This interview is part of ourEconomy's series on the US election.
Lauren Ashcraft is running for the US House to represent New York’s 12th congressional district. The district encompasses one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States – the Upper East Side – as well as parts of lower Manhattan and western Queens. She is primarying Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who is currently serving her 14th term in Congress and is the chair of the House Oversight Committee.
A comedian and former project manager for JP Morgan Chase, Ashcraft identifies as a democratic socialist, advocating for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, canceling student debt and universal child care.
She has been endorsed by Brand New Congress, former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, and the New York chapter of US Youth Climate Strike.
We interviewed Lauren several months ago in Long Island City, Queens where we discussed the staggering levels of wealth inequality within the district and her top legislative priorities if she were to win her race:
Freddie Stuart: What inspired you to run for office?
Lauren Ashcraft: I remember when I first started listening to Bernie Sanders’ message – to how corporate money is corrupting our politics – and honestly, it didn't resonate the first ten times he said it because it was such a different message than what you're used to hearing from establishment Democrats.
All we hear is how bad the Republicans are. But there's a much bigger story than that. Even within the Democratic Party, there's a divide between those who are establishment and corporate funded, and those who are people powered. So when that message finally hit me, I realized how broken our political system is. Actually, it's not broken. It's working exactly as it was intended. We are breaking it by running as people who shouldn't be running. So Bernie Sanders was one of my biggest inspirations.
Aaron White: So you're running against Rep. Carolyn Maloney who's been in power since 1992. Since the death of Elijah Cummings, she's now chairing the House Oversight Committee, and is one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. Can you speak to some of the challenges that you are facing going after someone with that degree of influence?
Lauren Ashcraft: What shocks me is people in the district just don't know who she is. We've been knocking on doors since March of 2019 and connecting with thousands of people all the time, and it's so rare that somebody out in the district knows who she even is. So it just goes to show that there definitely is a pocket of staunch supporters of representative Maloney, but if we get people out to vote, it's really a winnable election. And we're seeing the movement form with us. If you look up how much she has fundraised, it's quite a lot. And it's quite a lot of corporate PAC money. But if it is acting as an impediment to us, I haven't seen it yet.
Freddie Stuart: Could you tell us a little bit about your district and what you can learn from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign?
Lauren Ashcraft: Every district is very unique. Mine is unique in that people know it for being a rich district. And unfortunately, that stereotype comes from a very specific part of the district which is not where we're sitting. It's across the river. And whenever I think of New York's 12th district, I think about economic inequality. It's the home of a billionaire row, it's also unfortunately the home of thousands of people that sleep on the street every single night. Over 20,000 people in the district don't have any health insurance at all, and avoid going to the doctor and ration their medication because they're afraid of going bankrupt. It's also the home of about 53,000 people that have disabilities that have been completely ignored by our representative.
So when I think of New York's 12th district, it certainly does have extremely wealthy people, but it also has people who are really struggling that deserve full and equal representation. That's exactly why I’m running. We're listening to them on our canvassing and door knocking tours. We've been told so many times that we are the first people to ever knock on their doors. So that's really where the election can be won when we are really out there listening to people and letting them know about the election and letting them know what issues we can actually fight for rather than allow the status quo to continue.
Aaron White: In 2018, we saw the impact of organizations like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, which is behind your campaign. Can you speak to the significance of challenging incumbents within Democratic Party?
Lauren Ashcraft: I am so lucky to be part of Brand New Congress, and part of a coalition of people who, nine out of ten times have never done this before. It's a terrifying process to put yourself out there. I know my family is extremely private, and when you look at how AOC’s family has been completely harassed – it is a huge concern of mine. We're just regular people that are really passionate about this movement and are taking huge risks. We're all supporting each other and making sure that everyone's informed of the best way to move forward and if we can help each other.
There are impediments to us running, such as expenses, and knowing that certain clubs and organizations will never back somebody like me. But for every organization like that, there's a group of progressives that do care. If any of the people on the Brand New Congress slate get elected there is so much change that can happen.
Freddie Stuart: What kind of structural impediments are you facing as an outsider candidate such as financial expenses etc.?
Lauren Ashcraft: Yeah, well one of the things that has been hard is just the unforeseeable expenses. There's an app that you just absolutely have to have that’s $7,500 that I just had to rip the band aid off and buy.
Another way to prevent people like me from being on the ballot is to go through our ballots. If there are any invalid signatures they take it to court. So we decided it's important to hire an attorney. The fundraising is also quite difficult. Our average donation just went down to $14. Which I'm very proud of. And when I look at the average occupation of the person who donates to me, it's actually unemployed. I'm really moved and very sorry that people have to give to campaigns in order to see them thrive. But I am really honored that people see hope in my campaign and think that it's worth their investment.
So it is an impediment to see how many maxed out donations just fly into Carolyn Maloney's bank account. We're almost at six figures of fundraising and things like that $7,500 app make me very nervous. But I just have to get over it. My team tells me it's okay. So there are impediments, and it's intimidating, but whenever you have a movement and a team behind you, it’s exciting.
Freddie Stuart: What are some of your top legislative priorities when you get into office, what are you going to start off by trying to achieve?
Lauren Ashcraft: We absolutely need to attack big money in politics. Because whenever you look at things like why we're still relying on a broken for profit healthcare system, why we're still relying on fossil fuels – so many problems are just tied to the issue of corporate PAC money and lobby money being thrown at politicians.
Let’s take war. I'll use Carolyn Maloney as an example because this is a very current issue. When you look at her campaign donations, about $58,000 from her career, comes from defense contractors. She voted for the AUMF that gave three presidents unilateral power to create havoc throughout the globe. She voted for the Iraq war. She voted against the Iran nuclear deal, and now she voted for the inflated military budget.
So nothing that she's done in terms of claiming to be anti war makes sense to me, except when I look at her campaign donations, and the fact that she would have to give that $58,000 back in order to stop being hypocritical when she talks about war. We have so many politicians that would be able to make a difference in our society - but when you look at the money that they accept, they just can't. That's why it's so important that groups like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are running completely people-powered candidates that aren't accepting corporate PAC money or lobbying money because we're not bought by these corporations that people like Carolyn Maloney are.
Aaron White: Trump recently announced his “Israel peace plan”. Can you comment on this and where you stand on Israel-Palestine?
Lauren Ashcraft: I am completely appalled that we have ignored the rights of Palestinians. I really appreciate and support Bernie Sanders calling for preconditions to our aid in any country abroad, including Israel, because we should not be giving money, weapons and military support to anyone that ends up using it to harm civilians. We're seeing so many human rights violations when we look at how Palestinians have been treated. So I'm very, very against the direction that we're going.
Freddie Stuart: Where do you stand on the cancellation of student debt and Medicare for All?
Lauren Ashcraft: Yes. I'm so passionate about this, and single payer Medicare for All, because we've just allowed profit to be prioritized over people in so many different ways.
Today I was battling with my health insurance company because I have a prescription that I need. And that's generally why you're prescribed something – because your doctor says you need it. Whenever I think about the fact that my insurance company said that I had to have my doctor call them and tell them that I actually needed my medicine for it to be covered – it's, as a comedian, hilarious. But as a human, it's terrible. We need to get the for profit middleman out of the equation. And between me and my doctor, if my doctor says that I need something, then there shouldn't be anything standing in the way of me getting that medication.
In terms of student debt, I have been really lucky. I went to West Virginia University, which is not the most expensive place to go. But I was lucky to also go there on a scholarship and worked the whole way through. I left undergrad without debt, which is very rare. Then I went to grad school on scholarship and worked the whole way through grad school and left with no debt. And I would never recommend anyone doing that, because it definitely shaved off multiple years from my life. But the fact that I have been able to start something like a 401k, is so rare for somebody who's 30 years old – the fact that I have some retirement, and so many other people my age are only paying the principal on their student loans, and not even thinking about retirement and won't be for multiple decades, because they're just stuck. We're not allowing people to invest in their families and their futures. You shouldn't have to have a full time job while going to school full time in order to be able to have a retirement account someday. It's completely ridiculous. We should abolish student debt and also make higher education free so that people don't keep ending up in this situation.
Aaron White: We've seen the rise of young student activism from Greta Thunberg, Friday's for Future, Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion. You're for a Green New Deal. I’m wondering if you can imagine what a Green New Deal would mean for this district and your constituents in New York 12?
Lauren Ashcraft: In many ways, our neighbors and constituents have carried the costs and burden of us not taking an aggressive enough stance on the climate crisis. When we look at something like East River Park, the very top portion of that park is in my district. And that park actually has to be buried, elevated and a flood wall has to be installed because New York City’s sea levels are rising at one and a half times the rate of anywhere else on this globe.
Whenever I look at how Newtown Creek often floods and poisons our environment, I think about how much this district has been neglected and how much we could have prevented people from having to carry that cost of neglect.
Carolyn Maloney has been in office since ‘93. What if she had taken an aggressive stance on the fight for our environment 26 years ago, and what if she just never stopped talking about it? Studies are showing how dangerous the direction we're moving in is, and people like Bernie Sanders have been talking about it for a very long time. And now AOC has made it such a huge part of her candidacy and her time in office. We're seeing that the newest members of Congress are able to actually push for radical change that we need, because they aren't bought by corporations. I would be really honored to fight in that way and advocate for my neighbors in New York's 12th district, and the entire globe.
Freddie Stuart: To enact your progressive agenda, even if you win, you're going to have to deal with a very establishment centrist party leadership. And I wondered if you had any thoughts on how you might deal with that?
Lauren Ashcraft: I come from coal country. And I think that actually has turned into a strength of mine, because I grew up, just being surrounded by people who think very conservatively, including a lot of members of my family. And I'm a democratic socialist, and I'm fighting for a democratic socialist platform. And so whenever I talk with my family, at first they were like: whoa, you're gonna run for office as a democratic what? And now they're on board. One of my family members said to me the other day “out of all the people who were running for president, I think Bernie Sanders might help us the most”.
My dad was laid off from his job, and they're just burning through whatever retirement they thought they had, because they're paying out of pocket for Obamacare. It's not something that a lot of people think will happen at the very end of their career. The fact that this just happened to my family while also hearing messages about single payer Medicare for All – is really resonating, and they're not democratic socialists. The more people-powered candidates that we get into office, the more fruitful these conversations will be. So if Brand New Congress's slate gets in, that’s great – but every single election cycle we’ll have more and more people that are fighting for the right things.