Ep. 57 Lauren Baer, FL-18
NICIE PANETTA: OK so we're here in Palm Beach Gardens with Lauren Baer who is running for Congress and Florida's 18th. And thank you for spending time with The MidPod today.
LAUREN BAER: My pleasure.
NICIE: Would you like to talk to us a little bit about your growing up here in Florida? We'd love to hear about your childhood and your family.
BAER: Well I grew up just down the road here. So my childhood home is about a half mile down the road in one direction, where I went to middle school is about a mile down the road in the other direction. And for me growing up here in Palm Beach County was all about family. My great grandparents started a family business actually in South Bend, Indiana and in the late 1960s they moved to Florida. They thought they were coming here to retire. But they saw this spark in the local economy and decided to open a branch of the family furniture store, Baer's Furniture, down here and so by the time I was growing up at that point it was a third-generation family business. Now it's a fourth-generation family business but it was my father and my uncles and my cousins, everyone working together in this collaborative effort. And for me the interesting thing about growing up in a family business particularly one where we were selling furniture is you just got to know the community so well.
NICIE: Did you ever think about going into the family business?
BAER: No I I I didn't. And you know I attribute that to to my family as well because they really said you know each individual each member of this family should grow should blossom and utilize their own particular skills to to the best of their ability. And it was apparent to everyone around me from an early age that I just had this interest in in serving my community so you know I kind of joked that I wonder if if they would have let me work in the family business if I wanted to because they knew that I had a sense of a greater calling which was to to serve the American people and to serve the people of Florida.
NICIE: You've had quite a career in in government and maybe you could just spend a couple of minutes on what you see as the highlights but also maybe some of the really hard story either about a mistake or a challenge something that's that that makes you the leader that you are today.
BAER: Certainly so I spent six years serving as a senior official in the Obama State Department serving our our president, two secretaries of state and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. I was lucky enough to join the administration in January of 2011 and serve all the way through Inauguration Day at the beginning of 2016 and I served for most of that time on the secretary of state's policy planning staff it's the internal strategy and innovation unit for the secretary of state. It's a really storied group of people. This is the group of individuals it was all men at the time who launched the Marshall Plan after World War II. And what I did when I was there was advise these very senior leaders on issues having to do with human rights, democracy promotion, international law. But I also became known as someone who built things, if there were large scale government initiatives that required us to work across the department or across agencies, I was usually the one who was tasked with doing that. And the lesson the takeaway for me there was that government does have the ability to do good things and we can make government work for the American people but it requires individuals in government who are willing to invest that time and effort to change to make things run just a little bit better.
BAER: One of the great challenges for me because you you asked about that but also really a great lesson was learning to work with people both within the administration and outside of it who had views that were very different than my own. I worked on a range of issues that were highly contested. Everything from democracy promotion abroad to how to engage with religious communities internationally to how to ensure that our counter-terrorism policies stayed true to the best of American values and principles of human rights. And when you're doing that you encounter people whose opinions are different you might clash with. But for me it was always important to think about how you reach compromise, how you brought people to the table to actually come to solutions and get things done. And I feel like we've gotten so out to people grandstanding in Washington, to to yelling at problems but not coming up with solutions. And for me the big lesson from my 6 years is that we're obligated as public servants to come up with solutions. And that means being able to sit down at the table with people with different views and work with them.
NICIE: Is there an example and maybe I'm wondering I know you you happen to be gay and you worked on some of those issues...
BAER: I did.
NICIE: ...promoting gay rights around the world. I think those of us who are left of center we have very strongly-held beliefs. Other people have, some people don't share those and it can be really difficult to compromise when you believe in a fundamental human right like gay rights. So was there an instance where that was challenged and you had to try to find common ground with folks who either didn't believe in those rights the same way you did or didn't believe they were a foreign policy goal of the United States, that kind of thing?
BAER: Well one of the more interesting things I did in terms of working on LGBT rights around the world was working with religious leaders of all different faiths all different denominations. And you think of LGBT rights as something that can be very hotly contested very divisive within the religious community. But what we found is when we brought people to the table when we brought priests and rabbis and imams on a basic level what we were talking about with LGBT rights was issues of tolerance ensuring that any individual no matter where they lived around the world wouldn't be threatened wouldn't have their life at risk because of who they loved. This wasn't in any way a gay marriage agenda. It was about basic human dignity. And when you framed it in those ways in the sense of the golden rule the basic principles of human rights but also basic principles that are instilled in the Bible or the Torah or the Koran of doing unto others as you want them to do unto you, we found that we had allies with people who you might intuitively think would have been our opposition.
NICIE: Somebody made an interesting comment to us on Rappaport I don't know if you know him, he used to run Demos, he's at the Kennedy school now and we were talking about voting issues. Voter participation and so forth and he had been looking at the Australian model where voting is an obligation. But the larger comment that he made was I worry that the U.S. polity if you will is becoming impermeable to good ideas from outside that there is so much exceptionalism that we think we're so great as a country that we or there are other forces at work that make us less willing to look outside our own borders for good ideas and having spent a lot of time abroad and working internationally I was wondering if you had a thought on that.
BAER: Well I mean I think there are certainly a number of good ideas from outside of our borders but there are also a wealth of good ideas from within our country. I would say the bigger problem is we have a bit of an echo chamber in Washington we have had somewhat of an elite political class who listens to certain special interest groups who allows those ideas to drive the policy agenda without going out and listening to everyday Americans. That's why it was so important to me when I decided to enter this race that I didn't come in with fully formed ten-point policy proposals on every issue. The first thing I wanted to do was travel north and south and east and west in this district, listen to people listen to what was affecting them in their lives, what they wanted, the change that they wanted to see and recognize that everyday individuals, people who are working hard trying to make ends meet are really proud of being in this country have something to contribute to the policy discussion as well.
NICIE: I'd love to hear more about the listening tour in a second but just one last thing on the State Department, what are your thoughts on what's happening now with the State Department and our foreign policy under President Trump?
BAER: What's happening now is very frightening to me. I think what we've seen is an extreme militarization of our foreign policy a discounting of the value of diplomacy of foreign assistance of maintaining the relationships with our allies that have ensured the safety and stability of this country since since the post-World War II era. And it's deeply concerning to me. There are tens of positions in the State Department very senior positions that remain unfilled. Applications for the Foreign Service are down by more than 50 percent. That is a wealth of knowledge that this administration has driven out of the Department of State and that base of knowledge is incredibly hard to replace. It will take decades if not generations. We are less safe less secure when we gut the State Department in the way this administration has.
NICIE: Are there things that you particularly you've no you've noted or learned about that are particularly disturbing or risky the situation that we're in now?
BAER: Well there are any number of things, one thing that has been particularly interesting to me as someone who's studied international development and did so with a cohort of individuals from around the world many of whom grew up in developing countries under authoritarian regimes is how much the behavior that we're seeing from this administration reminds them of things we have seen from dictators and autocrats elsewhere around the world. We might be the longest standing democracy in the world but that doesn't mean that our values and institutions aren't susceptible to threat. It requires work in diligence every day and a commitment from our elected leaders. And what is most terrifying to me is that we don't see that coming out of this administration right now.
NICIE: That maybe is a good segue to how you decided to to run for Congress and you got in in September?
BAER: I did. I got in in the middle of September.
NICIE: And there was already a Democratic field developed, there was at least one candidate in the race at that point. So tell us about that thought process.
BAER: So for me thinking about this race actually began at the election that that took place in 2016. So everyone in the country knows about the election knows about that outcome. But two weeks before that election something significantly more personal happened in my life which is that I gave birth to our baby girl Serena and my wife and I welcomed her into this world. And I remember in the two weeks between when she was born and when that election took place that we had so much hope for her and for the future so much excitement about the kind of world that she was being born into where she would know no limits to her aspirations where a family like ours with two moms would be accepted where she wouldn't have to face some of the discrimination and hardship that we had. And then I remember waking up on November 9th and being devastated but immediately that devastation and despair turned into a questioning of what can I do now? How can I have an impact in the age of Donald Trump? And for me the answer to that question actually came from a different woman in my life. My mom Nancy who's just an incredible incredible woman. Huge personality, huge heart. And in early May she engaged in what was the first act of civic activism she'd engaged in in quite some time, she picked up the phone the day before ACA repeal vote and called her congressperson, Brian Mast. And she said I'm one of your constituents, I'm chronically ill, I'm in kidney failure. And if we didn't have the protections under the ACA the limits, if we no longer had lifetime or annual limits on coverage I would be totally uninsurable. And he listened to her and he voted the next day to repeal. And for me that was the if not now, when? If not me, who? kind of moment.
NICIE: Anything else you want to say about where you might significantly differ from Congressman Mast's approach to things? He his position as a relatively moderate Republican, he's got some pro-environment stances on his website and some legislation he wants to introduce on that front and so forth so.
BAER: So I think Congressman mass positioned himself as a moderate and as an independent and took a hard turn to the right once he actually got elected. And if you look at his voting record in Congress what it shows is an incredibly close alignment with the Trump administration and that he's voted for policies which are fundamentally at odds with the interests and desires of his own constituents. All you need to do is look at that health care vote which would have stripped healthcare as I said of 74,000 people in this district. Or look at the vote that he took on the tax bill which was a massive tax cut for the ultra-wealthy but stands to raise taxes on many everyday working families and on the issue of environment I think he does a good job of paying lip service to the issue but not really substantively when it comes to meaningful change. You can't be an environmentalist and support Scott Pruitt at the head of the EPA. It's just fundamentally inconsistent and so Republican leadership may have allowed Brian Mast the liberty to selectively vote against certain bills that are deeply unpopular in this district. But at base looking at his record holistically he is lockstep in alignment with the big corporate deregulatory interests which have been so fundamentally harmful to our environment. So I would push back against the assertion that Brian Mast is is a friend of the environment or a moderate in any sense of the word.
NICIE: What's your analysis of why members of Congress Republican members of Congress are having such a difficult time standing up to President Trump or providing a different kind of check on his brand of doing the presidency for lack of a better term of art. What's going on with those Republicans?
BAER: I think it is plain opportunism. These are you have Republicans who have waited quite some time to control both the House, the Senate, and the presidency. They have an agenda that is largely driven by special interests and the wealthiest among us. And they have shown themselves plainly willing to put aside all concerns for our democracy for American Values for issues that used to be bipartisan in order to use this moment of control to drive through agenda that's going to benefit the most fortunate among us. I think it's nothing beyond that. It's it's deeply unsettling to me and I think it shows a profound lack of principle at the heart of the Republican Party right now.
NICIE: We're wondering about your thoughts about the primary and what you see your path to victory looking like for the primary. And then how it will look like for the general.
BAER: Well first of all I'll say that there are three strengths that I think that I bring to the primary here. The first is experience. I am the only candidate in this race who has a record of having been in Washington for many years working to actually get things done, a successful track record of making government work for the American people. Second thing would be integrity. I'm a straight shooter. I'm honest. I'm not a career candidate. I'm running as I told you because I'm fundamentally concerned with the kind of representation that people here in Florida 18 are getting and wanting to make government work for them. And the third thing I would say is connection to this district to this place. I am the only candidate in this race on the Democrat or the Republican side who has long standing-ties to this district. When it comes to building a coalition, I think you need to look at one of the wonderful things about Florida 18 is it is an incredibly independent district. It's got about a 50/50 split Democrat Republican but in an off-cycle year like this one about 20 percent of that population is independent. And what that means is that to be a successful candidate here you need to be able to appeal to independent minded people in the center. You need to be able to show you are not just an ideologue you are not just someone who yells at problems but you're someone who's going to propose solutions and is willing to work with those who might have slightly different views than your own. So what I see is my path to victory is a strong coalition not only with those on the left but those in the center and a group of individuals who want to see representation in this district that actually reflects the needs and wants and desires of the majority of this district.