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'It's like junk food': Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez on why she won't tackle 'culture wars'

caption: WA Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez during the show "Year in Review". Seattle, December 15, 2022
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WA Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez during the show "Year in Review". Seattle, December 15, 2022
Juan Pablo Chiquiza

Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez won a surprising victory in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District last fall.

The district, covering the state’s southwestern corner, had previously sent a Republican to Congress in every election since 2010 and voted solidly for Trump twice.

Gluesenkamp Perez won her seat in Congress, she says, by listening carefully to her voters’ concerns. She also rejects Democratic and Republican party orthodoxy.

Some politics reporters and analysts argue the Democratic Party can learn a lot from Gluesenkamp Perez’s success. She is an auto repair shop owner and mom with no previous political experience. Nate Silver’s polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight gave her opponent in 2022’s Congressional race – MAGA Republican Joe Kent – a 98% chance of winning.

Gluesenkamp Perez was in town last week for an interview at Seattle University. KUOW politics reporter David Hyde caught up with Gluesenkamp Perez afterward to ask if she sees her campaign as a model that other Democrats could follow.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There was an article in the Nation in December which basically said, if Democrats want to win more elections, they really need to listen to Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. What do you think of that?

We need to start selecting different kinds of candidates. We need someone that doesn't have an undergrad degree. This model that you have to be a man in his 40s or 30s, with a law degree and a lot of cash — I don't think people want that.

You think Democratic Party elites don't get it. What are you getting at when you say that?

Sometimes I look around the room, and I wonder: How many people here file their own taxes? How many people are on a waitlist for daycare or pump their own gas? Or know what it is to be an average American?

You mentioned in your Q&A today at Seattle University that your mom grew up in Forks, Washington, which was sort of the epicenter of the spotted owl dispute back in the 1980s and early 1990s, that pitted environmentalists against both the timber industry and timber industry workers. You yourself now live in a rural part of the 3rd Congressional District.

Could you say a little bit more specifically about how you think Democrats have failed to hang onto some rural Washington Democratic Party voters over timber issues?

Many members of my family lost their jobs. It was really tough. And for people who pride themselves on providing for their families, to hear that the woods are shut down [for logging due to protections for the Northern Spotted owl], that's really hard.

People who work in the woods, love the woods. That's why they work in these very dangerous jobs and break their bodies, because they love being in the woods. And it feels to them like these biologists are in a lab or a classroom, surrounded by concrete. And what do they know? Everybody should be at the table when we're making these decisions. I think there's an overemphasis on credentials.

You said something else in the conversation today that I thought was really kind of provocative, which is, “If I'm talking about culture wars stuff, I'm not doing my job.” What do you mean by that?

If I’m talking about what Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.] wore, or the crazy thing that she just said, people in my district don't really care. That's not what keeps them up at night.

I should be thinking about the things that are keeping them up at night, or the things that they're afraid to tell their friends about — their credit card debt, or that they're afraid that their kids are going to relapse. Those are the things that should be what we're talking about.

But I think that, often, the media can get more entertainment focused. It's not fun to think about how we're going to balance the budget — it's complex. Thinking hurts; it's painful to sit down and hash out those issues and understand them.

It's fun to make fun of Marjorie Taylor Greene or Matt Gaetz [R-Fla]. That's like a sport for people. But it's like junk food. It's leaving us malnourished intellectually, and in being able to be informed and have policy discussions.

When you were out there talking to your constituents on the campaign trail, was there a moment where you felt like, "Wow, this issue is really resonating with folks — this is the thing that people, especially rural working-class voters, are identifying with?"

Shop class. Shop class really matters to people, and it matters to their kids. And it’s something that matters to a broader spectrum of society because everybody's on a six-month waitlist to have a plumber come over.

We’re starting to see the tip of the iceberg of what it looks like to have denuded our trades, and it’s going to get worse. There's absolutely a silver tsunami of retirement coming. And I think in smaller communities, maybe it's easier to see. There is one guy left who knows how to sharpen saws, and what the hell are we going to do when he retires?

You won in the rural parts of the 3rd Congressional District, but you also won in urban and suburban Clark County. That's where you got most of your votes, and most of those voters don't work in the trades. But it seems like that's the kind of issue that's going to resonate with everybody?

Yeah, we all get our cars fixed. We all want to have skilled trades to build housing. Maybe those things are a little bit more pointed in rural communities. But a lot of middle Americans, urban and rural, are thinking about these issues.

So many more Democrats now are people with undergraduate degrees, and advanced degrees. There's been a real change in who Democratic Party voters are.

Is that part of the problem? What do you think the reason is that Democrats aren't getting this stuff that matters to working-class voters?

Love of money is the root of all evil. The people that donate to political campaigns are people that have extra money. And so, they're just going to have a different set of interests.

One stereotype I have is that a lot of environmentalists tend to be wealthier. A clean environment is a public good, but the way you achieve environmental protection really matters. I would argue that buying a Tesla is kind of a shitty form of environmentalism.

I'm not saying being an environmentalist is bad. I'm saying for a wealthier person, the way that we achieve those goals looks different than what it looks like for middle America. And we're not pushing the policies that are relevant to a lot of middle America, because the people funding elections and fielding candidates don't have as much in common with the rest of America.

Now that you're in Congress, how much pressure is there for you to conform to those special interests’ needs? You won by taking positions that aren’t the same as everybody else in the Democratic Party. So, is there pressure now for you to conform? Or do people go: “No, she's the model. We need to be more like her"? Which direction are things headed in the Democratic Party? Are you going to be more like them, or are they going to become more like you?

I don't owe anyone besides the 3rd Congressional District. It was a very, very grassroots campaign. Maybe there are outside interest groups that would like me to listen more or take meetings, but I don't really have to do that.

The Nation said, basically, “She won by not being a centrist.” That was in December. Then you yourself use the word “moderate” to describe some of your votes. And a local paper in Chehalis, The Chronicle, credited your success to your “moderate stance."

Forget the labels, but on the issues, which one of those characterizations is more accurate? And I ask that in the context of people looking to you as a kind of blueprint, or somebody who might know something about how to win hard races.

Part of the reason that I haven't joined ideologically aligned caucuses is because I think some of them are right on some issues, and some of them are right on other issues. And I think that that term “moderate,” that's just the shorthand for, "She doesn't vote with either leadership." When you look at my voting record, it's pretty bipartisan. Neither the right or the left, or the center-left … nobody's got a monopoly on good ideas or reality.

As you’ve said, you won in a district where Trump won by around five percentage points. That's not an easy seat for a Democrat to hang onto — any Democrat. How do you plan to do it?

By staying focused on the district, by staying focused on what matters to people in my community. There are certain people, particularly in my own party, who would like me to get more involved in … I would call them culture war issues. And I’m not spending my time on that.

There are other issues that don't get the attention they deserve. And those are the things that matter to my community. And so, I don't win by tacking left or right. I win by knowing my district, by spending time in it.

Every day that I'm not voting in D.C., I am in the district. I've been to all seven counties. I've met with a strong majority of all the mayors and county commissioners, Public Utility Districts. It really matters to me to have relationships, and be present, and available, and accountable.

That is why I think I will continue to be the choice that the 3rd makes for their representation — not because of political affiliation.

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