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Interview With Sarah Smith: Part 2 — Democrats, Influence Of Corporate Money, And What Gives Her Hope

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On the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola are joined by Sarah Smith, a Democratic Party candidate running for Congress in Washington’s 9th District. She recently beat the Republican to qualify for the general election against the incumbent, Democratic Representative Adam Smith.

Sarah Smith is both a member of the local Democratic Party and Democratic Socialists of America. She’s run a scrappy grassroots campaign that consists of all volunteers. She also has garnered a reputation as a rare antiwar candidate in the 2018 midterm elections because she views foreign policy as a top issue.

For Part 2 of our interview with Sarah Smith, she discusses her views about the Democratic Party, what she thinks about Democrats who claim corporate money does not influence them, and how she views the Democratic National Committee’s recent decision to encourage donations from the employer political action committees of fossil fuel companies.

Later, she shares what she thinks about Democrats, who believe in climate change but will not act meaningfully to combat disruption to the climate. She also talks about why disability rights is a top issue for her campaign.

Listen to the interview by clicking the above player or by going here.

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Below is an edited transcript of Part 2 of the interview with Sarah Smith.

KHALEK: I want to ask you, since you’re talking about corporate influence, about the Democratic Party. So you’re obviously running as an insurgent candidate and the Democratic establishment is pretty hostile to people like you, to people to the left. So first, how has the reception by the establishment Democrats been?

Also, there are people like me. I go back and forth about the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There are candidates like you and other insurgent candidates across the country who’ve won primaries who give me some hope. But also the party is pretty much funded by many of the same corporate interests as Republicans. They continue to be a pro-war party for the most part.

What’s your take on the Democratic Party in the current state? Do you think it’s a reformable party?

SMITH: I’ll start with the first question of how they’ve received me. At first, it was very tribal. It was very circle the wagons. It was very she’s coming out of nowhere, out of left field. We don’t know who she is. We’re not going to trust her. But I made a point to reach out to people and try and work with Democratic members of the party were actually excited about my candidacy. There were a few that got pretty excited about it.

I know that leading into the primary a lot of people were concerned. They were like, oh no, what if we lose the district to a Republican? It’s a D+21 district. That is literally impossible. But they were concerned about, and I respect the fact that they were concerned about it. And now that we’ve left the primary it’s been a really interesting shift. People that are establishment Democrats are a lot more open to criticizing the incumbent now, and they feel a lot more comfortable speaking their piece.

I’ve gotten a ton of phone calls from people asking about my platform, if they can meet with me. They want to get coffee. They want to get to know more about me. I’ve been invited back to some of the legislative districts that didn’t endorse me, which I expected in the primary, but said we’re open to changing our endorsements now that it’s the general. So it’s been a weird shift where people are like we don’t know if we trust you but we agree that it’s time for change. And we like your policies, and we like your integrity. So I’m like okay, yeah. Now we’re getting somewhere.

As for the party itself, the party is going through growing pains. I think they are conquerable growing pains if leadership would start listening to the next generation of Democrats that just want to have the baton handed over to them. We’re not running as insurgent candidates because we hate the Democratic Party. We’re running because this is a marathon, and it’s time to pass the baton to the next generation of leaders. We don’t want to destroy the Democratic Party. We want to change it. We want to make it the party of the working people. We want to make it the party that puts people first and rejects the influence of corporations.

To see the shift in the Democratic Party, in the DNC, they reversed their ban on accepting fossil fuel money. That’s the antithesis of what a majority of Americans want right now, and it just speaks to how out of touch the leadership is. It speaks to how out of touch a lot of these representatives. And it’s frustrating because it can be reformed. I have to have hope. I can’t believe that it’s completely lost, and it’s a completely negated cause. I think that the heart’s in the right place for a lot of Democratic voters. The heart’s in the right place for a lot of state Democrats. We just have to bring that heart and that belief and that integrity into a federal level and into a national level, and I think that we have the ability to do that.

I have been a lifelong Democrat. If you look at the Washington State Democratic Party platform and my platform and DSA’s platform, they’re really not that far off. There’s maybe one or two issues that we don’t agree on completely. But try and demonstrate to people that the Democratic Party, at least the members, at least the people that are involved—They want it to be better. They want it to be stronger. They want it to be more people-focused. They want it to be the party that really truly works for people and really puts people first. And I think that we have the real opportunity to harvest that belief and that drive of the people within the Democratic Party and change it to being the party that we know it can be and the party it always should’ve been.

GOSZTOLA: I think it’s so important that you mention the DNC with the fossil fuel money and how they basically decided to go back on a pledge in the last week.

I want to hear your response. This is something that has been pervasive and a source of tension between people that vote and are part of the Democratic base. Ever since the 2016 election, there’s been a lot of misdirection, and I think outright lying about what it means when you’re critical of somebody for taking corporate money. We’ve seen people who claim that it’s sexist that you’re opposed to people taking corporate money. We’ve seen people say that it can be racist to say you’re opposed to Democrats that accept corporate money. I’d like to hear your reaction to this idea or where Democrats won’t admit this money is co-opting them or changing their politics.

SMITH: I actually have this with my incumbent. He thinks that corporate money does not affect his votes. Obviously, it does. But I honestly believe that he believes that.

It’s not just people’s votes that you have to look at. That’s the thing I keep trying to explain. It’s the policies that they don’t put forward. It’s the policies that they wait until the last minute to cosponsor. It’s the policies that they back off voting for when they hit the floor. It’s the people that they associate with outside sessions in Congress. It’s the people that they let in through their office doors. It’s the people that they listen to right before a vote. It’s so much more than a yes or no vote. That influence is so much more pervasive.

But the big thing that I keep telling people to is the war industry is giving this person money, and they’re certainly not giving this person money to end war. That’s the thing that people look at. They look at who owns you. They look at who pays your paycheck. They look at who funds your campaigns. And when we’re out there talking about not taking corporate money, that’s actually the thing that has managed to get us in a ton of doors. That stopped people from closing doors for us. It’s what’s endeared people to our campaign. It’s what’s made people trust us.

I’m not in this to get rich, and I made that really clear. I’m in this because I believe we have a moral fight here. We have a fight for moral clarity. We have an obligation to push for legislation that working people want. You can actually even point out the influence of corporate money in real true factual figures, which is insane. And it’s not a matter of race or gender or misogyny or phobia, it really is demonstrable through math.

Thirty percent of the legislation that working people want sees the floor and actually gets there. Eighty percent of the legislation that the rich and corporations and the one percent want gets to the floor with bipartisan support. And so if you don’t think that’s an example and that’s demonstrable proof of the influence of corporate money—I mean, thirty percent of the legislation working people want gets to the floor with bipartisan support.

Are you kidding me? What are our representatives doing? They’re supposed to be representing us, and they’re not pushing for the legislation that we want. But when it comes to the wealthy and the one percent, eighty percent of that legislation gets to the floor with bipartisan support. That’s the influence of corporate money in our legislation. It’s right there. It’s demonstrable. There’s proof for it. There’s evidence of it.

This is not a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of fact, and that’s what’s really frustrating for people like me to dealt with is because we’re trying to show there really is an issue with it. There really is a moral component that goes to it. Because when you take money from somebody, whether you realize it or not, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, that money is going to affect how you think. That money is going to affect how you think about the industry. That money is going to affect the legislation that you’re critical of. Oh, they gave me the maximum $10,000. I don’t really want to make them mad. What if they don’t give me that money again? So I’m just going to not cosponsor this piece of legislation.

It’s an unconscious response that we have. But when you’re unfettered to corporations, when you don’t have corporate overlords, when you don’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing and having all your funding pulled, that’s when you get to truly legislate from a place of meaning and a place of morality and a place of ethics. That’s where you really get the opportunity to legislate for working people. That’s where you get the opportunity to introduce laws that are going to make positive impacts in people’s lives without having to worry where your next paycheck is going to come from.

It’s really frustrating to me know. I signed on to the Off Fossil Fuels pledge, which I don’t take money from the fossil fuels industry or any industry. So it was a really easy pledge to sign. But they have this pledge, and I signed it back in early summer 2017. My incumbent in the general announced that he signed it too, and what’s extra annoying is yes he signed. But he signed it after he took all the fossil fuel money. So he took all the money, and then he said I pledge not to take their money now. To me, it’s just so empty and pandering, and unless he gives that money back, we’re going to see it and its effect on his legislation.

We’re already seeing it. He hasn’t cosponsored any of the three major bills to fight climate change. He pledged to cosponsor every piece of legislation in the People’s Platform from last year, and he still hasn’t cosponsored all of them. These pledges mean nothing because he’s not willing to quite literally put his money where his mouth is and push back against the fossil fuel industry. Which is frustrating and sad but at the same time they manage to do these mental gymnastics where they say oh it doesn’t affect my vote, when it clearly does.

It drives me absolutely up a wall. Because people see it. The working people see it. They know that it’s happening. They know that their representative’s votes are being affected. They’re telling them their votes are being affected. But their representatives, they’re ostriches. They shove their head in the sand, and they’re like, no, no, it’s not affecting me. It’s not affecting me. People are tired of it. We’re ready for a new era of politics that’s not beholden to any corporation. That’s not beholden to any industry or lobbyist or special interest group, that just wants to focus on doing what government is supposed to do, which is protecting the people and giving them every equitable opportunity to succeed.

GOSZTOLA: I recall back at a DNC Platform Committee meeting Dr. Cornel West, who was a surrogate for Bernie Sanders, laid it all out there. He was really frustrated because Bill McKibben, who runs 350.org and is a foremost climate activist. He was also a surrogate and was on there as a delegate representing Bernie Sanders. He was putting forward all these measures to address the climate, and he wanted to ban fracking. There’s this whole bloc of Democrats, who were opposing him, and basically Dr. Cornel West and recognized we’ve got a lot of “neoliberal rationalizations of corporate power” that are being thrown around here. He didn’t think Democrats recognized the urgency and what’s at stake and how devastating the situation is.

I want to give you a chance to talk about the part of your platform on environmental violence, but also the issue of Democrats. They do not in rhetoric or in theory deny the science of climate change like Republicans. They do not pretend like it does not exist. That makes them demonstrably better. I do believe that a Democrat would be better than a Donald Trump administration because they don’t deny the reality of climate change. We’ve seen it play out with the EPA and other organizations, the Interior Department with Ryan Zinke selling off parts of the federal public lands to energy companies. It’s a huge problem.

Then, they want an all-the-above energy policy. They want to appease parts of industry. They have a problem with workers, who I believe have been regular donors to their campaigns so they depend upon them for their elections. They don’t want those people to be out of jobs so they’re concerned, and they pander to them. So talk about the urgency of the climate and navigating these politics.

SMITH: In all honesty, the way that I look at it is if you’re a Democrat who says you believe in climate science and you’re not cosponsored on to any of the three bills that are in the House right now to fight back against climate change you are arguably worse than a Republican that believes it doesn’t exist. That’s what I think. You recognize it. You believe the science, but you’re not going to do anything about. That to me makes you an arguably worse Democrat than an arguably worse Republican. Knowing that something is wrong and having the ability to do something to fix it and refusing to act is unspeakable to me. It’s just as bad. It’s inaction that causes suffering, and it’s ridiculous.

Climate change is absolutely urgent. Climate change should be at the forefront of absolutely every conversation that hear on the floor of the House. Because we only have one planet, and we can get everything else taken care of later. But the planet has a finite timeline. The sea levels are rising. The glaciers are melting. We don’t really have time to mess around and wait on these things like climate change.

One of the biggest parts of my platform is a New Green Deal, and I think that that’s incredibly important for a lot of reasons. Because a new green deal encompasses a lot of things. I want to remove the subsidies that we give to the oil industry and the coal industry, and I want to put those into green energy because green energy is the way the rest of the world is going. It is the future. It is the morally right choice to make in this climate. No pun intended.

But the other thing I want to do is I also believe by investing in infrastructure that is part of this new green deal. It’s more than just green energy. It’s reducing the amount of people that are being transported by cars. It’s reducing our reliance on fossil fuels in a lot of ways. Electromagnetic rail is incredibly powerful and incredibly possible, and it’s something we really need to be giving subsidies to and putting more research into because that’s the way of the future. That’s the way we’re going to get from coast to coast in the future I believe.

But climate change is something that is not going to stop affecting us if we pass a single law. It’s something that’s going to affect generations to come. Every teenager I talk to, every high school kid I sit and talk to, their number one concern is the climate because at the end of the day they’re the ones that are going to have to worry about it the most. So if we have the opportunity to elect people into Congress who want to push for a green news deal, who want to push to get us off fossil fuels in a real tangible way, not just talk about it, we have an obligation to do so. That’s what we have to push for is a Congress that centers that climate change battle, that centers that climate change fight and puts the future of those kids first. That puts the future of this planet first and the future of our world before the future of our pocketbooks.

Climate change is such a deep pervasive issue, and it ties into absolutely everything that we do. It’s important that we protect the planet as much as we possibly can. It’s important that we push to get ourselves off fossil fuels. And we hear this lie repeated all the time. You said it yourself. The Democratic Party is worried about taking people’s jobs. And there was a study done. There’ve been multiple studies done that demonstrate for every one job that coal creates green energy creates four. If you really want to talk about climate change in regards to jobs and not getting off fossil fuels cause of jobs, if someone ever says oh we don’t want to take work away from people. That’s why we want to stay on coal. That person does not know anything about green energy and refuses to learn. And that person is wrong.

If we really wanted to create jobs and facilitate these good high-paying jobs, we’d be investing in green energy because that’s where the work is, and that’s where the future is. And climate change as a front and center platform piece is really important to me because it’s the thing that’s going to affect my children. It’s the thing that’s going to affect their children’s children. It’s something that has a very finite timeline that requires urgency.

I appreciate the 100 by 50 bill that Pramila Jayapal put forward to get us 100 percent off fossil fuels in 50 years, but there have been multiple studies that have shown we can do it in as little as six. We just have to remove the subsidies and do heavy investments in green energy, and I think if we can do it in a shorter period than fifty years then we should.

We have to because we can’t wait anymore. We can’t wait another five decades to fix our planet problems. We can’t wait to have that bill overturned by the fossil fuel industry and their lackeys and the representatives that they purchase. We have to be putting in representatives that recognize the urgency, that recognize the importance of fighting back against climate change and aren’t afraid to put forward bold legislation that gets it done in ten years instead of fifty years.

GOSZTOLA: I didn’t want to forget this one because it’s at the top of your platform on your issues page. It doesn’t really get talked about most of the time whenever you see candidates. But you do have disability rights as the number two issue. And, again, I believe everything that you’ve done is deliberate. So why did you put that up there? 

One thing you have on your page that is staggering to me is the notion or the fact that 80 percent of people with disabilities do not have jobs. That seems really excessive and unjust.

SMITH: Absolutely. Disability rights are civil rights, and we talk about this all the time. We talk about social justice. We talk about civil justice and the disabled community usually gets left out of this discussion. But they need to be brought into this discussion.

Most people with disabilities just want to work. They want to live normal lives. They just want to be productive members of society. And we’ve hamstrung them left and right from doing that, and we haven’t given them equitable opportunity. And this is a civil rights issue. 

This is a problem of denying people something. This is a problem of denying them a good quality of life because of a condition that they had no control over.

I just had a friend who lost their son because he suffered from a rare form of dwarfism, and he passed away. Watching her fight and watching her struggle I really got personally affected by this idea that disability rights are civil rights. She spent years on the phone roundabout trying to get housing so that her kid could go up and down the stairs, and these are things that you and I don’t have to think about. These are things that most people don’t ever consider. But watching her fight for months to get a van so that her kid could go play at the park.

These are just simple qualities of human life that people that struggle with disabilities are being denied that they have to have someone fighting tooth and nail for. 

When we push to give them every equitable opportunity, we’re pushing a civil rights issue here. We’re pushing an issue of right and wrong here. Giving people equitable opportunity extends beyond just race, religion, and sexuality. It extends to ability as well. Not a lot of people talk about it in those terms. Not a lot of people think of it in those terms. I think it’s time that we change the conversation around disability rights and we look at it as more of a civil rights and equitability issue.

GOSZTOLA: As we wrap up and conclude, I’ll give you a chance to say anything in closing that you might like. Talk about wherever people can go to support your campaign. 

Also, there was a big to do a week or two ago when they had a round of primaries. Everyone seemed to be celebrating that candidates didn’t do very well in those elections and that we didn’t see 100 percent of insurgent candidates come out and win, particularly in the so-called heartland states. But then the next round of primaries after you had your primary, there was a lot of success. There was success in Minnesota and various other states where you saw people advancing. I believe now there’s 23 people like yourself who were endorsed by Justice Democrats and are proceeding onward. 

So, as we conclude, talk about this moment and what gives you hope.

SMITH: The thing I said for the longest time is this is a marathon. This is not a sprint, and progressive values do exist in these areas in the midwest. People do love this stuff. They do want this stuff. When you talk to them about issues, they do respond to it. But sometimes it’s not about winning. Sometimes it’s about starting the conversation, and sometimes it’s about shifting the Overton window.

It’s about changing the tone of these discussions so that people can have them. And I think that in that regard we were hugely successful. We crossed into communities that had been forgotten and ignored by the Democratic Party for so long, and we took 30-40 percent of the vote in some of these areas, in areas where the Democratic Party has neglected people and left them out of the conversation or abandoned these rural areas, abandoned the southeast. They’ve abandoned the midwestern belt. They felt forgotten, but we went out there and we were there and present in the communities listening to them.

We changed the conversation. We brought these values to their doorsteps, and we talked about real issues that they’re affected by in a way that connects with them and resonates with them. And that conversation, we might not have seen it result in 100 percent victory today, but I think 2020 we’re going to see that resonate. We’re going to see that come out more and more over the next years. I’m a big fan of conversation. I think it’s really important that we bring these to areas that don’t think they need them.

Like Nancy Pelosi says, the Midwest isn’t ready for progressivism. Four thousand people at a rally in Kansas proved her otherwise. And I think that areas like the Midwest are tired of being told by people that have never been there or never lived there what they do and do not want or need. 

We showed them there are candidates in their districts that are hearing them, and that are listening to them. We’re slowly giving them the ability to have faith in progressive candidates in grassroots campaigns. And I think that this was really about breaking down the wall first. This was really about breaking down that barrier that we’ve setup, this partisan gridlock we’ve setup, where oh they’re not super blue. Therefore, they’re not worth going there.

We went into deep red areas. We took a risk, and we knew that not coming out successful was going to be part of that risk. But we also knew that coming out successful was not necessarily the only way to win. Sometimes the way to win is by changing the entire stage. And, I mean, we shifted conversations. We changed minds. We brought attention to these areas that haven’t seen coverage in decades. And we gave people a voice. We gave people a platform. They’re going to remember that in 2020, and I think 2020 is going to be an enormous year for progressive candidates because we’re showing that we’re in this, we’re scrappy, we’re doing it, we’re going into places that have been rejected and forgotten over and over again.

We’re telling these people we see you. We’re here for you. We want to represent you. We want to give you a better quality of life. We are here for you, and we want to link arms and join together and be champions for one another. 

I think that it might not have been 100 percent successful this time, but if you’re only measuring success in terms of who was victorious and who wasn’t victorious, that’s a really narrow scope for the idea of what victorious means. And that’s a really narrow scope for what that term of victory is.

Victory is not always winning. I think that it’s important to remember that.

 But that’s what gives me hope is these conversations are happening. This attention is being given to these states that have been left out of the conversation. It’s giving them the ability to pull up a chair and join us at our table. I think that is an incredibly powerful thing, and to say that’s not a victory is to completely dismiss this people once again and that work that those progressive candidates did. So that’s what gives me hope.

That’s what I’m doing here. I’m trying to bring a progressive fight to Washington, and if people want to know more about me, my website is VoteSarahSmith.com. If you want to donate, we made it super simple: VoteSarahSmith.com/donate. If you want to donate or volunteer or phone bank, it’s VoteSarahSmith.com/volunteer, VoteSarahSmith.com/call. We tried to make it as easy as humanly possible.

I believe we have an obligation to fight for what’s right. I believe that we have an obligation to fight for moral clarity. I believe that we can have a government that works for people. We don’t just have to be cynical and sit back and say oh my vote doesn’t matter. Every single vote matters. Every voice matters, and taking back that voice in Congress is incredibly important right now more than ever.

The piece of advice I’d give to people, and the thing that I want to tell to people right now, is if if you are someone who believes in all these values and you’re thinking about running for something and you’re not sure you can do it. You can do it. Trust me. Pick up and run, and just sign your name up and get out there and start meeting folks in your community. Every single office matters. There is no such thing as an office that doesn’t matter.

So if you want to be water commissioner in your county, go for it. Run. That’s an important position. If you want to be on a school board, that’s incredible. Run. Take that position. You want to run for state senate? Do it. Pick up your bags. Get out there. Meet people. You will get volunteers. The people will get behind you.

But the biggest thing I want to say more than that is if you are running for office don’t worry about feeling that you have to fit in a box. Everybody does that. We all fall into this trap of feeling that we have to fit into a box. The fact is that you really don’t. You can run as your authentic self. You can run as somebody that has authentic values and authentic positions. You can as somebody that’s speaking truth to power, that’s being honest, that’s running with integrity, that’s running as exactly who you say you are. And that can win and that’s a powerful message right now to send to the DNC, to send to the establishment. That’s an incredibly powerful thing to bring into the political stage.

And I think America is ready, and the world is ready. So that’s why I want to run. That’s why I want to encourage other people to run. I want people to run who feel like they’re ready to make a difference and who feel like they’re ready to stand up and be champions for working people, whether that’s Congress or that’s school board.

Every position is important. Every person is important. Every voice is important. All of us matter. So never be afraid to be your authentic self and run for exactly the office that you feel most drawn to. But whatever you do, pick up if you’re thinking about it, and run.

Photo by Hloom Templates on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."