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We asked congressional hopeful Ashley Lunkenheimer about her family-funded super PAC, Trump and more | #PA5

The former federal prosecutor said she has "not coordinated" with the super PAC.

Ashley Lunkenheimer is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes a part of Philadelphia.
Ashley Lunkenheimer is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes a part of Philadelphia.Read moreCAMPAIGN PHOTO

Ashley Lunkenheimer, a former federal prosecutor, said she decided to run for Congress after watching the "degradation of the institutions of government" under President Trump.

"The Department of Justice [is] being used to tear families apart," she said, "and lessening its oversight over police departments with historically racially discriminatory practices."

Lunkenheimer, 43, previously worked as the senior legal counsel for AmeriHealth Caritas and served as the chair of a Montessori pre-K. She is seen as one of the leading candidates in the primary for Pennsylvania's Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes part of Philadelphia. She is airing TV advertising, and a super PAC is supporting her.

Earlier in the campaign, Lunkeheimer was criticized by some Democrats for suggesting that she knew some of the super PAC's donors — but not saying their names. She later acknowledged that one of the group's backers is her mother.

We asked Lunkheimer about everything from outside spending to health care to whether a Delaware County resident should represent the seat. Our interview with Lunkenheimer is the fourth in a series of Q&As with all of the Fifth District's candidates, except for two did who did not respond to our request for an interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Seven Quick Facts About Lunkenheimer’s Agenda:

  1. Her plan to create jobs: Retrain workers, protect unions, raise the minimum wage

  2. On a $15 minimum wage: Supports it

  3. Student loan debt: Backs debt-free college

  4. Marijuana: Supports legalizing medical and recreational pot

  5. National jobs guarantee: "I would look forward to reviewing those plans in more detail"

  6. Super PACs: "I am for ending Citizens United"

  7. The budget deficit: "One obvious place where we can easily deliver a cost savings would be to eliminate Donald Trump's ridiculous wall"

Why are you running for Congress? My experience with a preschool Montessori education and having studied social work, having gone to the U.S. Attorney's Office, having taken guns from the hands of violent criminals and having fought the opioid epidemic before it was known nationally as an epidemic. And also protecting seniors. And then going from there into innovative Medicare, Medicaid programs. I was motivated to run in large part by seeing what I perceived to be the degradation of the institutions of government that I had valued my service for — the Department of Justice being used to tear families apart, and lessening its oversight over police departments with historically racially discriminatory practices, with not enforcing voter rights laws and also looking at a Congress that was trying to cut Medicaid and cut Medicaid expansion. And knowing if you take 13 million people off the health care rolls, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say people will die.

And then selling, from the highest levels of government, language of hate being used against so many communities. Communities of color, undocumented immigrants, the LGBTQ community and women, and anti-Semitism being at some level praised by the the government. So all of that was unacceptable, and that's what inspired me to bring the experiences I had to try to make a difference. And it just happens at this moment in time that those experiences are in the areas where this district has the most need for change from the government.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career? I'm really very proud of the work I did to prosecute violent criminals who were committing violent crimes in Delaware County and Philadelphia County up and to including murder. I'm very proud of the work I did to protect seniors and taxpayers in this district and in this area and to work to stop pharmacists and doctors from pumping literally hundreds of thousands of opioids onto the street and into the hands of people suffering from addiction. I'm very proud of the work I did helping to launch, which went live on January 1, 2018, the community health choices program — the program I mentioned dealing with Medicaid and Medicare in the community of Pennsylvania. And I'm very proud of being the chair of a Montessori pre-K program and getting it to the point where it was able to establish a financial aid program.

A recent report found that most Americans can't afford a $1,000 emergency. Wages have been stagnating for the middle class, and income inequality is high. What is your plan to create jobs and raise wages? I did in my work see that firsthand … I saw the repercussions of seniors who had been defrauded and lost their life savings and had been put in very vulnerable financial positions. And [I] understand from that and other work that I've done how incredibly scary it is to not have the ability to handle financial emergencies and I think my plan for wage stagnation is we have an incredible opportunity in this district: Delaware County Community College has about 40 apprenticeship programs and other worker training programs in this area. So there's a great opportunity to fund and help train or retain workers. We also are in a district that has an aging population, and has one of the largest industries in this area is health care services. And so that's an area where there's movement in certain parts of the health care industry to unionize.

I think union protections would be very helpful to ensuring that individuals were paid decent wages and received health benefits and other protections. I'd like to see us raise the minimum wage to $15. I'd also like to see us — we're in a district that has a lot of the voters are concerned about the environment, and we have an opportunity here, one of the largest growth sectors of jobs in the country is renewable energy. And I'd like to see … incentives and other things brought to this district to help us convert to renewable energy and therefore also provide good jobs, often union jobs, solar panel installers and others. So those are some of the things I'd like to work on if elected to Congress that will help this district and help the broader country.

This district is almost entirely based in Delaware County, but it includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Is it important for a Delaware County resident to represent this district? For me, it's very important to represent all of the district. I was born in Philadelphia, raised in Delaware County. I've lived in Philadelphia and am raising my family in Delaware County. Where my mother raised a family, it was right on the border with Montgomery County, the part that's in the district. So I don't speak about the district as divided by counties. What I do know is that some of the issues most facing people who live in South and Southwest Philly and in the district are the issues facing people who live in Delaware County. And some of the issues that face residents of Delaware County are issues that Montgomery County is facing. They include the need to fully fund public schools. … They include having aging populations. … They include issues of the waterfront and other things, in terms of developing the waterfront, going up into Delaware County. … I want to represent the entire district and everybody who's in it.

Talk about your foreign policy positions. Do you see yourself an interventionist, an isolationist, none of the above, or somewhere in between? I haven't had a lot of opportunity to talk about some of the international experience that I do have. So if I could take a second to talk a little bit about that, I did work on international drug trafficking cases, international money laundering cases. And as somebody who was a career government servant, meaning not a political appointee, I understand the importance of having Department of Justice assistants who are not politically motivated. But having seen what's happened in the State Department, and the gutting of our carer officers and the expertise that's being lost to our government in terms of national security, is something I think that strong voices in Congress need to rise up and really speak out about the need to rebuild or keep strong our State Department.

And so that's all really important to me. We have people like [John] Bolton who have the ear of our president, and that should be very concerning, and hawks in the White House. And so I think we need to, I would like to see us … strengthen our national security positions by having more individuals who are not hawkish but are thoughtful and experienced in different regional conflicts and different regional issues, back advising Congress, advising the president so that we can be strong with hopefully avoiding conflict.

What's your position on President Trump's strikes on Syria? I do think that the role of Congress in taking military action should be recognized, and so I don't agree with the president's decision and the way he carried it out. And I think that there needs to be a very strong effort to understand also the humanitarian crisis that's happening in Syria. My numbers may not be exactly right but I understand that there may be up to a million refugees right now and as a world and as human beings, how do we be thoughtful about how to take steps to help with the Syrian crisis in a way that isn't an executive decision to bomb a nation.

Let's say it's 2019. The Democrats have taken back control of the U.S. House, and Nancy Pelosi and Tim Ryan are running against each other for Speaker. Who do you vote for? Right now, I'm obviously very focused on my race, and having the opportunity and honor of voting for the Speaker of the House and hoping that we'll be in a situation where the Democrats are voting for the Speaker of the House, and … I think that we should really be, particularly as a woman running for office, acknowledge the important contributions Nancy Pelosi has made in terms of breaking ground in the area of women's leadership in Congress but that said, I would like to see the makeup of the new Congress. I would like to … have the opportunity to listen to both Tim Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, and really think about what the country, how the country votes, and what the country, by their votes, is reflecting a desire for, and making a decision as to who I would for for Speaker of the House based on that information, which we don't yet have.

John Paul Stevens, a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, has called for the Second Amendment to be repealed. Where do you stand on that idea? And can you talk generally about your views on gun laws? I have a great respect for Justice Stevens, and in fact he's the one justice who I've had the honor of actualy visiting his chambers, because one of my friends was clerking for him once. … That is not my position, but I understand the basis for that position and I think it reflects the incredibly strong push and I can give you a list of all the different sensible gun laws I want to see enacted and so I think my focus right now is on enacting sensible gun laws that we do not have that will help keep our communities safe both from mass shootings as well as daily and weekly violence that unfortunately occurs in this district all too often. …

I am for an assault weapons ban and a ban on extended magazines and bump stocks and by the way, I have experience with assault weapons being used in Delaware County for violence as well as extended magazines and other modifications to guns to make them more rapidly fire. I am for "red flag" PFAs to allow law enforcement to investigate reports that are concerning about the association with an individual who may be dealing with some mental health issues and also the potential for violence. I am for gun registries, and I have worked with agents to try to trace down guns that are very difficult  — it's very difficult to do when guns have been sold in situations where they are not registered. So I am for universal background checks and strengthening and closing the loopholes. I have … worked to track down criminals who have went out of state to buy firearms and bring them back to Delaware county and commit violent crimes in Delaware County and Philadelphia County.

I am very much for, as part of a making our schools safer, increasing funding for mental health counselors in the schools so that they can identify children in pain and that may need some assistant from counseling to help them through that. I have worked with individuals who have committed, had a defendant who had committed felonies and was declared mentally incompetent by the court. And I've worked to have that individual registered so that if he were to try to purchase a firearm, it would appear on his background check domestic. Banning domestic abusers from being able to purchase firearms. So there are a lot of safety measures that I'm for, and I think we need strong voices in Congress, and I have the actual experience with these federal laws as they relate to guns and gun safety and would really push very strongly for them. The other night we were asked about the involvement of community groups who have been so vocal, including our youth groups, and I think that that's a really important partnership right now to keep pressure on Congress to make sure that sensible gun laws are passed.

We asked our readers to submit questions to the Fifth District congressional candidates. Here is one: Is your campaign staff unionized? No, that hasn't been raised to me by the staff. .. If they raised it, then we would discuss it. But we offer health care benefits and full salary.

Do you agree with Nancy Pelosi, who said that Democrats can be pro-life? Or do you agree with Tom Perez, who said "every Democrat" should support abortion rights? I've been asked … whether or not there's something on which I would not compromise, and I answer that question as: I would not compromise on a woman's right to choose. I think … there are a lot of reasons for that, including the sort of economic oppression and need for equality and need for women to have control over their bodies. So that is a very hard one for me, and I do not know that I would vote for somebody — it's a really strong one for me, that I would have a lot of trouble voting for somebody who was anti-choice. … I'm not necessarily for a flat-out — I guess they call it a litmus test. I do think voters decide that. And so I've told you how I would decide that.

What is your position on President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum and other products? And where do you stand on free trade versus trade protectionism generally? I think that President Trump sort of badly formed and badly pushed for the tariffs and I think everybody, including Democrats in states where they've taken positions for tariffs, would agree. I am generally for protecting the American worker and for policies that respect that. And that said, though … what I am concerned about, what we see from this president, is we don't see thoughtful interactions with other nation about trade … about our economies versus their economies and our workforce versus those of other countries. And so I think I'd like to see thoughtful interaction over issues of trade with different regions and different nations that I'm not seeing out of this president.

You said on your website that you support debt-free college. I think that at this point right now I'd like to see us move in the direction where all our youth have access to free college or trade school. … I'd like to see an increased aid, decreased student loan interest. I think we need to move towards making sure that an individual's economic background doesn't prevent them from obtaining college or vocational or trade school … if that is something they'd like to pursue, that they have access to that. And we have great public colleges and universities and we have great community colleges, and so I think the overall goal should make sure that anyone can access a college or trade or vocational education.

On health care, you said your priority is protecting the Affordable Care Act. What is your position on Medicare-for-All? I am for it in the long term. What I'd like to see — I've worked to transition individuals to new health care systems and understand what is called health care disruption and how vulnerable that makes people. So in the short term, I'd like to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. I'd like to move towards more innovative programs, including in the areas of Medicaid and Medicare to help people stay healthy and particularly in the community, our seniors also longer … and I'd like to be very thoughtful and have it really studied on how do you transition such a large and diverse population as our nation towards single-payer. … But I'd like to do it through real, thoughtful analysis, so we make sure that as we move people to newer health care systems, for those individuals, that they are not vulnerable and they are protected, it's a very dangerous time when that happens. … I think it's been [an] important dialogue [that] is now going on in our country, is what is the best health care system for our nation, and I would be very strong. It's important to me. And based on my experience, I'd love to be involved in the dialogue about how to make sure everybody has access to quality health care. That should be our long-term goal.

What is your position on legalizing recreational or medical marijuana? I've taken the position that both for the medical, but the recreational being the more overarching one … I am for both. … Marijuana is classified as a drug on the Controlled Substance Act as having no medical value. It's a Class 1. So that's something that I think is not correct based on actual and proven medicinal value for populations, for children, such as children with epilepsy, and that needs to be changed. I also think it's well-established that there are sort of disparities in enforcement and the result to the criminal justice system and the enforcement of the justice system on communities of color in the laws against marijuana, regulating marijuana. So that should also be unacceptable to us, so I'd like to make changes. Those are the main reasons behind my position.

Do you support impeaching President Trump? I believe that President Trump has and is enacting incredily detrimental policies for our nation. I am, as a former federal prosecutor and knowing by reputation some of the people on [Robert] Mueller's team, I would like to see them go forward. I do not think a rush to impeachment before more of the investigative process is carried out is a good idea. … It needs to be based on facts and evidence that are developed, in my view, for it to be something that isn't seen as politically motivated but is something that is based on the grounds of impeachment that would be brought by Congress.

Republicans passed a sweeping tax bill last year. What would your ideal tax legislation look like? I would write it so it was more fair and equitable and … particularly … I would like to see a fair and equitable tax that fairly taxes and equitably taxes Wall Street as well as individuals. So I think that this tax bill took the opposite approach and is detrimental to working Americans. And so it should be overturned and rewritten to reflect that opposite in priorities.

What is your position on super PACs? Should they be involved in this congressional race? I am for ending Citizens United. I have seen firsthand now, as a first-time candidate, the impact that money has on these races, and am aware even now more than I was before of the fact that it makes it difficult for otherwise qualified candidates who don't have either access to financial support or have personal financial means to enter into races. And so I think it's detrimental to us as a nation to limit access to races to people based on financial measures. And so I am very for changing the laws.

I understand that some of my supporters have created an independent expenditure account to support me and that is right now, the way the laws are written, that is permissible. And I believe that my candidacy offers important experience to help change Congress and help … improve the lives of the residents of this district. So if that's the case, then that support is valuable to helping me achieve that goal, then that is what it is. But in the long term, I'd like to see the system changed.

Your mother is helping fund the super PAC backing you. How often, if it all, do you talk to your mother about the race? That's a little personal, I mean, in terms of, I am close to my mother. I talk to my mother. The fact that she's donated to an independent expenditure account has no other sort of implications. … I have not coordinated with the independent expenditure account in any impermissible way and have counseled those I'm working with not to do so either.

What percentage of your staff and advisers is women and people of color? [Her aide answers.] Paid staff for us, it's half women and one-third people of color.

[Ashley then answers.] And we also have a high percentage of individuals from the LGBTQ community as well.

The last question is from a reader: How would you deal with the most pressing public health issue right now — opioids and overdose deaths? Do you support safe-injection sites? A lot of people think the opioid epidemic is a state and health care issue, and I think it is both a state and health care issue, but I also think the federal government should play a much stronger role in what is essentially — opioids are distributed through a closed system of distribution. And they're supposed to be regulated from the moment active ingredients enter into a manufacturing process all the way down to the end prescription. … And ingredients enter into the manufacturing process all the way down to the end prescription, by which a user obtains the opioid-related product. … So I have personally worked on cases in which diversion happened, essentially from almost every step from the supposedly regulated process, and I think there are many, many things the federal government should be doing to close what are essentially either loopholes or methods of diversion and should improve their oversight and regulation and then work with state partners to enforce laws around illegal diversion. …

So work with state partners, and then we need to work very hard to ensure that health care coverage is provided to those who are suffering from addiction, and that's extremely important and we are not going far enough overall either in the private and the Medicaid and other health care providers, we're not going far enough. Because it's a very difficult addiction to overcome, and so there are many things that we need to do on all levels to help and work with community groups who are working to help individuals who struggling with addiction to engage in recovery. And finding a job and finding housing and housing stability. So I would like to see a tremendous amount done on all fronts to combat this terrible epidemic. We are losing so many individuals.

What is your position on the national jobs guarantee that Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to unveil, and that others like Sen. Cory Booker have expressed support for? I would look forward to reviewing those plans in more detail. I am certainly for full employment. The other night we were asked about retraining for individuals in disappearing industries. I am very for promoting job retraining to help individuals who are being displaced by changing industries. And I'm for promoting employment for those who are physically able to be employed. So I would like to review what they propose or what they announce in more detail.

This another question proposed by a reader: Should we be concerned about the size of the federal budget deficit? If we should, what specific revenue increases and/or spending decreases would you support? I believe the budget deficit is a significant concern. Our long-term fiscal health will always be at risk if we continue to ignore this structural weakness. I support decreasing the budget deficit through a balanced approach of new revenue and responsible spending reductions. There are some Republicans in Congress who would argue that the fastest and easiest way to cut spending is to make deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits. I think that's a reckless and dangerous approach and I will never support cuts to Social Security or Medicare benefits. One obvious place where we can easily deliver a cost savings would be to eliminate Donald Trump's ridiculous wall along the Mexico border.