6 Democratic Reps Weigh In on SOTU, Political Cynicism and the Party's Future

6 Democratic Reps Weigh In on SOTU, Political Cynicism and the Party's Future

It's been... a week. The mythic Iowa Democratic Caucus has devolved into a conspiracy theory-charged shitstorm, with multiple candidates offering victory speeches, despite the lack of a clear winner after four days. The impeachment hearings have come to a haunting end, with all but one Republican Senator voting to acquit President Trump of trying to meddle in the 2020 election, without calling a single witness. All of the above did a neat job of undermining Americans' increasingly nonexistent faith in democratic processes. Trump and Nancy Pelosi got into a catfight on the floor of the Capitol, before the President gave an extremely cursed State of the Union in which he failed to mention climate change, but found time to award Rush Limbaugh a Presidential Medal of Honor (former recipients include Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison, Cezar Chavez, Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk.)

PAPER headed to Washington D.C. for a media row with Democratic representatives: some of whom were at the forefront of the impeachment, some of whom are surrogates for 2020 hopefuls, and some of whom are leading efforts on issues like healthcare, racial equality and the environment. We asked six congresspeople about their priorities for 2020, the State of the Union, political cynicism, and if the Democratic party can (or should) be unified.

What are your biggest priorities in congress for 2020 — if Democrats win back the Senate, or if you continue to work in a divided congress?

Maxine Waters, California — Congressional Black Caucus

Our first priority is winning the House again, taking control in the Senate and hopefully the presidency. Then, we'll have an opportunity to advance our policy priorities. For example, healthcare and prescription drugs. We have got to focus on education and the fact that many of our young people are graduating from college with so much debt, that they can't move on having a quality of life. People aren't getting married — they owe too much money. We have to focus on healthcare, on education. I also have sleepless nights about homelessness. That is one of my big priorities in my committee, I have a 13 billion dollar bill that I have initiated to get rid of homelessness in America. When we look at these issues, we also have to understand that housing and infrastructure must be dealt with. We must make sure that the bridges are safe, that water systems are safe, that the highways and streets are safe. All of these are issues that have been neglected for far too long, we've arrived to the point where we are desperate and having to do something about them. So these are the top priorities of mine and the Democrats.

Mark Pocan, Wisconsin — Congressional Progressive Caucus, Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus

We sent a ton of bills over to the Senate, well over four hundred bills. Three hundred of them have languished in the Senate unfortunately, Mr. McConnell appears to put them in the back of a pickup truck, drive them to Kentucky, and bury them in a backyard so they don't see the light of the day. Everything from reducing prescription drug pricing, to raising minimum wage, to protecting people's pre-existing conditions for healthcare. This week we are working on the biggest labor bill that's probably been introduced in decades in congress. There are lot's things that we can get done. Unfortunately, we need a partner in the Senate and they need to let us.

Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas — Congressional Black Caucus

I am very invested in climate issues because I come from Texas, we experienced Hurricane Harvey. We are still trying to overcome the infrastructure and housing damage. Texans are living with environmental injustice. We are finding cancer in certain neighborhoods in people living around chemicals. Just a few days ago, in Houston, there was a major chemical explosion in a neighborhood where two people died. Also, something most people are not familiar with, but which I am committed to having passed and educating people about, is the vibrant and necessary HR 40: the commission to study reparations and proposals. It is legislation to help America to reconcile with two hundred and fifty years of holding people in bondage, enslaved Africans without compensation, without health insurance, without workers comp, without retirement, which helped build the wealth of this nation. The commission is to assess, how do we reconcile this, how do we address this in 2020, when it's clear the disparities in our community came about through this extended period of slavery?

Val Demings, Florida — House Impeachment Manager

The number one priority is healthcare. When I was elected, the President's top initiative was to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. When I talk to people in my district and around the nation, healthcare is still the number one priority: making sure that we continue to fight for affordable healthcare, making sure we cover people with pre-existing conditions, getting the cost of prescription drugs down. What good is it to see a doctor if you can't afford medication that you need, life saving medication? However, having served as an impeachment manager, accountability is still so very important to me and making sure we send a message that everybody counts but everybody is accountable. And that accountability should start with the Commander in Chief, the President of the United States.

Jan Schakowsky, Illinois — Senior Chief Deputy Whip

My priority is to pass bills that will give Americans a vision of what it would be like to actually have not only a progressive House of Representatives but also the Senate. Frankly, the Senate are digging themselves a hole. Eighty percent of Americans thought that we should have a fair impeachment trial with witnesses: Democrats, Republicans, Independents. This administration is part of a lawsuit that would overturn the Affordable Care Act meaning everybody with a pre-existing condition — which, until the Affordable Care Act, included women, would not be covered. We just want to show the world that there is another choice here. It's existential, we have to win life or death.

"Compromise is fine. But we should not capitulate." - Al Green, Texas

Al Green, Texas — Congressional Black Caucus

All of us in Congress have a responsibility to do what we can with regards to climate change. It's not going away, and it's going to impact society across the globe. That's at a lofty level. At the level of everyday people, I want to see us pass a law for a living wage. It's very important that working people, people who work full time, not live below the poverty line. Every person in this country ought to have pre-existing conditions covered. I think that people who are with child, and have children born into their family, ought to have time with their families. Paid leave is important for the family. I think that it's important for us to do what we can to assure people who are coming to this country, fleeing harm's way, that their babies are not put in cages. It's unacceptable that we would tolerate the caging of children who are fleeing from harm. I look forward to working with my colleagues across the aisle to get all this done but I don't look forward to capitulating. I think compromise is fine. But we should not capitulate, to the point where working people are having to pay the way for people who make millions and billions of dollars. Billionaires are going to have to pay their fair share of taxes, I don't think that's asking too much.

In the wake of the Impeachment, what can be done to restore Americans' faith in Democratic processes?

Val Demings

The framers had this brilliant idea where they wanted a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The people are the ones who have the power and they built a system that had three equal branches of government, where one could check the other. The people should be angry when someone invites a foreign power to give themselves an advantage. When we see someone trying to cheat, voters should flood the polls and remind whoever that person is that we are a government of the people.

Mark Pocan

I spent a lot of time in Iowa the last few weeks with Bernie Sanders. So often, people tell healthcare-related stories that you get. The average person is still struggling in many ways, while the top one percent is doing really well — they got a giant tax cut under the President. But for most people, they are just trying to still get by. Our message is just to get out there, be active, vote. If you are not happy, which I think many people aren't, you can change who's in the White House and who's running the Senate. If we do that, then I think we can really be in a lot better place to get some of these real priorities done.

There's a huge diversity of beliefs within the Democratic party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently commented that she and Joe Biden don't belong in the same party. Do you think the Democratic Party can and should be unified?

Maxine Waters

There is always room for change and improvement. Certainly the Democratic Party offers more hope for all the citizens than the Republican party. We've shown we care about healthcare, education, a social security system that keeps our seniors safe, that we want to protect tour veterans, that we want the children to have a decent quality of life. There is such a great difference between us and the Republican party. When you see divisiveness maybe in the Democratic Party… democracy is about challenging each other for who can prevail based on their ideas, their philosophy, and what they are willing to do. I am not bothered by even the differences that may exist now, as we go through this campaign. Because I know that any one of those candidates, should they get elected, will do the right thing on these issues.

"Democracy is about challenging each other for who can prevail based on their ideas, their philosophy, and what they are willing to do." - Maxine Waters

Mark Pocan

Absolutely. The contrast to Donald Trump is huge. Even if we have differences between Democrats on how we get to everyone healthcare, we can figure that out. The good news is the American people are generally with the progressives on these issues, basic minimum wage, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All — these are all sixty to eighty percent sort of issues. All we have to do is mobilize people and tell them we mean it, that we are really going to do it. So often people talk about getting back the Obama-Trump voter, getting them back. But it's the non-voter, who already agrees with us, it's convincing them we really want to do this and it's not just political rhetoric. If we do that, we are going to win and we are going to get all these things done. That's why I like Bernie's campaign. Building a movement that's not about a candidate, it's about all of us. I think that's what the Democratic Party can still do.

Al Green

I do believe we have a great organizing tool this time, called President Trump. I think a good many people have had enough of his behavior, of what he has done to corrupt society, of how he's corrupted the Justice Department, the Senate, which is engaged in a coverup with the president currently. While he talks about there being fine people among the racist and bigots in Charlottesville, he's banning people from entire countries because of their religions. All of these things are corrosive and corruptive and for our society. I believe that these things alone will motivate people and I do think we will find the unity that escaped us last time, because people are ready for a change. And that change is the president not having a second term.

"I want an administration that speaks against racism and white nationalism. I want an administration who speaks for the importance of education, that believes in the Violence Against Women Act... Mr. President, will you talk about those things?" - Sheila Jackson Lee

Trump called his State of the Union "The Great American Comeback." What would you say to viewers about the narrative of the country he's offering?

Sheila Jackson Lee

Be weary of what you hear. I don't think the President realizes the enormity of poverty in this nation. The many people who are still earning seven dollars an hour. As I walked into this room and a woman pleaded with me to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. The lack of affordable housing in this country, the needs of the homeless in this country — you cannot ignore people because you think their vote doesn't count. I want an administration that speaks against racism and white nationalism. I want an administration who speaks for the importance of education, an administration that believes in the Violence Against Women Act, which I wrote but is languishing in the Senate, and of course, one that attacks poverty head on. Mr. President, will you talk about those things?

Val Demings

I think viewers should lean in and pay good attention. As the president talks about how great he is, people should ask themselves the question: 'Is my life better? Am I worried about the future? Can I send my children to college? Can I afford the house I would like to have? Do I make enough money on the job? Is my minimum wage enough to pay my bills? Can I rest at night?' The country may be good for some, we know from the tax break that he pushed through, which benefits the wealthiest of people in this country. I would say to people, 'Do your own analysis and see if you are reaping the benefits of the President's leadership.'

"As the president talks about how great he is, people should ask themselves the question: 'Is my life better? Am I worried about the future? Can I send my children to college?" - Val Demings

Al Green

The President will talk about jobs created, but he won't talk about the fact that a good amount of people have to work two jobs, because you can't make a living wage with one. He will talk about his successes. But he won't acknowledge that, with his trade agreement, Democrats were willing to work with him so that he can help the country to a richer, better place. But that he won't work with us by appointing judges who will respect Roe vs. Wade. He uses his lack of civility to take advantage of our civility, in so doing he is harming society, but we have to take the high road. We cannot allow for him to decide that he is going to wake up one morning and just ban certain people from the country. I do believe that we can overcome the harm that he's doing and unify ourselves, and that is going to start at the top by electing another person as president.

Young people have organized en mass around climate inaction, gun violence, candidates they believe in, but many still feel their voices drowned out by traditional political influencers. What would you say to young people who feel cynical about having their voices heard by the government?

Mark Pocan

At least in my area, younger people are hugely outspoken advocates on the Green New Deal, climate change, gun violence prevention, a number of issues that indicate they are worried about their futures. They just want to be heard. Having just spent a lot of time in Iowa you can see that candidates who actually went out and listened, have a lot of support coming from young people. If young people don't vote, we don't increase our voter turnout, we are not going to win. So it really is a constituency that we got to prove that we are really going to do something about the issues they care about. I have seen that though, in the presidential campaign, I feel like people are connecting, mostly candidates, and I think we can make that happen for us in 2020 so we can change who is in the White House.

Val Demings

"I represent Orlando. I am reminded daily of the Pulse nightclub shooting where forty nine people lost their lives, and many more injured with visible and invisible wounds. I understand why people are disappointed and discouraged. But if we look back to some of the greatest leaders in our history they were young people who refused to accept the status quo. Dr. Martin Luther King was twenty six years old when he got involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Movement. Young people have always been, not just now, but always, been the energy, the strength, the talent, and the intellect behind serious movements, whether it was voting rights, women's rights, equal rights, housing. I would say take your disappointment and pain and turn it around. Become activists, be more dedicated and stronger than ever, because there is a roadmap from the past.

"Young people have always been... the energy, the strength, the talent, and the intellect behind serious movements." - Val Demings

Jan Schakowsky

I think that the voices of young people, not just millennials, but Gen Z, like my grandson who took part in the school walk-outs for the climate. These things actually matter. Participating in these kind of activities is noticed. Since Florida, high school kids have gotten really involved and you know, they were so smart, that they went to Chicago and went right to the African American community to say, "See, it's not just from rich white kids get shot in their classroom but it's the everyday shootings that we see in Chicago, look at the loss of hope young people have because their world is so dangerous." I think there is more attention than ever, so getting involved it makes a difference. Kids can intern on campaigns or they can get active on a gun violence issue or the climate. Getting involved matters and works.

Photos via Getty


Tei Shi Takes Us on Tour in Williamsburg

Photography by Andy Martinez / Story by Ivan Guzman