Politics

“Stop Talking and Start Doing”

A progressive congresswoman explains what she thinks Democrats need to do to win in 2022.

A group of Democratic donkeys at a crossroads.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This is one part in a series of interviews with Democrats discussing their worries, plans, and hopes for the 2022 election.

In 2020, Rep. Marie Newman ousted long-serving conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski in a hotly contested primary for Illinois’ 3rd District. It was her second shot at the seat—her 2018 challenge to Lipinski failed. (As one of the only remaining House Democrats who is against choice in reproductive rights, he was helped by anti-abortion advocacy groups.)

Next year, in her first reelection campaign, Newman will face a primary challenge of her own. A quirk of the Illinois redistricting process has landed her in a race against a fellow Democratic member of Congress, since parts of their two districts were combined. I spoke to Newman about her new district, the Democrats’ messaging fails, and lessons progressives can take from her 2020 success story. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Christina Cauterucci: What exactly happened to your district this year?

Rep. Marie Newman: The census found that Illinois would have to take out one of its districts. So we had 18 districts, now we have 17. We also learned that we have some space in Illinois to get closer to a Voting Rights Act district. This is really the silver lining in this entire process: We were able to get a second Latino district, and that’s really good news.

The bad news, in having to construct around that, is that it then put [Democratic Rep.] Sean Casten and I in the same district—this brand-new district that they’ve created, called the new Illinois 6. In a series of map versions, they got to the point where that was the only way they could manage—putting the districts together. So the new district has about 41 percent of my footprint and then four other districts combined, one of which is a small piece of Sean’s.

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What did you two say to each other when you found that out?

We were in D.C. when we saw the first map and said, “OK, that’s not going to be fun.” I haven’t had any conversations with him since it got finalized, but I’m sure he feels like I do. You never want to run against a colleague.

I saw some speculation that Dan Lipinski might take another shot at the district.

Yeah, I saw that too. He could be looking at it from the perspective of either the primary or the general. I know that he’s looking at various options on the Republican side and the Democratic side, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does.

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A white woman with brown hair cocks her head to the side as she speaks.
Marie Newman in Washington in 2018. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
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How are you feeling about your prospects in general, in the new district?

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It’s funny—while very not ideal to run against your colleague, this district’s really tailormade for me. The biggest chunk of it comes from the old Illinois 3, which is my stomping grounds. I was born in the Beverly neighborhood, grew up in the southwest suburbs, and live there now. And I also lived in the western suburbs, where this footprint stretches to. So I really have a strong coalition.

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I know there were some disappointments for Democrats in this month’s elections. Were you surprised by any of the results?

I guess I was surprised that Terry [McAuliffe, the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate] lost. And I was a little bit surprised that Phil [Murphy, the reelected governor of New Jersey] didn’t have a bigger margin. But you know what that tells us? It’s a nice warning shot, that we have some work to do. I say this all the time, it’s like, stop talking and start doing. And we have to keep delivering on middle-class tax cuts, on child tax credits, and have to continue to invest in child care, make sure that we fix our roads and bridges, and deliver broadband. But we have to talk about it in a way that’s just super commonsense. And it’s been my main complaint with Democrats forever: I love you, but tell it like it is. Tell what it is like it is, and why it benefits the folks that you serve.

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How are people falling short, now, in that messaging?

I think we have a tough time going negative on the Republicans. Because there’s no policy—their agenda is no policy, and to obstruct.

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Can you identify any areas for improvement, looking at what happened this month in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere?

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I haven’t gotten the full dissection and analysis, but whenever there’s a race like that and you’re 2, 3, 4, 5 points off, it’s usually because your field’s not super awesome. That’s one thing that I will never ever take for granted. Knocking doors, phones, and meet-and-greets are critically important. That’s how I’ve won all my races, and that’s how I’ll continue to win.

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You were a big success story in 2020. Are there any lessons, besides the good ground game, that Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, can take from your experience in that 2020 campaign?

Some parts of our party, they like to demonize other parts of the party. And I think we have to stop that. We’re all on the same team. The reason we got the Build Back Better package up for a vote and we passed the infrastructure package is because we came together as a team and talked about what we really want this to be. We got it done. So I think that our power is in our unity, and we have to start showing that and not trying to demonize one another.

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Would you say there’s one part of the party that demonizes the other more than the other?

I think everybody’s guilty of it, if I can be honest. I think we all do it from time to time, and it’s not right. So the more we stay together as a team, the better this election year is going to be.

I wonder what your thoughts are on your colleagues like Rep. Abigail Spanberger who are saying things like, these election results are telling the Democratic Party that it needs to lower its ambitions, and Biden needs to stop trying to be FDR.

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Well, everybody has to be who they are. So I think President Biden’s response is right, that “I’m Joe Biden, I’m not FDR.” You have to run on your record and your ideas and your strategies and the implementation thereof. I think that the president’s agenda is transformative, but also practical.

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Just to be clear, if you think about the infrastructure package, about $1.2 trillion, and then the Build Back Better package—those two packages are not just transformative and large, but have the most pragmatic things that everybody loves. The universal pre-K, as well as middle-class tax cuts vis-à-vis the child care tax credits. Those are things that people are just in love with. I mean, to the tune of 70 or 80 percent [approval ratings]. Let’s keep doing what the American people are asking us to do. When they tell us to spend the money in a very specific way, like investing in humans and child care and health care, we should do it.

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This goes back to what you were saying about messaging—how can Democrats make clear that these big numbers are not going to result in higher taxes for you or a big ballooning deficit that some people are scared of?

Well, it’s the exact opposite, right? It’s that we’re providing middle-class tax cuts. The middle class hasn’t gotten a tax cut in decades. We’re providing 1 or 2 million jobs a year with these packages. We are creating a greener economy. Our goal is to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and this puts us on target to do that with all of the climate action that is in both bills, making sure that we’re creating a successful environment for the next generation. It’s boom, boom, boom. I mean, you can’t get beyond jobs, a better economy, reducing inflation, and providing a quality business environment.

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How much do you think the party should continue connecting Republicans to Donald Trump and Jan. 6?

I think we have to note it. We have to talk about what we’re delivering, but more importantly, deliver what we’re delivering. I don’t think we should be in the business of constantly talking about the other party and the things that some of the bad actors in that other party have done. I just don’t do that, because I think it’s super clear what happened. My job is to make sure that that Americans are safe and prosperous and healthy and have the opportunities that they deserve.

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I’m wondering if there’s any anger within the party that the passage of infrastructure and Build Back Better has gone so slow that it wasn’t passed before this recent election.

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Here’s the thing. I’m a former management consultant, and this is how you have to think about it: The infrastructure package is right around $1.2 trillion, and the Build Back Better package is $1.5 to $1.7 trillion right now. If those were two companies, it would take three to five years to integrate them. We did it in five or six months, and went line item by line item to make sure that the right amount of money was allocated and that those programs would be effective in transforming our nation.

So I know that this is not what any American wants to hear, but we went at lightning speed compared to what may have happened in business if a similar exercise had occurred. That said, it’s hard to watch the sausage being made. My husband would say every day, “When are you guys going to get this done?” And I said, “You know what? It is a trial every day, but we should be vetting every line item. The taxpayers have asked us to invest in them, and we are shepherding their money in the most critical way possible. We should vet every single dollar.”

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