Issac James Manayath talks to Kerri Evelyn Harris, a US Air Force veteran and a Democratic candidate for Senate.
CHENNAI: June 26, 2018 was a grim day for the Democratic Party establishment. On that day, a 28-year-old woman from Bronx with zilch political experience, defeated Democrat stalwart Joe Crowley in the party primary, and bagged the ticket to run for the House from the 14th Congressional district of New York.
Many had likened Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign against Crowley to the David-versus-Goliath story. Only a few thought she could win. Her own eyes popped when the final results flashed on TV.
No doubt, an incredible victory for a political novice, who ran her campaign on a meagre budget against Crowley, a Democrat doyen with deep pocket -- a man who was long tipped to replace Nancy Pelosi as the party’s leader in the House.
If the spectacular rise of Bernie Sanders in 2016 failed to awaken the Democratic establishment, Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory has. A week after she won, the Democratic National Committee chairperson Tom Perez acknowledged that people like her “represent the future of the party.”
Like Sanders, she is an avowed leftist. Her campaign pledges include free college and Medicare for all. To many, her victory is a sign that the Democratic Party is sliding to the left.
As some pundits have argued, its embrace of neoliberal policies has spelled doom for the party.
In the early 1980s, when the post-war Keynesianism withered and gave way to a new economic model based on maximum deregulation, private initiative, and individualism, Democratic Party, like the GOP, began aligning its interests more closely with that of the corporate world.
As a result, it shied away from attacking the concentration of wealth at the top and income inequality -- two interlinked outcomes that many experts argue, lie at the root of most problems facing America today.
Eventually, members of the working-class, who, for long, formed the party’s electoral core, felt alienated. Many stayed away from elections until Sanders burst onto the stage in 2015 and presented democratic socialism as a credible alternative to unbridled capitalism and a means to a more equitable society.
Many branded it a revolt within the party.
However, Sanders couldn’t make it. He lost his bid to run for president as the Democratic establishment threw its full weight behind Hillary Clinton - a centrist, derided by the leftists as the corporate’s blue-eyed girl.
But the spark that he lit lived on and shined in the improbable victory of Ocasio-Cortez.
Today, she is not the only one.
As many as 38 Democratic candidates running for the November midterm elections have won the backing of Justice Democrats, a reformist movement that seeks to reconnect the party with working-class voters.
Prominent among them is Kerri Evelyn Harris from Delaware, who, with the support of few dedicated volunteers, is running an insurgent campaign to unseat veteran Democrat Tom Carper from Senate.
The story here is much similar to that of Ocasio-Cortez’s.
With Justice Democrat now rallying behind the 39-year-old Harris, many feel she would be the next Ocasio.
As her campaign gathers steam, I reached out to her team to get a clearer picture of what she stands for.
“I am an activist in my community who couldn’t sit back and watch what was happening anymore,” Harris told me via email. She and her supporters believe that it’s no longer people’s welfare, but corporate interests that dictate the Democratic Party’s agenda.
They, like many Americans, are hungry for change.
A US Air Force veteran, Harris is one of the many LGBT candidates running in this year’s elections.
Following is the transcript of the interview:
Before we go onto issues, can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you stand for?
Harris: I’m an Air Force veteran and a mom working to address some of the deepest problems in our state (Delaware), like the opioid crisis and the educational achievement gap. I stand for human dignity. All human beings need food, shelter, health care, and community. It’s up to the elected officials to ensure that everybody has those rights.
You are one of the record number of LGBT candidates running in this year’s elections. How does it feel?
Harris: A lot of LGBT+ people have been woken up by the Trump administration. You have an administration that is stocked with anti-LGBT activists like Betsy DeVos and it’s very scary to a lot of people who fear for their rights and freedoms. We’re not ever going to return to the days when people were forced to hide who they are. But to prevent that from happening, we need to stand up and say “never again.”
You have been a community organiser for long. Have you always wanted to run for Congress? Or is there something -- like an incident or a story -- that all of a sudden motivated you to do so?
Harris: It has certainly not been a lifelong goal of mine to be in Congress. What I see is that we have a Senator who is just not providing the type of progressive leadership that Delaware needs. Tom Carper has voted with Trump 34% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. Delaware faces real problems, like the opioid crisis that killed 304 people in 2016, and Washington is doing nothing--worse than nothing. Carper has received nearly $50,000 from corporate PACs and lobbyists profiting from the opioid crisis. So I decided that if nobody else would run, I would do it.
Let’s move onto issues now. In one of the television interviews, you said members of the KKK attacked your mother while she was working with black sharecroppers in Mississippi. Growing up as a biracial woman, what has been your experience with race in America?
Harris: Unfortunately, my experience has been that racial discrimination is real and enduring in America. It’s important to recognize where it comes from, though. The KKK was created to terrorize former slaves back into submission. It was set up to control labor, just like the Pinkertons did with the coal miners in West Virginia and Colorado. We can point out that people of color are impacted negatively by institutional racism, and we can also say that working-class people of all races have a common exploiter, and we need to come together to fight the 0.1% to build a real democracy for everyone.
You go door-to-door talking to people. What do they tell you? What are they worried about the most?
Harris: We’ve gotten a lot of interest in our campaign when we go door-to-door, because we’re connecting with people on the issues that matter to them. What basically everyone recognizes is that over the past 35 years, nearly everybody has found it harder to get by. Wages have been stagnant, while corporations and the privileged few accumulate more and more wealth. Whether you have health insurance or not, the quality of your healthcare has gone down. Social Security hasn’t kept up with inflation, and fewer people than ever are retiring with pensions. The cost of housing keeps rising, and people are struggling to pay the bills.
What people also realize is that this trajectory just can’t continue. We can’t have business as usual. We need real change and we need to elect leaders who will fight for working families.
After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory against Joe Crowley in June, many are saying democratic socialism represents the future of America. But, how far, do you think, can it go in a country where a lot of people are opposed to big government?
Harris: For most people, big government means that decision-making is concentrated into the hands of a powerful few instead of the many. To me, what democratic socialism means is decentralizing power--moving power away from a wealthy few and into the hands of communities. If you look at the policies that democratic socialists support--Medicare for All, peace and diplomacy, environmental justice, a job guarantee--the polls show they are wildly popular. These aren’t so much “leftist” policies as policies that work for the overwhelming majority of Americans who have been oppressed by a system that quashes economic opportunity.
You are one of the many candidates endorsed by the Justice Democrats, a movement that aims to reform the Democratic Party. Where did the party establishment fail?
Harris: A lot of people feel that the 2016 election was very winnable. If you lose elections, even ones where your loss is only because of a ridiculous anachronism like the Electoral College, party leaders should be held responsible. One concrete way that the party establishment failed was on voter suppression.
If you look at states that Hillary lost—North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida—all of them have pretty expansive laws in place designed to suppress voters, whether it is voter ID or felon disenfranchisement.
Yet we saw no real action from the party on this front, despite the fact that it was very clear early on that voter suppression had played a big role in Democrats losing the 2014 elections, especially the North Carolina Senate race, where Kay Hagan lost, and the Florida governor’s race, where Charlie Crist lost a very close election to Rick Scott.
Even today we hear very little from establishment politicians on voter suppression. It’s like the issue doesn’t even exist.
The other central issue is the dependence of many in the party, including my opponent, on corporate PAC money. Carper has received over $3 million in corporate PAC donations since entering the Senate. This has real consequences for public policy, where Carper votes against things that will improve people’s lives in concrete ways—like when he opposed workers rights to organize in 2009 by sabotaging card check, or when he voted against a public option in the Affordable Care Act. Or when he votes for things that are wildly unpopular and lockstep with Trump, like rolling back Wall Street regulations, or for corporate trade deals like the TPP that benefit nobody but a tiny subset of the 1%.
Calls to abolish the I.C.E have gathered momentum in recent months. Has the agency gone too far under Trump?
Harris: Yes. The agency has been directed to implement policies under Trump that are shocking and inhumane. Separating families, traumatizing children, and terrorizing communities is never ok. The agency is only sixteen years old and already has a long list of violations. We need comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the rich mosaic immigrants bring to this country, instead of punishing people for seeking a better life for their families.
You support Medicare-for-all. But, critics worry that since the base cost of the US healthcare is already high; a single-payer system would result in significant additional tax burden on the middle-class families. Also, some say it would lead to treatment delays like in the UK, making the medical system less accessible. Are they right? If so, despite these, why is the single-payer system a good idea?
Harris: The US spends more on healthcare than any other country, yet has some of the worst public health outcomes. Whether it’s life expectancy or infant and maternal mortality, the US is at the bottom of the OECD. People are already paying for health care. The question is whether or not the government can realize significant cost efficiencies as a single-payer system.
I think if you look at the massive amounts of profits in our healthcare system on the one hand, and the significant issue of waste, fraud and abuse in the system, whether its doctors getting kickbacks for prescriptions or “nonprofit” hospitals giving their CEOs private jets, on the other hand, what you see is a great opportunity to create an efficient, humanistic health care system for all.
The UK has problems with its healthcare system because of decades of privatization and disinvestment by bought-off corporate politicians. Just like the US, although on a much smaller scale, the UK has a problem with bad actors profiting from people being sick. That said, by every possible measure the UK has a better healthcare system than the US. Their National Health Service is free at the point of use, and healthcare is a human right. That’s why the UK has a higher life expectancy, lower infant and maternal mortality, and better outcomes overall.
Today, the US society is more divided than ever. Surveys show the gap between those who identify as liberals and those as conservatives has widened significantly in the last twenty years or so. What does this mean for the future of the United States? Can the country stay united?
Harris: Polling is an inexact science. In many cases, polling has the effect of shaping rather than measuring public opinion. I don’t buy the idea that the country is more divided on ideological lines than it ever has been, that is between liberals and conservatives. Where you do see more division, certainly the most in the last 80 years is in the gap between the rich and the poor, and the steady disappearance of the middle class. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you know that you’re not going to be able to afford to pay $300,000 for your kid’s college tuition. You know that you don’t want to be denied coverage for a procedure or drug you need to live. You know that we deserve clean air and water.
Surveys show that nearly everyone thinks that the US should have a fairer distribution of income and wealth than it has now, so in a sense we are more united than ever. The question is political leadership. If we have Democrats who use bipartisanship as an end goal instead of a tool to reaching compromises that have the best outcomes for everyone, we have set the bar so low that we end up hurting people. If we have Democrats who vote with Trump and the interests of corporations and lobbyists over ordinary people, we’re never going to be able to unite this country around a common agenda that can address the problems facing us.