Ep. 36 Mikie Sherrill, NJ-11

HEATHER ATWOOD: Mikie Sherrill lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband and four children. She graduated from the Naval Academy and saw 10 years of active duty flying helicopters in Europe and Iraq. She also served as a liaison between the U.S. and the Russian navies. After her service, she went to law school and worked at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark. Now she's running for Congress in New Jersey's 11th district.       [music]     

MIKIE SHERRILL: Sometimes in my stump speech I mention that I took my first oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States when I was 18 years old and entered the Naval Academy, and I took that oath actually many times over the years I would get promoted in the Navy or as I became a federal prosecutor.

And so, what I saw from this president was someone who is attacking the institutions that were set up by our Constitution. So, someone who is attacking the courts and saying, for example, that a judge of Mexican descent couldn't be fair. Or, someone who was attacking our freedom of religion and trying to impose a Muslim ban. I saw a president who was demeaning the service of servicemen and women. And I saw a president who was attacking Gold Star families, which I don't think I would have ever thought possible.

There have been times in elections where I have thought we've hit new lows over the years but the stuff that happened in this election - there were things that happened that I could never have predicted and I would not have believed could be possible. And I would have always guessed that a Gold Star family or a former POW that served our country - that those two groups would be sacrosanct. And to see that they weren't was incredibly offensive. So those are some of the particular things that I found incredibly offensive.

That was something that was very concerning to me and I was thinking about, in that moment, “how could I be of service to my country.? How can I do something that is going to make an impact?” And part of, you know, I guess, coming from the criminal justice background, Washington felt broken because when you have something, for example like criminal justice reform, that has broad appeal on both sides of the aisle and we can't get that through Congress, that feels like a system that's ground to a halt, really. And so, when I saw that happening, I thought long lines - you know, “what can I do to help? How can I build some consensus, especially for policies in the middle where there's broad agreement?” I had been thinking about that, and I’m trying to tell a friend of mine about this and I was boring her to tears.       [laughs].       

MIKIE: You can see her eyes glazing over, and she's like, uh huh, uh huh, and I'm like, "and then I'm going to do this, and then I'm gonna, you know, do some fundraising around it, and I'm going to get this consensus and da da da da da," and you know, she's going, "you need to run for Congress." And I said, “oh yeah, you know, maybe some day I'll do that.” And she said, "no, you need to run right now."       

MIKIE: And I kind of stopped for a moment, and I don't know if you've ever had that feeling where you sort of feel like fate just kind of goes...hhmmm?       [music interlude]       

MIKIE: I said to my husband, "you know, I'm thinking of running for Congress," and he said, "Oh yeah you should." The person that's going to be, kind of, most impacted by it - when they say, go do it, you're kind of like, well now...when you have that kind of support and you feel, kind of, the hands of fate, I guess, intervening. It's hard to say no. And, you know, implicit in all of that, of course, all the background that, kind of, gets you to that point in life. So, serving in the Navy, serving at the U.S. Attorney's office, being beholden to the Constitution of the United States in the way I felt I was. And so, part of what fed into that was the fact that I, as I mentioned, was so upset about the attacks on the institutions of the government. And I had heard about what Representative Frelinghuysen was doing. And you know, she said, "you know, he's just not meeting with his constituents. He won't even hold a town hall.” And it was just that, you know, again, just, I was like, "that's it. That's it." You know, this is a representative democracy. If you're given the privilege of serving as a congressperson, that's job one. You meet with your constituents. So, from then on out, we were off.       [music interlude]       

MIKIE: For a lot of reasons this campaign has, sort of, hit a nerve and, you know, it has, I think, brought together people who think we need more women in Congress, it's brought together people who think we need more veterans in Congress, and it's brought together people who think we really need a change. We really need new leadership in Congress.       

MIKIE: So because of all those things, those narratives have all been very helpful to my campaign. But I did have someone say to me, I think just the other day, "I bet you didn't know, you know, what it was really going to be like." And I said, "no I didn't, luckily." [laughs] I might have I might have thought twice, but it has been for somebody who has a little bit of an addiction to politics - and maybe this is why my husband was so excited for me to start this, because I was always like, "and then, you don't know what happened!" He'd be like, "turn off the news. Stop watching the news." So, to get out in the community and talk about the things that you care so passionately about and to talk with people, and then to hear about the experiences of people in the community and what they're actually seeing on the ground and how, you know, how the laws could serve them better, is wonderful. It really is great, especially in times like these when I just really wanted to be doing something for the country. And this feels like progress. And this feels like, if we can win back 24 seats in the House, that we have done something big. We have really slowed the momentum of this administration in an important way.       

MIKIE: This district is interesting, and to give your listeners an idea of the district, it has been moving to the left for quite some time now. I would say it's kind of a moderate Republican district. They voted for McCain by 9 percent. They went for Romney by about 5, and in the intervening years there's a little bit of redistricting after the last census. And then this district only voted for Trump by half a percentage point. I also say to people, I think Representative Frelinghuysen has been a bit like a wet blanket over the district, where a lot of people just felt like there was no reason to get engaged. Everybody knew he was going to win. You know, so why get too engaged in politics if you're - especially if you're a Democrat? And then there was also the sense that everybody was a Republican. You know, I remember going to one meeting, and it might have been out in Sussex, where there were probably about 60 to 100 people there, and some woman said, "well I guess I can't say I'm the Democrat in Sussex anymore," which was kind of a joke in a lot of towns because people thought that they were the only Democrat. And then as people started coming out of the closet as Democrats sometimes they realize that their next door neighbor's a Democrat - that the person in the car line with them at the preschool is a Democrat. And so, I think people are, in this district, really realizing just how much momentum there is, and that there is a very real ability right now to turn the seat. And I've also been seeing people that - they haven't really been as engaged. But there's also some people who were voting for Representative Frelinghuysen for many, many years and they hadn't tracked his votes. And I heard this a lot, quite frankly in February, you know he's a moderate.       

MIKIE: And I think now with groups like NJ 11th For Change, tracking his votes and getting that information on his votes out to the public and publishing his votes and creating an energy that feeds into, you know, becomes a news story; like all of the people engage in this. So now, you know, you see articles about his votes in the newspapers when he votes. I think that's really educated the district that he's no longer a moderate. That he is the only person in the New Jersey delegation that's voted in line with the Trump administration. And that's been incredibly important.       [music]       

MIKIE: You know, the Russia situation has always been incredibly concerning to me and I have never understood what the fascination that this president has for Putin and for Russia is. I find it very troubling because I dealt a lot with the Russians and I don't think much has changed since the time I was dealing with the Russians, especially given that Putin's been in power for so long and he's a former KGB officer. I think he still looks at the world through that lens and that lens is a zero sum game. So, when the Russians are winning, the Americans are losing. When the Americans are winning, the Russians are losing. That's the calculation. And it's not much more nuanced than that. So, to somehow think that we are going to form some great partnership with the Russians is troubling to me, especially on cyber crime - it’s just jaw dropping. And I think we're being played.       

MIKIE: [laughs] I think it goes back to the arrogance of this president to think that he can get some, you know, get one over on Russia, when he's not even using any of the tools at his disposal when he's ostracizing our public servants, and when he is giving away our state secrets to other people. I also think Russia has worked hard to destabilize Western Europe through Syrian refugees. I guess, you know, I keep coming back to: incredibly troubling is probably stating it lightly.       [music]       

MIKIE: That's certainly a big concern when you have a president like this who, I think, makes decisions on, you know, it doesn't seem like a very calculated basis. And so, to think that he's just going to go and start a war without the advice or consent of anyone, is something that I think concerns everyone and I think that's something that's bipartisan. That is something that I think people on all sides of the aisle are concerned about. And certainly I know people in Congress are now - have been talking about it and trying to discuss that with the administration and I hope that goes forward. You know, I do hope that because he does have the generals in place, that that would be some sort of check on his power.       

MIKIE: You know, I remember when there was some discussion of, "Do you really want Donald Trump to have his finger on the button in the nuclear era?" And I thought it was a little bit of hyperbole, and right now I'm scared to death. The thought that a president the United States could have so little concern for the country is just totally outside anything I ever thought would happen.       [music].       

MIKIE: In the same vein was - were his comments on John McCain. Because people know he's a war hero. But I don't think a lot of people remember why he's a war hero. He was shot down over Vietnam and had ejection injuries and then was taken into custody and put in a POW camp and tortured. And then he was offered release because his father was Navy royalty. He was, kind of, in this family that had served their country honorably for generations. And so, he was offered release because that would have been a press coup for the Vietnamese, and he refused that because he knew that it was his duty to be the last one in and the last one out. And so he refused to be released because he knew what that would do to the morale of the other POWs. But again, suffering untreated ejection injuries and being tortured and then stayed in that POW camp for years. You know, not just for a couple more months but for years. And then to call into question his service? It was appalling.       [music]       

MIKIE: If I could roll it forward ten years I would love to see people have quality and affordable health care here, to take that burden off families and that concern off families. I would love to see a great education system so that we know that the type of education that anyone can receive is going to give them the ability to enter into the workforce, to get a good job for their families. And I would love to see a great infrastructure plan for New Jersey because we need it so badly. You know, I would just love to see the commute into New York City take no time. And then, here we are in the heart of the East Coast and it would be amazing if you could catch a train to D.C. and be there in less than an hour.       

MIKIE: I guess what I'm saying is, I would love to see us in 10 years having done really well by our middle class here right now and then be set up for the next 20 years. You know, to kind of, take that leap into the next 20 years. And so which, of course, just reminded me, and I would love to see a great wind power turbine economy here because, here in New Jersey, FYI, we have the best offshore wind conditions in the world - better than Denmark - in the world, not in the country, in the world.       [music]       

NICIE: That’s Mikie Sherrill. She's running for Congress in New Jersey's 11th Congressional District. For more about her and her campaign, go to mikiesherrill.com.   

Eunice Panetta