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People-to-People & Heart-to-Heart: A Conversation with Julie Oliver

Julie Oliver is a Democratic candidate making her second attempt at a run for a seat in the U.S. House representing Texas-25, where she faces an uphill battle against a Republican incumbent in what many would expect to be a deep-red district. However, running on a working-class platform focusing on policies like Medicare-for-All and youth interests like climate change, Oliver hopes to form a heart-to-heart connection with her community that will win their support. Julie is a proud mother of four originally from Ovilla, Texas.  

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The Politic: This is your second time running—you’re back again to run against Roger Williams—after winning your democratic primary in 2018, alongside many young progressive women who were also running for office across the county. What was that like running for the first time, and what’s different about this second campaign?

Oliver: It is funny—when I ran in 2018 I ran with four other people, the only other person in our five-person primary who’d run before was a woman who’d run in 2016—but most of us, I’d say, were novices. None of us came from the political world. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected, and I feel like the majority of us as well as many others felt as if the sky was falling, and that we were running for office to lift the sky back up and back into its proper place. It was a special time because I knew that all of us weren’t running just to embark on a political career, but because our hearts hurt for our country—a lot of people felt that in 2018. 

I ran because I had a son with a lot of healthcare conditions—and I can tell you, especially amid this pandemic, that I am incredibly nervous for him. He has an immune deficiency because of his condition, and thankfully we’ve never had to wrangle with the respiratory issues that his condition can cause, but just knowing that he was vulnerable, he had to self-isolate a week before everyone else did because he knew this was going to get a lot worse before it got better the way the government was going to handle it. And just seeing his reaction made me think about how serious this pandemic and people’s concerns about it were going to be. He’s the reason I originally got into this race, I wanted to make sure that my son and people in a similar vulnerable state to my son had access to affordable healthcare for the rest of their lives. And for a lot of Texans, that’s not a lived reality, unfortunately. There’s no insurance, if they get sick or their child gets sick, they have to make some serious decisions; about do we pay for rent, do we pay for groceries, or do we go to a doctor, or to an ER, where the bill is going to be even higher?

Your campaign heavily emphasizes Medicare for All. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country, more than any other state and not even counting undocumented folk. Do you think that this message is hitting closer to home right now during this heightened awareness over public health?

I think so, I do. I think that for a lot of people who are in industries getting hit disproportionately harder than other industries, it’s a more dramatic shift in stakes. For folks in the tech industry, life can continue as it did before and they can receive payment and employer benefits like health care coverage, however, it’s different for folks in the service industry, for example. When I talk about Medicare for All, people think I’m talking about radicalism, like we’re just giving healthcare away on a whim. It’s based on this idea that people who have health insurance aren’t working. That’s just not true though. In the majority of the service industry, there is no health insurance coverage for your day to day worker, unless they purchase that health insurance for themselves, and even then, this health insurance is extremely expensive out-of-pocket and comes with all kinds of strings attached that leave you vulnerable in crises like this. And we can’t put that burden on small businesses. No mom and pop store can handle a payment of seven-hundred to a thousand dollars a month per employee to provide everyone health insurance. 

There was a quote in the Texas Observer from a writer, Gus Bova, that said “COVID-19 is a concentrated crisis that sheds light on the slow-motion disaster of being poor in our state.” In your campaign, you’ve been very open about your struggles and the challenges you faced as a poor person growing up in Texas. How has this and the experiences you’ve had in reaching out to your community during this crisis influenced your priorities as a political candidate?

In this time right now, it feels as though constituent services have already begun. There are obviously no in-person events during a pandemic, we’ve suspended all events and field operations, so we’ve switched gears into communicating with constituents and doing what we can to help them during this mess. People have been reaching out to our campaign, and I want them to use us as a resource. We had one constituent reach out and tell us that her employer was trying to make her voluntarily resign, and she was asking us if that would impact her chances of filing for unemployment. We have a student in Austin who’s currently stuck in Peru due to travel restrictions, and he calls and asks us for help deciding what to do as he’s stuck outside of the country. We’ve even had a constituent call us in a panic because they were starting to feel sick, but they lacked insurance and didn’t know if they were able to go see a doctor. So we’ve become a resource for this community in directing people towards the right resources and offices that can help.

It’s a very different way of running a campaign, and we’ve been getting these kinds of calls and asks from constituents because it’s well-known that the incumbent in District 25, over the four terms that he has been a congressman, has not been there for his constituents or answered their questions in a time of need. 

Just glancing at the map and demographics of your district, U.S. House District 25, it appears to be very white, very rural—a little long and misshapen but we won’t get into that—but very typical of what you’d expect to be a solidly Republican district in the heart of Texas. How do you go about reaching out to people in this district?

Well, it’s interesting. A lot of people would think that this is a typically Republican district, but in fact, the red doesn’t run as deep as one would expect. In 2018, a team of nearly 12,000 volunteers—and I mean people who absolutely worked their hearts out—moved this district by twelve percentage points. Their hard work got us from nineteen to seven percent. While it did favor the Republican, it was also a midterm, and as you may know, in Texas especially the midterm always favors the incumbent when they’re a Republican. However, what we did see in the 2020 primary was very exciting. For the first time that Roger Williams, my opponent, has run since 2012, the Democratic side of the ticket outvoted the Republican side of the ticket—roughly 53 to 47 percent—and that’s never happened before. 

Not to say what happens in a primary directly correlates to the results of the general election, but this infers a trend. People are tired of this administration and the crazy train that is administration. They’re tired of the lies. Our district is largely the demographics that you mentioned, but if you look closer at the demographic data, District 25 is highly educated as well—these people know when they are being fed lies. My husband likes to say that people’s Bullshit Detectors are on high alert. And they can sense it in a congressman who has enabled Trump and his madness since the day he took office. Even on day one of this pandemic when the first case was confirmed in Texas, Williams sent out an email to his constituents promising that everything would be okay and that the Coronavirus was just a low threat. He put it in writing. He was parroting the talking points of the administration, and people are tired of hearing him squawk. 

You campaigned alongside Beto O’Rourke in 2018 when he was challenging Senator Ted Cruz for his seat in the U.S. Senate—the result was a very, very close margin of victory for the incumbent in this election—and a large part of this close call was due to turnout of key demographics such as young people and Latinx people. How has your campaign attempted to engage with these groups and the issues that motivate them in this cycle?

Well, the University of Texas at Austin falls into our district—just North campus, not West campus because they’ve gerrymandered that from us—but we have made a very active presence on UT’s campus in trying to engage young people. Also, when I find out that there are Democratic clubs in certain high schools in parts of our district where you wouldn’t expect them—like for instance, there’s a high school democratic club in Stephenville, Texas—I love to go out and talk to them and hear about what issues matter most to them. One issue that I’ve found time and time again with young people, especially these kids in high school, is that they’re growing up in the generation of lockdowns, the generation terrorized not by threats overseas, but by domestic terror and gun violence. These kids have grown up doing lockdown drills, watching kids their age and in many cases, their friends get killed by gun violence.

I think that is one of the most engaging issues for young people. Many of them start there, but I’ve also seen a lot of young people who care deeply about climate change. This is a big issue that will be impacting them throughout their lives, long after I and the majority of politicians in office are gone. Part of their platform is having a livable planet for themselves and their future kids, will they be able to breathe the air or live without the threat of a wildfire, drought, or flooding due to climate change. 

Another anxiety I see amongst our young voters is college. Many of them are afraid that they won’t be able to go. When I was growing up in the ‘80s I certainly couldn’t afford to go to college, but I was lucky enough to be in an income bracket that allowed we Pell Grants and tax breaks that added up to more than ten thousand dollars a year, which was a lot by then’s standards because the price of a college education has skyrocketed exponentially. But even though the prices have risen so steeply, we don’t have that anymore. We still have the bones of the Pell Grant and tax break system, but they’ve been so whittled down by Republicans over the years that students are left with pennies on the dollar, and not enough money to pay for college. I don’t want to see any student have to weigh whether or not they can pay into their decision of whether or not they deserve a college education. Every child deserves a college education and it ought to be affordable. That’s our responsibility to them. 

I have two kids currently in college, and they get a lot of breaks because they’re in-state students, but the living expenses are what add up for a lot of students. The cost of living for my child in Austin is astronomical. The price of housing, food, getting a parking pass on campus. These add up and they often aren’t covered by assistance from the school or the government. This can be a make or break for many kids and they shouldn’t be forced to take out a loan so they can shell out several grand for a parking pass. Even if they do make it through, the future looks bleak when many students are graduating with a five or sometimes six-figure loan that they have to pay off at seven percent interest. 

I’m so grateful that there’s a constituency that’s so engaged and cares so much, but also wants to do the sacrificial thing. They know that they will have to sacrifice for a livable planet, for safety in their schools, for college to be publicly funded—and I’m inspired by their willingness to make that sacrifice. It shows you that for young people, these issues are dire. They have the potential to change the course of their lives, and that’s why they’re fighting for them so hard. I want to include them and help them fight in office. 

If you think about it, most of the college-age people, from eighteen to twenty-two, were born into a very particular political moment – I was born in 1999, and since then there’s been a global terror attack on the U.S. in 2001, a major economic crash in 2008, in my home state of Louisiana there was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, unprecedented polarized periods of American politics. How has this differed from your formative years as a politician?

It’s very different from my generation. When I get to speak to young people—I have a few times at UT—I always speak to them about the same thing. I ask them to please not have the apathy that my generation, or the generation before me, had about politics. My generation didn’t expect much from our elected officials, we set the bar low, which is why we have people in office today like Trump. That is symptomatic of the bar we set for politicians, which has been far too low. Please expect more. Please expect folks to go into an office to be honest and ethical. Don’t let them convince you that politicking is an unethical trade like any other business; you deserve more than that as a generation that has been afflicted by their negligence. Don’t let them skirt around a question or, much worse, lie to you. The purpose of the vote is to hold these people accountable.

If you begin to expect something different from your politicians, we can begin to change what we’re receiving in America. Part of my platform that I’ve been developing in the past couple of years is trying to get big money out of politics and get people’s voices back into politics.

It’s very central to your campaign that you don’t take any money from Super PACs. Beto did this in 2018; Bernie Sanders is doing it now. Do you think this is the new wave for Democratic politics?

Absolutely. We have to get the money of corporations and lobbyists out of politics. We have to get big money out of elections, out of office, and certainly out of the margins of our legislation. The tax reform bill passed in 2017 was quite literally written by lobbyists—their handwriting was in the margins up until the early hours of the morning before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed and became law. Politics is realigning to this fundamentally democratic notion that power ought to be derived from the people in a functional government, that’s what a democracy is. It ought to be realigned in that way.

We say that we are the party for the people, and we want to embrace everyday people. We want to bring laborers into the party; we want to make sure that people’s basic rights to medical care are being looked after. Let’s ensure that even how we are funded as a party and as politicians reflect those values. If you want the mandate of the people in office, you have to have their mandate in the election.

Through this process you’ve met a lot of constituents. How many doors do you think that you’ve knocked on since you first started in 2018?

In the past two and a half years I believe we’ve knocked on about 150,000 or 160,000 doors between these two election cycles. Goodness gracious, in 2020 alone the campaign has sent over 200,000 text messages through our huge network of volunteers. We’re probably at about 70,000 miles on the family car from driving this district. This has obviously been curtailed as of late, but we’ve really emphasized person-to-person interaction throughout this campaign. 

The way to truly change hearts and minds is to be on somebody’s front porch. I always tell my volunteers that when I’m having to fight and shout and argue with someone to win their vote, that I’ve lost. Some of the best conversations that I’ve had were with folks who think that they are completely aligned on the other side of the aisle—and I don’t argue with them, I just listen. 

I was talking with one man while going door-to-door. He identified as a Republican and explained to me how he cared strongly about issues like abortion and immigration, which are very common talking points for many rural Texans, and I listened. However, there was a moment while he was talking when he pointed back into his house, and he said that he had suffered a heart attack a few years ago and that the reason he kept fighting for his life was for his adult son with Down syndrome, who lived with him. He went on to talk about how hard it had been to love after the heart attack and the challenges he faced getting his son the healthcare he needed. And while my first instinct was to ask him why the hell he was voting for Williams, I listened instead. When he finished, I explained to him that people like him and his son matter to me too, and that is why I’m fighting to make medical care equitable and accessible for all. If you take a moment to stop and listen and get that person-to-person interaction, you break down people’s political walls that they’ve constructed, and you start connecting with them on things that matter. The way to do that is just being there, being human-to-human and heart-to-heart.

This has certainly been a very long-fought battle. And with election day coming closer and closer your chances are looking better and better, assuming you win in November, what will be the first thing you do in office?

Medicare for All. I plan to be signing on as a co-sponsor to Medicare for All. There are also a couple of pieces of legislation that I’d love to file as soon as I’m in office. First is the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce and Arms Act. That law prohibits gun dealers and manufacturers from liability when there are instances of mass gun violence, you can’t sue them when these mass tragedies occur, and I would love to repeal that. Second is repealing the provision that prohibits Medicare currently from negotiating pharmaceutical pricing. They can’t negotiate pricing for critical medicines, and that’s just plain silly. I’d also like to introduce my piece of legislation, the Tax the PACs Act, which would tax these political action committees at a very onerous rate—about seventy percent—and taking the stream of revenue created from that to create publicly financed campaigns, so people like you and I can run for office. We need to shape tax policy to support green energy investment, we need better tax conditions for the working class, we need to start making so many changes that people have been wanting for a long time so we can live on a happier and healthier planet.

A happier and healthier planet sounds good to me. Is there anything else you would like to add for anyone reading this?

Yes. Go vote. Not only should you go vote, bring people with you to vote. If you have to lure them with a free snack or a meal or even a happy hour, I don’t care how you do it, just get your friends and family to come with you and vote. This is a precious gift that many people take for granted, that their vote matters in an election. Please vote, and please bring at least three other people with you to go vote. Only together can we change the direction that we are going as a country.