The midterms are still over a year away, yet races are already heating up around the country. Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district is currently represented by Republican Patrick Meehan and is also one of the most highly gerrymanded districts. Yet despite the fact that Rep. Meehan was re-elected in 2016 with almost 60% of the vote, Democrats are hoping to take it back in 2018, with the DCCC and Emily’s List listing it as a top target.
Along with State Senator Daylin Leach, scientist Molly Sheehan is vying for the Democratic nomination. We caught up with Molly Sheehan recently to ask a few questions about replacing Meehan with Sheehan and politics in the age of Donald J. Trump.
Can you give us a quick introduction?
I’m running for U.S. Congress in PA-07 as a scientist, mother, and proud progressive. I’m running because our political system in D.C. is broken by ideological stalemate and corporate interests. I’m running as an independently-minded Democrat. I’ll use creative and compassionate problem-solving approaches to work on common sense solutions to our biggest problems and I won’t be bound by the traditional political spectrum.Healing the divide in our country will not be accomplished by hedging a middle ground between two opposing factions, trying to appeal to both by walking the thin line. I’m looking to heal our divide by actively listening to constituents and taking their concerns to heart, then working on real solutions to real problems with real information. I’ll put my own personal ideology aside and use evidence to make decisions that will improve the most American lives in the 7th.
Healing the divide in our country will not be accomplished by hedging a middle ground between two opposing factions, trying to appeal to both by walking the thin line. I’m looking to heal our divide by actively listening to constituents and taking their concerns to heart, then working on real solutions to real problems with real information. I’ll put my own personal ideology aside and use evidence to make decisions that will improve the most American lives in the 7th.
I come from a background that helps me relate to many of the people of the 7th. I grew up in a family of modest means with two hardworking parents who served their community. My family is diverse – Republicans, Democrats, socialists, veterans, engineers, warehouse workers, and more. My dad worked for the PA DEP for 35 years and my mom is a teacher. We moved around Montgomery, Delaware, and Berks Counties, growing up from urban areas of Norristown to suburban Shillington and rural Montgomery County.I worked hard, from waiting tables and retail to running a small nanny business to pay my way through college, but I was really fortunate to have amazing teachers and communities that gave me all the opportunities to go on to get my Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania where I worked developing battlefield-ready blood substitutes and now in my fellowship work on improving cancer therapy research.
Your bio says that you helped to negotiate insurance plans for students during your time at the University of Pennsylvania. Can you talk more about that and what parallels you see between that and the current healthcare debate?
Advocating for constituents’ healthcare needs as we did on the board is the same thing Congress is supposed to be doing. Constituencies are diverse and often have conflicting needs, mainly balancing cost with coverage in the plan.
People on the right don’t like to talk about the real cost of not covering people – that when people don’t have preventative care, they’re sicker. There are real economic and human costs to them being removed from the economy and families, to their illnesses requiring acute treatments. It’s expensive. We still pay for their healthcare, only there’s no compassion or thoughtfulness.On the flip side, people on the left, even those who advocate for Single Payer Healthcare, as I do, avoid talking about the real cost of covering everybody with quality care without fixing the structural problems associated with our healthcare system bloating over the past few decades and the black-boxing of hospital billing. The reality is, no matter how we pay for healthcare, we’re all ultimately paying for everybody else. We can either be compassionate and practical about it, or we can bury our heads in the sand and pretend people don’t get sick if we price them out of insurance. I prefer the former.
On the flip side, people on the left, even those who advocate for single-payer healthcare, as I do, avoid talking about the real cost of covering everybody with quality care without fixing the structural problems associated with our healthcare system bloating over the past few decades and the black-boxing of hospital billing. The reality is, no matter how we pay for healthcare, we’re all ultimately paying for everybody else. We can either be compassionate and practical about it, or we can bury our heads in the sand and pretend people don’t get sick if we price them out of insurance. I prefer the former.
This comes with trade-offs though. We aren’t going to cover everything every person wants with huge payouts. It would be too expensive and it would encourage further bloating of the system. One of the things that was really helpful in negotiating such a big plan was that we actually got to price out each addition or subtraction to the plan for a group whose cost is a real issue – students. I’ve seen the net gains and losses of treatments and the effectiveness of using coverage, co-pays, and deductibles for incentivizing a practical use of the healthcare plan. This is necessary for any plan. You don’t want people waiting until they need to go to the ER. You want them to have a low enough barrier to going to their primary care doctor to go before it gets really bad during normal hours. You want people accessing mental health care as much as possible. You want people utilizing nurse practitioners for noncomplicated conditions and primary care. You can incentivize all of these things with a plan that doesn’t have a deductible and has modest, thoughtful co-pays to keep costs down for everybody.
On the flip side, making safety items like bike helmets, medical devices, and mobility aids free is critical to keeping people healthy. People should also be incentivized to keep the cost for everybody down by not smoking, wearing bike helmets. If we are all paying for everybody’s healthcare, which we do now through a very inefficient system, everybody should have to play their role in keeping themselves healthy. I think there should be affordable premiums for smokers, for example, which can be eliminated if they quit smoking, and tickets for not wearing a bike helmet just like we have for seatbelts. We shouldn’t be subsidizing others’ recklessness and I have yet to meet a smoker who doesn’t want any medical care if they get cancer.
Two final thoughts: first payouts have to be decent or there is no point in having coverage because physicians won’t be able to afford to take it. If we don’t pay what it actually costs the physician for the treatment, we will create a severe austerity to our healthcare system that will dramatically reduce quality of care and eventually cost our country more by preventing innovation in hospital management, point-of-care improvements, and new treatments. Second, a lesson many of us know already, is that drugs are really, really expensive and people don’t take them for fun. Whatever plan we have needs to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices and we need to have full prescription coverage.
Obviously, you are a scientist and not a career politician. Why did you feel like now was the time for you personally to run for office?
I’ve been planning my path to professorship since 7th grade, but this past election cycle shook me. I’m a mother now and I’m truly worried about our children’s’ future. I’m worried about the toxic divide in our country and the espousing of where we need to fall on the political spectrum to ‘take our country back.’ Ideology and money in politics are our problems.
The first thing I did after the election was to start a civic tech company to develop tools for removing money from politics from the bottom-up. I’m launching a website late this summer at ThePeople.Online for campaign crowdsourcing to help campaigns of all sizes and affiliations freely sources and organize their volunteers. In the process of building the site and talking to many campaign operatives and elected officials, I felt my non-ideological approach to problem-solving was necessary to help heal our country.
Of course, I have personal ideologies, but as a scientist, I’ve been trained to put them aside when making important decisions and remove any personal stake I may have in evaluating evidence with a critical eye. This process is completely lacking in Washington. People come to the table with a list of asks and are ready to burn it down if they don’t get what they want. It’s run by corporate interests and lobbyists, not constituents. So, as a compassionate evidence-based decision maker, I feel my voice is needed to be a strong advocate for the people of the 7th, who can bring creative solutions to Washington, and work to improve people’s lives back home without getting derailed by the interests of wealthy backers, special interests or my own anger or ideology.
My Quaker upbringing and family’s convictions had a big role in my decision as well. I’ve always been instilled with the value that when I have the privilege of education and comfort, it’s my duty to use it to improve the lives of those who do not. Being comfortable isn’t an option right now in a time when so many people are not.
While it’s not the primary reason I am running, I am also extremely worried about recent bills to add Congressional control over scientific research and usage, such as the HONEST and REINS acts. These are extremely dangerous for science and can unravel the nonpolitical nature of scientific data. Censorship of taxpayer-funded data cuts at the core of our rights to understand what our government is doing and the risks of our environment. Handcuffing the EPA in this way, in particular, from doing its job, puts at risk our most fundamental liberty: to live in an inhabitable environment.
While PA-7 ultimately broke for Hillary Clinton, Congressman Meehan has won overwhelming Republican victories since 2011. How are you uniquely qualified to challenge him?
This is a great question and gets to the core of the 2018 election. Meehan won’t be defeated because he’s Trump’s right-hand man, he’ll be defeated because he’s deferring the representation of the people of the 7th district to somebody who knows nothing about them: Paul Ryan. He’s rubber stamping the GOP agenda and no longer doing his job to advocate for his constituents. Even when he knew a bill was bad, like the first AHCA, he hid until after it was pulled from the floor instead of advocating on the floor for his constituents who were about to lose healthcare.
Winning this election will require a broad coalition of voters. It’ll require getting votes from Republicans and Independents, a lot of them. I can uniquely appeal to many voters because I’m not running on special interest or somebody else’s platform. I’m running to listen to them and advocate for their needs, in a sincere way. I won’t write them off because of their registration. I’m going to fight for growing our local economy, for healthcare for everybody, our environments, for veterans’ benefits, and for economic justice. We already have a diverse group of supporters that include, people of all registrations, veterans, scientists, small business owners, parents, grandparents, and college students. I’m going to make sure everybody’s basic needs are met without breaking the bank or stifling innovation.
Pennsylvania has a terrible record of electing women and most of our legislature is currently Republican. You identify yourself as a mother, scientist, and proud progressive. How are you planning on reaching out to voters, especially those who may not feel like they can relate to you?
I’m going to get out there in the district! In terms of electing women, I think this is a structural political problem with the party not historically supporting women candidates, more than it is a constituent problem. I find a lot of people are ready for female representation, for somebody who has skin in the game of women’s healthcare and family issues. You can see even with male-run progressive PACs that they tend to be very light or omit many of the issues that affect women directly, like gender inequality in the workplace or our need for paid family leave for both genders. The unfortunate reality is that it’s mostly women who act as strong advocates for these issues.
I think my life experiences are quite diverse, so help a broad range of voters relate to me. I’ve worked waiting tables, retail, as a nanny, as well as a scientist. I work as a scientist, but it’s not in some ivory tower. I’m in the lab, working with my hands, and I rely on skilled tradespeople and union workers every day. I’ve worked on task forces and boards for education and healthcare with diverse Pennsylvanians. My family is their neighbors. They are teachers, construction workers, veterans, Catholics, Atheists, Republicans, and Democrats. My family has been in Delaware County for generations, but I’m married to a 1st generation immigrant who is living the American dream. The 7th is pretty diverse, so I think this is all an asset. I’m going out there ready to listen to everybody.