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Long Island Democratic candidate Liuba Gretchen Shirley forced the FEC to allow her to use funds for child care. Working class family issues become central to the race & threatens reign of 12-term Republican congressman Peter King

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

Across the country, progressive Democrats are taking on both the Democratic establishment and sitting Republican congressional representatives. One such candidate is Liuba Grechen Shirley, who’s taking on Republican Peter King, who has been a congressional representative for the last 25 years, and had been thought too entrenched to be defeated. However, Liuba Grechen Shirley doesn’t think so. She won the Democratic primary, taking on the establishment. She’s running as a mother fighting for her family leave and pro-working class policies who’s also pro-choice, for increasing the federal minimum wage, for gun safety, and more.

She made news during the primary election when she petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow her to use campaign funds for childcare. So childcare and meeting the needs of working-class families became a focal point of the primary election, as it has this general election, as well. And the FEC ruled in her favor, and the race for who represents New York’s congressional district on the south shore of Long Island is on. Can she dethrone a Trump-supporting Republican with a lot of support in a district like New York 2nd? Well, joining us is Liuba Grechen Shirley. Welcome to The Real News, Liuba, good to have you with us.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: So first question is a typical question, I guess, is what threw you into this race in the first place. You took on a Democratic politician who had been elected several times in that area for local office. And you decided to run, and you defeated him. So tell me a bit about what it is that pushed you into this race.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: I’ve always been involved in politics, but I was not planning on running for office myself. I work in global development and poverty alleviation. I’ve worked all over the world. And I’d had enough of Peter King’s voting record. He has been in office since I was 12 years old and has consistently voted to hurt people in our district and across the country. And after the election in 2016 I needed to do something more. I called my local Democratic Party. I called all of our local elected officials, and I wanted to know what the plan was. And nobody got back to me.

I finally got an email in January of last year saying if you’ve signed up to volunteer and you haven’t heard back from us, send us another email, we’ll get back to you. And I started an Indivisible group, because that, I mean, that infuriated me. I wanted to do something. And so I started this Indivisible group. I called it New York 2nd District Democrats. And I started posting daily action items how to hold Peter King accountable. We started organizing lobby days and protests and rallies and meetings to to get people involved. Because Peter King has only been in office for so long because he had- he really hasn’t faced a serious challenge in at least the last 12 years.

And when he came out in support of the Muslim ban I actually organized a protest in front of his office. And I called his office. That was a Friday afternoon. I said, I’d like to come in and speak with you. And they told me to come in around 3:30 that afternoon. And by the time I got to his office they had locked the doors and sent the staff home. And we had 400 people protest, and I got a meeting with him because of that protest. And when I asked if he would hold a town hall, because- you know, I was, I was one of 770,000 constituents that would like to speak with him, his response was no, a town hall would only diminish democracy, and that he’s on the news all the time.

MARC STEINER: Diminish democracy.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: Diminish democracy. That he’s on the news all the time talking about his stance on the issues. Everyone knows what he thinks. And I tried to explain to him that his job as a representative was to listen to what we think, to actually talk to his constituents. And he didn’t understand that, or didn’t care. And I organized a town hall for him, and hundreds of people showed up. And I now have a 6-foot cardboard cut out of Peter King in my attic.

MARC STEINER: What do you do with this cut out?

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: I put the cut out next to me on stage. We had people from across the district come and talk to a number of issues. I spoke on paid family leave and healthcare, and we had people come and share their stories. And then we actually had a big report card where we voted on how Peter King was doing on each of these particular issues. He, of course, refused to show up. And now the cardboard cut out is in my attic.

MARC STEINER: So I want to play a short clip from one of your campaign videos and talk about what’s behind all this. Let’s roll this.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY CAMPAIGN VIDEO: More than half of our representatives are millionaires, and they don’t understand how the policies that they enact actually affect our lives.

That’s why we need more working people in office. And that’s why I decided to run. But running for office is a full-time job. I was told that with two kids, a husband who worked full-time, and no childcare, that it was impossible. Well, it wasn’t impossible. It’s just really hard.

It’s time to let politicians like Peter King know enough is enough. This time it’s personal.

MARC STEINER: So let me talk to you a bit about philosophically and politically what it means for you then to run as a working-class, middle-class mother around those issues. I mean, as I said at the top of the show, you took on the Federal Election Commission. They allowed you to use campaign funds for childcare, which was a huge deal. And it kind of changed the nature of, I think, how people could run for office. Which means a lot. But let’s talk a bit about what that means in the context of what policies that you think need to be pursued, and what’s missing here.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: The interesting thing is reporters keep asking me to define this moment and political history. And one reporter asked me the other day, she said, when did you make the decision to run as yourself?

MARC STEINER: As yourself.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: As myself. And I didn’t understand the question, and I asked her to repeat it. And she said no, I’m curious, was it a strategic decision to talk about your life and your children and your family? I said, no, I said, that’s who I am. And what- the reason I’m running and what has infuriated me for so long about politics in this country is that we’re not having these important discussions. You know, Congress is 19 percent female, and more than half of our representatives are millionaires. They do not understand how these issues affect our lives because they don’t live them every day. When you know, when you have more women in office, when you have more working people in office, you’ll have people who understand at a visceral level what it’s like not to have paid family leave. One in four women in this country will go back to work ten days after giving birth. That’s a public health and a human rights crisis. And we’re the only country other than Papua New Guinea in the entire world that doesn’t have paid family leave.

We would be having conversations about quality affordable childcare, about universal Pre-K, about healthcare, about improved and expanded Medicare for All, about education. Right now in this country, where you live, that’s the kind of education that you are going to get. And the cornerstone of democracy is a good quality public education. And for too many people in this country right now, for working people, the decks are stacked. Inequality is at its greatest right now. We have- the middle class is shrinking. We have corporate tax cuts and tax cuts on millionaires. And we have, we have people who are working three jobs and can’t afford to buy food. And people who can’t afford to buy their prescription medicine and their groceries at the same time. This is- we’re in a crisis as a country. And the reason that we are here is because we have representatives who care more what their corporate donors want than what their constituents do. They care more about making profits for their wealthy donors than they do about making sure that their constituents have access to improve their livelihoods. Have the, have the experience, the ability to to take care of their family. To make sure their kids get healthcare. To make sure their kids get education. And to be able to put food on the table. No one who works full time in this country should live in poverty. But too many Americans do.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious how you, what you see is going on here in the United States at this moment. I mean, I think we see both inside the Republican Party and inside the Democratic Party kind of massive splits going on, in some ways. Very different directions in terms of what America should look like. You see this surge of younger Democrats, women, people of color, black candidates, all over the country. Several Muslim-American women who have won election in the primaries. Two Native American women who won elections that are pushing both from their states as well. I mean, how do you analyze what this means? If a sizable number of people as you win, do you see yourselves as a, some kind of unity here? I mean, how do you perceive this political shift in America, and how that affects your race?

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: So this is, this is the question that everybody keeps asking. Because reporters are so, they are so curious about how we define this moment in political history. And people keep asking, are part of the blue wave, are you part of the pink wave, you know, what’s going on? Are you a feminist woman who is trying to storm the House? I keep getting these, these questions.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. I’m not asking that. But- no.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: You’re not. What you’re asking is exactly what’s important. Because the difference in this year is not just that there are so many more women running. It’s that there are so many more working Americans, more average people who have not come, you know, from a political dynasty, from a family who has been in politics for so long, who have not come from wealthy families. What’s so different about this year is the diversity in the candidates that we see, and people who get these issues because they live them every day. And I am so excited to be part of that wave, because we will change the direction that our country is going in. And yes, I mean, I think it’s important to be unified, because there are so many voices this year that are actually talking about these issues.

And it’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. Both parties are at fault for caring more about the corporate donors than their constituents. And it’s not- it’s, it’s something that we haven’t talked about. Too many people have had their voices silenced by the special interests and by the corporate donors. And you know, if you have $25 to chip into an election, you don’t- that doesn’t really buy you a lot of, a lot of pull. But what’s so different is that we have people who are actually standing up, who are listening, who are not taking corporate PAC money. I’m not taking a dime of corporate PAC money. And that’s how we change politics, with more of these people running and getting elected, and talking about these real issues.

MARC STEINER: One of the things that’s curious to me looking at this election, whether it’s some of the words of people like Donald Trump use, and other people in the Republican Party at this moment. We hear a lot about working class. The problem is it seems to me sometimes, when I look at this and listen to people and talk to people around the country, is that when we think of working class, people are talking about white working class. And that often leaves out people who are African- leaves out people who are African-American, leaves out folks in different Latino communities who are working class. Because working class is a broad section of America. It’s not just the white working class we’re talking about here. And I think that’s a really important point that we lose in terms of trying to find unity and trying to find a way to to address the issues that a broad spectrum of Americans face.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: You’re 100 percent correct. And I think that’s how- I think Donald Trump talked about just the white working class. But I mean, our district is 30 percent minority. And what is so important is to make sure that we are working with every community. We actually just opened a campaign office in Central Islip, which is a part of our district that has never had a congressional campaign office or any sort of congressional office. And we can’t represent different aspects of our community, different groups in our community, if we’re not in that community. If we’re not sitting down and talking to people.

Last night I sat down and we had an interfaith roundtable, and we were talking about community issues, and issues specifically that affect the African-American community. Issues that affect the Latino community. It’s very important that we are listening to every member of our community, because it’s, you know- not having access to healthcare affects everyone, no matter what gender or religion or race or socioeconomic background that you are. Healthcare affects everyone. Everyone gets sick at some point in time. Not having equitable education affects working class people across every- across every aspect of our of our society. And so these are issues that we need to be talking about. But we also need to be talking about the fact we have a mass incarceration problem. We need to be talking about- we have private prisons that, you know, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. These are conversations that we need to be having, that we need our representatives to be having.

MARC STEINER: And I think it’s important, especially with the district you’re representing in places across Long Island, all over Long Island, that was made famous in the ’40s because of Levittown. Levittown was built primarily for white working-class people coming back from the war like my father, your grandfather, and whoever else. And it was a, it was was very different. People left out of that picture were black Americans, who did not get the same, even though they were coming back from the same war. So we’re at a cusp where we can actually maybe wrestle with some of these things in ways we have not done before. And I wonder- I’m curious, because politically sometimes people feel like they have to walk this fine line. But clearly you’re kind of not treading water on this.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: No. Not at all. These are issues that need to be discussed. Long Island is one of the most segregated places in our country. And if we’re not talking about that, it’s not going to change.

MARC STEINER: Talk about this, a political- a straight-up political question here. You’re taking on a 25-year entrenched congressional representative who people thought, as I said in the beginning, was unbeatable just because he’s been entrenched. And he has become New York’s Republican voice in many ways, and in Congress. So in taking on Peter King, things have shifted a little. Your district is now more heavily Democratic than it used to be. But that does not always mean that the Democrats are going to win, or anybody who’s progressive is going to win. So how do you- strategically, how do you see this race playing out? Clearly you think you’re going to win. You’re running to win. But It’s not an easy race.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: We will win. It’s not an easy race. But I mean, there are so many people who’ve said, King who’s been in office since you’re 12. You’re crazy, you can’t beat him. But I have to tell you that I have spent almost a year crossing this district talking to people, you know, every single day. Knocking on doors, having roundtables, having meet and greets, talking to people about the issues. And I can’t tell you how many people don’t know who Peter King is. Our district was redrawn in 2012. We actually gained a Democratic registration advantage that year. And there was a woman who ran that year. She didn’t raise a lot of money. She didn’t really campaign. She still got 42 percent of the vote without campaigning, because it was an Obama year and Democrats came out in droves.

King is not as safe as he thinks. He just hasn’t faced a serious challenger in 12 years. We have raised more money than the last five challengers to King combined. We outraised Peter King last quarter. Mike Bloomberg hosted a fundraiser for King because they’re personal friends. And we are not taking any corporate PAC money, and we still outraised Peter King. Our average contribution is $103. We are taking- we have more individual contributors than anyone who has ever run against Peter King. And it’s because we’re talking about the issues.

You know, I held a press conference in front of King’s office the day after the primary. I challenged him to five debates. And a Republican came to me, and he said, you know, I’ve always been, I’ve been a lifelong Republican. My wife is a Democrat. She voted for you in the primary. You have my vote in November. He wrote me a $1000 check on the spot, and he’s out knocking on doors. He said, I, you know, I like that you’re talking about economic issues. I like that you’re talking about how these issues affect our bottom dollar. Because that’s- Long Islanders, you know, our tax bill, the tax bill that Peter King wasn’t able to protect us against- I mean, he’s been in office for 25 years. He’s our leader in the party that controls Congress. And meanwhile, we just got a tax bill passed that will make Long Island the worst-hit place in the country. We just gave corporate- permanent corporate tax cuts. Meanwhile, we’re going to pay for it out of cuts to Social Security and Medicaid. And people are going to see- 47 percent of Long Islanders will see our taxes go up this year.

So it doesn’t matter if you’ve been in office for 25 years if you can’t protect people. And this is an issue that affects Republicans and Democrats. And when I’m out knocking on doors, the top three issues I hear: Taxes, healthcare- health care first, then taxes- then education. These are issues that affect everyone in our district. And people are fired up. I have never seen this many people out knocking on doors before. We did a canvass launch the other day, and more than half of the people had never knocked on a door before.

People have- you know, Peter King has gotten complacent. He refuses to hold town hall meetings. He shows up to baseball games and Boy Scout meetings and a bagel shop in Seaford, and he takes a photo and he posted on Facebook, and he says, I met with the real Americans today. The reality is real Americans are in their homes talking to- you know, when when we knock on the door, they’re saying, you’re the first person who’s ever knocked on our door. Thank you. They are telling me that they can’t buy their groceries and their prescription medicine in the same week. That’s what real America is going through right now. And King is ignoring the district.

MARC STEINER: So, Liuba Grechen Shirley, it’s been great to have you with us. Good luck on the campaign trail. We’ll talk to you as it’s over and see who represents the 2nd in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: Thank you very much. It was great to talk to you.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.