EP. 47 Jessica Morse CA-04

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The Midpod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We are two moms traveling America to bring you the stories the 2018 midterm elections. We need a new generation of leaders in Congress who will fight for working families and for our democratic institutions. The good news is, they're running. On our new candidate Friday series we bring you interviews with congressional candidates we think have the passion and integrity to make a difference. This week, we want you to meet Jessica Morse. She's running for Congress in California's Fourth District. This is a large district in eastern California that includes ecological treasures like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. You may have seen in the news that forest fires have been raging there even forcing Yosemite National Park to close temporarily. Wildfire experts are concerned that climate change is bringing longer droughts and higher temperatures to the region. Incumbent Tom McClintock, who's been in office for decades, doesn't believe the scientific community's consensus on climate change, and he's opposed policies to reduce carbon emissions or encourage renewable energy. In this rural area the weakening of Obamacare is also threatening hospitals and clinics that depend on the law for survival. So this R plus 10 district, which has been safe for years, may be up for grabs now. We interviewed Morse at the California State Party Convention in San Diego.

NICIE: Jessica thank you so much for spending time with The Midterms Podcast today we really appreciate it.

JESSICA MORSE: Thank you so much for having me. It's a delight to be here.

NICIE: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you grew up and what your family was like and, what kind of work you've been doing before deciding to run for Congress.

MORSE: Sure, I'm actually five generations from the district. So my great-great-grandparents came over on covered wagons and landed in the Sierra. And we still have the original homestead land to this day and that my family and I still manage about 200 acres of beautiful forest and actually even have a gold mine that my great-grandfather won in a poker bet. So I love this community. I grew up in the town of Carmichael, and, which is part of the east suburbs of Sacramento. And my mother instilled in me a very deep commitment to service. So we spent all of our weekends out cleaning up rivers and volunteering with the nursing home. And I loved being able to see the impact of my work on people. So it's very natural for me to transition into a career in service. And so I spent about a decade working in all three branches of U.S. national security. I started with U.S. aid in Iraq at the age of 23, and I was initially on a desk job in D.C. and my counterpart in Baghdad was injured, and so they asked me to go. So in 2005 I called my mom and I said, "Hey Mom, I'm going to Baghdad." And, there was silence on the other end of the phone and I said, "Don't worry this is for your own spiritual growth!"

NICIE: How did she respond to that suggestion?

MORSE: She did not laugh. But, but she was, yeah she was supportive. And, and so off I went and did a corkscrew spiral landing into the Baghdad airport, it was the height of the war. And when I landed on the tarmac, the airport control tower was, was shot out, and the runway was full of pockmarks from rockets and mortars. And I thought, "What the hell have I just done?" And, it was an intense experience. You know, I spent a year and a half on the ground in a war zone, standing side by side with our troops, seeing the cost of war on civilians and our service members. And I just think it is so critical for members of Congress, who decide whether or not our troops go to war, to understand the cost, you know, and understand the sacrifice that they're asking.

HEATHER ATWOOD: You must have known that your experience was part of history. Did you keep a journal? How did you keep track of this experience you had?

MORSE: I actually did keep a journal. And I started sort of trying to turn it into a book and, and haven't yet. It was, it was oddly it was, a lot of the sort of essays that I would write when I was in Iraq were often a little bit more humorous. It was written in the style of like David Sedaris goes to Baghdad. And, but when I started reading back through my actual journal it was painful, you know, I mean it was stories of my Iraqi colleagues who had lost their family members, you know, and just in, horrific ways. But there is a funny moment with my journal. I, my journal was this like, green, cloth, kind of larger journal like a Papyrus kind of thing with, with little sparkly beads on the front of it.

NICIE: I have one of those.

MORSE: Exactly. Yeah but it was just funny to take it into a warzone. And, and so I mean I would be sitting on, you know, a little, a little table under, you know, with, with dust and razor wire and guys and troops and, and, and all, you know, everybody in flak jackets and I'm sitting there with a sparkly journal. So one afternoon I was on a C 130, and it was the first time I had been on a C 130, we were flying into Baghdad, and I had my little journal and I was scribbling in it and, and I was writing about how exciting it was to be on a C 130 and what an interesting experience. And then the plane took off and I was still writing. And then, the plane instantly, about a minute after takeoff, the plane dropped altitude, turned on its side, and we saw the flash from the flares going off, which are, you know, to deter rockets, and, you know, a C 130 doesn't really have windows, it has little portholes but you can't see it through them. So all I could see was the face of the one guy who could see out the porthole, and his face was gray. And, and so then, the plane, right, I mean it was bizarre too 'cause I was like, your, lengthwise and so I was actually kind of up hanging over the people that were on the, you know, on, on my colleagues and all of us, we had earplugs in,

MORSE: And so it was this incredibly dramatic moment, but we were all completely calm because there was nothing we could do about it. You know, and so we signaled each other like, "Flares?" and somebody was like, "Rockets." I was like, "OK!" And, and so then the plane righted itself and we kept flying and then I just continued to write in my journal. As if nothing had happened. And so when I would look back over that entry in my journal, I'm writing about a C 130, there's a giant streak across the journal from when my pen got I got jolted and then I continued, right, "I think we were just fired on by three rockets." And, but we seemed to be fine, and continue or continue our flight. When I, when we landed I asked the pilots and yeah they said three rockets had been fired at us and they avoided them. And, and for some reason my reaction was I was like, "Oh well thanks. Good job guys." As opposed to, "Good lord you just saved my life." You know. And so anyway if those guys are out there, thank you.

NICIE: I have to ask you, Heather and I live in Massachusetts' 6th Congressional District and our congress person is Seth Moulton, and he served, yeah four tours in Iraq and one of the things he's talked a lot about is the Iraqis who helped our forces, including translators and others, and how difficult it's been for, for some of them and their families, to get visas to come to the U.S. and so forth. And I'm just wondering if, if you had any experiences like that with Iraqis or maybe people you've kept in touch with who are still friends and so forth.

MORSE: Absolutely. You know in Iraq I saw what makes a refugee. I saw my Iraqi colleagues going through the same exact hellish war zone with rockets and mortars coming in and their neighborhoods getting blown up and being targeted on the street. But they were going through it with their babies, you know, with their parents and their grandparents. And so I understood what it means for somebody to pack up their family in the middle of the night and flee into the unknown. And one of my best friends in Iraq, she, I hired her as my assistant. She and I were the same age and she, and kind of had a similar sort of "go get 'em" mentality of like, young women ready to, ready to take the world by storm. And, she told me one day that she was considering marrying a 60 year-old American because he had offered to get her and her family out to safety. I said to her, "You can't sell yourself." And I just it had hit me. The point. I thought, "What point would I have to be at to, be willing to make that choice." And so, I helped her. I found some scholarships and helped her get a scholarship through one of the Fulbright-type programs. And, and, and so she made it to the U.S. and has a Ph.D. and a husband who is her own age and beautiful children and she's doing great. But I, I knew the consequences and a lot of my Iraqi colleagues were going through that. And actually the counterpart of mine in Baghdad who was injured, ended up going back stateside and starting a, a thing called The List Project, to, to be able to get Iraqis who had been supporting the Americans who are then targeted for their support of Americans back to the U.S. And so a lot of my Iraqi colleagues because of that were able to make it back.

ATWOOD: Coming back to the to the, to the district. What made you move home and decide to run for office and how, how do some of your experiences abroad inform how you think about the needs of, of Americans and of the citizens of your district?

MORSE: I lived on the frontlines of some of the world's worst policy decisions. And saw the consequences on people and on the service members and on global stability. And so, when Trump got the nomination and said he was gonna give nukes to Saudi Arabia I thought, "I know the consequences of this." You know, this is a recipe for World War Three and I don't want us to get tweeted into a war. And I knew that what we needed was a member of Congress who would stand up and keep foreign policy on the right track and work every day to keep our troops at home. And so I decided it was time to run. You know, the incumbent I'm running against, he has applauded Trump on his great leadership on North Korea, and has just supported every bizarre sort and denied that there's any issue with the Russian investigation and just has such a lack of understanding of foreign policy and national security. And I've seen what happens when you have people who make political decisions as opposed to decisions that have, that, that understand the, the secondary tertiary consequences of those decisions. And, because I've seen it firsthand I don't want to live through it again. I don't want somebody else to have to go through this experience and, and so I decided it was time to run and running is hard.

ATWOOD: It, it can't be too much harder than being in Baghdad in the middle of a war though.

MORSE: Well that was part of my calculus. I thought, you know, yes volunteering to run for office does often look like good volunteering to get eaten by wolves, but I've hiked 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail on my own. I have, you know, I've survived Baghdad because like, I think I can handle it, so, so it's pretty close though.

ATWOOD: What's the worst part, let's, let's, let's be honest and real.

MORSE: You know what was surprising to me? I, I knew, noticed this before I started running, that when women run the, their best work is used against them and weaponized. You know I'd watch somebody in Colorado who was the state, she was the president of the Colorado State Senate, a phenomenal legislator, incredible public servant. And she, she had done this incredible work on, on protecting children from, from child predators. But she had voted down a weaker law and then enforced a stronger one. So all the mailers and what they had, could they convince the Colorado public that she was soft on child predators? Even though her best work was to be strong on it.

MORSE: I just paused and thought, OK this is, this is women running and it did demonstrate to me that you know just changing the demographics in Congress isn't necessarily going to change the political culture. It takes a conscious effort to get all of your supporters behind you and uphold a higher standard and, and inspire people, 'cause what our constitution is only as good as those who engage and participate. And let me tell you new people don't want to participate if it's negative and nasty and looks like a reality TV show. They want to participate when it is, when it feels inspiring and that they feel like they are doing something to improve their community.

ATWOOD: So I want to be respectful of your time but I do want to ask you for some advice for the Midpod moms. We love to hike and we'll be coming to your district in due course so what, do you have a favorite trail, or a favorite place for us to, to visit and experience?

MORSE: It's like asking me to pick a favorite child. So I've actually hiked 500 miles of, I've hiked my entire district, 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I'd say go to Yosemite, hike the, hike the panoramic trail you get all the waterfalls it's beautiful. If you have time to go to Tuolumne Meadows my favorite spot in the whole Sierra, although this is not a day hike, is McClure meadows. I had this amazing evening backpacking through there where, it was this rainy day and I walked in and it was kind of, you, I was dripping wet setting up a wet campsite, you know kind of cooking my dinner it was a little bit of a slog, I was along this meandering creek and there's some mountains kind of covered by mist, and then all of a sudden, the clouds broke and this evening sunset shone through and it was bright pink. It was alpine glow. And so the whole scene just turned fluorescent pink and glowing and beautiful. And I think that's where our country's headed.

ATWOOD: I like that positive vision. And thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it and look forward to following the race as it develops.

MORSE: Thanks for having me.

NICIE: That's Jessica Morse running in California's 4th District. Now at a time of crisis with the Trump administration's new immigration policies, we are turning our focus back to Texas. Tune in next Tuesday for a conversation about the demographics of Texas and the politics of its growing Latino population. With Rogelio Saenz of the University of Texas San Antonio. That conversation will serve as a prelude to our profile of Texas's 23rd congressional district. We'll be releasing that profile August 14th. Our thanks to Midpod contributor James Morrison, who is producing our Candidate Fridays series. And thanks to you for listening. See you next week.

Eunice Panetta