On November 28th, I spoke with Jess King, who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 16th district. A transcript of our conversation is below.
If after reading this interview you agree with me that Jess is the right candidate for Lancaster, please join me in donating generously to her campaign, or to the entire Great Slate of eight progressive candidates!
An Interview With Jess King, Candidate For Congress in PA-16
Can you describe your district to people who have never been here?
The majority of Pennsylvania's 16th district is Lancaster County. Some of that has been carved out to be part of the 7th congressional district, but most of Lancaster county is in the 16th.
It also was redistricted after the last census and now includes Reading city. It just sneaks up, kind of by a thread, and catches that city of 85,000 people, along with a bit of surrounding area of Berks County around Reading. And then it also moves to the east from Lancaster County and catches southern Chester County and up to Coatesville.
The demographics of this district increasingly favor a Democrat running and winning. It's a R+5 district, there are a lot of independents in the district as well. It's a lower income district and at least 20% of constituents are people of color.
It's just a very diverse place. People might picture bucolic Amish and Mennonite farm fields, which it does have, but it also has Reading, with 85,000 people and a 40% poverty rate. Over 50% of that city are people of color. Similarly, Lancaster has a 30% poverty rate, with over 50% also people of color. And Coatesville, 13,000 people with a 30% poverty rate.
So we have three of the poorest small cities in the region, in this part of Pennsylvania with higher poverty rates than Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, the big cities in our state. They are surrounded by fairly affluent suburban rings, and then rural areas where you saw a lot of people who voted for Bernie Sanders and then went on to vote for Donald Trump. There's a really populist sentiment in this area of people who are working families from across the racial spectrum and cultural spectrum.
We have more Puerto Ricans in this district than any other Republican House seat—72,000 Puerto Rican constituents, a lot of people who move here from New York and Philadelphia as those cities continue to change and gentrify. My next door neighbors grew up in Brooklyn and moved here to raise their family when they couldn't afford to live in Brooklyn any more.
So, it's just a really interesting district, and continuing to change. We expect 10,000 people to be moving here in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. The BBC has called Lancaster "America's refugee capital", where we resettled twenty times the number of refugees of any other place in the country.
There is a really interesting mix of plain folks, Amish and Mennonite, and that's my background. I'm Mennonite and married to a Mennonite pastor. There are probably more plain folks here than any other place in the country, part of Christian religious sect, and international immigrants and refugees who bring such diversity and strength to this economy in so many ways.
They come from all over, especially the Latin American immigrants. We have people from the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and then we have a large refugee population, like I said, from Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria and other places as international conflicts shift and change. So, it's a beautiful and diverse place.
How has Hurricane Maria affected the Puerto Rican community where you are?
Oh, it's, it's been awful, it's just been terrible. So for example, Lancaster city just elected the first Latina city council member, Janet Diaz. She is a friend, and a supporter of the campaign, and she went well over a month before she was able to actually talk to her family on the island.
This is the story over and over of all of our Puerto Rican friends in this community of not being able to reach loved ones on the island. Everyone has family and friends still on the island. Just seeing the devastation that they've never seen before, on top of the economic crisis that Puerto Rico already was experiencing because of a lot of broken policies.
I think all of that together, plus this administration's response to it, was just horrifying. Frustrating doesn't even capture how I think people felt in response, both Puerto Ricans and non-Puerto Ricans, of believing that Puerto Rico was treated like no other place has been treated in the wake of a natural disaster in this country. We simply have to do better.
Like everyone on our Great Slate, you're a first-time candidate. What was the moment when you decided you had to run for office?
I had been talking with some friends, some people that I had known for a long time, who actually grew up in the church that my husband pastored. I respected their work and their activism, and others who encouraged me to start thinking about running for office, which I really hadn't thought about. I had thought about it on a smaller local level, but never had thought about it from a congressional standpoint until I was encouraged to.
The pivotal moment for me came at a non-profit event. You know as a non-profit executive director, that's the work I've done for my career. I was at an event supporting affordable housing and the author Matthew Desmond, who wrote the book "Evicted" was at that event.
He talked a lot about the dire state of housing affordability in this country, and that a huge number of people spend far more than 50% of their income on rent. The number of people who fear that they're going to be evicted at any point is higher than we've ever seen. The waiting list for public assistance in housing is eight years. Only one out of four people who qualify, just the people who qualify for housing assistance, in this country, actually get something and everybody else gets nothing. And his encouragement to the audience was—is this all hopeless or can we actually do something to change it? He said we really need bold political vision in this moment to fight for these kind of values, these kind of issues, and to represent people who are being left behind.
I knew I had already been thinking about this, and I heard that just so clearly. I know after living and working low income communities of color for my entire adult life, and working for economic development purposes, that I had to step up and fight for my neighbors and family, the folks that are being left behind, and that we need to do better, and we are the change we've been waiting for.
I can't sit back and wait for someone else to step up. I decided to take the jump and have an amazing network of support in doing so.
You're running in a Republican leaning district, against a pretty well-funded incumbent. What is your plan for smashing him like a bug?
Democrats in this district have historically run as moderates and been just a shade to the left of the Republican, hoping that they can win everybody else, and it simply doesn't work. And this district changes demographically and we have more and more Democratic registrations, year over year. It's getting closer and closer, and is more of a swing district.
Our belief is that we don't run as a moderate in this district. A Democrat can't win as a moderate in this district. A Democrat has to be talking about economic issues, talking about issues that are important to working families, and reaching out to people across race and class to engage in the political process by fighting for progressive policies that impact working families.
So we focus primarily on policies that hit working families and Americans from across the income spectrum on things that are getting harder and harder, like health care, higher education, and childcare. These three things are increasing in cost for working families more than anything else.
We're fighting for expanded Medicare, fighting for debt-free public college, fighting for support for working families and expanding the base of affordable childcare for them.
We believe that will motivate people to vote for something and not just against something. It motivates people who haven't been turning out, to vote. And engages people in a very hopeful and people driven process.
So one side of the equation is just the platform and what we're fighting for unequivocally and boldly. The other side is investing heavily, early on, in a field driven campaign.
Most congressional campaigns don't invest in knocking on doors because the conventional wisdom is that a disrict is too big and the timelines are too short. But we're investing in this, again unequivocally, to say you can't flip a Republican held district in Trump country without actually talking to people at their doors, early on, and having persuasive conversations that motivate people to turn out, motivate people in the primary to consider switching from an independent to a Democrat, so they can vote for us in Pennsylvania's closed primary process.
That means motivating people to be part of the Democratic process, getting involved in county committees, Democratic party committees so that we're building and outorganizing Republicans who have definitely had the edge in this community for the the better half of the last century.
What can tech people in places like New York and Silicon Valley do to help your campaign?
There are two main things. One is obviously consider donating to the campaign. We are for sure a grassroots campaign that is not taking corporate money, not taking oil and gas money, and not taking corporate PAC money, so we have to be funded by people. And these are all relatively small donations.
Every donation is under 2,700 dollars per person in the primary and then again in the general. So they're relatively small contributions. Our average, right now for the campaign as a whole is around forty dollars per contribution. So that's great and we want to see that broad support, both in and out of the district of small dollar donors be part of this.
That's one piece of it. The other side is we're setting up, similar to what Bernie Sanders did, a distributed field organizing operation where people outside the district can engage in texting and calling folks in the district around organizing and voting and voter persuasion.
Those are the two big ways that I think people outside of the district can be part of making history and flipping this seat from red to blue for the first time since the 1940's and for the first time, have a woman hold the seat.
What will be your top priority on your first day in Congress?
It's so exciting to just think about the possibility. We get so focused on the campaign and the strategies, and then to even think about what it means to win and have the opportunity to govern with people's interests first.
I would stay grounded in the way I always have, grounded in policies and priorities and programs that work for people first and staying accountable to people.
I'd want to make sure that we have the groundwork in place to continue talking to voters and staying accountable to voters non-stop. I've been really impressed with the way representative Keith Ellison from Minnesota has done this. He basically has a year-round canvass where his team are out talking to voters and engaging people, hearing what matters most to them and what are the biggest challenges in their lives.
That has to be central, I think, to any kind of governing that we do, staying 100% in touch and in tune with voters in our districts. They're the ones who elect us, we need to stay accountable to them and if they don't see us delivering change or delivering work or efforts in that direction, we won't be able to stay elected, especially if we're not running in the same way that old school politicians are, where you're essentially selling out to corporate interests and lobbyists and corporate donors who finance your campaigns more than the voters.
That, first and foremost is my grounding and my base and I think will the part of keeping me accountable and honest and real in the whole process. That being said, my priorities are about how we restore opportunity to working families so that the American dream is within reach.
Passing Medicare for all, moving in that direction as quickly as we possibly can because we know it's going to take time to phase from the broken structure and system that we have now into a functional Medicare for all health care plan for Americans is, I think, top of the list and the number one thing we hear from voters as a concern and challenge from them. Voters and businesses and other constituents speaking about health care I think is a big one.
But along with that, we're talking about debt free public college, and moving in that direction as well, so that people have opportunity, especially first generation college students, to come out of trade school or college without debt so that they can see a pathway to the American dream.
And fighting for 100% renewable energy by 2050 is a big, a big priority for me about how we shift while we're building economic opportunity and building more access to the American dream for working families. We have to couple that with environmental sustainability, because if we don't have that in mind as we foster economic growth, we're shooting ourselves in the foot. We need to be thoughtful about how we grow and invest in renewable energies and create green jobs so that we're balancing out both the crisis we have in our climate right now, but also the economic crisis we're facing in this country.
Thank you very much for speaking to me!
Please share this interview with others, and take a moment to donate to Jess's campaign, along with our entire Great Slate of eight progressive candidates! We can help Jess flip this winnable district in 2018 if we give her adequate resources starting now.
You can give up to $2,700 in the primary election, and again in the general election. You must be a U.S. citizen or green card holder to donate. Please give as generously as you can to help us win this pivotal open seat!