by Ansel Herz
Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland made history in January, becoming the first Korean-American woman ever elected to Congress and the first African-American representative from Washington State. A former Tacoma mayor and head of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, she succeeded Denny Heck as the congressperson for the 10th District — spanning Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup, and Olympia, with a median income of $55,000 — winning handily over self-identified progressive Democrat Beth Doglio.
The Emerald spoke to Strickland about her first month in office, the January 6 attack on the nation’s capital, COVID relief, her goals for her first-term, and police brutality.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to the South Seattle Emerald. Could you tell us a little bit about your first month in office — all the tumult that you’ve experienced? And what has it been like to break the historical barriers that you have broken by being elected to this position?
Thank you. My election was definitely historic, because I am the first African American to represent not just Washington State in Congress but the Pacific Northwest. I was one of the first Korean Americans who was elected to Congress. Going back to D.C. after our orientation in December, it was supposed to be a joyous occasion, despite the fact that we’re doing this with the backdrop of a pandemic. We were sworn in on the third of January. And then, on the 6th, we had this domestic terror attack where you had people trying to undermine a legitimate election.
Against the backdrop of both the pandemic and the attempt to undermine democracy — you don’t go to Congress to impeach a president, but this had to be done. Because he basically violated his oath of office. He tried to encourage people to engage in a violent insurrection where people died — where people were hurt. And he did it to overturn the results of the election that he did not like. And so we had a duty to impeach.
With that said, we still have priorities to help the American people. And, for me, this is all centered around COVID relief, and it is about giving ample supplies and vaccines to our communities in an equitable way. And also providing the type of cash relief that we know individuals and small businesses and families have needed for a long time.
Can you give us a sense of what it was like for you on that day? And do you feel safe now? We recently saw the news about Congresswoman Cori Bush moving her office because of threats from another member of Congress. How are you feeling coming out of all this?
Clearly, there’s a heightened awareness about our safety. I would say I feel safe. Think about what has happened. If you’ve been to D.C. before, you go to get to the Capitol Complex, you go through security guards, there’s a metal detector, and you walk in — and now, there is a fence around the Capitol Complex. You see a lot of National Guardsmen around waiting there. So the security measures that we go through just to get into the building are definitely far more dramatic than they ever have been.
As far as what’s happened to Cori Bush: When you go to Congress, you know that you’re going to be around people that you disagree with, but you don’t expect people are just going to have a complete disregard for your health and safety. And that’s exactly what she’s facing. I’m actually in the same building on the same floor, but she is in a hallway that is closer to the woman from Georgia. So I feel safe, or relatively safe, but I am acutely aware of what goes on around me just because of the heightened security that has been put in place.
The day of the 6th, luckily I was not in the Capitol when it happened. I was telling my staff that I wanted to go sit in the gallery and watch proceedings, and they wisely talked me out of it.
You mentioned COVID relief as being your priority now. $2,000 checks were promised by President-elect Biden and also promised by the two senators who ultimately were elected in Georgia. Now there’s talk of that going down to $1400.
How long should Democrats wait for Republicans to get on board before they move forward and pass something through reconciliation? People sent in their rent checks at the end of the month. How long do you think your constituents can wait and what level of relief is needed?
If I thought the pandemic was on its way to being abated with a sufficient number of vaccines, and that we’d be out of this soon, then the math would be different. But I am afraid that it’s going to go on for a while.
People have been suffering for a long time. And now moving forward, it’s going to take a while for people to get their feet. We have to be very thoughtful about what we think can pass and how we think we can get there. So there will be the budget reconciliation process, and there’s even been talk in the Senate about trying to eliminate the filibuster. You probably heard that the Republicans have come back with a [relief package] counteroffer which is woefully inadequate.
I would say that we need to move forward with $2,000 at a minimum, and we need to continue to work with our state legislators to extend unemployment because people will be on it for a while.
When it comes to the vaccine — I want to highlight this — we knew we knew that the system was inequitable to begin with. But if you look at the rates of vaccination, not surprisingly, we see communities of color that are lagging behind. Especially with the African-American community, we know that historically our relationship with the health system has not always been positive. So you have people who are reluctant to get the vaccine, but at the same time, if we’re not getting vaccinated then we are more vulnerable to the pandemic.
So I’m very hopeful that we’re able to manufacture more of these vaccines and at the local level we’re going to find ways to get the vaccine to people who need it most, especially communities of color; that we’re able to show those people examples of why it’s safe, given the reticence among members of our community because of the history of the healthcare system.
Right — I saw recently the data from New York City that they released. The numbers are very stark in terms of the racial gaps in the vaccination rates there. Have you been vaccinated yourself?
I have been vaccinated, and I received both vaccinations — the first and the second one. I did it because 1) I spend time in planes and in airports, 2) I have elders in my family who I spend a lot of time with, helping to caregive, and 3) it’s important for me to lead by example. I’ve met with different groups and I say, “I got it, it’s safe, I recommend that you do it.” I’m not going to shame anyone into getting it. But it is something that we really need to encourage people to do. And I’m hoping that we have more leaders in the African American community saying, “This is safe.” This is what we’re going to need to save our lives and really get a handle on this pandemic in our community.
I want to circle back to what you said earlier. You said that you believe the checks should be for $2,000 rather than $1,400 —
When the $600 was passed, that was said, that’s the down payment. And so the $1400, in addition to that will be a total of $2000. But moving forward, I suspect that there will be another recovery package. And so, I think it depends on how you decide to count it. I mean, people need $2,000. I know folks out there, some folks out there got the $600, some folks are still living on it, and another $1400 will be welcome.
So you’re more focused on just getting checks out the door, rather than an amount of $2000 over $1400. That amount is a big difference for some people, but you’re saying there can be further stimulus packages down the road?
I assure you, there will have to be more because this is going to go on longer. And so I don’t believe that we’re going to do $1400 and then that would be the end of it — there will be more that will come. There has to be.
You mentioned the filibuster. Would you support doing away with it? Obviously, you’re not in the Senate, but do you think that’s a good idea? Democrats have two years to do big things and try to change the situation on the ground for a lot of people in order to consolidate these victories and deliver the change that people are looking for. How do you see Democrats using their majority over the next two years?
My caveat here is that I’m not a member of the Senate —
But I do think that getting rid of the filibuster during this two-year window to pass the legislation that we need is something that we must do.
We have this window. And typically, when there is a president of one party in the White House, then you flip the House. So if we have this two year window to do as much as we can for the American people, I feel like we should take advantage of it. I know that people talk about there being risk in eliminating the filibuster — because what happens when we lose control of Congress, and then it’s used against us. But at the same time, there’s just so much we have to do to help people. And if having a filibuster is an impediment to that, then I just think it’s worth the risk.
For you personally, you’re one member of the House out of 400-ish. What are your top priorities, coming from the 10th District, in D.C.? Are there one or two or three things that you’re going to be laser focused that you want to make headway on in this window?
The COVID package. We want to get [it] passed as soon as possible because people need relief.
And in the Puget Sound region, we have a housing supply crisis. That’s up and down the entire I-5 corridor and in the 10th District as well. As people are moving southbound, we know that the housing is in high demand and we need a larger supply. And we need a supply of housing for people at every stage of their lives. That could be families that are struggling, who need subsidized affordable housing, it’s people who are retiring, who are senior citizens— but we just need more housing.
As a member of the transportation and infrastructure committee, housing is part of that work. Investing in those things will help create jobs that pay well. The other thing that’s important to know is that Lewis McChord is in the middle of my district, and it’s the largest military installation on the West coast. Leadership in the base talks about the housing crisis affecting people in the military, and their ability to not have to live an hour and a half away from the base. So again, this housing crisis is affecting everyone across a lot of different sectors. And we just want to make sure that we have ample supplies of housing for our civilian and military population, especially down here in the 10th.
The federal government used to invest heavily in housing, both in building and subsidizing it, and those investments have really dropped off over the past 20–30 years. So now, where does the money come from for that? I hate to ask that question because everybody deserves housing. But do taxes need to be raised on the wealthy? What is the plan for turning what you’re saying into a reality?
There is a more equitable and fair tax structure, which can address some of it. But there aren’t necessarily enough people who are wealthy to pay for all the housing we need. So I think that the federal government needs to view investing in housing and subsidizing it not as an expense but as an investment in people. Because all the dreams that we have for people to be stable, to be employed, for kids to do well in school — that often starts with clean, stable, secure housing.
The other thing that is promising for me is that Marcia Fudge, a member of the progressive Black Caucus and a former mayor herself, as the new Secretary of HUD, [who] will bring a very different lens about secure housing and things that we need to invest in.
And of course, the federal government does not have to run on a balanced budget the way city government and state government does. They have the ability to extend what they need to extend to help pay for things like housing. Housing insecurity is affecting everyone across the board in all kinds of settings, urban, suburban, and this is an opportunity in this two-year window to make some massive investments. And to work with the private sector to say, “We need to build more housing.” It’s definitely an all-hands-on-deck type of situation.
Did you see this incident of the Tacoma police officer who ran over people in a crowd late at night?
Yes. I heard about it. I think it happened the night I was coming back from D.C. last time.
What was your reaction? There’s been a debate over the past year on what is the appropriate level of reform or outright abolition of police coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement. Manny Ellis was killed by Tacoma police officers under controversial circumstances. What’s your sense, as the former mayor, on where the Tacoma police department is on those issues, and what can you do with your platform to address them?
Policing is typically a very localized issue, because it’s the relationship that departments have with communities they serve. However, we know that at federal level, the House did pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. This was an attempt to hold people accountable by eliminating qualified immunity, by banning chokeholds, by making cameras mandatory.
I think this is an example where having cameras in place can help people get to what actually happened. Public safety, in essence, means that every single person who lives in a community feels safe. I know there’s an investigation and that [in] I-940, there was supposed to be an independent commission set up at the state level. But it’s unfortunate that someone was hurt that way. But I think the other question, too, is what are all the facts surrounding the situation? There’s going to be an investigation. And what are we doing to ensure that when something happens, people are held accountable?
We’ve seen reports that a lot of police officers actually joined the insurrection in the capital, including officers from the Seattle Police Department. Do you have any information about that being an issue with Tacoma? The larger question is around police unions that have been supporting Trump. Do you have any message for them, and will you accept campaign contributions from them? I’ve seen some candidates swearing that off.
For congressional races, I’m not sure which police department contributed to what. But I mean, whether it’s Tacoma, Lakewood, Olympia, or Puyallup, which are all in my district, I think the conversation is just about — I’m just thinking about that event itself, and my perception of it. And when I heard it was happening, I figured there’d be people protesting, and they’re gonna hold their rallies, and they’ll have their signs. And they’re entitled to do that. I just didn’t know it was going to turn into a violent attack on Congress to literally overturn an election and hurt people.
When it comes to law enforcement and the military, what are we doing to screen out folks who may be associated with groups who want to do harm to people? Being a public servant doesn’t mean you give up your free speech rights, but at the same time if you are involved in an activity that literally harms people and is breaking the law and violating the oath that you took to serve and protect, then obviously something [is] wrong — we have a problem.
Lastly, you’re a member of the New Democrats Caucus. What does that caucus represent to you, and how does it make you different from a progressive or somebody like the person who you defeated, who probably would have joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC)?
If you think about the caucuses that are available for Democrats, I would say there are three primary. There’s the CPC, there’s the Blue Dogs, who are more moderate. And then there’s somewhere in between, which is the New Dems. I like the New Dems and it’s a great home because there are people in my caucus who are progressive, and there are people in my caucus who are more left of center. This is the caucus where a lot of legislation that gets passed is actually written. It’s a very diverse group of people from different parts of the country with a lot of different perspectives on politics.
People love to label you, [and] as a woman who is black and Korean … people have been trying to affix a label to me my entire life. I say to folks that your job [when] you go to Congress is to deliver for the people who sent you there and to do your best to help people and to help the district. And so whatever label you want to fix me [with] …that’s fine. But I think the proof is in the work that you’re doing. What are you doing to advance the needs of people and to help them be successful and to give them the help that they need? And so I’m very pleased to caucus with the New Dems. It’s a good natural home for me, because it is diverse in every possible sense of the word.
Progressives talk about Medicare for All and canceling all student debt. It seems like Joe Biden is going to chart a different course on both of those fronts, maybe doing some student debt cancellation but not not doing it completely, despite it being a $1.6 trillion crisis. What do you want to look back on, two years from now, to be able to say, “This was the big change that I helped make happen, working with Joe Biden and my colleagues”?
I would say a few things. One, I would want to say that we made the largest investment in the history of the United States in housing. Okay, I would think if you’re seriously considering, adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act. And I would like us to say that we dealt with this pandemic and are getting back to focusing on some of the things that existed long before the pandemic came along — and that we’re doing it through the lens of equity.
Thank you. That’s all I have, unless you have anything else that you want to add.
We have to get vaccines to people and we have to get vaccines to communities that have been underrepresented. And so if there’s a message I have, it’s that I got it myself and I know a lot of African American leaders who have. If you have the opportunity to get the vaccine, reach out to folks, reach out to your providers and find out what you need to do. I just think this is such an important part of how we recover equitably. Go get that vaccine!
Ansel Herz is a Seattle-based writer and editor and former reporter for The Stranger.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Marilyn Strickland.
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