Editor’s note: The 117th Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, prior to the taping of this episode. While Reps. Bourdeaux, Leger Fernandez and Newman were representative-elects at the time of this taping, all three have been officially sworn in and currently serve in Congress.
- “The Ms. Q&A: Jackson Katz on Performative Patriotism, White Masculinity, and the Future of the Republican Party,” Jackson Katz and Jeremy Earp, Ms. magazine, January 8, 2021.
- “Young Voters Critical to Georgia’s Historic Elections,” Sophie Dorf-Kamienny, Ms. magazine, January 7, 2021.
- “‘We’re Building a Future Voting Culture’: How Barbara Arnwine and Others Mobilized Georgia’s Historic Win,” Mariah Lindsay, Ms. magazine, January 7, 2021.
Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show history matters. We examine the past as we pivot to the future.
On today’s show, we plan to meet the new feminists in Congress, and we will — but in the period since our team at Ms. magazine curated the design and content for today’s show, another shoe has dropped in American politics, further challenging our democracy. On January 2, 2021, during an hour-long conference call, U.S. President Donald Trump pressured the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the state’s election results in the 2020 presidential election, claiming miscounts, fraud, broken machines and more. Take a listen.
“Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”
Now this is after the president made 18 attempts to speak with Raffensperger after the November election.
“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state.”
Despite the president’s hour-long attempt urging Raffensperger, a Republican, to toss valid votes, the Georgia secretary of state did not cave. He refused to buckle to the president’s urgings. Instead, Raffensperger taped the call.
“I just prefer not to talk to someone when we’re in litigation. We let the lawyers handle it. The data that he has is just plain wrong.”
You know, that’s not all. By January 6, all eyes were not only on Georgia, which had just elected its first Black senator to Congress, Raphael Warnock. Dr. Warnock, the pastor of the church where Dr. King presided, and who counted the late Representative John Lewis amongst his congregants, made history.
“82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls, and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”
As well, Georgia also elected one of the youngest persons to ever serve the Senate, Jon Ossoff. Ossoff is also Jewish, and this has significance in Georgia.
Udi Ofer, the deputy national political director and director of the ACLU’s Justice Division tweeted this out. He stated:
“So much symbolism in both Warnock’s election and Ossoff’s election as the first Jewish senator from Georgia, the same state that in 1915, lynched Leo Frank. Frank was heavily involved in Jewish life in Georgia, and he was murdered by an antisemitic mob.”
That’s what Udi Ofer had to say. But what Ofer’s relating to was the mob also of pro-Trump insurrectionists that stormed the nation’s Capitol brandishing Confederate flags, antisemitic sweatshirts and hats, hats emblazoned with the word “Trump” or “Make America Great Again.” There was violence and total chaos.
At one point, chilling audio we hear officers being penned in and one being crushed.
In real time, people around the world heard all of that. Americans watched as the president urged an eager and hyped up crowd that they have to be strong, just before the riot. Take a listen.
We’re gonna walk down to the Capitol. And we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.
The world watched as an insurrection took place at the nation’s capital. Insurrectionists stormed the Capitol and rioted. They interrupted the Electoral College vote.
One woman, Elizabeth—we don’t know her last name, some of folks in Twitter may have tracked her down—but she said that she was from Tennessee when she told the reporter and that she was there to participate in the revolution.
Reporter (Hunter Walker)
What happened to you?
I got maced.
And what happened? You were trying to go inside the Capitol?
Yeah, I made it like a foot inside and they pushed me and they maced me.
What’s your name? Where you from?
My name is Elizabeth. I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Why did you want to go in?
We’re storming the Capitol; it’s a revolution.
Another woman, Texas real estate broker Jenna Ryan posed next to a smashed window, broken out window at the Capitol and tweeted: “We just stormed the Capitol. It was one of the best days of my life.”
She told the New York Post, “This is a prelude to going to war.” She flew to Washington D.C. on a private jet. On livestream she said, “God wanted us here today. Trump is my president.”
Jenna Ryan is right. Donald Trump is not only her president. He’s the president of United States. And this has many people around the world worried—and people throughout the United States. Members of his Cabinet have left, distancing themselves from the president in the wake of the riots, including close allies like Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s national security adviser; Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s former acting chief of staff. He resigned as special envoy to Northern Ireland, noting he couldn’t stay in the administration, that has actually only days left, after watching the president provoke a mob that overtook the Capitol complex.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor, wrote in her resignation letter, “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation. And it is the inflection point for me,” she wrote.
Elaine Chao, the Department of Transportation secretary announced her resignation on Twitter. She became the first Cabinet member to do so, she wrote that the riots deeply troubled her, and that she could not set it aside. So, she was the first amongst the Cabinet members to flee—and the list is growing.
But who could actually set any of this aside, when the rioters made clear what their aims were? Here’s Jenny Cudd who describes what she and others did to Speaker Pelosi’s office.
Vandalize anything. That we did. We did, as I say that. We did break down Nancy Pelosi’s office door and somebody stole her gavel and took a picture sitting in the chair flipping off the camera and that was on Fox News. Patriots got down on the floor. And were sitting in the House members’ and the senators’ chairs.
Now, at least five people are dead, linked to the attack on the United States government. [Editor’s note: A second Capitol Police officer, Howard Liebengood, 51, died by suicide on Saturday. Former police chief Terrance Gainer called Liebengood’s death a “line of duty casualty” in an interview with CBS News.]
The first person to die: a woman who was shot in the abdomen and later died as a result of this insurrection. In the day before leading to the insurrection, a Twitter account bearing her name warned, “Nothing will stop us. They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it’s descending upon D.C. in less than 24 hours. Dark to light!” She concluded that with an exclamation mark.
Insurrectionists scaled walls, broke into and vandalized offices, ransacked the halls. There was an armed standoff. Not since August 4, 1812, a battle with the British, has the United States Capitol been breached.
Members of Congress desperately scrambled for cover. They barred doors, they took cover under tables and desks, wherever they could find places to hide from the raging mob that had already smashed and climbed through windows. Chilling images of security, pointing guns at the doors in the halls of Congress, fearing perhaps for their lives and the people that they were protecting, will forever be reflected about this time in our history.
One person stole the podium used by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House; he smiled for a photo. He’s since been identified by the Bradenton Herald as 36-year-old Adam Johnson, a father of five. He’s been arrested—but not on the day of the riot, which raises other important issues about race and policing, and a tale, in some ways, of two very different cities, countries. Tale of two different Washington D.C.s, compared to the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder and that of George Floyd, compared to white supremacists storming the Capitol.
So we wanted to know how Americans were processing the horrors of the insurrection, including acknowledging that double standard that we saw unfold in terms of policing in the United States. What were Black people thinking about that? What were we all thinking about that? So we called up a friend of our show, Dr. Patricia Jones Blessman—she’s a noted psychologist who’s worked on high profile cases.
Patricia Jones Blessman
Hello there. So I’m calling—you know that I have a show, “On the Issues.” And you’ve been a guest on the show. And I’m calling you because of the events of this week, the riots, the insurrection. And as one of the leading psychologists who’s focused on issues of trauma, how are you processing this? And how do you think that people should be processing where we are right now?
Patricia Jones Blessman
Girl, this was cray-cray.
Well, you know, this is exactly what this is exactly what we’ve seen, being delivered in video footage that has been filmed by the people themselves, who ride in and stormed the Capitol. But really, what does this mean—people came into 2021, thinking about hope. There was the Georgia election and on the very day of the Georgia election, there were people who are breaking the windows of the Capitol building. I mean, this is a building that has been safe since 1812.
Patricia Jones Blessman
Right, right. Well, you know, we should not have been surprised on some level, because it was the end, they have been broadcasting their intent for weeks before months before this even occurred.
Tell me about, but just before I let you go, and thank you for taking my call. I’m wondering what your sense is of the Capitol Police, who you know, there’s video of Capitol Police being barricaded and an officer being crushed. And then there’s also footage of officers taking selfies, opening up the barricades and not resisting, not arresting the people who came through.
From a perspective thinking about race and what that means in terms of mental health, how do you think that Black people are processing that?
Patricia Jones Blessman
Well, you know, I know that it is difficult and challenging, because I know some I have a lot of friends who are activists, frontline activists around social justice. And in fact, who had been in DC.
One of my dearest friends was in DC, got arrested, she talked about being called thugs, being called the n-word, shoved to the ground, she’s a woman. Shoved to the ground, that kind of thing, by the same police—arrested, fined, the whole nine yards, and then to watch. And they were peacefully protesting.
And so it is a particularly bitter pill for the activists, and those in the Black community to watch another group with fair complexions and get invited to protest, to tear up.
And that’s, you know, it’s very disheartening to be in a country where it was very clear that you don’t, you don’t get the same, you don’t get any respect. The ability to share your voice is not even recognized, and in fact, will be violently snuffed out, if they can, by the authorities to be.
But it also says too that white supremacy on some level is backed up and supported by police departments.
All the while, the rioters took photos, selfies with Capitol Police, and video recorded themselves. But there are very few arrests on the day of the actual riots, certainly compared to the number of people who were riding in on cameras storming the Capitol.
So why were they at the Capitol? Who were they?
A lawyer amongst a group, Paul Davis, a former associate general counsel and director of human resources at Goosehead Insurance—he’s since been fired—explained in a video why he participated.
The fact that they will not let us inspect any of the ballots or the machines should tell you something and we’re all trying to get into the Capitol to stop this. And this is what’s happening.
So what does this insurrection mean for the United States? Will there be an impeachment? What message will it send? Here’s what Jennifer Steinhauer, a New York Times journalist, shared with me on this point.
She spent more than 25 years covering Congress, and is the author of the book, The Firsts: the Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress. Really happy to have her on the show today.
Given the events that unfolded on January the sixth, what many are calling not only mob rioting at the nation’s capital, but direct actions of sedition and insurrection and attempted coup, what are your thoughts about that?
Well, for me, as a reporter who has been covering Washington since 2010, I started covering Congress right when the Tea Party wave was going on. And the first class that was kind of a result of that were the Republicans’ 87 freshmen who took over the House, who helped Republicans take over the House in 2011. And that was, you know, as I said, that was a result of the Tea Party movement.
And since that time period, we have seen the populist, and quite frankly, nationalist and more racist elements of the party instincts and its base grow and become more vocal. And the party moved from this sort of Tea Party fiscal movement, and morphing into eventually what will become Trumpism. And so while I was, as someone who’s covered the Capitol, shocked to see it desecrated like that, and it’s a place that’s extremely secure that as a reporter, I’ve been detained for having expired press pass, you know, for an hour, I was amazed to see that security breach, I’m still baffled as to how it happened.
But I’m not surprised by the supporters of President Trump, who he basically egged on to do that. I was shocked at the outcome. I wasn’t surprised by that provocation. And I wasn’t surprised by their move to do so.
So let’s unpack that a little bit with the first part that you speak to, which is that you’ve been detained. We know in 2017, there were more than 40 individuals with disabilities that were arrested and even dragged out of the very buildings that were being photographed yesterday, and those were individuals who were at the nation’s capitol advocating peacefully for greater expansion of Medicaid and health services for individuals with disabilities. And yet they were forcefully removed. And yesterday, we didn’t see that.
So tell us about why you think that was. What’s behind that?
I mean, I’m telling you in honesty that it’s so hard for me to fathom, because as I said, I walk into the Capitol every day for years. And I still go there quite frequently. And I have a pair of boots with the buckles that sets off the metal detector, you know, I have to stop and be annoyed. That’s just part of the process.
If you look at the video, what you see is that the Capitol Police were clearly overwhelmed. You see long videos of them arguing with protesters, with these people who were starting to take off their jackets and push through the barricades. They were not. But you know, what’s interesting to me is they were not in riot gear, they had no backup, which suggests lack of planning. And they certainly didn’t use any of the non lethal force that they’ve used on, for example, Black Lives Matter protesters, not the Capitol Police, but other law enforcement officials. No pepper spray, none of that kind of deterrence that you might see when a mob is coming up to to essentially take over the United States Capitol. So it was an incredible breach of planning and response.
And then I’m going to add a little another element there, which is that lawmakers and the mayor of D.C. Muriel Bowser really wanted National Guard backup quickly and called for that. But the Pentagon was loath to respond immediately because they did not want a repeat of what happened in Lafayette Square over the summer when you know, protesters, as I just mentioned, were pepper sprayed and worse to make way for President Trump to make his way through the crowd to go to that church.
But two very different things, though, right? Between what the the people who are responding to the murder of George Floyd, that very brutal murder, which some people are calling a lynching on the streets of Minneapolis and people being pepper sprayed in Washington, D.C., because the president wanted a photo opportunity versus what it was that we saw yesterday.
What do you see as the difference there? Are those rationales alike, do they both hold up?
Well, that rationale holds up in the sense that there was so much criticism and I do believe members of the military, particularly General Mark Milley, were very chastened by that. He actually had to apologize for walking through Lafayette Square with the president.
So I think they didn’t want to create the impression of some military takeover, especially since everyone’s been very concerned that Trump was going to try to leverage the military somehow, in refusing to leave office and so forth. So the sensitivities were very heightened. And I do understand that.
Having said that, that still does not answer the question that you, me, everyone has which is: Why weren’t there better law enforcement tactics? Why weren’t they employed, the second that those barricades went down, and it was clear that they had every intention of coming into the Capitol illegally, and to cause destruction?
And I think that I think it was impossible to imagine, as you and I are sitting here talking, that people aren’t being fired or preparing to be fired over this.
That would certainly seem to be the case. As video footage wrapped up the evening, as legislators came back to Congress, one couldn’t help but think that it was such a poignant and somewhat disturbing symbolic image of the United States, and that there were Black workers who were sweeping up the aftermath, and cleaning the halls of our nation’s government, after many white supremacists had destroyed—and they perhaps were not all white supremacists who were there—but we certainly did see the Confederate flag waving forcefully through the halls of America’s government.
Yes, mean, that was a shocking sight. And by the way, some people have suggested the Confederate flag has never hung in a Capitol. That’s not accurate, because obviously, the Confederate flag has been part of state flags, which have hung in the Capitol at certain times. And there’s been a great move over the last few years by Nancy Pelosi and others to remove Confederate symbols from the Capitol.
But having said that, having said that, of course, to have an individual striding through the the rotunda carrying a Confederate flag is a haunting image that I don’t think anyone will soon forget. And certainly, Black workers in the Capitol, Black members of Congress, Black staff members, a shocking thing to see.
I think what is interesting is there was talk of continuing the people’s business, which as you recall, was actually the ratification of President Biden and Kamala Harris’s election results, which was being protested by various members of Congress—Republicans, mostly in the House, some in the Senate.
There was talk of trying to continue that off-site somehow. I think, actually, it was Vice President Pence who thought it was very important to return to the Capitol, and show that the government would not be intimidated and would not fall apart and would not unravel in the face of all this insurgency and to go ahead and continue that business, where it was meant to be conducted.
Well, it’s interesting to see how vulnerable that process became, and many were reporting yesterday afternoon, thank goodness, of the quick thinking of the person who secured the Electoral College votes. I don’t know exactly where she took them. But there were photographs, thank goodness.
Jennifer Steinhauer 23:27
And to a secure location and those kind of old fashioned wooden boxes, which to me when I saw those images as well, and the fact that women were carrying them, somehow evoked this whole sort of historical significance of that moment in the context of Congress, the role of women in Congress and so forth. And just the fact that they were these old fashioned—they almost look like sewing boxes.
It really just reminds you of both the historic nature of that building, that institution, its role, obviously, in our government, the actual material culture of that building. There’s even like little dial-up phones in the elevators still. And yet conflicting with this, in some ways, historically resonant but completely contemporary, political, shameful movement that had occurred all around it. It was really a striking image. I agree.
With the chaos, violence, insurrection and riots at the nation’s capital, it would be easy to lose sight of the landmark Georgia election, which will also shift power to the Democrats. What will that mean with Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker? It would be easy to lose sight of the rise of women in political power, which is exactly what this episode was intended to be about—and we’re getting to that right now. In other words, the trauma associated with the president’s efforts to undermine the 2020 election results, including he and his followers filing five dozen lawsuits, nearly each one of which he lost, the horror of the riots and the fragility of the American democracy really has created this sense of being at rock-bottom.
However, this past election has been an important one for women and for our nation. For example, the Nevada Independent noted two years after Nevada made history as the first U.S. state to have women compose a majority of its state legislature, lawmakers will return to Carson City in 2021, with nearly 60 percent of the seats filled by women legislators—by far the largest percentage of any statehouse in the country.
But take a look at Minnesota: Minnesota saw a record number of women elected to its legislature, 72 to be exact, bringing the percentage of women in the legislature in that state to 35 percent.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: But that’s not 50 percent. I agree with you. Every state must do better. But let’s be clear: There’s never been in Minnesota 35 percent of that state’s legislature being women.
The women in the U.S. Congress are also making historic gains. The 117th Congress will have a record number of women. In 2018, the U.S. elected a record 127 women to the House and Senate, including 48 women of color.
Now, the majority of those women were occupying seats in the House, not in the Senate. But seats in the House make a difference too, just think about it. Speaker Pelosi has called for the second impeachment of Donald Trump—that takes place in the House. This year, the U.S. has elected at least 116 women to the House and 25 in the Senate. This month, there were 51 women of color sworn in to fill congressional seats. I’m wondering what Shirley Chisholm would be thinking about that. And Fannie Lou Hamer too.
Women will make up at least 27 percent of the House and 24 percent of the Senate. Now, that’s still only roughly a quarter of Congress, when women represent 51 percent of the total U.S. population. And the World Economic Forum reminds us that the U.S. is nowhere near its peer nations in terms of women’s representation in power in federal office—I get that—and all across this country, much better advocacy and work to get women elected should take place.
But that said, women are filling seats in state legislature, in Congress, on school boards in record numbers. And it made a tremendous difference in this election too, including in states like Georgia, in Wisconsin and Arizona, all over the nation. They made a difference in this particular election.
Now that said, one point that’s being raised is that this doesn’t mean that women, especially white women, didn’t vote for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Depending upon the exit polls you look at, upwards of 47 percent to over 50 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2020. And that’s a point of concern that many people have. And we’ll get to that in this episode and episodes to come.
But on a broader note, what do these gains in Congress represent for our nation for women, for boys and girls? What transformative can happen with more women in power? What does it mean for our nation and so helping me to sort out some of these issues, I’m joined again by Jennifer Steinhauer and also by Carolyn Bourdeaux. She is a representative of the U.S. House representing Georgia’s 7th congressional district.
Teresa Leger Fernandez, she’s a representative of the U.S. House representing New Mexico’s 3rd congressional district. So happy to have her on the show, as well as Marie Newman. She is a representative of the U.S. House representing Illinois’s 3rd congressional district. They have a lot to say about these issues.
And so I’m going to turn back to Jennifer Steinhauer to give a sense about why exactly it is that she wrote her book, The Firsts: the Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress.
I was motivated to write a book about the women in Congress after all my years of covering Congress. To understand this historic class that came in in 2019, after the 2018 midterms full of the firsts: the women, the two first Muslim women, the two first Native American women, many people who were the first woman, or the first person of color to hold their seat, I think of Lauren Underwood.
I like to bring her up a lot. She’s in the Chicago suburbs, she ran in 2018 in a very crowded Democratic primary, not the pick of the party, prevailed, went on to unseat a Republican, first woman, youngest person, first person of color to represent that district—which by the way she grew up in, in Naperville, Illinois. So there were just so many firsts. And it was great to learn what motivated them to run and how they became and what they did with, you know, their first term in office.
And so that was your motivation for engaging in this space. And what’s the result? You know, what’s what’s your thought? You know, do you think that women will make a difference sitting in Congress, more women?
My kind of conclusion was two-fold. One is that, you know, party definitely trumps gender. Women, like men, largely vote with their party. There’s not sort of the female coalition, if you will, there was in the 1970s, when Republican and Democratic women worked together on a lot of issues, including the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which as you know, was successful in Congress and then ultimately not ratified. I don’t know if any of your listeners have watched “Mrs. America,” and the story of Phyllis Schlafly’s successful attempts to kill that, but it’s really kind of a fabulous, fabulous series, I definitely recommend it.
But they didn’t have any power, you know, in the 70s. They had no gavels. They weren’t on any good committees, they worked more across party lines —that changed in the 80s with the Gingrich Revolution, and as the Republicans became more conservative and the number of Democratic women really exponentially outpaced them.
But the two things I think are important to say is that in order to have any types of coalitions like we see in the Nevada Legislature, which is barely but it is majority female, the first one the nation, you see them working together on things like rape kit requirements for the police and things like that, that are issues that women care about when they get together in large numbers, will put to the forefront of the legislative agenda.
So I think, you know, having all these exciting women was very important to other women, because they can see them there and see themselves running for office. But I think what was more significant to the 116th Congress was its pure diversity—its racial, religious, ethnic, professional diversity. Having all these women who were veterans, for example, who worked the national security space—it was just a really, really powerful, informed, prepared and diverse class.
That brings me right to the question about why my guests ran for office. And so we’re going to start it off with hearing from representative Marie Newman about why she got in the race after founding her own anti-bullying nonprofit. She founded a national nonprofit organization called Team Up to Stop Bullying with her partner to address the problems, ultimately expanding it to a coalition of 70 anti-bullying groups working nationwide.
So why did she run for office? You’re going to find out now along with finding out about why some of the other guests on the show also decided to put their hat in. Let’s start with you, Rep-Elect Newman, what motivated you to run for office?
You know, I get asked that frequently. And I don’t think it was any one thing. What I saw was that in my particular district, it was completely out of alignment with our values. So that was kind of one, and I had been watching that for a while.
A few people said—I’m in lots of advocacy initiatives, everything from women’s movement, gun safety reform, to health care inequity and income inequity, so choose one. I feel passionately about all those things. But at the end of the day, our rep [previously eight-term incumbent Dan Lipinski] was so out of alignment and so ridiculously averse to women’s rights. It was just so tangible, that it was almost—I always say that I had to run. Not that necessarily I wanted to, I had to run. Someone had to stand up to this guy and someone had to stand up to the Chicago machine.
And honestly, it only could be a mom. It literally could only be a mom because, you know, throughout my career when I had a very thorny, complex problem that was stressful and required a lot of attention, I call a busy mom because those are the ones that are best at that. So I felt like, well, I’m just as good a busy mom as anybody else.
To pick up on that, when you say “busy mom”—because that’s also been a factor used to constrain women’s voices in a number of categories, right? The idea has been like, “Oh, she’s a mom. That means the only place that she’s supposed to be is in a kitchen with an apron.”
And hey, I like putting on an apron and baking some cookies and things like that, but doesn’t seem that that should be the only space that a mom can be. But historically, that’s what has defined women’s lives: You’re a mom; you’re supposed to be at home.
Rep. Marie Newman
Yeah. And that’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, right? That’s just, you know. So, I was a partner in the largest advertising agency in the U.S. I have run a business out of my home, a sole proprietorship, and sometimes an S corp, and done management consulting, and a bunch of things. I ran a national nonprofit from my home.
So we can do many things—women can do many things. In fact, I often go to women, because they’re so good about the workaround, right? You know, that I put it, somebody put a big blockade in my way. And frequently, it’s the patriarchy, right. So I need to figure out: What’s the map around that? And I find that to be very creative, innovative and resourceful, right?
So women have been doing this for centuries, literally. And I think only now has the blockade started to really—I mean, thank god for Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug and all of that generation because we wouldn’t be where we are today. But I think finally, finally, we’re getting to a place where that blockade is not so much a thing.
And I asked a similar question to Representatives Bourdeaux and also Fernandez, which is, exactly why did they decide to run? So let’s listen to Representative Bourdeaux, followed by the very interesting answer and background given by Representative Fernandez.
Well, there were several pushes that got me into this. Just a little on my background, I teach at Georgia State at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and have been involved in public and policy life here in Georgia for a long time. I was director of the Senate Budget Office during the Great Recession, to help the state balance the budget then, founded the Center for State and Local Finance.
So I’ve been involved in that kind of work. And a couple things became apparent to me. One was that our elected officials seem to have lost their line of sight to the people of this district. And one of the big issues was health care. And there are 120,000 people in this district without health insurance, which gives people basic access to a doctor. It’s a lot of people.
And when offered an opportunity to help them through things like expansion of Medicaid, and rolling out the Affordable Care Act, instead of taking action to help, what happened was our elected officials, and in particular the representative in this district [Rich McCormick (R)] actually undermined that proposal and that program.
And so Georgia did not expand Medicaid, something that I know from a fiscal standpoint meant that the state was returning to the federal government between $2.2 and $3 billion a year, that could have gone a long way to helping ensure that everybody had insurance coverage and access to a doctor. So that was one of the big pushes into it.
The other was the election of Donald Trump. And I just was not okay with the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia coming out of this administration. And so those were two big reasons for why I got into this race.
Well, and it seems that those reasons resonated with your constituents as well, because you flipped the seat, a seat and in fact, you were the only person who ran in this 2020 election to actually flip an incumbent Republican seat. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Sure. So I got into this race in July of 2017. And it was a sleeper race. This is the northeastern suburbs of Atlanta. It is a very diverse community: Twenty-five percent of the people in this district, so a quarter, were born outside of this country. So you can imagine it is this huge melting pot of people from all over the country and all over the world.
I got into this race in 2017. It was a very Republican district, and just started reaching out to these many, many diverse communities in this district.
And with a lot of effort, we did not get a lot of outside help, but it was a really grassroots organization. And we closed what was a 20 percentage point gap. So the Republican incumbent had never gotten below 60 percent of the vote. We closed that gap. I came within 433 votes, flipping the seat back in 2018, which was the closest race in the country.
And we felt like we had done so much work to engage people, we had some of the highest growth and new Democratic voter turnout in the country as a part of that, that we just couldn’t stop there. So I turned around, I got back into the race. And we kind of repeated what we did before. We just deepened those connections throughout the community. We worked very hard on voter registration, voter engagement and voter turnout. And with that effort, we’re able to push it over the line in this race.
Similarly, Representative Fernandez had concerns that were outside of herself. She’d spent 30 years as a counselor for tribes and their business entities, as well as with community leaders on affordable housing, Hispanic civil rights and community development.
And so when thinking about what motivated her to run for office, and how she knew that she was in the clear to do so, it’s very interesting, she tied it back to the communities that she served. Take a listen:
Teresa Leger Fernandez
Running for office has been a calling, truly a calling. My father had this saying that when something important needed to be done, he would say, “Ahora es cuando,” which means it’s time now. And literally his memorial package with that on the top because that was the top of his memorial package was “it’s time now,” you know, fell out of a jar when the seat came open. And I realized that it was time to bring the experience and in essence, the love that I have for my communities, to Congress.
I have three decades of making a difference and creating opportunity in places of poverty. And I love the communities I work with. I love my planet. I love my democracy. I love my familias. And we all do, we all share this incredible love for things like that, right, for our communities, our people, our planet.
And everything we loved was under attack. Right? It was under attack. And I wanted to rise up and meet the challenge. And I believe that 2021 was going to be one of those transformative years. And this was in 2019, before we knew what 2020 would look like. But I wanted to be part of that transformative moment, building upon, you know, the successes we had seen in 2018, where we knew we had to get to work and get things done to start protecting what we love.
Did someone tap you? Or what was that moment like? Do you remember the moment when you said, “Enough, this is just simply enough, I’ve got to put my hat in”?
Well I truly did get a call. My brother called me the minute the race opened up. He, you know, he’s in northern rural New Mexico. Ben Ray Luján called him. He said, “Of course, I want to support you for the Senate.” He put the phone down, he picked it up, he called me.
Teresa Leger Fernandez
You know, environmentalist progressives, they started calling because there was not a progressive voice of the community running. But I made that decision really quickly.
I spoke to, I worked with tribal leaders, Native American communities, and I spoke with several that I work with, and they asked me to get really quiet, and to listen to my heart. And they said, “What does your heart tell you?” And literally, we all started crying together. Because my heart told me I needed to do it, knowing that it’s not an easy thing to do.
It’s not easy.
Teresa Leger Fernandez
And knowing I would be leaving them. These are people I’ve worked with for decades. And they, you know, they gave me many blessings, many words of wisdom. And they literally also had tears in their eyes, as they were telling me you must do this, you will do more for us there. I just knew it was the right thing. And so it was a real sense of “I must do this.”
I’ve been able to do wonderful things in my life. I’m very fortunate. I’ve had many, many successes and blessings and all of that, but this was the one that was a calling.
So tell our audience then about some of that journey that led you to this point. And I say that because often it’s been discounted that important work of working with communities, of helping people in poverty, of lifting them out of conditions. And it’s interesting because that should be the point right? It should be transformative leadership that we’re talking about.
But often when you think about, whether it is running and becoming a member of Congress, taking a seat on the court, often it is not that, you know, those kinds of experiences and qualifications that are deemed those that are most elite. And yet I can’t help but think when you’ve transformed lives, from the very bottom up, that that is the work that’s important.
Teresa Leger Fernandez
I think it absolutely is. Because I am bringing to Congress perspectives of what it’s like in the trenches, what are the obstacles that we run into when we try to put broadband into communities that don’t have it, like the year before the pandemic hits, and then when the pandemic hits, and they didn’t get it, right. And so now their lives are at risk. They can’t go to school.
You know, I have helped build world health clinics. I have helped take lots of money. One of the things I know is finance, but the finance I do is taking money into underrepresented, underserved communities to build health clinics, to build schools, to build businesses—because if we don’t have businesses in those communities, we also don’t have jobs. Right? And so everything is connected. And I have spent 30 years doing that.
I’ve spent 30 years embracing cultural diversity. My parents were bilingual education pioneers, they wrote the law by—Navajo, Apache, Caris, Zuni, and Spanish are required to be taught in our schools. And because of the law that they wrote, they were these pioneers, they believed in service.
So I grew up just thinking that that’s what you do, right? It’s just natural. But also realizing that there is this strength of diversity, but a strength in knowing your identity and being proud of it. And using that as your source of strength. At the same time that you kind of take complete joy in another community’s identity, right?
So I’m Latina, I work with Native Americans. It’s like, I love going to their feast days. It’s like wow, that’s their feast day. I love it. Let’s go eat!
Breaking bread is an amazing thing, isn’t it? Right? When you can just sit together, be together, stand together, however you’re coming together, right? And whether it’s with hands or fork and spoon, and being able to come together in community, it’s a powerful thing.
Teresa Leger Fernandez
Yeah, or on the streets. I mean, whatever it is that it takes to get you there. You know, I’m a big believer in democracy. A lot of my work has been about increasing access to democracy.
What does that look like in your community, increasing access to democracy?
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez
What it looks like was, I sat on the board that I was vice chair of, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, MALDEF, the Latino NAACP, right?
And it looks like fighting around redistricting, to make sure that our community’s voices are not broken up. And so I learned that on the national level, and then I took it back to New Mexico. And I fought both of the last two decennial redistricting cases in the court, won them in the Supreme Court, to say, “You are not breaking up”—in this instance, it was like, as an example, they wanted to break up these Native American communities so they could create a uranium belt. So they would not have opposition, the Republicans would not have opposition to new uranium mining, which had devastated these communities. That’s what it looks like.
What it looks like is when the clerks are refusing to put early ballots, early voting sites in Native American or rural neighborhoods, it says going to the Speaker of the House and saying, “I can sue you and you know I’ll win a Voting Rights Act claim. But let’s not do that. Let’s legislate it.”
And so in New Mexico, we legislated that you must put early voting sites so everybody has equal access to the ballot. What it looks like is, you know, we have this amazing bill that has been introduced, HR1, the For the People Act—I call it the protect our democracy, protect what we love, protect our fair elections.
It means looking at that bill and saying, “Oh, I can bring lessons from New Mexico about how we did that. And let’s put them into this bill.” And the Democrats say, “Great idea. Let’s put them into that bill.”
So that’s what it looks like to say, “People should not have to wait 10 hours to vote.” They are democracy heroes when they are waiting 10 hours, but that is not democracy. That is suppression. And so let’s put something in a bill that says that is a violation and that will not be tolerated.
So one of the things that I learned from my guests is that it’s not enough to just run for office—although that’s really important, and the work that they were doing before they ran for office was transformative in their communities and also nationally.
But remember what we heard from Jennifer Steinhauer: You don’t get to be a member of Congress unless you actually unseat somebody. So being successful in running for office actually matters. It’s not enough to just run for office; one must unseat somebody, and one can’t help but notice that the majority of the women who have taken seats in Congress this year are women who ran on Democratic tickets.
Now, there were Republican women who also were seated in this Congress. But compared to the Democrats, they’re really quite in the minority. But it doesn’t mean that the women all win on their first go around. And so that’s really important to think about as we hear about Carolyn Bourdeaux’s story, because although she unseated an incumbent Republican, she had to do it on her second try. Here’s what she had to say:
So what’s your message to those who might say, “It’s a good idea, but I’m not sure that I would be successful. I don’t know if it’s worth all of that effort. And at the end of the day, it comes down to a few 100 votes. And I’m not on the winning side of that.”
Do you have a message for people who are thinking about that? Do you have a message for women who might be in a position thinking about that?
Well, one of the mottos of the campaign was persistence and consistency, be consistent and persistent. Turn that around a little bit. And it is very, very important. You have to recognize there’s a lot to learn when you first try a political campaign. But also if you’re in a district like this, where Democrats really just didn’t compete before that. And that made a huge difference that we actually were knocking the doors and talking to people who’ve never been talked to before by a Democratic candidate.
So do you think that that was the reason why Democrats in that area had not been successful, because there wasn’t a grassroots type of campaign?
There just wasn’t support for it. But with the election of Trump, you had this huge energy pouring into, you know, people were just not going to take it anymore. And I think we were all of us willing to take more risks, too, all of a sudden that we realized we had to take these kind of risks, we had to try. We could not let the country go down this way. And with that outpouring of energy, that was yes, that made the difference.
I can’t say, you know, single handedly I did this at all. There was a coalition, a very diverse coalition. We had Stacey Abrams at the top of the ticket, you know, myself running, Lucy McBath, in the 6th congressional district, I had an incredibly diverse and very talented group of people running at the State House and Senate levels as well. And we just put together this formidable coalition to engage people in ways they had not been engaged before.
Well, in fact, and speaking of that, what became really clear was the work of a diverse cohort of folks, and especially women, and women of color and Black women coming out, and that really making its mark, not only in Georgia, but across the country.
But let’s turn to Georgia, because Georgia has been in the spotlight. So what do you think has been the magic ingredients? Or is there any kind of magic ingredient behind what women did to make this happen?
Yes, there is a magic ingredient. And it is hard work. Everybody wants the glamorous answer. But we sat down and we have knocked the doors, we’ve made the phone calls, we’ve raised the money. We’ve done the mailers, we’ve done the digital campaigns, we’ve gotten up on TV, we did the work.
And everybody wants some kind of secret formula here, and I tell them I had 100 interns who are high school students and college students from the diverse communities of this district. And they made probably half a million dials, talked to 18,000 voters one on one and helped educate them often about how to vote how to overcome some of the voting problems we have here. And that was just, it was elbow grease. It was hard work. And it was this diverse and wonderful coalition of people who came together and just did the work.
So what we just heard from Representative Bourdeaux, is that there is no secret sauce or magic to women winning more seats in elected office, except that it’s hard work, that it’s coalition building, galvanizing, working with young people, building bridges, and clearly not giving up. Having that winning spirit.
That said, a lot of money has entered politics in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which many believe is one of the most dangerous and egregious opinions to our democracy ever issued by the United States Supreme Court. But even with their wins, I also wondered, could the message of hard work and unity actually help and advance an agenda in Congress where partisanship has been and has left such a visible mark.
Teresa Leger Fernandez
There is stuff we can do, because we will be passing bills. And we will now have a president and a vice president and an administration who will go out and help us explain what they are, because I can go to my district, but I can’t go to the country. Right? And we can have Vice President Kamala Harris go to the country and explain why this makes sense. And she can do it with President Biden. And she can do it with Secretary Fudge, and she can do it with Secretary Haaland, you know, our first Native American heading up the Secretary of Interior.
And that is the kind of pulpit that we will have to the nation to explain what we’re doing, so that there becomes a common understanding of what we are trying to do.
What we have not been able to do in the last four years is have that expression. Trump has been distracting us, Trump and those Republicans who support him because not all do. What they are good at is distracting from the work that the American people do. And what we need to get good at is saying, “This is the work that we are doing for you. And this is how it translates to your future.”
As we turn to the closing segment of our unique arrangement for this “On the Issues” episode, I wanted to further explore the question: What can be expected from a Biden-Harris White House? What can be expected now with their control of the Senate, but still with obstacles along the way? And here’s what my guests had to say:
So, what’s your sense with regard to many who say that with a Biden-Harris team in the White House, that the very concerns that you have, and that you’ve had, and others that they go away? Right, and that there’s this kind of new day where there’s less to worry about than what we’ve seen in recent years? What’s your response to that?
Well, I think they have a good start, they’re not done. If you’re talking about Cabinet picks and filling out their administration, they’re not done, I don’t even think they’re quite halfway there. And I believe that they are making good selections, the most important thing I will say, well, I would like to have them be more diverse and younger, quite honestly, and more women. It’s much better than we’ve ever had. So let’s give them credit for that.
The equally important thing is that these people are actually competent versus our last administration, which was filled with incompetency. So that’s something that’s a bright spot, but we just have to hold their feet to the fire, right, is that Vice President-Elect Harris and President-Elect Biden are listening, and we have open ears. So let’s, let’s use that and make sure that we continue to keep their feet to the fire, and keep them accountable to what they’ve said.
And, you know, I just had an interview yesterday when someone asked me about AG picks because they’re being deliberative. And I have no issue with that. You keep thinking about it. And that gives us more time to wear them down, right?
I couldn’t leave my interviews with Representatives Bordeaux, Fernandez, Newman, without reflecting on the times in which we’re in, and that is a global pandemic, one that has wreaked havoc all around the world. And we see it in the United States.
In some communities there just simply aren’t enough hospital beds. There are bodies that are in trucks that are being kept refrigerated because those bodies are the bodies of dead people.
In some communities, there just simply isn’t the sophisticated medical devices and technologies that will help to keep people alive while they struggle through COVID to do the things that we take for granted, such as breathing.
And of course, there’s been a disproportionate toll in how COVID has affected communities in the United States. Clearly, if there are Native American reservations where the plumbing hasn’t reached the houses, then that’s going to be difficult addressing COVID. So those are some of the issues that I ended up taking up with Representative Bourdeaux. And so before we close out the show, when we talk about silver linings after a time that’s been so complicated, let’s hear what that conversation was like. And then we’re going to turn to silver linings.
What you’re speaking of when thinking about COVID is the tragedies of these times, because what COVID has revealed are underlying institutional and infrastructural inequalities in our society. Over one in 1,000 Americans has now died due to COVID. And when you think about it, in context of other things, you know, the Vietnam War lasted 19 years. And within just the early few months of this disease, this pandemic in the United States, we had lost more Americans due to COVID, than we had to the Vietnam War. And that was just a few months in.
You know, it makes me think that if some terrorist organization claimed that they had killed in the United States, landed in the United States and killed one in 1,000 Americans, you’d see every kind of action appropriations taking place from Congress to battle it out. How come we’re not seeing it with regard to COVID, at least in terms of financial appropriations?
It is outrageous. I can say in this relief package, there are some very, very important provisions beyond that kind of individual aid to families that are going to be very important. There’s help to pay rent, there are efforts to ensure that landlords are not throwing people out of their homes, there is very important help for schools, there’s help for small businesses, there is also aid that’s really going to be essential in the distribution of the vaccine.
And I don’t know if you’ve noticed or seen some of the stories, but we are struggling as a country to get that vaccine out to people right now. We were supposed to have something like 20 million people vaccinated by this point. And now we’ve only done something like 2 million.
Is that a failure of coordination? What’s that a failure of?
Oh, yes, it is a failure to understand how we distribute vaccines to people. It’s my understanding that what’s happened is the federal government had the vaccines, gave them to the states. But for 20 years, the states have gutted our public health programs. And so they gave it to the states and the states are like, Well, how do we get it out now to the doctors?
But disparity also, I want to point out disparity is going to continue to be an issue in the distribution of the vaccine, because disparity is so embedded in our health care system. You know, how is this vaccine ultimately going to be distributed? It’s probably going to be through our doctors, through the CVSs, the Walgreens?
And what is going to happen with that 120,000 people who don’t have health insurance? I suspect that that is more disproportionately people of color, who are in that group. Where are they going to get the vaccine if they don’t have a primary care provider? And that kind of question is going to permeate this entire process.
And when you speak of that number, you’re talking Georgia, and when we multiply that, you know, nationwide, we’re talking about millions of people who don’t have access to health care insurance. And by not having access to health care insurance, it also means the very places that others would be familiar in terms of going to—their doctor, their clinic, the local hospital—there are people who just don’t have that in their parlance, because they simply don’t have health insurance, and many millions of Americans have never had it.
Exactly. Yeah. Well, right off the bat, we are working on how we are going to tackle COVID and how we’re going to use the congressional office to get aid to people who so desperately need it. And so the first thing is we have a relief package that we have passed. And we’re going to put together a working group to make sure that it is getting where it needs to go in the district and a working group that can be taking notes on what else is needed to get us through the crisis. And that includes everything from families, income support, small businesses, working on the distribution of the vaccine, schools.
The schools are going to be a big issue: How do we get our children and keep our children in school safely, until we can get that vaccine deployed?
And Rep. Bourdeaux, one other question before we get to the end of our show where we begin to talk about silver linings.
You know, people think that when someone comes into office with great ideas, and with a commitment to action, that things turn around right away. And so I wonder what your message is to folks who might believe, well, you know, the Biden-Harris administration, Rep. Bourdeaux, and Congress—it’s all going to be different, right? The things that we’ve seen over not just the last four years, but even more so right? Whether it’s been the blocking of judicial appointments, whether it’s been the horrific things that we’ve seen with regard to immigration, children being taken away from their parents put literally in cages, an administration that has argued against children having access to soap and toothpaste while in detention centers, and so much more. We don’t have to go through the whole litany of it, but it’s a very long list.
And so there are people who voted for you and have said, “We want to see a change to all of that.” Well, what’s your response to people who might say that in 100 days, I want all that gone and we should be able to assess your track record, after 100 days? What do you say to that?
Well, I do think there are some things we can fix in relatively short order that President Biden and Vice President Harris are going to be able to do through executive order. I think anybody who knows anything about U.S. government knows that our legislative process is slow. And it takes a lot of work, to get legislation through and to make some of those bigger structural systemic changes that we so desperately need.
So, you know, we do have a government designed that way for a reason. Because we do want to have everybody’s voice heard, we do want to bring people together to solve problems, and it does take time to do that. I do think some things will go faster than others.
Listeners, we’ve reached that time in our show where, you know, I asked our guests about silver linings, and I did with Representatives Bourdeaux, Newman and Fernandez, and you’ll hear it in that order. With each one, I asked what they see as a silver lining. And what you’ll hear now are their responses to me—and boy, are they so insightful, so heartfelt, and really touching. A way to help put in perspective all that we’ve been through and that we’ve seen in 2020. And what we’ve seen in just the first couple of weeks of 2021. But they give us a sense about how to look forward, how to live in hope, and also how to get to action.
So take a listen to my questions about silver linings to Representatives Bourdeaux, Newman and Fernandez:
So one of the spaces that’s a happy space for many of our listeners is to sort of think about, even though there have been dark times, how we can look forward to silver linings.
And so what do you see as a silver lining of these times going forward? What can folks in your district gain hope from?
Well, there’s several things. One, I would go back to the Black Lives Matter protests. And when I talk about that issue with people in the district, I want everybody to go back to this touchstone of something very phenomenal that happened during those those protests.
What happened in the 7th district was that every little city had multiple protests. And these were organized by young people, people in high school, college, who would post on Instagram and Twitter, “Let’s just meet in the city center,” and completely informal, thousands and thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, different age groups showed up.
And it was the most touching and moving part of the entire campaign. And it would be down home, the students would roll up with their little handheld speaker and microphone and would do presentations. And I think as a community, we need to go back to that moment and recognize that we are all in this together. And we all want that opportunity for ourselves, for our children and access to the American dream. And we want to do that as a diverse and inclusive community to get there.
So let’s close out. One of the things that I asked my guests on each show is, you know, given the times that we can be in at any moment—they can seem dark, foreboding and very difficult to overcome. But I’m wondering what you see is the silver lining going forward?
So, it’s funny, if I hover above society and think about society right now is that we learn two super important things: This strict experiment of a blend of a democracy and a republic works. It worked through the toughest of times, this model is incredibly strong. It worked through its worst threat in its 240-plus year history, right? So it works.
Second thing is, is that science always wins, always wins every damn time, right? Even when it comes up against the greatest opposition. So with that, I feel wind beneath my wings, and we’re going to get a lot done.
Final question. And thank you so much for being with me today—silver Linings. What do you see coming out of what many people have described as the darkest time, 2020, in perhaps the last century? What do you see as a silver lining coming out of 2020? And going forward into 2021?
Teresa Leger Fernandez
I really hope it is this determination to actually act.
It’s the idea that we are in a historic moment and in historic moments, you must rise to meet that moment, and we must rise to meet this moment and act to address the things we’ve talked about today. And that is what I hope the silver lining is, is that when you are in that deepest despair, that you cannot just say, “Ah.” You have to say, “No, we must change what we have.”
And so that determination of changing what we have right now, and that that is shared by enough people, enough people in Congress and enough people around that we actually do it.
The other silver lining is, I know you asked for one, but the other silver lining is the idea that we have now seen those who do so much of their work for us. Right? And do we now say that we value essential workers and recognize their essential existence to ours, and therefore we’ll take care of them. And because they are us, and that is what I hope is another silver lining is that our hearts, you know, let’s work from a place of love, from a place inside the heart.
You know, I ran on an idea that we work from our hearts, and that we can now say we must take care of each other because they are as essential as I am essential.
Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” And I want to thank my guests, the newly-elected women representatives in Congress: Carolyn Bourdeaux, Teresa Leger Fernandez, Marie Newman and also Jennifer Steinhauer, a reporter with the New York Times, for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation.
And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope that you will join us again for our next episode, where we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is with special guests tackling issues related to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It will be an episode you will not want to miss. And for more information about what we discussed today, head to msmagazine.com.
So if you believe, as we do, that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to visit us at Apple podcasts. Look for us at msmagazine.com for new content and special episode updates, rate and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” in Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google podcasts and Stitcher. Let us know what you think about our show and support independent feminist media.
This has been your host Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Maddy Pontz, Roxy Szal and Mariah Lindsay. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, digital production assistance and research provided by Oliver Haug, and music provided by Chris J. Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.