Sarah Smith, 30, wants to be the Seattle area's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Now that she's made it through the primary election to challenge 11-term incumbent Congressman Adam Smith, The Stranger has a few (more) questions for her. We caught up with Sarah Smith by phone last week.
And heads up: Congressman Adam Smith strongly disagrees with a number of things Sarah Smith said in this interview. We'll post The Stranger's interview with Congressman Adam Smith in the coming days.
Eli Sanders: When we met on primary night you were very confident—even though the early returns showed you in third place, which is not good enough to get through a primary election. How did you know you were going to land in second place?
Sarah Smith: I'm what I like to refer to as a pragmatic optimist. I plan for the worst and hope for the best.
But I knew that a lot of our outreach had been done at the last minute. I knew a lot of the big breaks we got, and the big opportunities we got, and a lot of our hardest pushes were toward the end. And so I just figured, you know, working people, young people, we vote late. And those are the people that we were really pushing hard for and really working—and they turned up, they showed up.
ES: Your campaign said you wanted to be above 27 percent going into the general election. You're not currently there, you're at—what is it now—26.85 percent. Do you feel comfortable going into the general not having made the target that you wanted?
SS: Yeah! I still feel pretty confident. Now we have a lot more itemized data that we can use. We know where we need to hit a lot harder. So I think now, with the primary behind us, we have even more opportunity to do community outreach, and outreach into those neighborhoods that we weren't able to get into as strongly as we were hoping.
ES: As you introduce yourself to more people, they'll have questions—and I have questions, too. First of all: What is a Justice Democrat?
SS: Justice Democrats are Democrats who have pledged not to take corporate money. A lot of us are challenging long-term, incumbent Democrats where we think we could have stronger representation.
We pretty much agree on a broad platform. There are some areas that we are all pretty much left to our own devices, but the main things that we agree on are things like Medicare for All, debt-free education, curbing military spending, investing in infrastructure, immigration reform, and a couple of key points you can see on the Justice Democrats web site. But the key thing for us is we also all pledge never to take corporate money—and not just during our campaigns, but also during our tenures sitting as congresspersons.
ES: You're also a Democratic Socialist.
SS: I am a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists, and I actually have been a long-term Democrat as well.
ES: Great. You're in a perfect position to answer this: What is the difference between a Democratic Socialist and a mainstream Democrat?
SS: A mainstream Democrat believes still in a lot of corporate power. So they still believe in acquiescing and working with corporations, whereas Democratic Socialism is more focused on how to empower the workers in those corporations. So they tie in really nicely together; people just try to isolate them into separate boxes, but they really overlap.
If you look at the Democratic Socialists of America platform, it's really not far off from the Washington State Democratic Party platform. But one of the key differences is Democratic Socialists believe in both a social and an economic democracy, not just a social democracy.
ES: I looked at Adam Smith's take in the 2016 general election. He won with over 200,000 votes in the 9th District. In the primary this year, you currently have about 40,000 votes. So you have a long way to go in terms of getting numbers of people behind you. How exactly are you going to do that? What's your strategy?
SS: We have a hugely expansive door-knocking plan right now. We have a really big base of people who want to get out and knock doors and talk to neighbors. We want to do a series of block parties that we're hoping to get set up. But we have a really big, comprehensive community outreach program that we're working on right now—those are our strengths, and we're playing to them. Community organizing and community outreach are where we're strongest, so we're just gonna stick to our strengths.
ES: The other thing that you need is a message, and when you're taking on a long-term incumbent like Adam Smith you need a very clear argument as to why he has failed, or is wrong for the district and needs to be replaced. So what is that argument?
SS: Right now our biggest argument is that Adam Smith has had 22 years to push a strong progressive agenda that he digs his heels in for, and is dedicated to. He hasn't taken any bold stances in 22 years.
And it's time that this district, which is a deeply blue district, gets represented by somebody who is not afraid to stand up and take bold stances without being prompted by consultants.
ES: Can you give me a few specific examples of bold stances he failed to take, or votes that he's cast that you would have cast differently?
SS: Sure. The most prevalent one off the top my head is the 2016 vote—it was a vote to ban selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. He voted in favor of continuing the sale of those cluster bombs. That was one of the biggest ones.
When he voted for the Iraq War he said that it was a mistake, and I think that that 2016 vote was his chance to prove that that wasn't just talk. And he failed to prove that it wasn't just talk.
He's voted repeatedly to increase the military budget. He talks a lot about wanting to audit the Pentagon and the Department of Defense. But he's failed to put any kind of legislation forward that's going to go ahead and do that.
He didn't get behind Medicare for All until he had a progressive challenger.
He also voted in favor of redefining a credit hour, which made it easier for private universities and for-profit colleges to charge students more tuition, and made it easier for them to fleece students for more money.
And now he's saying he's in favor of education for all, but he doesn't really ever talk about it. And to me it's all talk, no action. And I'm kind of tired of it. Especially as a person who is struggling under student debt, who's been waiting for someone to stand up and be a champion for people like me.
ES: You mentioned your student debt. Can you tell me where you went to school, and what you studied, and what you've been doing along the way in your professional life before deciding to run for Congress?
SS: Of course. I'm happy to. So, I never in my life ever thought I would run for Congress. Ever. I went to the University of Arizona, and I graduated magna cum laude from the Honors College with a degree in classical studies, which is like Greek and Roman history. And I actually worked full time through college. I was a liability and claims negotiator for a major insurance company, and that's what transferred me up into Seattle.
I'd lived in Everett before for like a year-ish, and I knew I wanted to come back. So I packed up, applied for a promotion, got it, moved up to Seattle, and then I was pretty much just going to focus on working and expanding my career.
And that's when the election happened in 2016, and I decided I need to get more involved. I've done a lot of volunteer work, mostly. So I worked with the Humane Society. I was the only individual on my employer's volunteer board who was not management, which meant I was in charge of organizing events with the Seattle Humane Society, events like the King 5 Harvest Drive, the Christmas charity drive, things like that. So I've done a lot of stuff like that.
And then I worked as an administrative supervisor for a mechanic garage for about a year and half, but I quit when the primary got crazy. I quit for a few weeks, and then, as it turns out, my husband and I are not able to support our household on one income because it's very expensive to live here. So I am actually back to work at a job that knows everything, they're really great, they're super flexible, I really love working for them—I basically just do a lot of research into state laws and state codes and things like that, which is really cool.
ES: What is that job?
SS: Basically, I'm an admin assistant still. But my job is primarily research. So I'm basically a research assistant for a private company—not a political organization.
ES: You mentioned living here, so I wanted to ask you about Adam Smith's criticism that, while you say you live here, you don't actually live in the 9th District.
SS: [Sigh.] I live 2,600 feet from the district border, which is actually even closer than Pramila Jayapal, who lived about 21 blocks into the 9th District when she ran for Congress in the 7th.
So I'm not sure why Adam keeps pushing this as his big line of attack, but he is certainly comfortable taking Pramila's endorsement and riding her coattails while criticizing me for the exact same thing. It's hypocritical and it's ridiculous.
ES: If you win, will you move into your district like Congresswoman Jayapal did?
SS: Absolutely! I want to. I love the 9th District! I miss South Seattle! I mean, I loved living in Rainier Beach. It was my favorite place I've ever lived. I tell everybody that all the time—even before I ran for Congress.
ES: Why did you move?
SS: We've had roomates for most of the time we've lived in Washington, and one of my roommates got a new job in California, and so he moved, and we weren't able to sustain the payments anymore. And our landlady had been talking a lot about selling the house. And so when we lost him, we knew we weren't going to be able to afford it, and she'd already been talking about selling the house, so we were like, "Okay, we need to move."
So we started to look around and were able to find a foreclosure about half a mile into the 8th District.
ES: So you're a resident of the 8th District. Who did you vote for among the Democrats in the primary?
SS: I voted for Rittereiser, and I have solid reasons why. I love that he offered pro bono legal services to the immigrant community. And he was the only candidate who pledged to cosponsor HR 676, which is Medicare for All.
ES: Adam Smith has also brought up that he thinks part of your success is due to support from people who are mad at him about his endorsement of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary back in 2016. So I wanted to ask you: Who did you support during the Democratic presidential primary back in 2016?
SS: I supported Bernie Sanders. It was the first campaign I ever donated to, the first campaign I ever really felt drawn to. It was the first time I heard a candidate speaking to my issues. I was focused on the issues—and issues-wise, Bernie Sanders spoke to me more than Hillary Clinton did.
ES: Who did you vote for in the general election in 2016?
SS: I voted for Hillary Clinton.
ES: You have embraced the comparison to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What makes you think that this district is ready for you to do something like what Alexander Ocasio-Cortez was able to do in Queens? The 9th District is not Queens, as you know.
SS: Oh, yeah. The 9th District is a lot bigger. If you look at vote counts, we actually more than doubled the people who voted for Alexandria. So, more people voted for me than voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which is crazy to think.
But, I mean, we know because we go out to talk to people in the district—and we don't just talk to our echo chamber, we go and we talk to Democrats who identify as more moderate, we talk to Republicans, I chat with Libertarians a lot, too. Just talking to people in this district, they're ready for bold representation and bold stances. Everybody wants to be able to go to the doctor and not have to worry about bills. We're a young district that's concerned about our student loan debt. We're having 127 teachers laid off from Kent School District because the district is underfunded and doesn't make enough money. They need someone in Congress who can stand up and fight for that, who's going to stand up and try to bring funding on a need basis for schools that really, actually are desperate for it.
ES: While we're talking about the make-up of the 9th, just for anyone who's in Seattle and interested in this race but is not a 9th District voter: How would you describe the 9th District?
SS: I do this all the time. My family doesn't live in the 9th District, they live in Oregon, so I get to describe it to them a lot. So the way I tell them about it is, it's a really dynamic district. For a long time it's been majority minority, so there's a lot of communities of color here, there's a lot of vibrancy. We also have massive income inequality.
You can see it from driving from one end of the district to the other. So, the South Seattle-Kent area has a lot fewer resources, it's a lot lower income, it's much more working class. I always point to the school districts as the way to see it. But it's got layoffs happening, and teachers strikes happening, and underfunded schools, and you drive across the lake, or off to the other side of Lake Washington, and you get to Bellevue, which has some of the nicest schools in the State of Washington, and some the nicest houses in the nicest neighborhoods.
And I think that that's one of the biggest problems facing our district right now. And so when I tell my parents about that, they kind of understand that this district has two stark realities. It's got the reality of a very wealthy set of neighborhoods, like Mercer Island and Bellevue, and then it's got the reality of working people, like in Kent and South Seattle.
ES: You brought up the fact that this is a majority minority district. Adam Smith has navigated this fact since the district was redistricted back after the 2010 census. And he's in this interesting position of being a white man representing the first majority minority district in the state. You would be a white woman representing a majority minority district. How would you navigate that reality, and what sort of special obligations do you think would come with being a white woman representing a majority minority district?
SS: That's an interesting question. One of the things we've really been congizant of is, we don't want a speak for communities of color because of that fact. I am a white woman. I don't have a right to speak for communities color.
So we've been really aware of that, and reaching out to representatives from the Somali community and leaders from the Ethiopian community. We've been reaching out to leaders in the various communities of color to talk with them and ask them directly what their issues are, and what issues directly affect them, and how we can address those more directly. Our entire social justice and racial justice platform is based around Campaign Zero, which came out of the Black Lives Matter movement—citizen accountability for policing, madatory bodycams, all that kind of stuff. So we've been really cognizant of the issues that are facing communities of color, and we've been making a strategic point to go and talk to them directly about how these issues affect them.
We want every community in this district to at least feel heard, and that's been really important because, you know, as a—I hate to say, "As a woman," but as a woman I'm used to not being heard and I'm used to having to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere in my careers. I'm used to having to be unexpected. I'm used to having to work twice as hard as everybody else. And that's exponentially harder for communities of color, for black women, for Hispanic women. Indigenous women face it even worse than anybody else. And I think that being aware of those issues, and engaging those communities, and asking them directly gives us a really strong upper hand on coming in and fighting for the things that matter to them.
ES: You said you don't feel like you have a right to speak for communities of color, but if you are elected to represent this district in Washington, D.C., you will have an obligation to speak on their behalf in Congress. How will you get to a point where you feel like you can speak for people who would, if you win, be your constituents?
SS: That's one of the things that we've talked about ad nauseum, actually, is accountability and helping these communities feel that they can come to me and talk to me as the representative for them.
We want to keep working extensively with leaders in these communities. When legislation comes up and I'm not sure how it's going to affect communities of color, I want to reach out to those community leaders and be able to talk to them, foster good relationships with them. No one person is an expert on everything in Congress, but I think it's important to recognize that we also have an ability to—and an obligation to—reach out to speakers for these communities and talk to them, and just ensure that our decision-making process is correct.
ES: It sounds like one of your major critiques of Adam Smith is his service on the House Armed Services Committee and his votes for the military budget. It sounds like you're also arguing that he's shown some wishy-washiness on Medicare for All. But is there any other specific policy issue where you can draw a sharp contrast with him?
SS: Sure. I am all in favor of a brand new Green Deal, and removing oil subsidies. I'm all about getting us off fossil fuels, and Adam hasn't cosponsored any of the three major climate-change bills geared toward getting us off fossil fuels that are sitting in the House right now.
There's the OFF Act, the 105-50, and the Keep It in the Ground Act. And a bitter point for me is that during the People's Platform in, I believe it was 2017, he signed a pledge that he would agree to cosponsor every piece of legislation on the People's Platform, and has failed to do so. He then walked it back after he very publicly made that signature, and then privately walked it back and failed to cosponsor the Keep It in the Ground Act, which I find very disconcerting and very frustrating.
Another area that we veer sharply from each other is on infrastructure. I want to invest $4.6 trillion over about 10, 15 years into infrastructure. That's just what we need to catch up to the rest of the world. And Adam talks about having an infrastructure bill out there, but it's for freight. And it doesn't really affect the major cause of our infrastructure problems, which is commuter infrastructure. And it doesn't address the problems that working people have, where we can't live close to where we work because there's not enough public transportation.
It doesn't address the issue of needing better rail systems to get people to work—and, more than just to work, to get people out into other communities, to get people out to parks, to go for hikes, to get people to the beach. These are important things that he just isn't talking about, and isn't pushing for legislation on, and isn't sponsoring legislation on.
The way I look at it is, if you feel strongly about this thing, and there isn't a bill out there for it, then you should be the one who's spearheading the bill. And he's passionate about this stuff, but he won't spearhead any bills on it.
ES: So what is the first bill you plan to introduce if you are elected to Congress?
SS: The first bill I want to introduce is actually one that pushes us toward public funding of elections. My big thing is, I have a huge, bold, amazing progressive agenda and so does every other Justice Democrat and Brand New Congress candidate, but we all recognize that until we pry off corporate ownership of our government, we're going to have a really hard time pushing forward any other kinds of bills. So the first thing that we need to do is, we really need push for publicly-funded elecions.
ES: So I assume, then, that you're in favor of repealing Citizens United through Congressional action.
SS: Oh yeah.
ES: And do you know what the Honest Ads Act is?
SS: I do not know what the Honest Ads Act is. I haven't heard of it yet.
ES: Patty Murray is a cosponsor of it, and it has some bipartisan support. It's an attempt to create federal regulations for online political ads—which currently are not really regulated at all. It's a response to the 2016 presidential election and the ability of Russians to, for example, buy fake political ads online. The bill basically seeks to apply the same type of federal regulations to online political advertising as are already apply to radio and television political ads. It's kind of stunning, but currently online political ads are much less regulated at the federal level than television or radio political ads.
SS: I would want to read into the fine print and actually get through the bill, but tentatively, it definitely sounds like something I'd be in support of.
ES: Do you think that President Trump should be impeached?
SS: I do, but I think he should be impeached with evidence. I think he should be impeached with hard evidence. We can't just impeach somebody because we don't like them. So I do support the impeachment of Donald Trump, but I support it based off of whatever Mueller's investigation finds him guilty of.
ES: So you don't think there's enough evidence right now to impeach him.
SS: I think it's difficult to say. I think he's really doing a good job of giving us a lot of evidence, especially on Twitter when he makes claims that he didn't know his son was meeting with someone that he then says he did know he was meeting with someone. So, right now I think we're coming up on enough evidence to impeach him, but I want an iron-clad case, is what I'm saying.
ES: So if I asked you, "Would you vote to impeach Trump?" your answer is, "Not yet."
SS: My answer is not yet, yes.
ES: Would you vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker?
SS: I would actually vote for Rep. Barbara Lee.
ES: So you would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
SS: No, I would not.
ES: How much money do you have on hand right now going into the general election?
SS: We just surged, and I think we're sitting on about $15,000.
ES: I know you're all about getting money out of politics, but the reality is it does take some money to get your message out. Do you think you can raise enough money to reach the number of people that you'll need to reach in the 9th District?
SS: I do. I think we can raise enough money.
ES: If you're elected, will you caucus with the Democrats? A big part of this midterm election cycle is the question of whether the Democrats will get a majority in the House, and they potentially don't have a majority if you're not caucusing with them.
SS: I think it's important to work with people on policy. To me, it really doesn't matter what party you're with. It really doesn't. What matters to me is that you're supporting progressive policy and strong policy that's going to work to better the lives of working class people.
So if caucusing with the Democrats in some areas is going to help me with that, then that's what I'm going to push for. But I know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I have talked a little bit about—actually, all of us on the Justice Dems and Brand New Congress like to joke about a Brand New Caucus. It's a progressive stronghold. And if that includes Republicans and Democrats, that's fine.
We're going to caucus with the people who support the most progressive policy possible for working class people. And if that's the Democrats, I have no problem caucusing with them. I have no ill will against Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or anybody. I'll work with anyone who wants to push for strong, good progressive legislation that's going to help working people.
ES: But when you're talking about potential Democratic control of the House, the assumption is that if the Democrats win enough seats, including this seat in the 9th District, that translates into enough Democratic caucus votes for a new Democratic speaker and Democratic chairs of all the committees. Are you going to vote for a Democratic speaker and Democratic chairs of the House committees that would then have the power to investigate, for example, the president.
SS: Of course. Absolutely.
ES: You've never held elective office before.
SS: I have not.
ES: So let's just talk about that quickly, because people will bring that up. Do you feel like it's a bit of a bold thing to go from no experience in elective office to becoming a sitting member of Congress?
SS: It's a very bold thing to do, but that doesn't mean that it's the wrong thing to do. I mean, we look at this idea of experience, right, that's the thing everyone draws on. But we have all the elected experience in the world right now sitting on Capitol Hill and we're getting nothing done.
In fact, we're moving backwards with all of our experience. And we've had representatives who have been in office, who have done an incredible job, who had barely held elected for less than a full term, and who are incredible legislators now. So what really matters is representation more than anything. What matters is my experience as a working person, and looking at this legislation and understanding how it affects working people like me and working families like mine.
And I think that's what we're lacking on on Capitol Hill, is people who have a real understanding of what it's like to be a working-class American in a post-recession America because we don't have any of that right now in Congress, and if we do it's very little. That experience is important and it matters just as much as legislative experience, if not more so.
ES: Anything else people should know about you?
SS: Just to walk back a little bit to the impeach Trump question. I mean, I look at the Emoluments Clause and I totally understand why everyone wants to jump on—I actually want to jump on board with the impeach Trump idea just based on the Emoluments Clause alone, but I actually think Mueller's investigation, once it's complete, is going to give us even more power to punch for that impeachment argument. And I think that if we can iron-clad it even more, I think we can make it very clear to future presidents that we are absolutely not going to tolerate that kind of behavior.