“Our Representation Must Be Part of the Solution”: An Interview With Chris Lewis
Mo Brooks is the five-term Republican incumbent for the 5th district of Alabama in the United States House of Representatives. Since his first election, he has faced multiple challenges both from inside and outside his party but has fended them all off fairly easily.
Chris Lewis thinks this time will be different. Challenging Brooks in the Republican primary to be held March 3rd, Lewis is a veteran of the US Navy and believes he is best suited to represent the district this time around. Seen as a longshot by most of the punditry, he was shockingly endorsed by the FarmPAC. This is shocking because Lewis is their only non-incumbent endorsement. This has given him more legitimacy in the eyes of many, although Mo Brooks dismissed the endorsement as coming from a few disgruntled “activist” farmers.
I had a chance to sit down with Lewis and talk to him about his run, his opinion on Brooks’ tenure, and his policy positions.
The interview has been broken into three parts and edited for length and clarity. In part one, we spoke about his personal background, his opinion on the tenure of Mo Brooks, and why he decided to run.
So Tell Us About Yourself. Who Is Chris Lewis?
I grew up in the Florence area. My family owned the Hobart Food Processing Agency across North Alabama and Mississippi. I grew up in the church and graduated from Bradshaw high school in ‘89. My wife Keri is from Florence also. Our families moved here in the early ‘80s. This is home to both of us, it’s where our families are.
When I graduated high school, I attended the US Naval Academy and was commissioned in 93. I served 23 years in the Navy, retiring as a Navy Commander. I earned my wings as a naval flight officer, a back-seater not a pilot. For those who have seen Top Gun – I’m Goose, I’m the guy in the backseat. I ran the missions on a P-3 Orion aircraft.
I earned a Political Science undergrad from the Naval Academy, a Political Science Masters from the University of West Florida, and a Masters in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College. I understand politics. I understand it not only from a book, I understand it from my real-world experiences.
During my 23 years of service, my wife and I moved 13 times. If you do the math, that’s a move about every two years. Every time you move in the Navy, you’re doing something different. Characterizing me as just a Navy flyer is minimalistic.
I served with NATO’s Joint Analysis Lessons Learned Centre (JALLC), in Lisbon, Portugal, as a Strategic Analyst. The JALLC consisted of roughly 48 people from 22 different nations. Working with 22 Nationalities, you quickly grasp views from around the World. While serving with NATO in Afghanistan I was the liaison for NATO’s Strategic Command, The Allied Command for Transformation.
During my career, I’ve also spent 12 years in Defense Acquisitions. I have a strong understanding of what drives the community we are sitting in.
In 2014 my wife Keri and I discussed where we were going to retire. We had two boys, at the time a 9-year-old Alexander and a 7-year-old Jacob, and needed to decide where we were going to raise our boys. Moving 13 times in 23 years gives you a good perspective of the United States, the people, the culture, and where you want to be. We wanted to be near family, especially with our youngest who has Autism, and we believe you only have one chance to raise your kids around family…. take that opportunity when you can.
Just as importantly for us was to be somewhere we knew we could raise our kids with the same morals and values that we were raised with. There are a lot of good places in the United States and a lot of good people in the United States. But there’s a challenge to find a common core of values and morals throughout the US.
The choice was easy…We came home back to Alabama.
We made the decision to come back home, to bring our kids home. In 2014, that’s what we did. My last two years were spent commuting to Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC) in Tullahoma, Tennessee, the largest aviation ground test facility in the World. AEDC conducts testing for NASA, the Department of Defense, and Industry. For two years I lived in Tennessee during the week, and Alabama on the weekends. In 2016 I retired as a Navy Commander.
After retirement, I started a consulting firm. Ultimately I was asked to work on a contract for QuantiTech out of Huntsville in support of AEDC.
In October of 2018, that contract ended, and we decided that I would expand our farm and consulting firm, and stay home with our sons.
Moving 13 times and raising our family did not allow my wife to come into her own profession. Once we moved home to St. Florian, she earned her Master’s in Education from UNA. She is a molecular biologist by trade and now she teaches science at Deshler High School in Tuscumbia.
What Made You Decide To Run For Congress?
In January, I woke up – something just hit me. I was watching leaders, those we elected to represent us, tear our country apart. Not for any reason, but for a seat at the table, power or re-election.
I realized my family and I had given 23 years of our lives to this country. We’ve done what it’s asked, when it’s asked, and where it’s asked. And although I was confident I could go to my deathbed knowing that my family and I’ve given enough for our country in those 23 years, I realized I could no longer look at my two boys and say I was doing enough for them. Enough to ensure they have the same country we have when they’re our age, that they have the same ability to sit at this table and have this discussion when they’re our age.
So that’s what got us started. I didn’t ever intend to run for Congress. My passion is what brought me here.
My wife and I had discussed who we should get behind and support. Is there somebody we can work with? The number one question we had with anybody that we were looking to support was: are they somebody who can help bring our country back together? We saw Congressman Brooks. We saw that he’d been in an elected office for 35 years. We saw that he was not able to work with his constituents or his peers in Congress. He couldn’t come to a table, listen and talk. If he couldn’t do that, how could he ever help move our Nation forward? If you and I won’t come to a table, listen and talk, if all we’re going to do is stand on opposite sides and yell at each other….what can we resolve? Nothing.
North Alabama needs representation that understands who we are, understands our morals and values, who listens to us, comes here and spends time in the district listening, not just when it’s election time, but all the time. And then goes to DC and talks about what North Alabama brings to our nation, talks positively about North Alabama and comes home and does it again.
The FBI’s expansion in Huntsville is a great example of what the rest of the Nation thinks of North Alabama. As the FBI prepared to begin operations, they brought 1300 employees down here for three days. Their goal was to have 30% of them be willing to take a job here in North Alabama. Before they brought their people down, they did a survey. The survey asked employees what they thought of North Alabama on a scale of 1 to 5. Five being the highest. Their answer….North Alabama was a 2.1.
When they left after three days, North Alabama was a 4.2. We didn’t magically change in three days. We know how great North Alabama is, so why are we still the butt of the joke?
Our representation can’t be part of that problem, it must be part of that solution. It must be a positive part of the solution. The face of our District outside of our district must be one that reflects who we are and what makes us great.
You’re A Republican, And The Seat Is Already Represented By A Republican. So, Why Run? Are There Specific Criticisms Of Brooks That You Have, Or Specific Things That Trouble You About His Tenure?
Let’s not say criticisms, because this is not personal. And I must be very clear about that. I don’t look at any elected official and judge them on a personal level. I judge them on what they’re capable of doing.
The challenge is this: we have a representative who has been in office of one type or another for 35 years. Before you, Jacob, were even thought of, Brooks held an elected office here in Huntsville.
Did you grow up in North Alabama, Jacob? (I answered yes). How much has it changed in your lifetime? (I answered, quite a bit)
Look at the people that are here. Redstone Arsenal, Research Park, NASA is bringing in such a diversity of people – Huntsville is probably one of the most, if not the most, progressive city in the Southeast. It’s certainly the fastest growing in the Southeast.
Progressive In What Sense?
Everything, from culture, how you dress, to what people believe.
I’ll give you an example. When I left here in 1989 you didn’t do anything on Wednesday nights. Everybody was at church. Now, it’s not that way. When I left here in ’89 there wasn’t anything open on Sunday, except for a restaurant. The mall was open for a few hours, but most stores were closed. So culturally we’ve changed. Many cities were still dry. We have changed, we’ve grown. We’re not the same District.
We’re not what it was in 84 when Congressman Brooks was first elected.
We need representation that has done something outside of and understands something more than politics. The reality is Mo Brooks has been a politician since 1984.
I’ve been a small business owner, a farmer. I understand foreign policy because I’ve lived foreign policy. I understand national defense because I’ve lived national defense. I understand defense acquisitions because I’ve lived defense acquisitions.
I understand how the U.S. Congress looking like the British Parliament diminishes the world’s view of who we are as a Nation. I didn’t learn that from a white paper written by a staffer. I learned it by living it.
My morals, my values; if you put Mo Brooks side by side with me, you’re probably going to read a pretty similar profile. I am pro-life. I am pro-Second Amendment. I’m a fiscal conservative.
I do believe we have to be fiscally conservative. The difference between Congressman Brooks and myself is that I can look at the defense industry and understand where the positives and negatives are and how we can be fiscally conservative, yet still maximize what we have here. I’ve lived it. I’ve been on the government side where I’ve seen fraud, waste, and abuse from a contractor. I’ve been on the contractor side where I’ve seen fraud, waste, and abuse from the government. I know where the challenges are and I know who to talk to and how to address them.
When you talk about foreign policy, my time with NATO provided me with extensive experience.
My last tour in Afghanistan was as a senior strategic analyst for NATO. My role was to analyze the challenges and issues that were ongoing in Afghanistan. I understood why we were there, I understood what we should have been doing and what we shouldn’t have been doing.
I know foreign policy because I’ve lived it.
The First Time That I Heard You Was In An Interview With Fred Holland On WTKI And You Caught My Attention Because, As I Heard It, And Correct Me If I’m Wrong, You Seemed To Be Positioning Yourself As Something Of A Moderate. You Lamented The Fact That Compromise Is Seen As A Dirty Word, Saying That Compromise Is Necessary And Important. You Expressed Concern About The Polarization Of Folks On The Far-Left And Far-Right And I Thought That Was Interesting Because You Almost Never Hear, And Especially Not From Republicans, And Especially Not During A Primary, Appeals To The Virtues Of Moderation And Working Across The Aisle. Is That The Right Impression Of You? Would You Consider Yourself Something Of A Moderate?
Well, you don’t hear it, because most people that are doing this are politicians. Simple as that. Politicians are going to avoid any statement or question that they fear might alienate a voter. I’m not a politician.
We have turned the words moderate and compromise into dirty words. If you go to a hardcore Republican and you use the word moderate or compromise, their immediate thought is, oh my, you’re going to kill all babies and you’re giving our guns away. Now that’s not at all what I said!
When I go to a democrat and say, are you a moderate, the Democrats go oh my, you’re going to allow them to have guns and you’re going to kill women’s rights. Okay. No, that’s not what they said.
Compromise, listening, and discussion is part of our daily lives. For example; I guarantee there’s a time in your life when you sat down at the kitchen table with your parents, and you looked at each other and said: Dad, I don’t know where that statement even came from. I can’t relate to that statement. Did you get up and leave, never to talk again? Or did you take a deep breath and say, we’re going to sit at this table, and I need you to tell me why that makes sense to you. I’m going to listen. What I ask of you is to do the same thing.
That’s negotiation, that’s listening, that’s the discussion, that’s how rational individuals solve problems.
Can you solve problems using the “nuclear option”? Absolutely. But you can’t do it every day. You can’t blow up the world to solve a problem every day.
I heard a story yesterday, and I will attribute it to a member from Alabama of the US legislative branch. It was passed on to me from that member’s friend. The member said:
You know what’s strange? We (Congress) used to have heated debate, afterwards we went out for a drink. We went out and had dinner. We went out and we socialized. We don’t do that anymore because we are not allowed.
We need to have heated debate to defend what our constituents believe. We also must look at each other and understand that everybody sees something in a different way. We owe each other the respect to listen. Let me be clear, one does not give up their morals and values to sit at a table and listen. I certainly do not, and neither do you.
You won’t hear most politicians say that. Because many politicians want us to believe that if you don’t support them, the world will come to an end.
There’s not one person in Congress that is that important.
Jacob is a proud Alabamian, a BS in Mathematics, a union member, someone dedicated to a more just and democratic society. He can be found on Twitter @JacobM_AL and emailed at [email protected].