Why John Avlon Ditched CNN for a Congressional Run

John Avlon has been a fixture on CNN over the last several years, following a five-year stint as editor in chief of The Daily Beast. Now the 51-year-old, who has written four books on politics, is running for Congress and aiming to unseat Republican incumbent Nick LaLota in a battle for New York’s 1st Congressional District. The journalist-turned-candidate (a former colleague of mine at the Beast) spoke to The Hollywood Reporter as his campaign gets underway.

Why did you make the decision to leave journalism and run for office? 

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I didn’t want to look at my kids and tell them I could’ve done more when it mattered most. I’m the grandson of immigrants. I’m a patriotic guy and I’m deeply concerned about the stakes of this race for our country and my community. We’ve never had a presidential nominee of a major party run on an authoritarian platform praising dictators. I didn’t feel that simply offering opinions on cable news was enough. I love my job and my colleagues at CNN, and they are doing important work, but I felt that there is a real chance to flip a seat from a first term Republican, sort of Trump hugger/Trump flunkey, who is far too right for the district. But that requires a candidacy that can excite people and a candidate who can not only inspire the base but win over independent voters and anti-Trump Republicans and I looked at it and said “maybe that’s something I can do that’s different from many of my colleagues.”

You’re seeking to unseat the Republican incumbent, Representative Nick LaLota. How do you plan to shake up the race? 

By playing offense. I think Democrats are on defense too often. I think Democrats need to play offense on the issues people care about and offer a confident, optimistic, common sense problem solving vision. Nick LaLota is vulnerable and can lose against the right kind of candidate. The fact that he and the NRCC came after me the day I got in the race shows that they are scared. Nick LaLota doesn’t even live in the district by the way. Between Nick LaLota and me I’m the only one who can vote in this election. His district, his home, is represented by a different congressman altogether. So bring it on.

LaLota’s press secretary referred to you as a “Manhattan elitist” and said you know nothing about Suffolk County other than “Sag Harbor croquet matches and summer cocktail parties in Bridgehampton” — how do you respond to that?

It’s ridiculous on several levels. It shows they are scared. It shows how desperate they are. They didn’t think they were going to have to contest this race. This is one of my great frustrations of looking at the battle grounds. Control of the House could come through Long Island. Could come through New York. It could come down to CD1. This is a district I’ve lived and voted in for a long time. I care about it deeply. Nick LaLota doesn’t live in the district. He never bothered to move into the district. He can’t vote for himself in this race. It’s just ridiculous but, of course, I expect no less. It’s simply because they didn’t think they would have a serious fight on their hands and now they do.

You’re running as a Democrat while your wife, Margaret, is a Republican. How does that play out at home?

My wife is a Republican and I think it’s fair to say she’s never been a supporter of Donald Trump. She represents a different Republican tradition and it’s one that I appreciate. I think, too often, in politics we slide into problem politics and America doesn’t work best that way. We are, first, a nation of history founded on an idea, not a tribal identity, and I think that’s why one of the reasons that tribalism in politics short circuits our best traditions. I think people look at a marriage like Margaret’s and mine whether they know us from TV or are just now focusing. The fact that you can have a Republican and Democrat in a marriage and you find ways to disagree agreeably and you also remember that partisan politics is not the most important thing about us as people, I think that’s reassuring. I think we all need to break this hyper partisan fever and start to build a new kind of politics where people can reason together to solve common problems we face as a country and a community. I love my wife and I’m proud of her in every way.

Talk to me about your media strategy as it’s fair to say you come at this from a unique perspective having had the industrial knowledge from your time working as a journo and an editor and commentator. You know how the media works. How has that influenced your media strategy?

Very often the media elevates the outrage Olympics but I think there’s an obligation to do something differently, which is focus on solutions to people’s problems because there is something larger at stake. Their faith in democracy can work for them. As a historian I’ll say that provides some perspective on our problems. We have been through worse times in this country, and we will get through this, but only if citizens get off the sidelines and roll up their sleeves and take responsibility for the future of our country.

This is almost certainly looking like a Trump vs. Biden rematch. How do you think the DC press corps is covering this situation again?

The fact some newsrooms are still debating whether you cover Trump like every other candidate shows zero percent learning curve. I think the stakes of this race couldn’t be clearer and I think Jay Rosen has spoken out very clearly about this. It’s not the horse race, it’s the stakes, and I think we need to stay crystal clear about that and not get dragged into whataboutisms. The stakes are much higher than a typical election and we shouldn’t get lulled into thinking of it that way and I think too often the media does engage a little bit of “on one hand, and on the other” which isn’t remotely sufficient to the stakes of this race.

Should actors and executives in Hollywood be speaking up about Trump? 

I think there is a deeper tradition of liberal patriotism that Hollywood could stand to rediscover.

I think it’s best when Hollywood shows not tells. After all, that’s the essence of storytelling. Hollywood shapes and reflects American culture, and an important part of that role is presenting a vision that we can aspire to as a society, reminding people that character counts. It reminds people that our best traditions involve fighting for something larger than ourselves and forming a more perfect union by standing up to the mob of the moment. I think about one of my favorite scenes in any movie, in To Kill a Mockingbird, where Gregory Peck, aided by the innocence of his children’s disarming questions, causes a lynch mob to back down by reminding them of our common humanity. This effort can be a countercultural activity in a time when demagogues prey on people’s fears and divide the country into warring tribes. But I think of the classic work of Frank Capra or John Ford, emphasizing the balance between rugged individualism and the common good of a community. Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Aaron Sorkin and George Clooney continue that tradition in ways that can inspire people to connect with our best traditions and ultimately be better, more courageous citizens. That’s not something that is purely political or partisan, but it’s vitally important in the broader cultural defense of liberal democracy.

This move could pit you against the person you were once chief speechwriter for, Rudy Giuliani, how does that make you feel?

I’ve been a strong critic of what Rudy did on the behest of Donald Trump. It bears no resemblance to the person I worked for almost a quarter of a century ago but I think it speaks to the danger of Donald Trump in the way that he can cause people to abandon their best selves and true values in the pursuit of partisan power.

When exactly did Rudy lose his mind? Can you pinpoint a moment? 

Lachlan. That seems like a loaded question. I think you can draw a direct line unfortunately with his increasingly strident defense of Donald Trump but we are not going to get into Goldwater rule territory.

You were Editor in Chief of The Daily Beast for five years. We have seen the digital media market disrupted with the events at Vice, BuzzFeed News and The Messenger. What do you make of the current digital market? And why do you think The Daily Beast has survived this long?

First, because of Barry Diller being a great steward of that organization and being a stalwart and encouraging original reporting without fear or favor. That’s what is necessary to add value through original reporting and a point of view that’s consistent with principles that transcends partisan politics. We depend, as a country and as a democracy, on a vibrant free press and it’s all the more reason why the current sense of exhaustion with following the news is utterly insufficient to the stakes of this race. There are a lot of journalists doing very good work but I don’t think you can underestimate the extent to which democracy depends on a vibrant free press holding power to account and original reporting.

What was Barry Diller like to work for? Did you ever experience any editorial interference from him?

Absolutely not. I’ve had the privilege of working for Barry, Jeff Zucker and Tina Brown, some of the greatest media minds of our time in different ways. Barry was an exemplary owner of The Daily Beast from my perspective.

How do you think Mark Thompson is getting on with the top job at CNN? 

Mark is a brilliant guy. He did a phenomenal job at the BBC and then righting the ship at The New York Times with regard to their business model. Everybody needs to stop siloing their approach. Consolidation from a consumer point of view occurred a long time ago so it makes sense to break down silos between digital and linear. As long as there continues to be strong investment in original reporting and the linear TV and the digital is seen as something that is complementary and there is continued investment in the kind of … I don’t want to get too deep into my analysis of CNN. I’ll leave it at that I can go down that rabbit hole another time but I’ve got nothing but the deepest respect for the work done by my former colleagues at CNN and I think Mark’s record and his vision hopefully primes it for continued future success and growth.

Who would be your wingnut of the week?

You could hand the baton off between Donald Trump and Mike Johnson.

If you are me what question should I be asking you?

I’d love to be asked more questions about what families here in Suffolk County are looking for in this election. The need to focus on local policies that can improve their quality of life and lower the cost of living. These local issues are what will really decide people’s votes in this campaign and that’s as it should be.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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