On December 18th, I spoke with Greg Edwards, who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s fifteenth district. A transcript of our conversation is below.
If after reading this interview you agree with me that Greg is the right candidate for his district, please join me in donating to his campaign.
An Interview With Greg Edwards, Candidate For Congress in PA-15
For someone who has never been to this part of Pennsylvania, can you describe the district, and the people in it?
So the 15th congressional district is, obviously, heavily gerrymandered. It has five counties: some of Northampton County, all of Lehigh County, some of Berks County, some of Lebanon, and then Dauphin County.
The district is predominantly urban, and it's predominantly white. The largest city in the district is also the fastest-growing city in the commonwealth: Allentown. It has a population of about 110,000. And it's a 52% majority-minority city.
The district was originally mostly the Lehigh Valley, which would have made it, probably, more urban than now. It's an area that has had a great deal of disinvestment and deindustrialization, because of steel mills like Bethlehem Steel closing. The people in this District are very diverse, and you find in the more eastern part of the district, it's a little bit more urban. I'm not going say cosmopolitan, but certainly you'll find people who commute back and forth everyday to New Jersey, where the levels of income are higher, but the cost of living is cheaper in Pennsylvania. So you'll find a lot of that in the Eastern side of the district.
The western side of the district is a much more rural section, and not as heavily populated. The density is not as great. And — you know — I think that this is an area that was heavily influenced by the Pennsylvania Dutch and people of Germanic derivation. But there is an increasing Latinx population that has moved here, since the late 80s and early 90s, because of the highway system being open taking people from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And that kind of happened in the 1990s. Though there's been a heavy influence of the Latinx population in Allentown and Bethlehem, the infrastructures — the public infrastructures — like public schools, and other public facilities, have not really calibrated themselves to embrace the diversity. It's an area that has never had any person of color be a municipal leader, be a state leader, or a congressional legislator.
That leads me to ask you: you're a first-time candidate—like everybody else that we're supporting—and this has been an extraordinary year, that has brought many people into politics. What was the moment where you decided that you had to run for office, and you had to run for Congress, that it had to be you?
I've always been very political, though I haven't held office. And being a person who come from a marginalized community and an area—and having worked with with diverse populations—so for the last 20 years, I've spent my life developing racially diverse, culturally rich, politically aware communities. Both in the nonprofit and the faith-based sectors.
I looked around at a town hall that we held at our church that was packed with about 900 people wondering why our senators, whose salaries we all paid, would dare not show up to have a conversation with people whose literal lives were on the line. So having been in this area, having been taxed as a citizen, I have—for the last several years—tried to find someone to run, at all levels. And I really felt that there was not a robust repository of people who were equipped, who could walk into different rooms—around race, gender, orientation—people who could bring people together in a gerrymandered district, and really value each person.
For that reason, I think back in the late winter/early spring, I decided that I would run for public office. How dare our our Senator or our government take things that really should be a right and make it an entitlement. I was deeply disturbed and offended by that. So I think probably in March, I was pretty clear that I was going to run for office.
And really the question, you know the question ironically that I asked myself, you know being 47, having three degrees, having started organizations from scratch, is that at the end of the day, with all my education, and with all the things I've been through, I'm still at best kind of pulling bodies out the water. And to me, that's not enough.
It's not enough to be a leader of a nonprofit and really have benefited from this non-profit industrial complex, which only really kind of benefits and galvanizes itself around injustice. Part of what I would like to do is get rid of this charitable model and move towards more equitable legislation. Where we're not kind of in perpetuity funding inequality through a charity model system, and that's why I decided to run.
Do I have it right that you were a pastor?
How has that transition been, from working with faith communities, to now being someone who's running for political office?
Well, you know I get asked that question a lot. When folks know I'm a pastor, their framework of reference is very narrow. So they tend to think of someone who's ultra-conservative. That's unfortunate that that's the framework of reference.
I come out of the black church, in particular the African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Richard Allen in Philadelphia who walked out of Saint George's Methodist Church because the white people in the church denied him the access, as a person of color, to the altar.
The traditions that run deep in the black prophetic church are never to separate one's faith from the struggles of everyday life. That's not something we're afforded. We can't compartmentalize our belief in universal aspects such as truth, and love, and peace, and justice from the everyday struggles of people having to put food on the table, and having shelter over the head, and having clothing on their back.
I think that that's something that's afforded to predominantly white communities who can take their faith and separate it as something other than other-worldly band and in the traditions that I come from, for every Pat Robertson there's an Adam Clayton Powell.
It seems like the mainline white churches are the ones who are terrified of being political, and are trying so hard...
And I would actually say more the white Evangelical churches, because the mainline churches... So for talking about like Lutheran Episcopal: many of them to come out of the institutional Church kind of found that movement — the Social Gospel— founded by Walter Rauschenbush, in which their aspect is to do good in the community. Actually, if you look nationwide, those are the churches that are really involved in rallies and in acts of justice.
It's really been the white Evangelical Church, which is arguably deeply married to white nationalism, that has propelled Trump into office. And the faith community is not monolithic, the black faith community is not monolithic at all.
So I come out of a tradition where pastors have held political office. Because those are the persons who have been afforded not only the most education, but the access to tables where power and decisions are made. And so in communities of color, many of them right or wrong have given the pastor the voice to speak on behalf of the people. And I think that we have a tradition whether it's Adam Clayton Powell or Floyd Flake, or countless other black pastors— Emanuel Cleaver in Kansas — who have held both the post of the pastor and the post of a political leader.
This district is considered to be a republican-leaning, which we just talked about. I don't think any of us believe that it actually is, but can you talk a little bit about the incumbent in your district, and your plan to crush him like a bug?
So the seat is—I like your language—so the seat is now open because the incumbent is retiring. After six terms, he's decided to retire when he was primaried for the very first time in his political life. So he was primaried for the first time: two days later he decided it's not worth the fight.
Amazing how that happened -- the Paul Ryan Effect.
Right, but that does say something about even this district and also our local political environment where mediocrity has been a substitute for excellence. I think our our message is one of economic populism and certainly increasing the electorate.
We only win and crush our opponent, not by being Republican-like or Democrat light. We win by making visible the people who both parties have made invisible. And that's our plan. Our plan is to do deep canvassing, run a strong field game to galvanize people across all walks of life, and tie in the fact that our fate is bound together in this moment in our nation's history.
It really doesn't make a difference whether you're Republican or Democrat. We have inhumane legislation happening. Unfortunately, some of that legislation has also been propagated by the Democratic party as well. So this is the moment to put people over party, and that's how we're going.
I think the notion here is that we can only win the district by going after the super voters in the Democratic party and getting some of the Republicans to swing over to our side. That's not what we're going to run for.
We are going to run to galvanize people who really want to see their government do something, and who really understand that our financial, or economic situation, our future is tied together. You know someone who is at the deep end of the ocean doesn't care if you're Republican or Democrat. They just want a lifeline.
I think both parties have used this language to their detriment. That's why we saw in November the wave of human beings getting elected — not necessarily people who are steeped in any party, but they were human beings from marginalized communities who were able to win because, in part, you know these were people who've lived with their backs on the outside, who haven't been made visible. And I think one of the gifts of coming from historically marginalized communities where you're not invited to the table: we have the opportunity to see who's in the room and see everybody and I think when we look at that that wave in November, we don't see necessarily a Democratic wave as much as we see a human wave. And that's why people got elected and strange ways and places where they could never get elected.
Speaking in practical terms, how do you reach out to communities where people haven't voted, people are not used to voting, and persuade them that this is the year... get them registered. What does it take to do that?
I think, pragmatically, it takes a lot of door knocks. It takes a lot of conversations I also think it takes a candidate who can hear the pain that people offer, and not push their agenda rather than listen to what people are saying, and inspire, and offer hope, and offer an alternative besides the fact that Trump is just not good for America. So I think we that we paint a picture that allows people to see their place in the picture. And then take ownership of it. I think that's what we have to do.
The anecdotal evidence of people not voting because they're lazy as a false one. I think people don't vote because they've been made to feel they don't matter. And if I'm made to feel I don't matter, I don't show up for a whole lot of stuff I should show up for. Because when I show up — you're still not going to see me. So I think we have to see people. I think people show up when they feel seen and heard.
Because you're in such a heavily gerrymandered area, there's an argument to be made that if you redrew these five districts, they might all be Democratic. Are you coordinating with neighboring candidates in any way?
We've worked with and talked with Jess King in the 16th, and she and I were both at PCCC, and we were trained by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. I know that we've attended some joint events together, and we're working across our districts and doing some cross-pollination on canvassing.
Fantastic! So for tech people who are off in California, or over in New York: what can we do to help you win?
You can write checks. We are in an economically depressed area, relatively speaking everything is relative. When we think of Pennsylvania, we tend to think of the sexier districts: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, that have much more money.
We're in the Lehigh Valley, we're in a urban/suburban district. The median income is $58,000. The largest city of this area has a per capita of $16,000 per person, with a school district that allocates $5,000 per child, with a graduation rate that's less than 60%. So it's not a sexy area for anybody: not a lot of funds here.
What we need are people outside the district who really understand that all of our fate is tied together who can write checks, who can help our campaign financially, and who can believe in our capacity to change Congress.
When you're elected to Congress, what will be your number one agenda item?
Health care. For me, there are three issues that are interesting, like a three-legged stool that are hard. You know it's hard to choose one of the other: but I think health care.
I think when we when we view health care as an entitlement, not a right, that we undercut our national economy. I think that we also render people disposable. I think that we're spending a lot of time and energy fighting against the consistent onslaught of Republicans who want to repeal and replace the ACA.
We need to be fighting for universal health care for every person, and I think it's proven that it works economically. It's the only right thing to do in a democracy, and I think it begins to help people self-actualize a whole new way of life. I think there are people who are tied to dead end jobs because of a part-time health benefit package.
The fact of the matter is we don't have a health care system, we have a health-care industry that hasn't been about health care for the last 35 years. If you have a healthy citizenry, that everybody can participate in, I think it begins to change the national conversation and the national landscape.
When you rally and you march with people who are not doing it because it's the popular thing, but literally their hospice care, their mother's hospice care, their oxygen tanks, their medication for their heart, the coagulant that is tied to whether they wake up tomorrow or not. You know we're talking about literally the difference between life and death. And so I think on Day One we begin to look at how we can sign more of my colleagues up to endorse HR 676 on the HR side. Or 1804 on the Senate side so that we can really push for an agenda that universalizes health care.
That's the first thing. I think in district what we're going to do is we're going to move from this whole notion of politicians being untouchable and not acknowledging people, and use our legislative offices as areas where people can organize and phone bank in the community to help us push a bold agenda.
Thank you so much for talking to me
Absolutely. Thank you.
Please donate to Greg Edward's campaign individually, or as part of our Great Slate of eight progressive candidates. Every amount helps! Note that you must be a U.S. citizen or green card holder to donate, and may not be a Federal contractor.
And please, share this interview with your family and friends!