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A Q&A with Molly Sheehan, the 'anti-imperialist' and scientist running for Congress | #PA5

"We haven't been doing a good enough job as Democrats, speaking to an economic message that works for working-class people."

Molly Sheehan is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is based in Delaware County but also includes Philadelphia.
Molly Sheehan is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is based in Delaware County but also includes Philadelphia.Read moreCAMPAIGN PHOTO

Molly Sheehan, a scientist running for Congress in Pennsylvania's crowded Fifth District, has never campaigned for office before now.

The Democrat said she decided to try out for a U.S. House seat after being dismayed by President Trump's election. "I was startled by 2016," she said. "How do we get to the place where a xenophobe and a bigot and a misogynist is in the White House? And I think it's because we haven't been doing a good enough job as Democrats, speaking to an economic message that works for working-class people."

Sheehan, 32, supports a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free community college and debt-free college for four-year public universities. She calls herself an "anti-imperialist" and appears to be the only candidate in the Democratic primary whose campaign staff is unionized.

Her progressive bonafides have won her the support of some activists. She was endorsed by the National Organization for Women and two local chapters of Our Revolution, a progressive group created out of Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign. Sheehan has not raised as much money as some of the other candidates, however.

We asked Sheehan about everything from the federal budget deficit to President Trump's strikes on Syria to the fact that she lives outside the Fifth District. Our interview with her is the fifth in a series of Q&As with all of the Democratic primary'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 Sheehan’s Agenda:

  1. Her plan to create jobs: Raise the minimum wage, require workers' pay to be raised with CEOs' pay, "lower the bar to success for start-ups"

  2. On a $15 minimum wage: Supports it with "no exceptions"

  3. Student loan debt: For free community college and debt-free, four-year public university

  4. Marijuana: Supports legalization of recreational pot

  5. National jobs guarantee: "I think it's a fantastic idea"

  6. Super PACs: "We, as the party that likes to talk about the negative influence of money and politics, should take a stand"

  7. The budget deficit: We shouldn't be concerned about it "in the short term … what we need to do is invest in the American people"

Why are you running for Congress? I'm running because I was startled by 2016, and people felt emboldened to say things to my family about having a biracial child or being married to an immigrant that I really thought we were past, and when Trump won and I went and I cried next to my daughter's crib, and ingrained in my head was that tape of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, and really asking myself: How do we get here? How do we get to the place where a xenophobe and a bigot and a misogynist is in the White House?

And I think it's because we haven't been doing a good enough job as Democrats, speaking to an economic message that works for working-class people. That we really need to push for bold policies and elect bold people that will fight for the working class, and will run campaigns of integrity, that are based in grassroots, not in super PACs, not in corporate PAC donations or corporate funds. One that's really rooted in the people and small donations and talking to people and having authentic messaging. And so I decided to run myself. And I've been involved in my community for a really long time. I do cancer research at the University of Pennsylvania, and I think I offer a unique perspective about how to really get at the systemic problems that are leading to economic disparities in America right now.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career? Scientifically … I won the Young Investigator Award for the World Molecular Imaging Society in 2016 for my work in developing completely artificial fluorescent protein that … can be used to advance cancer research. And in my community, I'm a founding member of a task force that is building a program that will launch next year, a Mandarin immersion program in a brick-and-mortar South Philadelphia public school.

And a lot of them are also … smaller achievements that add up over time and making sure that even the most marginalized groups within our community get their needs met, that we make sure, especially in negotiating group health insurance plans, that everybody gets their full health care needs met in an affordable way, and advocating for students at the University of Pennsylvania, making students' needs are met with career development, not just about the academics, and making sure that we're all ready for employment when we graduate. And maybe finishing the Boston Marathon, that was also an accomplishment in my life.

A recent report found that most Americans can't afford an $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 think that we should have a $15 minimum wage, that every single person deserves a living wage, that they can afford to have a family on 40 hours of work a week. … My campaign staff just unionized and I'm very supportive of their efforts because I really believe … if I can't afford to pay them a living wage and treat them well, I don't deserve their work. And I think every business needs to have that attitude, and I think it's really better for long-term success of businesses as well to treat people well in a sustainable fashion. I think we also need to have caps on the ratio between the lowest- and highest-paid employees, even including stock options in corporations. So that if people want to raise CEO pay, they got to raise everybody's pay to go along with it.

And for bringing jobs to the area, I think we need to really focus on programs that will allow us to build industries from our communities and so … improving technical school programs and also putting start-up incubators into our high schools, into our community colleges so that we can really benefit in this region from the amazing amount of innovation that happens in academia, and lower the bar to success for starts-ups and attach strings that they have to stay in our communities … and then those in return, they train our students, so that those students are ready to hit the ground running in those jobs as they graduate and allow us to grow businesses from our community and for our community, and make sure all our capital and equity really stays in the community because we will be the venture capitalists or angel investor, and it won't be these outside forces. We'll be able to create something for ourselves, for our own people.

Talk about your foreign policy positions. Do you see yourself an interventionist, an isolationist, none of the above, or somewhere in between? I'd say I'm anti-imperialist and we need to rein in military spending. We shouldn't be intervening in foreign areas. … I think that sometimes, if it's a humanitarian crisis, we have different decisions to make, but what we see historically, especially recently, is a lot of intervention that has more to do with financial desires of oil companies. And this sort of American posturing that, if anything, it doesn't how our strength. It shows our problems with American interventionism, and a lot of times causes power structures and power vacuums and unintended consequences, leading to further cycles of intervention and chaos, especially in places like the Middle East.

And so I think we really need to focus on humanitarian aid and building diplomacy and good trade partnerships that benefit both the United States and our foreign allies to build more … global alliances, and not intervene violently in other countries, especially when there are such complex power structures in them. And that by cutting our military budget — our military budget has this huge opportunity cost, where we spend all this money and then we aren't all able to take care of America. And so by cutting back our military budget, we'll be able to offer things like the federal job guarantee and build our infrastructure and afford to take in refugees and really be able to be better to American citizens and be a better global citizen by reducing the amount of money we spend on bombers and things like that.

What's your position on President Trump's strikes on Syria? Should he have done them? No, and it's not just about the strikes. It's also about how he did them and that we need to look at the War Powers Act and that it should never be a unilateral decision to go to war or to bomb another country, that we should have congressional oversight. He didn't even talk to the National Security Council. These really need to be careful decisions, not flicking switches to bomb other countries by single people. That's really dangerous.

What is your position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Can you talk about how you see it, and what a potential solution is? Well, I don't think there's an easy, single solution. That's why we have this problem. I'm in favor of a two-state solution. I've been involved through my youth in Israeli-Palestinian youth summits put on the Quakers, and talking to people from Palestine and from Israel. It's always been my experience that they're much more open to compromise than the media would have you believe, that most people want to believe in peace, most people want to walk to the store without worrying about violence, and that we need to make sure we're fostering an environment where peace movement and leadership that believes in peace and both Israel and Palestine can flourish and we can really move towards a two-state solution, but I mean, obviously, it's going to be difficult.

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? The number one issue with House leadership is to move to a meritocracy in committee assignments so that fundraising for the party doesn't decide how much power you have in the legislature … that that inherently disenfranchises poorer districts and their representation and is very undemocratic, and so I want leadership that will dismantle this and do a merit-based or specialty-based committee assignment, and I'm not in favor of moving right towards Blue Dogs.

I have a lot of respect for the service Nancy Pelosi has given our country. And so I think it'll depend on who's running and what their platform is for leadership and what their vision is for the Democratic Party, who I would vote for. But I certainly don't think we should be moving right as a party.

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 think there's a lot of things we can do for gun-sense legislation that is necessary. And to me, the major problem with how we treat the Second Amendment right now is that we allow it to supersede the First, where people are no longer free to peacefully assemble for fear of being shot. … We have allowed the right to bear arms to conflict with our ability to have free speech and to peacefully assemble and that's the fundamental problem, that we are misinterpreting the Second Amendment. I don't personally have a problem with people having shotguns to go hunting, but we absolutely need to ban semi-automatic assault weapons. I think that the broadness of the Heller decision really damaged and led to a misinterpretation of the Second Amendment that it was never intended for and I would be in favor reversing the Heller decision. …

We should have licensing for gun owners where they go through basic safety training to be able to own a gun. I think we should also have a license and then register to buy ammunition. We should ban large magazine clips. We should ban semi-automatic assault weapons and bump stocks and anything that can turn guns into rapid-firing weapons of war. And we should also have universal background checks for gun purchases, which licensing would also help with. … And I don't believe that we should have the ability to conceal-carry either.

You said earlier that your campaign staff is unionized. Yes, we are unionized. … So my field director, he wanted to unionize the staff. He believes very strongly that all campaign workers should have access to unionization and I am very supportive of that. They frankly didn't want that much more from their contracts. A lot of it has more to do with procedures, so that they don't just … I'm not the queen of the campaign … they have the Campaign Workers Guild, so now they can use the Campaign Workers Guild to assert their rights as employees, especially if disputes do come up. …

It's a pretty broad contract, and they get paid sick time, paid leave, everything you would get in a normal job. … And they were passionate about wanting to unionize and prove that a grassroots campaign also is capable of unionizing, but there should never be financial barriers with a campaign for treating their employees with dignity and respect.

What's your position on a $15 minimum wage and free college? I support it. On a $15 minimum wage, I also think we should have no exceptions for tipping or for the disabled. There shouldn't be any way of getting out of it. … On the college, I think we should have completely free community college and debt-free four-year public university. …

You said you support single-payer. What does that phrase mean to you? I think we need to carefully and methodically move to a system where the government pays, like Medicare, the government pays all of the medical bills as a government single-payer insurance. … Instead of billing Aetna, they would bill the government's single-payer office and there would never be any financial barrier between any person and essential preventive health care treatment. So there would be no premium, no deductible and no co-pays for any preventative services and we also need to include long-term care as well.

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? Yeah, so I was really happy to see Tom Perez take this stance. This is something I feel very passionately about, I called the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] out on last year when Ben Ray Lujan took the opposite stance last summer. I do see abortion rights as fundamental human rights for women. It's about our body autonomy, and so I do not think the party should ever support a candidate who doesn't support a woman's basic body autonomy and right to herself.

Do you have any government experience? I have never been elected office … but I guess I have [been] a stipended employee sort of through the [National Institutes of Health], but I don't work directly for the government  [but] like paid through the federal government in research.

Without any government or political experience, how are you going to pass legislation and advance your priorities in Congress? I have been on a number of boards and I'm used to being the underdog and advocating for the needs of some of the most marginalized communities. And I think that part of getting things done, especially when you're the underdog — and whoever wins this seat will be a freshman — is checking your ego at the door. And it's about coalition-building and being willing to not get credit for things that you want done. I see my job as a legislator will be to get legislation passed that benefits my constituents, not necessarily to get to boast about what I specifically did or take all the credit for things.

So I think sometimes you can get a lot more stuff done if you can get somebody more senior to you to champion your cause, especially as a freshman in Congress. I also think my job as an engineer lends itself to collaboration. A lot of times what we see is stalemates because people in Congress approach things like lawyers. So they come to the table with the list of asks, but that's not how scientists and engineers approach problems. We come to the table to first agree on what the problem is and then we try to move forward and we may not always agree, but at least we'll move forward towards a coherent solution, not just horse-trade and come up with bills that could be incoherent and not make sense, which a lot of times what we see in Washington.

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? So I think that his tariffs are short-sighted and that he didn't do due diligence to understand the modern steelworker industry in the United States. … A lot of things the steelworkers do is not make steel, but make things out of steel. And so we need to ensure that we're not just offshoring as a result of the production of steel items. And so I think that this was done rashly and not with enough care to the actual economic ripple effects of these tariffs And that we also need to ensure we're not levying high tariffs on our allies, and if this was really to stick it to one country, that tariffs should be specific to that country and not hurt our global partners.

In terms of free trade, I think all trade needs to be regulated and that I think that most people believe that and that the priorities of the trade deals changes. And for me, what should be at the center of trade deals is ensuring every product is made with good worker rights and good environmental regulations so that we're not importing products that are exploiting other people. We're not importing products that are damaging our environment. We're all on the same planet. And however things are made overseas is also part of our carbon footprint. We import them. And that by ensuring those two things, people won't be able to offshore jobs at extremely low costs. It will increase, it will incentivize keeping jobs at home as well because they won't be able to cut all these corners overseas in the way they treat people and the way they treat our planet.

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 think it's a fantastic idea. I absolutely think we should have a federal jobs guarantee to ensure we have the people power to rebuild our infrastructure, to have the programs we need, and that we absolutely can pay for it if we improve the way we do taxes and close loopholes and tax capital gains properly and if we cut back the military budget, we'll allow America to thrive and everyone to have the opportunity to work and have a career.

You live outside the district. What would you say to voters who question whether someone outside of it can properly represent them? I've been in this race for a year, and I may sleep a little less than a mile outside the line, but I spend my days in the district every day and I've lived about 29 of my 32 years in the district. And we're moving back. We'll be sending our daughter to public schools in the district. We'll be moving the summer back to Delaware County. …

I'm actually, I think, the only candidate in this race who's lived in multiple areas of this district. I've lived in the 39th Ward of South Philadelphia for seven years. I've lived in Springfield, Delaware County and in Montgomery County as well as Haverford, and that I understand we're a metropolitan area. … This is an incredibly diverse district and I believe in strong constituent services and ensuring that people have their needs met that are also unique to their own community.

What is your position on legalizing recreational or medical marijuana? I think both medicinal and recreational should be legalized, and I think that as we legalize recreational marijuana, we also need to ensure that the same communities that have been oppressed by this failed War on Drugs aren't just exploited for profit by those same groups that have been oppressing them. We need to make sure that licensing for the sale of marijuana is accessible to local communities and we don't regulate it so that it's just the pharmaceutical industry or these large corporations that profit off it. Because essentially, marijuana has been mostly legal for white people for a very long time and we can't keep incarcerated black people from something white people have been doing with impunity forever.

Do you support impeaching President Trump? Yes.

On what grounds? I think the 25th Amendment has been grounds for a long time and that we are in a state of disarray as a country as a result of it. But in terms of impeachment by Congress … it will depend on what comes out of [Robert] Mueller's investigations, but it seems like his campaign … I don't think the campaign was run with integrity … and I think his firing of [James] Comey constitutes obstruction of justice.

Republicans passed a sweeping tax bill last year. What would your ideal tax legislation look like? So it would be highly progressive, where the wealthiest Americans pay the most. It would … close loopholes for carried interest and we would have a tax system that taxes the passive accumulation of wealth, just as high as wages. So I think that capital gains and dividends should be taxed the same as icome because our current system really encourages the passing or hoarding of wealth over actual labor.

This is 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 don't think we should in the short term. I think that what we need to do is invest in the American people, and that involves not being a deficit hawk usually. It involves making sure we're giving the people that are here a chance at success and at thriving, and so I don't think that we should be overly focused on the deficit. I think we should be focused on creating programs to ensure that people get to thrive throughout their lives.

You said we shouldn't be concerned in the short term. If we should be concerned in the long term, what specific revenue increases and/or spending decreases would you support? I do support cutting the military budget, and I do support, like I said earlier, taxing capital gains and dividends as income and closing the carried interest loophole.

What is your position on super PACs? Should they be involved in this congressional race? No, and I think that, in particular, we as the party that likes to talk about the negative influence of money and politics should take a stand, especially in our own primaries, that there is no excuse for having dark money or having a super PAC in a primary where it is all Democrats. That so many of the issues that we care deeply about, especially as Democrats, the reason we can't change them is because of the influence of money in politics, particularly through super PACs. We see that with the NRA in our way, with Big Oil in our way, with pharmaceutical companies in our way in the amount of money they pour in, and if we elect someone whose power emanates from them being backed by a super PAC, they will never have the incentive to change the rules so that these other groups that we're fighting against can't buy our elections. We need to make sure we're electing someone whose power comes from the people, not from money.

What percentage of your staff and consultants is women and people of color? I unfortunately don't have any women on staff right now. Although I have made job offers to quite a few of them, they all got hired very quickly. … My staff is at least half of people of color. So my consulting team is entirely women.

This 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? So we need mental health parity in our health insurance system and we have to stop health insurance companies from sort piecemealing us and sort of cutting apart different parts of our care. We need to make sure there's parity in the way we do mental health care. … I also think we should decriminalize drug use so fear of arrest is never a barrier for someone for seeking treatment.

We also need to make sure we're covering long-term care properly so that people who do become addicted can get the care that they need for a prolonged period of time. And we also need to make insurance companies and hopefully eventually the single-payer system cover alternative pain treatment. Things like acupuncture and chiropractic as well as legalizing marijuana so that people have other paths to pain treatment other than opioids.

When you referenced drug decriminalization earlier, do you mean decriminalization of all drugs? Just of the use, not of the sale, and not of possession of large quantities. I …  don't think it should ever be criminalized to be in a state of high or addiction, if the person is not committing other crimes like being violent.

You have less money than some other candidates and no super PAC. What would you say to a voter who is concerned that vote for you might be, for lack of a better term, wasting their vote? I think I'm running a smarter campaign than the other candidates. We don't have as much money, but we're frugal and we're careful and we're making sure that we're having authentic voter contact that's more longer-lasting than manipulative advertising like television ads, that we're growing a movement. And I've been in this race for a year. And I have a lot of grassroots support. I also have more national endorsements than anybody else in this race. And I have been endorsed by the Aldan local committee and been nominated at many local committees. … I was recently endorsed by the National Organization for Women in this race.

And so I think that I do have a path to victory. I think that it's not the traditional path to victory, but that's part of why I decided to run, is because money shouldn't decide our elections, especially in primaries, and that we shouldn't allow fear-mongering around some other candidates to … we shouldn't allow that to manipulate us into voting for someone we're not really passionate about. This is an opportunity to elect someone we want and who isn't beholden to special interests and casts that vote for that. And so I do think I have a path to victory and that it just may not look like the DCCC playbook.