Liuba Grechen Shirley launched her Congressional campaign in October 2017 because she said she felt the 13-term incumbent, Republican Peter King, had grown complacent, and let the interests of his many working class constituents fall by the wayside. The 37-year-old Long Islander and working mother of two has raised over $1.5 million (roughly $300,000 more than King), without the help of corporate donations. She also garnered national attention this past spring, when, with Hillary Clinton’s recommendation in hand, she won the right to spend campaign funds on childcare.
Grechen Shirley’s candidacy has drawn comparisons to that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic Socialist who beat longtime incumbent, Rep. Joe Crowley, in the Democratic primary.
“So many reporters keep trying to define this moment in politics: Are you part of a blue wave, are you part of a pink wave?” Grechen Shirley told Gothamist in a recent phone interview. “One reporter asked me recently, ‘When did you decide to run as yourself?’ I laughed and said, ‘Who else would I run as?'”
Issue-wise, Grechen Shirley and Ocasio-Cortez do share a few similarities, but their districts are demographically and socio-economically disparate. Grechen Shirley’s mostly white District 2 earns an average $120,343 per household, and voted for Donald Trump in 2016; Ocasio-Cortez’s District 14, meanwhile, is predominantly Hispanic and Latinx, makes a mean annual income of $75,631 per household, and mostly voted for Hillary Clinton. And while Crowley earned accusations that he’d taken his voters for granted, declining to debate his opponent, King can (and does) leverage his reputation as the House’s most bipartisan member. Less than a week out from the election, FiveThirtyEight puts the race 5 to 7 in King’s favor.
And yet, as Grechen Shirley is quick to point out, King has expressed support for tax cuts outlined in Trump’s banner achievement to date, the GOP tax bill, even if he ultimately voted against the legislation. He also voted to replace Obamacare with a system that made deep cuts to Medicaid. King believes abortion violates a fetus’s right to life, and would like to criminalize the procedure for providers.
According to Grechen Shirley, these positions don’t sit well with voters in his district.
“We are everyday Americans who’ve decided enough is enough, and we need voices of the middle class to be heard,” she said. “People are sick and tired of career politicians and millionaires who have been there for decades.”
Grechen Shirley, a consultant with Global Health Visions who has held global development positions at the United Nations and New York University, spoke to Gothamist about taxes, healthcare, immigration, and King’s view that she is not a “legitimate” constituent. (Representative King did not respond to our interview request.)
I want to go back to 2016: I know that your district primarily voted for Trump. I’m wondering what you think appealed to voters about his message at the time, and what has changed in the intervening two years.
I think that people wanted to believe Donald Trump. He gave people hope: He was not a career politician, he was not taking corporate donations, and he told everyone he was going to fight for working people. It wasn’t true, but it was what he told people. There are a lot of people who are struggling in my district. There are a lot of people who are working multiple jobs, there are a lot of people who are concerned about how they’re going to take their kids to the doctor. I talk to people every day who tell me they can’t buy their prescription medicine and their groceries in a week. I think that Donald Trump gave people hope. They wanted a change.
So why do you think voters in your district are dissatisfied with Trump? What’s disappointed them?
Half of Long Islanders have seen our taxes go up this year. They just gave massive tax cuts to the top 1 percent of people in this country, at the expense of hard-working Long Islanders. Those of us who did see small tax breaks, they’re not permanent, and the corporations got permanent tax cuts. And they’re already talking about coming after social security and Medicaid and Medicare to pay for the deficit increase, $1.5 trillion dollars. Our kids are going to pay for that. Our kids are going to be responsible for that deficit. Our deficit, it’s double what it was when Paul Ryan took over as Speaker of the House. People are paying attention to that.
Do you feel that King’s response to voter criticism and his record in Congress are top of mind for voters?
Peter King hasn’t really been challenged in a long time, so a lot of people weren’t paying attention to his voting record. They knew his name, he said repeatedly that he’s so bipartisan, he always tells everybody that he’s the most bipartisan member of Congress, but the reality is that he has an extremist voting record. He voted to take healthcare away from 74,000 people in our district. Despite 25 years in Congress, King couldn’t protect us against this tax bill; actually he said he was in basic agreement with cutting taxes on the wealthy, and we all know that when you cut taxes on the wealthy, you have more money in the hands of corporate executives and millionaires, they go out and buy yachts and third and fourth homes. When you have real tax cuts for working Americans, we go out and buy groceries and start businesses.
I mean, Peter King is against a woman’s right to choose, even in the cases of rape or incest. He wants to jail doctors who perform abortions. He’s voted to let coal companies dump waste into our water, to cut the Environmental Protection Agency. He voted against legislation that would’ve protected our military bases against rising sea levels. He wanted to privatize social security. He voted to gut Medicaid and Medicare, and people are finally paying attention to that. He’s gotten away with his voting record for a really long time because he hasn’t been challenged.
In what areas specifically do you think he’s become complacent?
He refuses to meet with his constituents. I asked him last year if he would hold a town hall and he told me it would ‘diminish democracy.’ We had our last debate yesterday [October 24th], and he told me that he meets with everybody. I said, ‘I asked you to come to a town hall and you refused, you haven’t held a town hall in decades.’ He told me that I wasn’t a ‘legitimate constituent.’ And I turned to him during the debate, I said, ‘Why was I not a legitimate constituent? I wasn’t running for Congress, I wasn’t your challenger, I was your constituent and I asked you to come to a town hall.’ That’s something he tells to a lot of people, that he doesn’t consider them legitimate when he doesn’t agree with their thoughts.
This is how Peter King views his constituents. This is how he treats us. I will not stop talking about how Peter King’s record hurts Long Islanders—no matter how many times he interrupts me. pic.twitter.com/egVnY8pJFU
— Liuba Grechen Shirley (@liuba4congress) October 26, 2018
What do you think he means by ‘legitimate’?
I don’t know, I couldn’t get an answer from him and I asked. It was ridiculous. We got into an argument after they turned the cameras off. I said, ‘Why do you block people on Facebook?’ He said, ‘Well, if it wasn’t an intelligent question, I get to block it.’ And I looked at him, I was actually shocked, and I said, ‘If someone asks you about your voting record or a policy, why do you get to determine whether or not it’s an intelligent question?’ And he said, ‘Well, I just do.’
He hasn’t had a debate with anybody in eight years, he doesn’t show up to town halls, he has—60 percent of the time he votes against labor. The AFL-CIO has given him a 40 percent rating, and I actually went to the AFL-CIO Congressional night, and I was told that he hasn’t shown up in 12 years because the last time he was there, somebody questioned his record and he didn’t like it. So he doesn’t like to be challenged, and if you challenge him, he deletes your comments off Facebook and he doesn’t show up to meetings.
Moving away from Peter King for a second, what do you see as the key issues in your district right now?
When I knock on doors, healthcare is the number one issue that we talk about, then taxes, then education, and then the environment.
I think the most urgent piece of policy is improved and expanded Medicare access for all. I’m fighting for universal healthcare: We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have access to universal healthcare, we spend more money per person than the rest of the developed world, and we have the worst maternal mortality, the lowest life expectancy rates, and it’s not a cost-effective system. Almost half of Americans who are in bankruptcy are there because of medical bills, and most of those people had health insurance. Actually, the Koch brothers recently put out a study that shows that it saves two trillion dollars over the next 10 years and insures 30 million more Americans. So I am fighting for improved and expanded Medicare for all.
You’re not in favor of dismantling ICE, and I am wondering how you think the agency can be improved and fixed?
There are two parts of ICE: There’s the part that goes after transnational gangs like MS-13, that goes after child traffickers and drug traffickers: that part of ICE is critical. It has a really important job in keeping Americans safe. There’s the other part of ICE that is taking breastfeeding babies away from their mothers, and handcuffing their mothers, that part of ICE needs to be drastically reformed. There was a letter that 19 ICE agents put out asking that the two be separated, to have the two parts be separated because the part of ICE that is taking babies away from parents is damaging their reputation and making it harder for them to do their jobs.
So do away with one half of ICE?
I do not support abolishing ICE at all, it just needs to be reformed.
How do voters in your district feel about immigration issues?
We need to support a clean Dream Act. We have 14,000 Dreamers on Long Island. We have 7,100 TPS recipients, Temporary Protected Status, in our district. That’s the highest number of TPS recipients of any Congressional district across the country. And these are people who are our neighbors, they’re our fellow parishioners, they are business owners, they employ native-born Long Islanders, they pay taxes, they own homes, and they strengthen our economy. Peter King didn’t support the extension of TPS. These are people who have been here for two decades, and I actually went into Peter King’s office with SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and a number of TPS recipients twice last year. We brought a stack of petitions from people across the district asking him to help support the extension of TPS. And his staff members said no, he didn’t support the extension of TPS, he has security concerns.
Now today, he says that’s not true, he supports it, but these are people who strengthen our economy and who frankly help law enforcement in our district combat MS-13. The immigrant population in our district, they’re the most preyed upon by MS-13, and if you have people who are afraid to talk to law enforcement because they’re afraid that they’re going to get deported, law enforcement’s job is more difficult. And that is why they’re actually going after the gang members. We need comprehensive immigration reform. We also need investment in our communities, we have a lot of amazing community organizations that are working with immigrant youth to integrate them into our community, and we need federal support for those organizations.
The last time you spoke with WNYC, it was for a segment pegged to the Kavanaugh hearings and sentiment toward the #MeToo movement writ large. A lot of the voters WNYC spoke with agreed more with Peter King, that a man had been wronged. I know that a huge part of your platform has to do with women’s rights and equality and gender justice. What kind of barriers have you run into when trying to communicate these messages to voters?
Kavanaugh was not on trial. That was not a trial to determine whether or not he was guilty or innocent. It was a job interview to determine if he was the best candidate for the position, and clearly he wasn’t. His demeanor during his testimony proved that he was not the best, not the most qualified candidate to be a Supreme Court justice. That’s what that testimony about, it was a job interview was about, the fact that he was going after Senators and yelling at Senators and crying and just behaving the way he did, it showed that he wasn’t the best candidate to be a Supreme Court justice.
But in terms of the #MeToo movement, it’s a much bigger sentiment: Do we believe women, do we trust women, do we respect women? I believe Dr. Blasey Ford and I think for too long, women have been afraid to come forward because look what happens. You end up with death threats, you end up being called every name in the book. Women need to be trusted and believed. Peter King doesn’t even trust us to make the best decisions for our bodies. Peter King voted against equal pay for women for equal work. He voted against paid family leave and he’s against a woman’s right to choose, even in the cases of rape or incest. He voted to defund Planned Parenthood 17 times. I would like to know why he doesn’t trust women to make the best decisions for our lives and our families.
Do you get the sense that voters in your district wonder the same thing?
I do, yes.
This is not about parties, this about making sure that working people in our district and across the country have a fighting chance, have the opportunities that they need to succeed. We need someone who’s going to be a champion for working people, and I want to be the most accessible representative this district has ever seen. We’ve got three offices across the district, we’re out knocking on doors every day, having town halls and round tables and meet-and-greets, and really just getting to know the stories of people in our district and what they’re struggling with. That’s what a representative is supposed to do. You can’t fight for people in the district if you don’t know them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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