Seattle area Congressman Adam Smith, speaking out against the Trump administrations migrant detention policy in June.
Seattle area Congressman Adam Smith, speaking out against the Trump administration's migrant detention policy in June. Karen Ducey / Getty Images

Adam Smith, 53, is running for a 12th term in Congress. But this election season, he's facing a new type of challenger. Yesterday, we heard from that challenger, Democratic Socialist Sarah Smith. She claimed Congressman Adam Smith "hasn't taken any bold stances in 22 years."

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During a phone interview, the Congressman called that claim "insane," defended his record, and criticized Sarah Smith's lack of political experience and accomplishments. "My opponent has no record whatsoever of having worked on the issues that she claims to care so much about," he said. "I do."

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Eli Sanders: You've had liberal challengers take aim at you in primaries before. But over the course of 11 terms in Congress, you've never faced a liberal challenger winning second place in the primary—as Democratic Socialist Sarah Smith just did—and then moving on to a general election campaign against you. Why do you think this is happening to you this year?

Congressman Adam Smith: I don't really think that's for me to decide. What I have to do is, I have to try and focus on my message. And my message is that I'm going to be, and have been, and will continue to be a very effective progressive voice for this district. I have a proven record of fighting for the progressive values of the middle-class, working people in this district.

It's a tough business so I don't always succeeed. Sometimes I do. But there is no question that the issues I'm fighting for, the background I have, and the people that I know in this district—the connections that I have—will make me the most effective voice to advance the progressive issues that are most important to the people I represent.

ES: I asked Sarah Smith this question when I interviewed her, and I want to ask you the same question: How would you describe, to someone who doesn't live there, the 9th Congressional District?

AS: Well, the number one word that comes to mind is diversity. And I think it's not just ethnic diversities, though certainly we have that.

I mean, we speak 160 different languages in the district. But it's also very diverse economically. I mean, South King County and certainly parts Southeast Seattle are very blue collar and have people who are economically struggling. I mean, the elementary school that I went to, Bow Lake Elementary, is 85 percent free and reduced lunch now. You look at parts of Tukwila, and DesMoines, and SeaTac, the area where I grew up, there are a lot of economic challenges. At the same time, I represent Paul Allen. I represent some very wealthy people in Seattle as well. Folks who live right on the water in Southeast Seattle and elsewhere. So I think the key to successfully representing this district is to be able to work with diverse people.

You're not going to find a candidate who's going to perfectly represent everybody. For one thing, you're not going to find someone who speaks 160 different languages. What you need is someone who knows how to represent people, how to listen to people, how to reach out to diverse constituencies. That's what I've done and been successful at.

My knowledge of the district and my knowledge of the issues puts me in a position to advance the interests of the district, I think, best, and to bring people together to solve problems—which is why I got involved in politics in the first place.

ES: We'll talk about the issues in a second, but since you're a Democrat who's now running against a Democratic Socialist, I want to ask you: What is the difference between a Democrat and a Democratic Socialist?

AS: Well, you'd have to ask the Democratic Socialists. Again, you know, these are all sort of punditry questions, which is fine, but I'm a candidate for office and what's most important is, you know, What are the issues? What's my record? What's my opponent's record? What have we done for the people of the district? And who can they trust to be the most effective voice for the progressive issues that are so important to our district?

So I'll leave it up to my opponent to decide what issues she wants to talk about. I'm going to talk about the issues that I think are most important to the district.

ES: Well, when I asked Sarah Smith what the difference is between a Democratic Socialist and a Democrat, she told me that mainstream Democrats—and she describes you as a mainstream Democrat—still believe in a lot of corporate power. They believe in acquiescing to corporations and working with corporations, she said, and that's one of the major differences. According to her, Democratic Socialism is more focused on empowering the workers in those corporations.

AS: Well, I'm very focused on empowering the workers. And it's worth noting that every single labor union in the state has endorsed me. That wasn't the case even two years ago when I ran in the primary against Democrat Jesse Wineberry. The workers are supporting me because they see that I'm fighting for them.

I was the first Democrat in the state to come out publicly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Number one corporate priority out there has been tax cuts. Not only did I oppose the tax cut that just passed, I opposed the 2001 tax cut that George W. Bush passed. A lot of Democrats voted for that. A lot more Democrats voted to permanently extend it in 2012. I voted no.

So I'm perfectly willing to take on corporations in the best interests of my district. I would say that I don't think all businesses are evil. I don't think my opponent thinks all businesses are evil. It's an obscure reference, but I know that the folks at Ben & Jerry's are supporting my opponent. That's a corporation. Are they evil? Why is she working with them?

And just two examples of where I've worked with business to the best interests of my district. Starbucks, and Microsoft, and Alaska Airlines, and a bunch of other companies do a job fair every year that focuses on reaching out to underprivileged populations. And we work with them to get people from our district in there. And a lot of people get jobs out of that. Should I not work with them to do that?

Second, I have a ton of manufacturing businesses in my district, up and down the Kent valley. They need very specialized skills to manufacture products that they're manufacturing—a lot of it is aerospace. So, Boeing and a lot of these other companies work with—well, Renton Vocational Technical, but all vocational and technical institutions in our state—to say, Hey, what do you need? What specific skills are you looking for? And then you can go to Renton Voc-Tech and get a six-month class in welding, or a certain type of manufacturing that will lead to a job with Boeing—or, you know, another major company in my district that manufactures is PACCAR.

So, I mean, I guess if the point is that we're never ever, ever supposed to work with a business, then I disagree with that.

But I'm perfectly willing to take on corporations when they're wrong and when it's not in the best interests of my district.

ES: Are you in favor of Medicare for All?

AS: Yes. I'm a founding member of the Medicare for All caucus, as a matter of fact.

ES: Sarah Smith, when I spoke to her, said that she had perceived some wishy-washiness from you on Medicare for All. But that's not the case, you're saying?

AS: That is 100 percent untrue. I've been a co-sponsor on the bill for a couple of years now. And like I said, you can look it up. We formed a Medicare for All caucus just before the break and I'm a founding member of it.

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ES: She also has attacked your votes for the military budget. You're on the Armed Services Committee. She wants to take money from the military and spend it on social programs—say, Medicare for All, for example, but other things, too. Do you stand by your votes for the military budget?

AS: I stand by all of my votes when it comes to the defense industry, and I think there's been some cherry picking going on. We can send you the citations. I've voted against the defense budget 16 times since 2012. I don't always vote for it, because I have concerns about the amount of money that's being spent in it and some of the policies that are there, as well.

But I think the important distinction here is—there's a couple of, I think troubling quotes from my opponent. One, she was asked, "What is the greatest military threat"—this is on a Reddit interview that you can look up—"What is the greatest military threat to the United States of America?" She answered, "The United States military." I disagree with that.

She was also in an earlier interview where she basically said that we could zero out the defense budget. Now, I'm not in favor of the largest defense budget, but nor am I naive enough to think that we don't need a national security policy.

And I'll also say that if I get reelected, I would be the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. And having a strong progressive as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee would be enormously helpful.

I've already been able to advocate for clean energy investments from the Department of Defense, I've been able to advocate for the LGBTQ community in a very effective way. On a number of issues, I've been able to move forward on that.

Look, I know there are some people who think that we don't need a national defense. I disagree with that. Now, I'm perfectly willing to disagree with the defense industry when I don't think they're right. One of my first votes in Congress was against building any more B-2 bombers. I voted to end building the F-22 fighter. We had a vote last year on cutting the number of litoral combat ships that we were going to buy. I voted for that cut. So I am not blindly in favor of the defense budget, but nor am I blindly against it.

And you talk to peace groups, you talk to Physicians for Social Responsibility, you talk to the Quakers, and they will tell you that I am a very effective advocate for peace, and for an alternative. I'm one of the leaders on investing in foreign aid and diplomacy, and using that as an alternative to the military.

My knowledge of how the defense industry works, and my commitment to moving towards diplomacy and development as alternatives, puts me in a strong position to make a difference on these issues. I mean, if my opponent gets elected she'll be one more person—I think there were 65 people who voted against the defense budget this year—so now there'll be 66. Okay. What real impact is she going to have on moving national security policy in a better direction? Or stopping us from senselessly building as many nuclear weapons as they're talking about building? I'm the leading person right now fighting that nuclear policy. And I have the knowledge base, and the experience, to be effective on that.

ES: Sarah Smith has specifically criticized your vote not to ban selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in 2016. You voted in favor of that. Was that a mistake?

AS: Look, I don't believe that it was because the bomb—the issue was—I don't think we should be selling anything to Saudi Arabia right now—but when you isolated one weapon system, and, by the way, a weapons system that's more precise than, for instance, the laser-guided bomb that just hit a bus in Yemen and killed a bunch of schoolchildren—look, I'm working right now to stop us from having any involvement whatsoever in the civil war in Yemen.

I was under the Obama administration, and I also put pressure on the Obama administration—we shouldn't be selling any weapons to Saudi Arabia. This was picking out one, and it was a misunderstanding, as I have explained to The Stranger on several occasions, of what a cluster bomb is. But I don't think we should be selling any weapons to Saudi Arabia or the UAE right now given what they're doing in Yemen.

ES: You talked a little bit about climate change and environmental policy in the context of your service on the House Armed Services Committee—having some impact there. Sarah Smith is claiming that you haven't sponsored any of the three major climate change bills that are sitting in the House right now, all aimed at getting us off fossil fuels. And she lists those bills as the OFF Act, the 105-50, and the Keep It in the Ground Act.

AS: Yeah, I don't know about those three. I'm co-sponsor of a bill by John Larson that would put a carbon tax in place. And we'll have to get you the specific facts on that. But whatever I've co-sponsored, I voted for the Cap and Trade bill in 2009. I have publicly supported the carbon tax that's being proposed in the State of Washington.

And again, you talk to any environmental group—you know, I opposed the Keystone Pipeline. The Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, the climate change activist groups, they will tell you that I am a leading voice working on those issues.

And that's another contrast here. I have a record of actually doing things. My opponent has positions. But she hasn't done anything on any of these issues.

And I think it's very telling, as you talk to these people in these different communties, like on climate change, she says she's a big climate change advocate. Go around and talk to anybody who has worked on this issue in the Puget Sound region. Before my opponent started running for office, they'd never met her, they'd never heard of her, she never had anything to do with those issues. I would gather, and I don't know if this is true or not, but I'm pretty sure that all you guys at The Stranger, until she decided to run for Congress, you'd never heard of her and never met her, either.

Now, contrast that with two newcomers on the political scene here in the state. Washington State Senator Rebecca Saldana, before she decided to run for state senate, she was very active in the community. People had certainly heard of her. She had worked on those issues. Before Pramila Jayapal decided to run for the state senate she founded One America—and before that, it was Hate Free Zone—and worked on a ton of issues. My opponent has no record whatsoever of having worked on the issues that she claims to care so much about. I do.

I'll look up those three specific bills—there's thousands of bills introduced—and I've certainly gotten on a ton of climate change bills. But my record on climate change is 100 percent, and strong, and I've been willing to take the votes. What has she done?

ES: Whether it's climate change or any other issues, she says—and this is a sweeping statement—but she says Adam Smith "hasn't taken any bold stances in 22 years." I would assume you disagree.

AS: Yeah. That's insane.

ES: So what's the boldest stance that you've taken over your career?

AS: Well, I'll go through a whole bunch of them. Standing up publicly in the State of Washington saying that I opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and being the first member of Congress in the State of Washington to do that. In a very trade-dependant state, with a lot of businesses that support trade, I did that.

Voting for the Cap and Trade bill back in 2009 when it was very controversial, because people weren't willing to go that far.

Voting for the Affordable Care Act, when I represented a 50-50 district that was very, very, very hostile to the issue.

Voting against the defense bill 16 times as the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee.

Time and time again I have taken very strong progressive votes, even when I represented the 50-50 district before [redistricting].

So what she's saying is simply not true.

I mean, gosh, going all the way back to my time in the state senate I supported gay rights and I supported a universal access to health care bill in the State of Washington. And again, in 2012, when over half the Democratic caucus voted to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts, I voted no.

I have an actual record. She doesn't.

I challenge you to find something that she's done on any of these issues that she says she cares about—that she's actually worked on. Whether here or in Arizona or wherever she's been, there's simply no record of actually working on the issues that she says she cares about.

ES: Are you in favor of publicly-funded elections?

AS: Yes. There's a whole bunch of constitutional amendments—I'm co-sponsor of some of them, I forget which ones—we'll get you the exact ones that I'm co-sponsor of—that would repeal Citizens United, that would go to public financing. So yes, I'm strongly in favor of campaign finance reform.

ES: Are you familiar with the Honest Ads Act?

AS: Actually, I'm not.

ES: Senator Patty Murray is a co-sponsor in the Senate. There is some bipartisan support. And this is the attempt to actually regulate political ads online. So, as you may know, right now, shockingly, even after the 2016 election, the federal government only really regulates political ads on television and radio—but not online.

AS: I would strongly support that.

ES: Are you in favor of impeaching Trump?

AS: I'm in favor of opening the investigation. I don't think we should conclude before we have the investigation. Once Mueller's report comes out I think—I think right now there is sufficient evidence to begin impeachment proceedings.

I think we should wait until Mueller's report comes out to give us all the facts. Because look, impeaching a president is no small thing. You want to make sure you have your facts in line and you're doing it correctly. So once we have that report we should begin that investigation.

But, that's a vote that you have to take seriously. You have to get the facts and understand it. But I think there is more than enough evidence to begin those proceedings at this point.

ES: If you become the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, what is the first thing you want to investigate about how the Trump administration has handled the military?

AS: All of the places where they are engaged in military action where it has not been sufficiently—where it has not been approved by Congress.

You are, I'm sure, familiar with the four Special Ops guys who got killed in Niger. We were supposed to be on a train-and-equip mission in Niger. Period. And here we had four guys who were leading a kill-or-capture mission. The Trump administration has allowed the military to engage in military action without sufficient oversight.

Say what you want about President Obama, but I worked with them and every time they decided to take military action against a perceived terrorist threat, they agonized over the legality of it. They looked to see if it was authorized, they looked to see if they could minimize civilian casualties. President Trump has pretty much said, "Bombs away."

There was a report by Human Rights Watch that said we've had a tripling of civilian casualties under the Trump administration. So, investigating that unauthorized military action in—gosh—numerous countries: Niger, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, there are many that come to mind. That would be number one.

Number two would be to continue the pressure to try to make sure that the LGBTQ community can serve openly in the military. To show, as our service chiefs have said, that this strengthens the military, it doesn't weaken it, and there's no reason to drive them out.

ES: You have been reelected several times now as the representative for Washington State's first majority minority district, and I'm sure you're familiar with the questions about a white man representing the first majority minority district. How have you navigated that challenge?

AS: Well, I think it's telling—and this came up in your paper's endorsement interview—no person of color decided to run against me this time. And that's because I'm doing an effective job of representing my diverse district.

This is something you won't hear my opponent talk much about. And the way I'm doing that is, I am reaching out into all the diverse communities, and trying to make sure that I listen to them and I work on their issues. I know the issues that are important to the Somali community, to the Korean community, to the Chinese-American community, the Indian-American community. There's a green card issue that is huge with people who have H1-Bs here. The Somalis are concerned about being able to take food stamps at their grocery stores. I understand all those issues.

Also, I aggressively support and recruit people of color and women in my office. My chief of staff is a woman, my district director is a woman, my communications director is a woman, my campaign manager is a woman. And two of those are women of color.

And I also support candidates across the board, because I want to make sure that my diverse district is adequately represented. Bear with me, because I'm going to cite a whole list of names for you here: Jesse Johnson, African-American young man just elected to the Federal Way City Council—interned in my office, I supported his campaign. Zak Idan, a Somali American from down in Tukwila, who ran for Tukwila City Council—I supported him, and he was elected. I support De'Sean Quinn as well in that district. Satwinder Kaur is an Indian-American woman who ran for the city council in Kent and won—I supported her. My-Linh Thai, a Vietnamese American who is running for the 41st District legislative seat right now—she did well in the primary and it looks like she's in good shape. Vandana Slatter is a woman who I supported for both the Bellevue City Council and for the state legislature when she ran in the 48th District. I could go on, but there are literally dozens of folks, and I do it by reaching out to all of those diverse communities and making sure that they're represented.

And this is where I think experience matters. Does my opponent know the district well enough, and know these communities well enough, to truly represent them? I don't believe that she does.

My experience and my background working with all these folks means that my diverse district is going to be well represented.

Like I said, you're not going to find someone who is perfectly, exactly like everybody in the district—the district is simply too diverse for that. But what you need is someone who's going to advocate even for people who aren't like me. And frankly, even if you elected an African-American or an Indian-American, they would have to work just as hard for the other diverse communities as well.

That's what you need to do, and I've done it, and I've done it effectively, and it's something that, well, quite frankly, I don't think your newspaper has given me enough credit for doing.

ES: You have suggested, or maybe just outright said that you think part of the support for Sarah Smith is connected to people in the 9th District who are upset with you for endorsing Hillary Clinton in that really tense Democratic primary in 2016.

Sarah Smith was in favor of Bernie Sanders back then. As you know, that schism in the Democratic Party between a Democratic Socialist and a mainstream Democrat—it obviously still exists, and it's maybe even more dramatic today.

Earlier, you said you didn't want to talk about "punditry" issues. But do you understand why so many people who would traditionally just gravitate toward the Democratic Party are finding themselves upset or disgusted with the Democrats, and gravitating toward Democratic Socialists instead?

AS: I understand that we have got to build a big tent here. I mean, this is nothing new. The Democratic Party has been internally divided for a long time. My goodness, go back to Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

We are a big tent party. We include a diverse set of viewpoints. And there is always going to be controversy. And I would certainly agree that right now the Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton thing is spilling over into 2018 in a way that isn't helpful. That is dividing our party instead of bringing it together. And there's plenty of blame to go around for that. But I will say that, again, I have done outreach to all portions of the party. I think that's what we need, is someone who's going to bring us together, not tear us apart.

I think, absolutely, the Democratic Party has to do more to appeal to a broader base of people. And I just described at great length how I'm doing that. I think, also, it's worth noting that, you know, for all of the punditry, if you will, in Democratic politics, this comes down to the 9th District, alright? The 9th District deserves to have an advocate who understands the district, who's connected to it, and is working for it.

And again, I have a proven record of accomplishment on that. And that experience is what I think is going to really help the progressive issues, and also help the people in the 9th District.

Having grown up in SeaTac, in a blue-collar family, I understand what it means to be economically insecure. And those are the people that I want to keep fighting for. And I think that appeals to folks, you know, whether you supported Bernie or supported Hillary. We've got to find those issues that unify us and move us forward.

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