The only woman doctor in Congress talks Pelosi, Lizzie Fletcher, town halls, and 2020.
The only woman doctor in Congress talks Pelosi, Lizzie Fletcher, town halls, and 2020.

During the 2018 midterms Dr. Kim Schrier—a pediatrician from Sammamish with no experience in electoral politicking—walked through the fire of two superheated contests and became the first Democrat ever to represent Washington’s 8th District, a large area that runs from Issaquah down to Auburn and over the mountains to Wenatchee.

In the jungle primary she faced tough competition from attorney Jason Rittereiser and public health doctor Shannon Hader—both of whom attacked Schrier like they meant it. She ended up beating Rittereiser by only 1,000 votes—not really a squeaker, but not really a confidence-builder either.

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In the general she took on well-funded political veteran (and three-time loser) Dino Rossi. Though Schrier and the Democratic fundraising machine ultimately raised way more money than Rossi and the Republicans fundraising machine, Schrier endured millions of dollars worth of attack ads. The Washington State GOP hit her with anti-Semitic mailers. The Congressional Leadership Fund called her “Dr. Tax” and constantly (and falsely) accused her of personally shutting out Medicaid kids from her practice, a slight perversion of an argument that originated from the Rittereiser camp during the primary. And Rossi accused her of being too radically liberal for the district, a slight perversion of an argument that originated from me. After all that, she beat him by a little less than 5 points, a loss so humiliating that he hasn’t even called her yet to congratulate her on her victory.

Now all Schrier has to do is govern a purple district in the middle of the Trump era, where grassroots organizers on the left promise to hold her accountable for every vote, and where she’s sure to face plenty of heat from conservatives. Shouldn’t be too hard.

The question now is: What kind of Washington Democrat will Schrier become? Will she take her big win as a license to see progressive policies like Medicare for All as the purple policies they really are? Will she cloister herself away from her constituency like outgoing Congressman Dave Reichert did during his tenure? And what is she going to do in 2020, when she won’t have the full force of a blue wave backing her campaign?

I caught up with Schrier last week, just before she headed off for Thanksgiving dinner, but just after she had returned from first-year orientation in D.C. Over a giant cappuccino she told me she was just glad she didn’t have to sit next to Dino Rossi at orientation.

Though she ended up winning the general election decisively, she was prepared to enter the transition period not knowing if she’d won the race. She expected the vote counting to go on for weeks. She envisioned a grueling recount process, sort of like the one that snatched the Governorship away from Rossi in 2004, when he ran against Christine Gregoire. She even imagined literally sitting next to Dino in D.C., the two politicians still unsure of the outcome. “But the voters decided,” she said.

So, instead of spending a week nervously not issuing an acceptance or concession statement, she emerged victorious and joined a diverse class of new Democrats—including 35 women, 22 people of color, and a slew of firsts—in the Capitol building.

“I’m thrilled to be part of all of these women and outsiders, and the people who got in for the same reasons I wanted to get in,” Schrier said. “We all have this spirit of rolling up our sleeves and working to deliver for our district and bucking the system, and it’s exciting to be part of that energy.”

Schrier said she hasn’t met everybody yet, but she “immediately connected” with Rep-elect Lizzie Fletcher, a first-time Democratic candidate who beat Republican incumbent John Culberson in the Houston suburbs. Beyond calling Fletcher “super sweet and super smart,” Schrier didn’t say why the two connected so well, though both candidates faced accusations of receiving help from Democratic party institutions before voters had their say in the primaries. In a weird move, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released opposition on Fletcher’s primary opponent, the progressive activist Laura Moser, in an attempt to knock her out of the race. In Washington, I reported that the state Democratic party worked to tip the scales in favor of Schrier during the primary, though both Schrier and party chair Tina Podlodowski denied it. So, the two may have had plenty to talk about besides who they wanted for Speaker of the House.

But speaking of the Speaker, Schrier said she supported Pelosi for the position. After telling the Seattle Times in late September that she thinks “the leadership needs to reflect the new party and that probably means it’s not going to be Nancy Pelosi,” she now says she’s more bullish about Pelosi, who is expected to take back the gavel in January.

“I have met with leader Pelosi, I have met with other leadership, I have met with our delegation, and I believe that the best way to deliver on health care, lowering prescription drug prices, and getting money out of politics is to have leader Pelosi become Speaker Pelosi—so she has my vote,” Schrier said. She added that she believes Pelosi will support her own goal of passing “real health care reform.”

For Schrier, “real health care reform” still does not mean Medicare for All. She sees her election as a public endorsement of her own health care plan, which is basically Obamacare plus a public option. “People like my health care plan. I like my health care plan. I love my health care plan. That’s why it’s my health care plan. I’m sorry, I just think it’s a really smart plan,” Schrier said.

She’d love to see a congressional budget analysis of Medicare for All, and she’s fine with states seeking federal waivers in an effort to implement single-payer systems at the state level, but “for right now, what we could do tomorrow is let anybody buy into Medicare on a sliding scale.”

Of course, with Mitch McConnell leading the Senate and Donald Trump doing whatever in the Oval Office, we can’t get there right now, and we can’t get there tomorrow. But Schrier believes that going for “achievables that have bipartisan support”—mentioning issues like health care reform, campaign finance reform, and ensuring voting rights—“should get a lot of goodwill and hopefully support from the Senate.”

If the Senate doesn’t move on proposals that would address those issues—which they likely won’t—then Schrier thinks championing those issues will set the table for voters in 2020.

“We’ll still be sending a strong message to the country,” Schrier said. “This is what Democrats stand for. And if you like what we’re serving, you can do something about it with your vote in 2020.”

Members of local Indivisible chapters—a group of congressional advocates who helped pave the way for Schrier’s win by putting daily pressure on Reichert since Trump’s election and by knocking doors for all Dems all cycle long—say they plan to continue to hold her accountable and press her on these issues—including on more progressive health care legislation.

In an e-mail, Chris Petzold, a leader of Indivisible Washington 8, said the organization will be asking "for the most progressive [health care] policies, as we don’t see starting a negotiation with an already watered-down approach as a position of strength with Trump and the Republicans.”

Lael Isola of Indivisible Wenatchee said similar things, but mentioned slightly different interests. “We're looking forward to seeing [Schrier] in action in her new role,” Isola said, vowing to set up meetings with Schrier just like they set up meetings with Reichert. “Pressing issues would be health care, accountability processes for Trump, climate and wildfire issues, and remedies for our farmers who are going to be suffering deeply in light of current disastrous trade policies,” she said.

Schrier won’t have much say one way or another about the kind of health care proposals that make it to the floor if Democratic leaders don’t put her on a committee that deals with health care. As the only woman doctor in Congress, and as one of the only House candidates the Democrats spent well over $10 million on during the race, it would be dumb not to take advantage of her expertise.

Schrier’s dream committee is Energy and Commerce, because that’s where health care lives. Though part of health care also lives in Veterans’ Affairs, she thinks one of the many incoming veterans would be a better fit there, though she hopes they consult with her on VA hospital issues. She’s also interested in the Agriculture committee, which makes sense given that a large part of the district’s economy is based on trading apples, pears, and cherries in international and domestic markets. And, given her background of working with children, she’d also be happy to take a seat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

But when I asked if Schrier had written to members of the Washington congressional delegation to ask if they’d use their influence to help her gain a committee assignment, she said she hadn’t. “Being the non-politico, I’ve reached out to talk with them about what I would like to see and what I think would be a win for my district. I have not reached out to them to go to bat for me, because that’s just one of my personality traits,” she said.

As of last week Schrier hadn’t spent much time looking at which caucuses she’d like to join, though she did say she’s “looking forward to providing some balance in the Doctor’s Caucus”—she’d be the only woman and one of the few Democrats. “I believe there is a Women’s Caucus. That’s probably a safe one,” she added.

As for setting up shop back home, Schrier plans to follow Reichert’s lead by establishing district offices in Auburn, Issaquah, and Wenatchee. She promises at least one town hall per quarter. “I don’t think I could do monthly, but we’ll see. We’ll see what the constituents want,” she said.

Schrier also wants to continue to practice medicine. She said Virginia Mason moved her to a “per diem position,” which means she can drop in and practice when she wants to without having to “worry about malpractice insurance or any of the things you’d have to worry about if you just went off and practiced one day here and one day there in other places.”

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“I will keep my fingers in because I love being a pediatrician. It helps me stay connected to the community and to health care, and that’s part of why I ran. So I need to keep this as part of my life,” she said.

It’s also good insurance. Schrier won her race, and she even did well, relative to other Democrats, in the eastern parts of the district. In Chelan, Kittitas, and Douglas counties she won more votes than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each time they ran. She also won a larger percentage of the votes in those counties than either of those two presidential candidates. Schrier credited her communications team and the “4,000 volunteers” who knocked on doors to get her elected for the win.

But 2020 is going to present new challenges, and Schrier knows it. “It’s going to be a tough re-elect,” she said. “My assumption is this will always be a tough district to win, that it’s truly a purple district, and I need to pick the issues and the battles that will be wins for the vast majority of the people in this district. I have to deliver.”

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