Another kind of Democratic freshman: Rep. Mikie Sherrill is still working for compromise

Navy pilot, prosecutor and suburban mom on her first 100 days in D.C.: "We're seeing Congress stand up"

By Dean Obeidallah

Published April 18, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Mikie Sherrill (Salon Talks)
Mikie Sherrill (Salon Talks)

When I ask Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a congressional freshman from New Jersey, what's driving her to serve in this Congress, her answer is simple: “Catholic guilt." It's more complex than that, of course, but that response offers a glimpse into what's moving her toward “building broad coalitions" in Washington.

I spoke with the Democrat from New Jersey’s affluent 11th congressional district, in the leafy suburbs just across the Hudson River from New York City, just a little over 100 days into her term. Sherrill is a former Navy helicopter pilot, former federal prosecutor and the mother of four young children. If “building coalitions” and bipartisanship sounds different than the words of other freshman members of the House Democratic class, there’s a good reason for that.

As opposed the firebrand progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who comes from a very safe Democratic New York district, Sherrill represents a historically Republican district that had not been represented by a Democrat since the mid-1990s before she won last November. The suburban professionals of Sherrill’s district don’t want fiery rhetoric, they want results.

When I questioned her on whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi should meet with Donald Trump to talk about an infrastructure bill, over the objections of some progressives, Sherrill declared, “She’s got to meet with him to talk the Gateway Tunnel project!” (That project would construct two new tunnels connecting New Jersey to New York, which would ease the region's epic traffic congestion and spur economic growth).

Sherrill’s pragmatism on Democrats working with the GOP, however, doesn’t mean she gives Donald Trump a pass for his bigotry. In response to Trump’s recent incitement of hate against Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Sherrill, after first sharing where she was in the Navy when 9/11 happened and what she experienced, slammed Trump for “weaponizing” the terrorist attack “against the very values that we sought to protect and are fighting to protect.” She added that Trump use of 9/11 imagery against Rep. Omar was “completely uncalled for and unacceptable.”

The freshman member of Congress also called out Trump and the GOP for their tax law that punished many Americans by putting a cap on deductions for state and local taxes, a concern shared by many in high-tax states. Sherrill stated bluntly that laws like this and others championed by Trump “hurt New Jersey” and there’s a sense that Trump is seeking retribution.

As a military vet, Sherrill,  has also made fighting for veterans, especially female veterans, a top priority. She was one of the leaders in a recent bipartisan letter pressing the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to implement specific measures to ensure VA facilities serve the needs of women veterans. As Sherrill explained,  the VA is a male-oriented organization poorly prepared to address the unique needs of women. Certain VA facilities don’t provide services unique to women to issues, she said, describing a VA waiting room that was “a gauntlet for women” where some men said and did things to make the female veterans “very uncomfortable.”

In this time of overheated rhetoric — of which I'm often guilty — it's refreshing to hear Sherrill repeat the hope of finding common ground with the Republicans to pass meaningful legislation. That's not an easy thing to accomplish in the time of Trump, but it remains a worthy goal.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Sherrill here, or read the transcript of our conversation below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

We’re a little over 100 days into this Congress. On a human level, was it worth it? Was it worth all the sacrifice going out knocking on doors? When you really look back at this time, what is your real takeaway as a person, forgetting politics?

Well, it's really funny you say that because I've talked about this with some members of Congress. In fact, I don't know if you followed the race down in, I think it's North Carolina 9 with Dan McCready, unfortunately because of election fraud, he is still running for Congress. He came to Washington to talk to some of the veterans like myself, who we'd run together, to ask how it was and we were saying, "Oh, you wouldn't believe this and this isn't working right, and this is really not the focus we need in Congress and people aren't supporting the American people" and this, this and this. He kind looked a little taken aback and said "Oh, well, do you like it?" And we said, "Oh yeah, it's great. This is why we ran for Congress."

I think in an odd way, especially with veterans who want to engage in a proactive fight for justice and fight for the good of the country, this is what exactly what we signed up for. And in an odd way, with how difficult it was to run and how hard it is to take time away from your families, I think if I'd gotten down there and everything was working smoothly, I'd kind of be thinking, "Well, why did I do all this?"

Before we get into policy talk, I want to touch on your background. It's very unique. You're a graduate of the Naval Academy. You flew helicopters for 10 years in active duty, then went to law school, then were in the U.S. attorney's office, now you're in Congress. Where does this desire to do public service come from in your life?

Maybe Catholic guilt. I've always felt like in a democracy — this is how I was raised —that as a citizen, it's your duty to work hard for the agenda of the country. Each and every one of us is responsible, and for many years that to me meant staying informed and voting for a candidate that represented what you thought was going to be the best for the country. But in this past cycle, so many of the ideals I'd fought for felt like they were under attack, not just things like the Muslim ban or treating our Gold Star families and our public servants and former POWs poorly, but also, just the fact that Congress didn't seem to be asserting its constitutional responsibility.

Congresspeople were not acting like they were part of a co-equal branch of government. So I was trying to think of how I could help the democracy and engage in it. It felt like I needed to do more than simply staying informed and vote.

You’re part of the freshman class of Congress, including 67 new Democrats. The really progressive ones get a lot of the press, but you are in a swing district, a suburban district in New Jersey. How does that impact the way you approach being in Congress, as opposed to being in an extremely blue district where you can be as progressive as you want?

I think you just have to be incredibly thoughtful about where the issues are that you can build bridges and get passed. It’s not just about the fact that I'm in a swing district, but about the fact that we are now operating in a divided government. It's not enough for me to think, oh, if we win in 2020 and get the Senate, we can pass legislation.

I've talked to people in my district, I've heard from other members of Congress who represent districts across the country. People are suffering now and Congress needs to address these issues now. The way we do that in divided government is building broad coalitions.

Is there real chance for bipartisanship? You have Speaker Pelosi going to meet with Donald Trump about infrastructure, and there are liberals on Twitter saying don't meet with him, that in meeting with him, you're validating his bigotry.

She got meet with him! She's got to talk about the Gateway Tunnel project. We have two rail tunnels in and out of Manhattan, one in, one out and that's it, from North Jersey. And we have a portal bridge, which is a swing bridge. It gets stuck, there's signal problems, people get delayed. It's getting worse and worse and worse. We just had a study that showed that if one of those tunnels goes down, it's a $16 billion loss of revenue over the next four years and that's to our country. That's not something that's just going to impact New York and New Jersey. That's going to impact every state in the nation.

You want results and the people who elected you want results. I'm not saying the progressive members in districts that are very blue don't want results, but I think maybe they have the freedom to say, do not work with Trump on anything because of his history, his rhetoric, bigotry and sexism. But in your district, you don't have that luxury.

I don't think I have that luxury, but I don't think the American people have that luxury. There are too many things that we have to act on now. I think we can build broad bipartisan support for bringing down prescription drug costs. We just passed VAWA legislation, the Violence Against Women Act, we just reauthorized it. They did not do that in the 115th Congress. We just did that. And we had 33 Republicans voting with us despite strong opposition from the NRA.

Can you explain to us why the NRA would oppose the Violence Against Women Act?

Because we closed what's called the boyfriend loophole and we said that if you had been convicted, not just accused, convicted of domestic abuse, then you cannot have access to a firearm.

And they didn't like that.

No, well, the NRA didn't. But 33 Republicans along with the majority of the country understand how critical it is to support gun safety legislation. That's the kind of broad bipartisanship that we worked on there. I think we can build in the Senate and hopefully get that passed by the president.

We talked during your campaign that you were not going to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. How has she been? What's your take on her?

Well, I think she's been doing a great job. I think she's held our caucus together, and sometimes I call it a raucous caucus. It's a little cute, but it's very descriptive, but it's also a wonderful place to be. When you're on the floor of the House of Representatives in the Democratic caucus, I like to say it feels like New Jersey. You have all different opinions, you have all different ideas. It feels innovative. It feels like the future. It feels like where our country's headed. But I think where our country needs to be headed is, like you said, pragmatic legislation, getting bipartisan support, building broad coalitions and really moving forward on this country's agenda.

That's something that I think the speaker agrees with. She made a comment, and I'm paraphrasing, but something along the lines of, if you want to just talk about stuff or message stuff, maybe Congress isn't the place for you. If you want to legislate, if you want to get legislation passed, this is where we do, legislation.

Last Friday, Donald Trump tweeted out Rep. Ilhan Omar's speech, intercut with images of 9/11 and the building coming down. On Sunday, Congresswoman Omar said she's gotten a spike in death threats and even Pelosi confirmed that. But on Monday Donald Trump continued to attack her and said she’s very bad for Americans and hateful for America. What's your reaction to Donald Trump's attack on her, which she views, and many of us view, as inciting hate against her and other Muslims.

I was in the Navy and I was at the headquarters of the commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and we had just had, several months before 9/11, the bombing of the USS Cole. We had had the families come to Norfolk [Virginia] and I remember this long night where we were trying to get word of who was alive and who wasn't and the families were waiting to hear if their child had died or their loved one had died. And so we recovered from that and we're moving forward as a Navy family, and then we hear that the World Trade towers are attacked, we hear that the Pentagon's attacked, we heard all sorts of other things. We're trying to scramble jets in the air, but there were no-fly orders. And then I heard that people that I knew were really harmed in the Pentagon attacks.

I remember one guy that was so mad at his boss because he's trying to get his boss to a meeting. His boss was late, and that side of the Pentagon was attacked and they would have been killed. And then, after 9/11, we have people that joined our armed forces, a lot of the people I served with joined our armed services because of the attack on our American ideals and our values that the terrorists attacked when they attacked the World Trade towers and the Pentagon.

To see that being weaponized against the very values that we fought to protect and are fighting to protect, that is completely uncalled for and really unacceptable, especially to those of us who who feel very deeply about 9/11.

During 9/11, I was in lower Manhattan and stood outside at Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue to watch the second tower come down and I could see people jumping from the windows. The idea that you're going to use that tragedy and intercut images with a woman with a hijab giving a speech, to me is so grotesquely craven. It’s so cruel and he even continues to double down after death threats. There’s no bottom to Donald Trump. He’s threatening to drive migrants to sanctuary cities, not to help them, but to punish elected officials and blue cities in blue states. What's your take on Donald Trump weaponizing the use of migrants to punish political adversaries?

We talked about Congress needing to stand up and be a co-equal branch of government. A lot of people are asking me -- because I'm actually really hopeful about the future of this country. A lot of times people ask the question, "Why, what are you so hopeful about?" And I'll tell you, I entered Congress when the government was shut down. We were the first class to ever enter in a government shutdown. It was a horrible government shutdown. It was our longest one.

As you may recall, our airports and the local airports were shut down for a couple hours. But we, Congress, reopened the government with bipartisan, bicameral legislation and a veto-proof majority. That's the kind of thing I think we're seeing in Congress. We're seeing Congress stand up.

Congress needs to act on different issues related to the border. Part of that legislation was saying, look, border security includes taking care of our ports of entry. We have some of the largest ports of entry in New Jersey. We just saw a huge cocaine bust and we know fentanyl's coming through our ports of entry, that's where some of the border problems are coming from.

If you're concerned that the southern border has gotten worse and worse with the policies of this administration, and if you want to end some of the illegal migration across the southern border, look at some of the most dangerous places on our planet, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala. Look at investing in those countries to make sure that people are cared for so they're not willing to take their children and go on an arduous journey with not a very clear outcome.

This week the Mueller report is going to be released to us on some level. What do you expect to see?

I think it'll be interesting. We know that even from the Barr Report, the couple pages that he put out on the report. that there were some Russians that were indicted. We know there's information in the report on how the Russians hacked into the heart of our democracy, our election system. And that's why I think it's so important that Congress get the unredacted report because it's Congress's constitutional duty to have oversight responsibility. They need to protect our country.  We need to protect our elections system. That's our duty.

I hope we find out more information. I hope there's transparency. We need that as a country because we need some faith in our government and then we need that as a Congress to protect our democracy.

Let’s talk about a few key issues. One that really impacts in New Jersey, and every blue state with high taxes, the Trump GOP tax plan slash scam, which capped state and local tax deductions at $10,000. You had tax day this week. What are you hearing where people in New Jersey?

People in New Jersey are just, I'd say they're furious, but I think it just goes beyond that to a sense of, how are we going to stay here in New Jersey? How are we going to continue to pay these taxes? How are we going to save for our retirement? How are we going to say for our children's future?

And at the same time we have some of the best public school systems in the nation. We have some of the best educated, we have one of the best educated workforces in the nation. It's no accident that despite the high cost of living in North Jersey, we have a lot of corporations headquartered there doing some very skilled work because of the great population of workers we have. But that's because we invest in our schools. That's because we invest in our communities. That's because we invest in our towns. This is, New Jersey is kind of a success story in some areas. We do need to bring the cost of living down, don't get me wrong, but it's a success area in a lot of ways and to undercut that and to undercut what we're trying to do and how we're trying to move forward in New Jersey with this tax plan is just a huge blow.

You had tweeted using the term "punish." When you say punish, did you mean Trump and the GOP are punishing blue states because you politically were not supportive of this president, or what did you mean by punish?

I meant that every single piece of legislation coming out of Congress and this administration, hurts New Jersey. And so I didn't mean punish in the sense of strictly speaking, going after every single New Jerseyan, but in a broader sense of we are, there seems to be some retribution for running a great public school system or trying to invest in the most critical piece of infrastructure in the nation in the Gateway Tunnel Project and make no mistake, New York and New Jersey have put incredible sums of money into this. But this is a federal government project.

This is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the nation. And I even went to talk to the minority leader, Kevin McCarthy about this and I said, even the conservatives in my district think we need to spend on the Gateway Tunnel Project, and he said, well yeah, that's what government does. This is what government does. This is what we need government to do.

In the House, you recently passed the Paycheck Fairness Act to close the gap in pay, that women make 80 cents to a dollar of men and women of color, African American women are more like 60 cents, Latino, Latina women is in the 50 percent area. Only seven Republicans joined in that vote. Is it surprising that you can't have wide bipartisan support for closing the gender pay gap in this country?

It's really surprising because we do have wide bipartisan support for it in New Jersey.

And you do around the country.

And in our state legislature. I think there were only two people that voted against it in the entire Senate and Assembly. So it is surprising to me that Washington is so partisan because in New Jersey we know how to build broad coalitions around support for the people in our state. And that's why I've said so many times through my campaign and now that I'm in office, that New Jersey really is a model for the rest of the country, including our public school system, our great unions.

You're a veteran and you've been outspoken.  You recently wrote a letter to the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Robert Wilkie, about implementing programs that are embracing the needs of female veterans.

One of the fastest growing populations, as you can imagine, is a group of female veterans. And because the VA hasn't traditionally served a lot of female veterans, they just haven't kind of caught up to the times. And there's this argument that they don't have the population coming to the VA. But part of that is because they don't have the services for that population to then come and get the medical help they need. And a lot of women veterans don't identify as veterans. They've had some bad experiences sometimes, military sexual assault and trauma. Sometimes they've had, they try to put that behind them. But we find that once they do, once they do get in touch with the VA and start to receive those services, they can have some very good outcomes.

We found, and this was something, we held veterans round tables, a lot of military women veterans round tables to come talk about the specific things we were seeing in New Jersey. So, for example, there was a waiting room that was sort of a gauntlet for women. They would come in and and guys would be hanging out there and make remarks and make them very uncomfortable. So we changed around the waiting room. That actually happened, that I did not do that. The Veterans Round table help to get that done. We also have complaints now that women who don't go outside the veteran's facility because they don't have mammograms or they don't have some of the OB facilities, the VA is really slow at paying their bills. So some of them, their credit has suffered because the VA didn't pay their medical bills.

We've had women that have small children that are homeless, that can't get homeless shelters that will care for women with small children. That's a little bit outside the medical system, but still taking care of our veterans. These are other things that are women veterans are facing right now. And we were seeing it in New Jersey and so the New York Times came out with an article saying this is going on nationwide. And so that's when I wrote the letter to say, look, this isn't just a New Jersey issue, this is a nationwide issue that the VA has to attack.

And have you gotten a response? Did you get a sense they're going to be, they're going to listen and accommodate the concerns?

I haven't gotten a response. I think they're going through it now. I have a sense they will listen and, and if they don't, I have a sense that now in the Democratic Caucus, we have enough veterans and we have enough people with a national security background that this will be a key focus.

Health care is likely going to be the key issue in the 2020 election. Donald Trump in some way has made it that way with the DOJ now saying they're in court arguing to strike the entire ACA, meaning the ending of coverage for previous health conditions, putting caps back on insurance policies, throwing kids off who are 26, but Trump tells us, don't worry about, I can protect you and I, you can trust me. Should the families of America trust Donald Trump with their health care?

Well, I think we have seen constant attacks, especially over the last couple of years on the Affordable Care Act and they haven't been a success. Republicans haven't been successful in overturning it and I think it's because they haven't successfully annunciated what their vision for health care is. There was the repeal and replace mantra, but I think Americans quickly realized it was just repeal.

There was no replacement plan and that scares families. That scares me because we see too many people in New Jersey, and I'm sure across the country, who just don't have the coverage they need. I tell people in my district it was Ronald Reagan that said, "Look, this is a right, healthcare is a right, everybody has a right to be seen at the emergency room." And so he started this pathway. Now unfortunately, as this has grown, we see too many people using emergency room care. It's the most expensive, it's the least effective. We have to get in this country into a health system where we have everyone covered. They get preventative care and we start to drive costs down.

It's such an issue that touches people and pre-existing conditions. Now everyone's an adult that has a pre-existing condition. We all have something.

If you're born a woman, you have a pre-existing condition.

Pregnancy was considered a pre-existing condition if you were pregnant once before and no coverage. What do you look forward to in the next hundred days? Let's say you come back in a hundred days, we sit down here and you say this was our goals and this is what we achieved in the House.

I think we are going to see some great things now coming out of committees. So we put some great legislation on the floor. I'm not sure if I even mentioned HR 1 with voter transparency and voting rights, HR 8 universal background checks for gun purchases with carve outs for hunters and personal protection, passing the VAWA, Violence Against Women Act. We've seen some great stuff coming out.

Now there's work being done in committees and I think we're going to see some great legislation pass on bringing down healthcare costs and bringing down prescription drug costs. We're working hard and I'm on the House Armed Services Committee to make sure that not only are we getting a good National Defense Authorization Act passed, but we're working hard to get an audit out of the DOD, that that won't happen in the cycle, but we are working towards how we all make that happen to have greater transparency and how our money's being spent, especially in the Department of Defense.

These are all things that we're working towards. I think we're going to continue to see some great movement and I'm pretty excited, like I said, for the future of where this country's headed.

Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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