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Interview: One-on-One with Congresswoman Susan Wild

(Susan Walsh / AP)

“Most of all, I just want my constituents back home to know that I’m working for them, and that I’m not thinking about contributions from a big corporation when I’m in a committee hearing and questioning witnesses and when we’re voting on matters that are important to the working families in my district.”

Congresswoman Susan Wild was elected to represent Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district in 2018. Prior to being elected to Congress, Ms. Wild worked as a lawyer and served as the first female Solicitor of the City of Allentown. Following up on her September interview with Merion West, while she was campaigning for this seat, she now joins Erich Prince for a discussion about her experiences and priorities now that she is Congress. Topics of conversation include her commitment to campaigning without corporate PAC money, her relationship with the other newly-elected Pennsylvania congresswomen, and the student debt crisis.

Congresswoman, very nice to speak to you again, now on the other side of the election in November. I want to start off by talking about this incoming “Class of Four” from Pennsylvania that we’ve been hearing about. I saw a photo of you with Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon and Congresswoman Madeleine Dean in Selma at the beginning of the month for example. And, of course, you all appeared on NBC10 Philadelphia the day after the election talking about how you all supported one another throughout the election process. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the sense of camaraderie you have with these other new representatives, who are women, from Pennsylvania now that the campaign is over, and you’re all in office. 

We got to know each other after the primary, after the dust settled, and we realized that there were other women running in other parts of the state. We’ve been, I think, a tremendous resource for one another in many ways. We talk very regularly. It’s funny, because people think we spend all of our time together, which we obviously don’t; we’re on different committees, and we’re all doing our own work. But we lean on each other a lot. We schedule meetings together; we’ve had scheduled meetings with Senator Bob Casey and Senator Pat Toomey.

We work closely together, and, just as importantly, our teams, our staffs work closely with each other. So, we’ve always got each other’s back, but more importantly, we use each other as sounding boards. All of us have different districts in Pennsylvania, but we’re all from there and we know some of the idiosyncrasies of Pennsylvania. It’s always good to have that, as well as the rest of the Pennsylvania delegation. It’s not just the four women. We’re really a very strong, cohesive delegation, and it’s really a nice thing to have.

And finally, I have to say that I love that the new Congress is so diverse. I look around the Democratic Caucus, and I know there aren’t as many women as men, but it often seems like there are. There are different colors, different religions, different ethnicities, and I think it makes Congress a better place to be and more representative of people in our state and in our country.

It’s interesting you mentioned meeting with Senator Toomey. I remember when we spoke in September, you talked about the district you were campaigning to represent being fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Maybe that’s an example of the effort to reach across the aisle and find bipartisan areas of agreement? For example, a couple of weeks ago I attended an event with Congresswoman Dean in Norristown, and she talked about finding common ground with Senator Toomey on the issue of background checks for gun ownership.

That would be one example, certainly. I have a nice relationship with Senator Toomey in the sense of being very cordial to one another. I saw him the other night at a dinner. I think we have a strong interest in finding commonality. Early on, I met with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and I really do have a strong interest in reaching across the aisle and finding whatever commonality we can. There are a lot of important issues in this country, and surely some of them are capable of bipartisan resolution.

I watched a House floor speech you gave on March 5th in which you touched on the role of “massive corporations that fund candidates who give them tax breaks and access to Washington.” When we spoke in September, you emphasized the role of Big Pharma and other corporate donors. I also understand there was a story in Vox recently about you and a couple of other members of Congress sticking to your guns about corporate PAC money, and I am wondering if you could talk about that particular commitment of yours.

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I have to tell you that I believe the passage of H.R. 1 is a big first step. When I was out on the campaign trail, I heard from people so often about their feeling that there’s just too much money in politics and that their individual voices or votes weren’t being heard because of it. I think we have to tackle the influence of dark money and corporate interests.

It’s called the House of Representatives. We’re supposed to be representative of the people in our districts and in the country at-large. And voters feel that there’s too much money in politics, and I think that it’s a legitimate concern.

So, H.R. 1 is a big first step. The reason I refused corporate PAC money in the first place is because I did not want to come to Washington and feel as though I was going to get a phone call from somebody representing some industry or another as I took votes. By the way, we still get those phone calls. We get phone calls from Big Pharma and that kind of thing, and so I can only imagine how many calls members who do take corporate PAC money get because these are industries that all know that I don’t take corporate PAC money, and they still call my office.

Most of all, I just want my constituents back home to know that I’m working for them, and that I’m not thinking about contributions from a big corporation when I’m in a committee hearing and questioning witnesses and when we’re voting on matters that are important to the working families in my district. I still feel that it’s a vital issue, and I’m going to stick by that pledge. It’s a difficult one because campaigns cost a lot of money. Until we get to the point of H.R. 1 being passed and the playing field being leveled, it’s going to be an uphill climb for a lot of us. I just feel at my core that it’s vital.

I know some members of Congress have talked about day-to-day differences in how involved they are in various hearings and such based on how they fundraise. Have you noticed any such differences?

There’s no question that fundraising takes a disproportionate amount of time out of people’s schedules, and I will tell you that I’ve been pretty firm with my staff about the fact that my job is to be here and legislate. I really have curtailed the amount of time that I spend doing the “dialing for dollars” thing. I genuinely enjoy the work. I enjoy being on committees that matter and doing a lot of reading and listening and that kind of thing in preparation for the next day’s hearings.

But fundraising does get in the way. Some people are in districts that are so safe that they don’t need to raise much money.

And you’re in a fairly competitive district.

I’m in a very competitive district. It’s a truly purple district, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans with a healthy dose of Independents thrown in. It’s not one of these districts where you can just come to Congress and rest and say, “Okay, I’m here as long as I want to be here.” You have to work for it, and I think the most important way for me to do that is to show people back home that I am working for them.

Do you feel that there is the divide in the Democratic Party that some commentators talk about between people like Bernie Sanders and yourself who are pushing back against this kind of influence and other members of the party?

I wouldn’t call it a divide. Some members take corporate PAC money, and they have their reasons for doing so. I’ve had conversations with people about it. I don’t see it as a divide; I just see it as a different approach to things.

Do you think there are any particularly tangible examples of the influence of corporate money in politics today that are particularly glaring? I know some people may be looking at certain recent mergers that have gone through and point to that. Do you think there are certain places where it’s particularly apparent?

I can’t speak to mergers because I haven’t seen that since I’ve been here. I will tell you that I think the healthcare issues that are on everyone’s mind are probably the area where especially the influence of Big Pharma can be seen. The interesting thing is—because I know who takes corporate PAC money and who doesn’t—I honestly haven’t seen people’s votes be affected by their receipt of money by, for instance, Big Pharma, or their line of questioning in committees being influenced. And I only use Big Pharma as one example.

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The people who have been here for a while are very, very good at compartmentalizing and putting that to the back of their minds. Honestly, I think that many of them have donors who understand that they’re going to take positions that matter to the people because that’s what they were elected on and that’s why they’re here. But I can only speak to my own position on it, and I felt that it was very important, especially as a freshman, to feel like I didn’t get here courtesy of corporate PAC money.

Shifting gears a bit, I saw a tweet your office posted this past Friday about a Q&A session you did at Pennsylvania State University Lehigh Valley, and you talked about the role of young people in making you aware of climate issues and student debt. Could you talk a little bit about that event and the issue of student debt?

First, it was great to be at Penn State Lehigh Valley. It was a terrific turnout of students, as well as some faculty. It was nice to see college-aged people in the room and so many of them.

I do believe that higher education affordability is at a crisis point. I think we’re going to see long-term effects on our economy if we don’t do something about it. It’s not just about college, but for the moment I’ll talk about college. We’ve got these people graduating with so much debt that their prospects of buying a home and consumer goods and that kind of thing to keep the economy going are really tanking. Not to mention the personal effect on them of maintaining a standard of living.

It’s a top priority of mine. It’s one of the reasons why I fought so hard to be on the Education and Labor Committee.

I remember when we spoke in September that you emphasized some educational priorities.

Right! And right now, the Committee is holding hearings on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which has not been updated in more than ten years, so we’re really focused on that to make college more acceptable and affordable. It’s also my priority to use my seat at this table to make sure that Pell Grants are consistent with the rising cost of college and that we incentivize states to invest in their systems of public higher education. We need to strengthen our work-study programs and help students struggling under piles of debt through income-based repayments, while also protecting and expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

I also have to say that I want to see Pell Grants extended beyond colleges. I think people who decide to go to technical school or vocational school need to have the availability to have that kind of assistance. Finally, I’m a co-sponsor of several bills that are going to help people struggling with student loans to re-finance federal and private loans to a lower, more affordable rate—and another bill that would require loan providers to be more transparent about their obligations and legal rights before agreeing to a loan.

All of these are, I think, critically important priorities that I’m really happy the Education and Labor Committee is dealing with right out of the starting gate.

Thank you very much, Congresswoman. It was nice to touch base again.

It’s my pleasure, Erich. I’m very happy to hear from you.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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