have two basic, but giant things to do. There's mitigating the worst effects of climate change, and there's preventing the worst effects of climate change. How do you navigate that, because in your job at the War College, I'm sure you have to talk about both.
Walter Berbrick: That's a great question. First of all, I fundamentally believe climate change is an existential threat to our economy, our environment, our national security, and the future of our planet. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with folks across our district that share that belief. It's truly astounding. I would have never imagined it. And I've seen the the impacts of climate change firsthand in my travels across the world - across the arctic, across Alaska, and right here at home in Rhode Island. It's not some far off, distant threat. It's happening right now, right here at home. Just look at the flooding in Newport, how our beaches are getting taken back, the wildfires last month.
So the time to act right is today, but it was also 20 years ago, right? That's the thing: Whether it's rising division, rising costs, rising seas - It was so hard for me to sit and watch our political leaders undermine the very freedoms, values, and democracy that I've spent my lifetime defending - and climate change is is no different. It relies on all of us, all Americans, to do our part. We've got to stand up. We've got to make our voice heard, and we've got to hold our elected leaders accountable at every level of government.
It's a two-prong approach. Quite often our government is focused on response, but that's one of our biggest issues. We need to focus our effort on prevention. Being a leader in Congress and being a representative of the people, you've got to understand the urgency of the problem, and you've got to have the vision and courage to do something about it. You've got to have real ideas.
One of the things I plan to do, and I'll work tirelessly, is to pass legislation to make smart investments in clean energy, and build and bring clean energy jobs to to Rhode Island to significantly reduce pollution in all forms and promote laws and policies that enhance sustainable fisheries and tourism, because that's such a critical piece of our economy here.
Steve Ahlquist: The blue economy.
Walter Berbrick: Yes. The blue economy here in Rhode Island is critical. And we can be doing more. It can have more of an impact. It's that balance of prevention and response - we do a fairly good job as a government responding to events. But it's a lot cheaper to prevent things than it is to respond. The same thing goes with warfare.
Steve Ahlquist: I think responding just looks better. It's dramatic. Having fire jumpers parachuting into forest fires looks cool, but careful forest curation doesn't have the same impact visually.
Walter Berbrick: I've spent the last eight years as a Red Crosser. When I was younger I went through Hurricane Andrew in 1992. My family spent a year and a half, almost two years, living in front of our house in a 20-foot trailer. We didn't open our small business for another year. I was going to school from whatever it was, like 2pm to 8pm because we had different shifts. I mention all this because it was a very traumatic experience. When we stepped out of our home, the entire neighborhood was gone, our house was gone and the first thing I see is the National Guard and a Red Crosser. That inspired me. It was one of the things that inspired me to service. Serving in the Red Cross has been one of the greatest ways that I've had the opportunity to serve, especially our communities here in Rhode Island.
Recently, I was asked to lead the vaccination support efforts on behalf of Red Cross for your entire state. The vaccination effort was about developing a relationship with nonprofits and with local and state government so that we can recruit volunteers and have these vaccination sites. And we did that in three primary areas - Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls.
Steve Ahlquist: We've talked about military responses to climate change. But the American military is also one of the giant biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the world, by far. How do we parse that? How do we decarbonize the military, or should we?
Walter Berbrick: First, there is no greater priority than the safety and security of the American people. As a former naval intelligence officer, as someone who spent the last two decades focusing on ways to prevent and, if necessary, win our nation's wars, I will be laser focused in Congress to make sure that we have a smart, sustainable, and strong national security and defense force. What does that mean? That means being stewards of taxpayer dollars, but it also means thinking through the responsibility of our defense forces in providing for a cleaner, greener world.
There have been a number of efforts over the years, and more recently within the Navy and the Department of Defense, to make our installations more efficient and to make our platforms and weapon systems more efficient, so they're emitting less black carbon into the atmosphere. It's something I will strongly push forward in Congress. We have a responsibility, as the leader of the free world, to not only defend democracy and preserve peace, but to do that in a smart, efficient, and clean way.
Steve Ahlquist: Is the military budget too high? Would we be 20% less safe if the military budget was $800 billion?
Walter Berbrick: It's hard to say whether it's too high. It's hard to quantify. It's high compared to other ways that we spend our federal dollars. But the fact of the matter is that across the globe democracy is under attack. It's attacked by authoritarian government like China and Russia. We're seeing it play out firsthand right now in Ukraine. On land, in the air, at sea, in cyberspace, and space, we're attacked politically, militarily, economically, and socially. It takes money and resources to make sure you have the people, the platforms, and the partnerships in place so that you can preserve peace and deter conflict.
It's not cheap, but as I mentioned before, it's a lot cheaper to prevent wars than it is to try to fight and win them. The biggest expense is our blood and national treasure. Our people have put their lives on the line and some lose their lives. We, as a country, can do a better job in preventing and deterring. That's something to be mindful of. But we can also do a better job prioritizing, and that means making tough decisions about what we buy and what we don't buy, what we invest in and what we don't invest in.
In Rhode Island our defense sector contributes a little over 10% of the earned income for Rhode Islanders. I mentioned deterrent. Our undersea warfare capabilities are a big reason why we are as strong and as capable as we are and Rhode Island makes a big contribution to that effort. And I expect that to grow in the years ahead with the challenges we face from China, Russia, and other countries.
Steve Ahlquist: Switching to energy policy, the Navy seems pretty gung ho about nuclear power. How would you feel about nuclear power in general? We talked about renewables, is nuclear on the table?
Walter Berbrick: We have to transition to a clean energy economy. Solar, wind and in some cases, where it makes the most sense, nuclear. It's safe, it's clean, and you're not relying on fossil fuels.
Steve Ahlquist: I want to talk about Ukraine a little bit. It feels like the the wrong move there means nuclear war war.
Walter Berbrick: 100%.
That is one of the biggest reasons we need the right leader in Congress. All I've been doing over the last couple of years is helping our leaders in the Navy, and our combat commanders, think through this problem set. As the leader of the free world, we have a responsibility and obligation to defend democracy and preserve peace. Throughout my career, I've witnessed firsthand the incredible impact of leaders in and out of uniform. Each generation has the obligation to answer the call to service. It's our time now. We have an obligation to help the people of Ukraine defend theselves from Russian aggression in an illegal war - a war Putin has launched to bring Ukraine back into the Soviet era orbit. I believe we have an obligation to support the people of Ukraine financially, politically, militarily - whatever it takes. But, to your point, it's a fine line because one wrong move could lead to war...
Steve Ahlquist: ...to nuclear war.
Walter Berbrick: The chances of vertical and horizontal escalation are very real. It's something our senior civilian and military leaders are very mindful of and work at trying to mitigate every day. And it's something I've had the privilege of being a close part of over the last 15 years.
Steve Ahlquist: Do you think our actions regarding Ukraine serve as a lesson to China when it comes to Taiwan?
Walter Berbrick: Absolutely. 100%. It shows that we have the political will to step up and help people in Ukraine, but also that we have the ability to rally our allies and partners around this problem set. China is watching carefully what we're doing and the actions that we take, or don't take, signal to them our potential future intentions.
Steve Ahlquist: I don't want to go country by country here, so just one more: Israel. Talk to me about our policy as to Israel, especially when we see the right wing extremism in their government right now. What is the moral move here?
Walter Berbrick: For anything, whether it's overseas or right here at home, it's about putting people first. I'm 100% committed to promoting a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to Israel and Palestine. I strongly support a two-state solution, a two-state solution that ensures that the people of Israel have their democracy preserved, and their territorial integrity is preserved, but also gives the Pestinians who live there their own state.
Steve Ahlquist: Let's talk about guns.
Walter Berbrick: Let's talk about guns. You're actually getting me fired up right now because gun violence is a national crisis and Congress must take action, now. They should have taken action 10, 15, 20 years ago, Columbine on. As someone who has lost very close friends to senseless acts of gun violence at a very early age, as a father who has two school-aged children, I constantly think about whether or not my kids are going to come home safe. And gun violence is the leading cause of death for kids in America. It's ridiculous.
Being a leader in Congress, you've got to understand the urgency of problems like climate change and you've got to have the vision and the courage. You've got to have the ideas to actually move the ball forward. I will work tirelessly. I will not stop until both houses come together and create common sense gun legislation, legislation that requires extensive background checks, closes gun loopholes, significantly invests in gun prevention research - because there's a lot we don't know - and ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines once and for all. As someone who has studied war and had to prevent war and win wars, weapons of war have no place on our streets. Those weapons should remain on the battlefield, not on our streets.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me see what's next on my list...
Walter Berbrick: Let's talk about abortion.
Steve Ahlquist: Let's. Rhode Island seems to be doing pretty well in that area. We're resisting the worst efforts of the anti-reproductive rights and anti-trans bills. We're doing more to solidify abortion rights protections in our state, but nationally, the Supreme Court can come down and it end it all.
Walter Berbrick: So right off the bat, I am pro-choice and I do not support limits to abortion. I've had this conversation with so many women across our district. From my perspective, it's not my body, not my choice. I believe government, at any level, has no business telling a woman what she should or should not do with her body. It's one of the most difficult decisions a woman can make, and such a personal decision should be made between a woman and her doctor.
The harsh reality today is that across our country, our daughters and granddaughters have less rights than our mothers and grandmothers. The Dobbs decision is an attack on women's rights. It's an attack on my daughter's rights, it's attack on every woman in America's rights. So I will work tirelessly to reverse that decision for the betterment of not only women, but American rights.
Steve Ahlquist: Okay. White nationalism seems to be rising - Proud Boys, that kind of stuff. And it seems related to the anti-trans violence that we see across the country. For a long time the government was not taking this seriously.
Walter Berbrick: The very definition of terrorism is acts of violence to persuade political decisions.
January 6th was a huge turning point for me. I equated it to another significant event, 911. When I sat there watching the TV, I had questions. Who could do such a thing and why? How can our government let this happen? Who are these people? Why are they doing it? And how could we let this happen? Things like this are why I jumped into service as an intelligence officer and why I try to understand the threat. I'm trying to peel back the onion, understand the threat at its root causes, dissect it, and try to figure out how to solve this problem.
I don't have the answer. The only answer, is that it's going to take all of us. The divisiveness and polarization comes on the fringes. Most of America wants the same thing. They want a better life for their children. They want a more united country, a more affordable country. They want a country that's cleaner and greener. Those are the things that matter most to people. It's hard to see because of a failure of leaders in Congress who have made the conscious choice to feed into that and not do anything.
Steve Ahlquist: Let's say you're elected, you go to Washington and you're confronted with someone like Marjorie Taylor Green. How do you deal with that?
Walter Berbrick: This isn't rocket science. It's the same ideals and principles that I grew up with in my grandfather's restaurant. People from every race and creed, it doesn't matter who you love, how you pray, how much money you make, anything. We all had a seat at the table and a story to share. We all took the time to listen and learn from one another. We respected one another. You just worked hard and you were honest and you took the time to build those relationships. That's what it takes. That's what it's going to take.
Washington and Congress has lost the art of compromise. It's because of this polarization and the media feeds into this. People need to take the time to listen, learn from one another, and respect one another.
Steve Ahlquist: What if the person you're trying to listen and learn from has no concern for truth and facts?
Walter Berbrick: That gets into a whole other concern about the the health and state of our information systems, the information systems we rely on to to get our news and our social media. Everything from the ATM machine and communications to the command and control networks our military leaders rely on that.
Steve Ahlquist: A lot of the stressors in our society, at least internally, come from the economy. People are poor. The wealth gap is larger than it's ever been. There's this story that inflation is because of the stimulus money, when actuality it's because of unfair profit taking by the corporations. The media does poor job confronting these lies.
Walter Berbrick: We had this conversation when I met you. I truly appreciate what you do because it's honest reporting. It's about being an honest and pragmatic leader.
Right now in Rhode Island, and across our country, whether it's housing, healthcare, et cetera, it's becoming harder and harder to get to the middle class and stay there. It costs more and more for housing, for healthcare, for childcare, for college - and it's not sustainable.
Inflation is a big reason why we have to tackle that problem and that means being more mindful of our supply chain, being mindful of the products that are made here in America and putting those on our shelves. That is a big part of growing our economy here in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island is one of the worst states for business. Education, infrastructure, business - Rhode Island is at the bottom of all of that. Coming from a small business I understand how hard it is to start and grow a small business so I'm going to push for laws and policies that make it easier for Rhode Islanders and Americans do that. Especially minorities. I can't say how many conversations I've had with small business owners across our district who want to cut the red tape and create family oriented, sustainable jobs for the future.
Steve Ahlquist: Should we be taxing rich people more?
Walter Berbrick: 100%.
Steve Ahlquist: Should we be expanding our social safety nets?
Walter Berbrick: Yes. Rhode Islanders deserve a shot at retirement. Folks like my parents pay into social security expecting that they're going to get what they paid for in return. It's unacceptable and frankly heartbreaking to force someone into a decision where they have to figure out whether or not they could put food on the table or get the treatment they need or the medicine they need. That's why I fully support and will do all I can to expand those social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicaid, so the people who need it most have it.
Steve Ahlquist: We don't talk about it a lot anymore. Maybe the moment has passed but what about Medicare for All? Every advanced country in the world does it except America. We're the only country that can't seem to do it.
Walter Berbrick: Here's where I might differ a little bit from some of the others. I've been to many of the countries who offer state sponsored health care - but they're not America. I think we promote choice and promote freedoms and democracies in giving people the ability to make their own decisions. So I'm very supportive of the Affordable Care Act in providing a public option, but it's an option. I think people deserve the right to choose what kind of care they want.
Steve Ahlquist: I have a wife who's dealing with colorectal cancer in her liver, right now. She's on chemo every six to 18 months and has been for 10 years. We pay a lot for Obamacare. We're also in deep debt.
Walter Berbrick: That should not happen.
Steve Ahlquist: What I'm saying though, is that when I hear people talk about choice, when it comes to medical stuff, there is no choice. You pay or die.
Walter Berbrick: No American should ever go into debt because of healthcare. Healthcare is a fundamental right. But at the same time, people have the right to choose. If they are comfortable with the level and type of care that they get through a public option, then have at it. But if somebody wants some private insurance and wants to pay for a different kind of care at a different kind of place, have at it.
I think it's a matter of improving the public option because, as I said before, there's nothing more important than the safety, security and wellbeing of the American people and all Rhode Islanders. And that goes for healthcare. Healthcare is a fundamental right and no American should ever have to go in debt because of their healthcare bills. It's crazy. Before my parents jumped on the public option, they were paying over $2,500 a month between them. My mother was paying $950 for for a prescription that you had to take every month.
Steve Ahlquist: Right. You have to get it. It's like chemo. You don't really get a choice. You either pay for it or you die.
Walter Berbrick: Nobody should have to pay for that, but if you want to pay for that and get a treatment from a different place, have at it. But Americans should not have to worry about paying their bills while they're trying to save their lives.
Steve Ahlquist: We're coming to the end of our time. Let's talk about dark money and politics. Let's talk about the wealth gap. Because when rich people are not taxed properly they use their money to influence politics. I know Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has some ideas in this space, but where are you on this?
Walter Berbrick: I'm not a politician. I don't have political connections. I'm not a millionaire and I don't have generational wealth. Nor is the campaign accepting any corporate PAC money because I want people to know that I'm relying on their ideas and not on corporate PAC money We rely on small contributions. When people believe in you, they'll support you. I think there's a couple things that we can do to clean up Washington, to increase transparency around how we fund campaign campaign finance. I'm going to push hard for finance campaign finance reform.
There's a couple ways we can solve this problem. Number one, you can get rid of PACs and Super PACs. You could potentially increase the the amount that somebody can contribute, but make it transparent - who's contributing to who? Number two, we could make sure that our leaders in Washington are representing the interests of the people that they're sworn to defend rather than their own personal financial interest. We must require folks in congress, their spouses, and their children to put their stocks in a blind trust so that they can't influence how their stocks are being treated.
Steve Ahlquist: People who to go to Congress always seem to get richer, and it's not like House members are making a millionaire salary.
Walter Berbrick: Exactly. Not to mention that in many cases, they maintain a home here in the state, but also have have one in DC. Theyre probably losing money. So it begs the question, how are these folks making racking up millions?
Steve Ahlquist: Final question: What's your pitch? Why should people vote for you?
Walter Berbrick: Look, I'm not a politician with all the political connections. I don't come from money. I don't have the generational wealth. I grew up washing dishes, working hard, earned everything, and have dedicated my career to public service - serving our country and our communities. This campaign is a continuation of that. One of the greatest lessons that I've learned, working with and for great leaders across our government and across our military, is that if you listen and learn and respect one another, if you're honest, if you work hard, there's no problem that we can't solve. Those are values and principles that I pass on to my children and that we should pass on to the next generation. Those are also values that I plan to bring with me to Washington and to Congress.
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