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Q&A: Phil Gardner wants to make the most of this political moment in Congress

Continuing our interview series with candidates in the 10th Congressional District race, this week we have someone who knows the district backward and forward: Phil Gardner.

Before entering the 10th District congressional race, Gardner was one of incumbent Denny Heck’s top aids. First starting work with Congressman Heck in 2011, Gardner served stints as Communications Director and Press Secretary in Heck’s Washington, D.C. Office before returning to the South Sound to become District Director.

I called Gardner at the end of last week to discuss his policy platform. Gardner spoke in depth about the opportunity for substantive change that might emerge from the morass of crises facing the country.

Michael Goldberg: You worked as Communications Director and Press Secretary in Congressman Heck’s Washington, D.C. Office and later went on to become the 10th District Director. It seems to me that you’ve really had the opportunity get to know this district backwards and forwards. Can you name the issues that you think matter most to the people who reside in the 10th District?

Phil Gardner: I also grew up in the district in University Place, so I’ve gotten to know it professionally but also personally. It was a great honor to work for a hometown member of Congress because it had special meaning for me. 

In terms of issues, as District Director the number one thing I heard from people was our broken health care system. That’s not a super localized issue and one that the entire country has problems with, as has been grossly revealed by the pandemic. But that’s the number one issue that comes up. People are upset about the cost of prescription drugs, the lack of coverage, hospital billing; that sort of overarching cluster of issues.

In terms of specific issues within the district, the 10th CD has one of the largest number of veterans in the entire Congress. There’s a lot of veterans, a lot of military. And so I’m cognizant of those issues in terms of the servicemembers who live on base and the schooling and housing options that they need, but also off base. Back in 2014, when the VA wait time scandal was happening, that was when I was back in DC. We passed some legislation. The VA Choice Act tried to reduce wait times and those wait times have gone down. Because of that large veterans population, the state of the VA is something that also would come up a lot as district director. This administration sort of toyed with the idea of trying to privatize the VA. That’s something that absolutely can’t happen.

Something else right now that really matters in this district is stabilization funding for state and local governments. After the Great Recession, Thurston County, with its high concentration of state employees, was hit really hard. So whoever the next member is, as we talk about recovery and Coronavirus relief packages in 2021 and beyond, they really need to advocate for state budget and local government stabilization funding because otherwise this district in particular is just going to get slammed by these layoffs and it’s going to continue the economic downturn for way longer than necessary. 

I could go on and on but I also want to mention housing. Interestingly in this district you have two cities, Olympia and Puyallup, that are very different politically. Olympia is very progressive and Puyallup is sort of swing depending on the year. But they both have very contentious debates on their city council surrounding homelessness. And it’s really an issue that crosses partisan lines because it involves something very personal. People can sort of see these hyped up things on Fox News that the President and his allies say, but people’s experience with homelessness or lack of housing comes from their own experience in their neighborhoods. It also comes from trying to buy a home or being pushed out. And so that familiarity with housing in particular and the specific nuances of the different communities in the district, I think that’s sort of something that some of my experience can really bring to the table. I have that institutional knowledge that Danny’s office has built up over the last eight years and that’s something I think would be a shame to lose. Given the crisis that we’re in, the ability to hit the ground running in DC would make a really big difference. There’s a phrase back in DC that freshman members take two years to find the bathrooms. I know where the bathrooms are, I know where the Speaker’s office is, and I’m ready to get to work.”

MG: While you were a staffer for Congressman Heck, he co-chaired the New Democrat Coalition’s housing task force. The task force released a white paper which delved into the housing shortage behind rising housing costs. I want to read you the final sentence from that white paper and get your reaction. It says, “Power is fragmented across federal, state and local governments. And housing programs are very siloed. Nobody is looking at the ecosystem as a whole. But the work is critically important to America’s economy and America’s families.” In terms of the issues the report details like zoning and land use regulations, increased demand for housing in rare urban areas, the stagnant construction labor pool, how do we address the ecosystem as a whole and deal with the siloed nature of housing programs?

PG: Yeah, it’s going to be really challenging to do, which I think is also the underlying point there. But the “housing ecosystem” is sort of a reference to the fact that if supply isn’t available and folks who are renting aren’t able to buy apartment spaces, that creates higher apartment values, higher rents. People then become rent burdened and people who become rent burdened become homeless, and so it’s a fully connected ecosystem. It’s really a humanitarian crisis that’s caused by a market failure. 

The challenge is though, because we have a system of federalism in this country, it’s really hard to attack the issue from different angles. And so one thing that the federal government can do is not make the problem worse, and that would involve public housing. Year after year, the number of public housing units the federal government owns is going down because many units have been there for decades and are no longer habitable. But there’s not equivalent creation happening. Something else the federal government can do is incentivize all of these different programs to unify in terms of their intention. That can make a big difference in terms of trying to influence local land use decisions, density, transit oriented development, so on and so forth.

I think what really needs to be done requires a competent presidential administration that can build policy in concert with allies in Congress, and that’s to figure out nationwide what steps need to be taken broadly, amend our various federal programs and incentive structures to encourage movement in that direction. If the federal government can nudge people in the right direction, we can give state and local governments the tools to figure it out, as it is ultimately about state and local land use decisions.

MG: In the health care section of your platform you write that you would vote for a single-payer proposal if it came to the floor so long as it  “protects the health care benefits of our union brothers and sisters negotiated over decades… and includes mechanisms that ensure union members get higher wages in exchange for their forgone wage increases over the years.” This question of transitioning to a single-payer plan and whether unions would be willing to make that transition, we saw that issue play out a bit in the presidential primary. As someone who has been involved with stakeholder outreach and policy development, I’m curious to hear your take on bridging gaps – generational, ideological, and so on – when crafting legislation.

With reference to the presidential primary, that statement in my health care platform was born out of a proposal that Senator Warren made. My campaign manager was actually Senator Warren’s Policy Director in Iowa. So I know Senator Warren’s plans quite well and certainly have let them influence what I’ve done. But yeah, I think a version that does make people whole will have to be included in the final package in order to get that sign off from union leadership. I think it’s something that can be done and I don’t think it’s necessarily something that the younger membership would oppose, so long as we’re moving towards their goal. 

My take on health care policy, on the insurance and coverage side, was defined by the first six months of my time with Congressman Heck when Paul Ryan and Donald Trump were attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  I was really glad that we won that fight because I actually worked as an EMT in college and I’ve seen our broken health care system up close. I’m also a patient with preexisting conditions that takes five prescription drugs a day. The cost is not some sort of abstract thing for me. I think the last 10 years of US politics has really been an ongoing health care debate. It sort of fades in and out – a continual series of Democrats attempting to push forward followed by a Republican backlash. I think older folks, and I hate to paint a broad brush, but I think there is a mentality that something like a single-payer system could never be obtained because of how audacious it is, and I don’t really buy into that idea. I think it is completely achievable. When we have the political will, this country can do a lot of incredible things. We sent people to the moon. We can certainly figure out a health care system that lots of other Western nations have as well. 

But I do think that moving from our current system to a more efficient, inclusive system is not a snap of the fingers overnight. But unfortunately, there are folks who use those critiques and those concerns over how to make that transition to operate in bad faith; attempting to stop the transition from ever happening. Those voices are not helpful and I think they should reevaluate their policy goals because our goal should be to have universal coverage, because health care is a basic human right.  But also, and this is why I go into so much detail in terms of the policy, I’m very scared that we’ll get into a situation where the Democratic House, Senate and President promised that we’re going to deliver this massive health care bill that we just aren’t really able to deliver in four years because there are a lot of substantive issues to work out. I don’t think that that is thinking “small” or not being honest. And I think it’s really important right now, especially for democratic politicians, to be very honest with their constituents even when it’s stuff they don’t necessarily want to hear. We have a group problem with faith in government, faith in institutions, and if we go through another cycle where people think that there’s a big change that’s going to happen and it doesn’t, that’s going to be really bad for our democracy’s stability.”

MG: In the letter announcing his retirement, Congressman Heck wrote, “Civility is out. Compromise is out. All or nothing is in.” I’m curious to hear your view of compromise. You wrote in your health care platform that you wish the ACA had included a public option. One of the points of frustration you hear conveyed by some Democrats is that in 2009, when there was a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress, certain fights were not waged and Democrats didn’t end up with everything they could have. Where do you draw the line between being pragmatic and walking away from a necessary fight? 

PG: It’s a tough line to walk, but the situation in 2021 that I hope we’ll be in will look similar to 2009. There was also of course a House Cap and Trade bill that was never able to get out of the Senate. There was a question as to whether that should have been bigger and bolder and was another topic of debate in terms of the compromise.

With regard to Denny’s letter and compromise, the important thing to keep in mind is that he was first elected to the state legislature in 1976 – when Jimmy Carter was president. Back during the late 70s and early 80s, especially here in Washington, the ideological differences between the parties was very flimsy. There were legitimately lots of liberal Republicans and legitimately lots of conservative Democrats from Eastern Washington. And so that sort of mindset was not developed in the big tribal, ideological camps that our politics consists of today. That’s where Danny cut his teeth and really thrived as a legislator when he was in Olympia. I think one of the things that I’ve consistently heard that has disheartened him is that the ability to do that in Congress is there if you really work at it, but still not in the way that it once was.

On the one hand one could say that’s a good thing, because a lot of the compromises resulted in things being ignored back in the later half of the 20th century. They were ignored because there weren’t a lot of people at the table besides white men, and it was a lot easier to make compromises and form consensus when you’re just sort of excluding entire communities of people. Now that we’re actually trying to reckon with some of these deep structural issues, it becomes a lot harder. But there’s also a whole level of issues that don’t get in the national headlines where there really is still quite a bit of bipartisan consensus. Things like the Export Import Bank, which is this new deal era agency that helps companies that manufacture goods in the United States sell them to overseas buyers who couldn’t find a private lender. The profits go back to the Treasury to pay down debt. So it costs no government money, it creates jobs, and it’s a sort of a no brainer. But there was Tea Party ideological opposition to it and Denny helped bring people together to form a compromise so that in the last major spending bill, the bank was reauthorized for seven years. So I think when he talks about compromise, that’s really what he’s thinking about and that’s what I think about as well. 

On the big picture things, and where I think people get skeptical when big promises are made and not delivered on, we’re at a stage, especially on issues like policing, where something substantive needs to change. I think that this is our moment and I’m someone who’s going to be there and say that we should go as far as we can. I am a liberal democrat with progressive values and I’m always going to stand by those values. But I also want to get things done, and I want to move the ball down the field. I understand that sometimes, people are going to second guess and say more could have been done. And, you know, sometimes maybe they’re right. But at a certain point, you’ve got to make progress. And I think the history of the United States has shown that progress, while frustrating at times, will gradually move things in a better direction. I’ll try to make progress happen as quickly as I can.

MG: Finally, I want to ask you about what we’ve seen over the past two weeks. I struggle to formulate a single coherent question about this because the issue is so layered, but how might you go about trying to move the ball forward on policies that might finally begin to address some of these long standing issues that have afflicted Black Americans with regard to the police and the criminal justice system more broadly? 

PG: I think that we have, sadly because of the death of George Floyd, entered a political moment where change is possible. Political progress in America is very slow for a very long time and then all of a sudden it can happen very quickly. Marriage equality is one good example; marijuana legalization; I hope we get there are on gun reform soon.  Some people would say the Overton window has shifted. I have a bit of an academic objection to that term, but it’s the notion that the parameters of what would be considered a mainstream view have shifted. Now we need to take advantage of this moment and figure out some substantive changes to make. We’re already seeing that in cities around the country and we need to keep that momentum up. 

Like with housing, a lot of these policies are made at the state and local level. So it’s harder for Congress to fix the whole thing. But what Congress can do is incentivize state and local governments to move in the right direction. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice had a lot of programs for revising the use of force policies for jurisdictions that wanted to do the right thing but didn’t necessarily know how to proceed. The Trump Administration has just shut all that down and tried to take away all these consent decrees. Step one would be to get rid of the current Administration’s policies and go back to providing the tools for state and local governments to enact change. 

Now we’ve created a political space where a lot is possible. I don’t know how long the moment will last where we can make substantive change. But in a moment like this is, it’s what we need to get to. With structural racism, climate change, income inequality, the pandemic, defending our democracy from foreign interference; we have all of these issues that really threaten the core existential nature of our country. And when moments like this happen, we have to take advantage of them.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


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