Kokkonen’s ‘the legal immigrant’ campaign slogan raises questions

A sign for Matt Kokkonen features the slogan “The legal immigrant for U.S. Congress.”
A sign for Matt Kokkonen features the slogan “The legal immigrant for U.S. Congress.” jlavelle@thetribunenews.com

When Matt Kokkonen entered the race to replace Congresswoman Lois Capps with the campaign slogan “The legal immigrant for U.S. Congress,” some observers saw it as, at best, a provocative phrase to display his conservative stance toward immigration, or at worst, a thinly veiled insinuation that the other two naturalized citizens running for the seat had some kind of illegal status.

If you ask the Finnish-born conservative, he says he’s just bringing attention to the fact that he immigrated to the U.S. legally and not contrasting himself with Democrat Salud Carbajal, whose family came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 5, or Republican Katcho Achadjian, who immigrated from Lebanon at 19.

“In a time when candidates are afraid to directly address the problems we face, I will. And I have been doing that all my career,” he said.

Carbajal and Achadjian dismissed the slogan, saying it shows Kokkonen is an extreme candidate who is out of touch with the district.

“Mr. Kokkonen has positioned himself as the (Donald) Trump candidate,” said Tess Whittlesey, Carbajal’s campaign spokeswoman. “It’s unfortunate that he subscribes to the same hateful ideology as his presidential pick.”

Whittlesey said she didn’t buy Kokkonen’s statement that he wasn’t trying to cast doubt on Carbajal’s citizenship.

“I think it’s a disappointing insinuation,” Whittlesey said.

Kokkonen denies he is questioning the citizenship of any of his opponents.

“Mr. Achadjian claims that he is here legally. I have no questions about that,” he said. “I’ve heard Mr. Carbajal say he became a citizen. I don’t know. I don’t have answers.”

Coming to the U.S.

In a field of nine candidates running for the 24th District congressional seat, the fact that a third of those candidates immigrated to the United States is unusual along the Central Coast.

Kokkonen left Helsinki for the U.S. on his own in 1962, when he was 16 years old, arriving in New York “with just one suitcase,” he says.

“Now I have two suitcases,” he’s known to quip.

It would seem that even Mr. Kokkonen recognizes the irony in an immigrant trying to represent an anti-immigrant coalition.

Cal Poly political science professor Michael Latner

He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in financial services at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, served in the California National Guard, and founded his own insurance and financial services agency in San Luis Obispo in 1975. He’s run unsuccessfully for a number of political offices, including San Luis Obispo County treasurer, state Assembly and Congress. He has, however, been elected seven times to the local Republican Central Committee.

Carbajal moved to the U.S. at age 5 in the early 1960s when his family emigrated from Mexico to Arizona under the Bracero worker program. He and his family maintained permanent resident status until he became a naturalized citizen in his early 20s, Whittlesey said. He earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in organizational management from Fielding University. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and is currently a Santa Barbara County supervisor.

Achadjian came to the U.S. in 1971 and became a citizen in 1982. In between, he attended Cuesta College and graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in business administration. He’s operated several gas stations in the Five Cities area while also serving as an Arroyo Grande city councilman, a three-term San Luis Obispo County supervisor, and currently, a three-term state Assemblyman.

What does it mean?

On Friday, Kokkonen defended his campaign slogan, which is displayed on his website, on the large sign that adorns the front of his Johnson Avenue office near downtown, and on campaign signs selectively scattered among mostly rural properties across the district.

“It accurately represents my understanding and my belief in my candidacy,” Kokkonen said. “It enables those who stand for the rule of law to identify with a candidate with who also believes in the rule of law and believes we have a problem with an invasion of illegal aliens into the U.S.”

Asked why he claims he’s “the legal immigrant” in the race, Kokkonen said the slogan sets him apart as the only candidate with a conservative stance on immigration, and that it also represents his belief that the term “illegal immigrant” is an oxymoron.

Kokkonen said his slogan is not meant to single him out as the only legal immigrant in the race. “I’m not insinuating they were here illegally,” he said.

Opponents’ responses

Both the Carbajal and Achadjian camps have largely brushed off Kokkonen’s criticisms, saying they would rather focus on issues affecting the district, not their personal immigration experiences. When pressed, however, both said Kokkonen’s slogan signals that he’s out of step with district voters.

Carbajal spokeswoman Whittlesey said Kokkonen’s slogan is “unfortunate but not surprising.”

“We think it’s rather silly Salud needs to defend (his citizenship),” Whittlesey said.

She added that Carbajal immigrated to the U.S. back “when the system worked,” and that makes Carbajal the best candidate to work for comprehensive immigration reform.

Achadjian said he doesn’t have the kind of relationship with Kokkonen where he would want to discuss it with him.

“It’s interesting,” Achadjian said Monday. “I’ve seen that, and I don’t really know what to make of it.

“Everybody is free to speak for themselves, if that’s what they want to do,” he added. “You have to measure the quality of what’s being said from the source.”

Targeting Achadjian

Kokkonen said that immigration reform is the cornerstone of his campaign, and he has spent much of it criticizing his Republican opponents for not being tough enough on the issue. Achadjian particularly has attracted Kokkonen’s jabs on the state assemblyman’s record on immigration-related legislation.

Kokkonen cites Achadjian’s vote for Assembly Bill 60, which granted driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, his support of a bill to issue work permits to undocumented farmworkers, and his votes in favor of bills to expand Medi-Cal as proof Achadjian is soft on immigration reform.

Achadjian said the law makes practical sense and that he supported it after consulting with area police chiefs, who said it makes the roads safer.

“They’re here, and they are already on our streets. The bill makes it much safer for them to drive, to get insurance, to get some information on the record about who they are and where they are,” Achadjian said. “I thought it was a good way to approach an issue that needs to be dealt with.”

When it comes to the Democratic Party’s platform that includes “comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform that addresses fairness ... and a path to earned legal residency for undocumented immigrants in our communities” — fully supported by Carbajal — Kokkonen laughs.

“Comprehensive in this case, unfortunately, means bring anybody and everybody over here,” Kokkonen said.

An early Donald Trump supporter, Kokkonen calls for “protecting our borders,” stopping “anchor-baby citizenship,” eliminating federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities,” and ending the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Matt is simply stating what to many people is the obvious and which the Democrat Party refuses to admit.

San Luis Obispo County Republican Party Chairman Al Fonzi

Political reactions

Al Fonzi, chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party, said Friday he couldn’t speak to Kokkonen’s motives for the slogan, and he said it hasn’t come up at any Republican Central Committee meetings.

“My personal observation is that Matt is exceedingly patriotic and proud of his hard-won status as an American citizen,” Fonzi wrote in an email. “... Matt often discusses the differences between those who immigrated to America legally and the benefits they bring to the nation versus those who broke American laws and entered illegally, especially the effects Democrat Party immigration policies are having on the lives of ordinary Americans.”

Fonzi stuck up for Kokkonen, saying that Kokkonen went through the “long and drawn-out” legal process to become a citizen. He wrote that many among the Republican Party membership think it unfair that those who break the law “... (are) pushing to the front of the line out-of-turn, being given special consideration over those who follow the rules.”

“The national security risks and the negative economic consequences of large-scale illegal immigration is obviously a major issue in the 2016 election campaign,” Fonzi wrote. “Matt is simply stating what to many people is the obvious and which the Democrat Party refuses to admit.”

It’s unfortunate that he subscribes to the same hateful ideology as his presidential pick.

Salud Carbajal spokeswoman Tess Whittlesey

Political observers outside the Republican Party note that Kokkonen is tapping in to a frustration seen in the presidential race, where Trump is the presumptive Republican Party nominee, running, at least initially, on a campaign centered around deporting unauthorized immigrants, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and blocking Muslim travel into the U.S. policies that Kokkonen has said he supports.

Dr. Michael Latner, a political science professor at Cal Poly who organized a candidate debate at the university in February, said Kokkonen’s use of the slogan is a calculated attempt to play down his own perceived weakness as a candidate while using his race to his advantage.

“He is running in the far right wing of the GOP, where anti-immigration ideology is greatest. It would seem that even Mr. Kokkonen recognizes the irony in an immigrant trying to represent an anti-immigrant coalition,” Latner wrote in an email to The Tribune on Friday. “However, he also recognizes that racial resentment is correlated with anti-immigrant anxiety, so by declaring himself ‘legal,’ he is signaling that he is not one of ‘them’ or the illegal, poorer, darker immigrants. He is, in short, one of the good ones.”

Latner said that in Kokkonen’s previous runs for public office he long ago established himself as a “white nationalist” with attacks on the undocumented, his “subtle and less-than-subtle racist jokes, his mythical narrative of the Christian foundations of U.S. democracy, and other nonsense about the virtues of Northern European/Aryan culture,” he wrote.

Latner noted that naturalized U.S. citizens are rare in the Republican Party, and those who share aspects of Kokkonen’s personal story tend to sell themselves as Americans, not immigrants.

While Latner does not expect Kokkonen to move past the June 7 primary election, he said both parties would be well-served to pay attention to the candidate.

“I think he represents an important, though eroding, block in the California Republican Party, and all Republicans ought to give Mr. Kokkonen a serious look,” Latner said. “It would be a great victory for white nationalists were he to succeed.”

Democrats should take note, as well, he added, and even consider contributing to Kokkonen’s campaign. The better Kokkonen does, Latner argues, the higher probability that the GOP fragments its vote and allows for two Democrats to move forward to the Nov. 8 general election.

“Unfortunately for Mr. Kokkonen,” Latner wrote, “there are probably not enough bitter white men around to give him a fighting chance.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune