Earlier this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it's targeting the seat of U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, in Texas Congressional District 32. Sessions has drawn two competitive Democratic challengers, former Hillary Clinton adviser Ed Meier and civil rights attorney and former NFL linebacker Colin Allred.
A little more than a week ago, the Observer sat down for a lengthy chat with Meier about his ambitions, Democratic identity in the age of Trump and how Democrats can reach out to Christian voters. This is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for length, clarity and content.
(Please note that this conversation took place before the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Donald Trump's ensuing comments.)
You've spent a lot of time traveling around the world, starting by growing up in Africa as a missionary kid. What keeps bringing you back to Texas and Dallas specifically?
I was born in Dallas. Lived north of Inwood Village and lived up in North Dallas with my family. I've always had a tremendous amount of Dallas pride. If you ask any of my local friends or friends outside of Dallas, [they] will tell you. It's just something about being Texan; I think Native Texans have a tremendous amount of pride in where we're born and where we're from.
I always had this connection back here. We'd come back from Nigeria, where my parents served as medical missionaries in a teaching hospital. We'd come back home to Dallas, and I just loved the community and love the people here. I always felt like it's home.
After grad school, I returned home to Dallas and worked for Regina Montoya when she ran for Congress against Pete Sessions. Then went down to Austin and worked for a Dallas legislator, Helen Giddings at the state legislature. After UT Law School, I really wanted to come here and start my family in Dallas.
I love the city and love the community. The more and more you start to invest yourself in a place, the more and more you want to stay invested in that place. There have been times that I've gone to D.C. and served the country. I had the opportunity to go and work in the state department, President Obama's administration, and most recently was working for Hillary Clinton as a senior adviser, helping her on the campaign and then her pre-election transition team.
In all those times in between, I'll always come back home to Dallas. This is where we started our family. We've got a daughter and a son, and we're instilling in them good Texas values. Love the Texas sports teams, too.
What was it that made you decide that this was the time to run against Pete Sessions? Was running for office something you always intended to do?
I've always been committed to public service. I've always been interested in politics. In 2004, my wife worked for Lupe Valdez when she became sheriff for Dallas County. I was a lawyer at the time. I'd spend my nights and weekends canvasing. I always had a passion for public service and the importance of politics.
I never thought I would necessarily run. It was after the election, after Nov. 8, when that really was apparent. My daughter looked at me and asked me, "Is Donald Trump going to do all the mean things he said he was going to do?" It was after the inauguration, we started to see. Yeah, he's going to implement a lot of awful policies with those executive orders the first week.
It really was a moment I realized I wanted to be home. I wanted to be back in Dallas. I wanted to fight for what I believe in. Fight for working people. Fight for treating people with dignity and respect. That's what I believe in. That's how I was raised. I love Dallas. There was no better place to be and no better thing to do then to be in the fight and take on Pete Sessions, who was standing up for Donald Trump 100 percent of the time.
It sounds like you feel passionate about taking on Pete Sessions specifically.
With Sessions, there's a couple of pieces. One is, for me personally, I have a lot of experience in working with foreign policy, working on federal policy issues, on domestic economic and foreign policy issues at the federal level. These are issues I'm passionate about. I'm knowledgeable about it. I've experienced it.
It was really the opportunity to come home. Take on Pete Sessions, knowing that we can beat him. He's been in Congress for 20 years. Again, he is standing up and pushing Trump's agenda through the House as chairman of the Rules Committee. Everything that ends up on the House floor comes through Pete Sessions and his committee. When Trumpcare landed on the House floor without a CBO [Congressional Budget Office] score, then we saw that 23 million people were going to be kicked off of health insurance.
This is somebody that needs to be removed from Congress. I'm passionate about the issues. Passionate about folks here in Dallas. It makes sense that this was the place where I could have the greatest impact. Really take my public service to the next level.
What are some of those specific issues that you feel like you align better with the voters in District 32 than Pete Sessions does?
The folks in District 32, I think by and large, these are people who really care about other people. They care about how we treat other people with respect and dignity. The way I see that is I think that we've got to be fighting day in and day out for better-paying jobs where people are treated with dignity.
For me, that's making sure that we're making smart investments in workforce skills training, that we're making big investments in clean energy because we can become the clean energy superpower of the world here in Texas.
We're making sure that we're breaking down barriers for women in the economy. Making sure we're guaranteeing paid leave. Making sure equal pay for equal work. We are providing affordable child care for everybody when they want to go back to work after having a kid.
We're focused on raising the minimum wage. Two-thirds of all people on minimum wage are women. We've got to raise that to a living wage in this country. The people of District 32 share those values. These are people that care about other people. They want to make sure that we have an economy that's working for everybody.
It seems like it's going to be a pretty big hill to climb for whoever comes out of the Democratic primary against Rep. Sessions. How do you compete? It seems like he's going to get as much money as he wants if he appears threatened. What do you do to compete financially in this district?
Well, you gotta raise a lot of money. You've got to raise the money locally and from people around the country who really want to take back the House. We've gotta make sure that we're raising the resources necessary to take him on.
That's the way we're going to get our message out. That's the way we're going to get our grassroots effort out. We need a very strong grassroots effort in this campaign. We've gotta go door to door. We've gotta get folks registered to vote, and we also have to raise a lot of money in order to get all that work done.
It's gonna take a combination of all of those pieces to be competitive with Pete Sessions. I'm very confident that we can do it. There's so much energy here. There's so much focus on this race. People are hungry in Dallas for a strong, competitive race in District 32.
We've been used to a lot of people flying in here to Dallas, doing big fundraisers and taking the money elsewhere. It's about time that people here are able to pour money into a really important local race and that people from other places in the country are able to invest in Dallas, as well, in a top competitive race.
I'm super excited about that. I'm working my hardest to make sure we have the resources necessary to beat him.
It sounds like you think it's possible that turnout will switch from the longstanding pattern in terms of Dallas County and the rest of the state just not showing up for midterms. Do you think that's something that's going to happen this time?
I do believe it's going to happen this time. I think we're going to have higher turnout in a midterm election than we typically do as Democrats. I think the Trump effect cannot be ignored. There is a lot of energy there. There are amazing grassroots groups, the Indivisible groups, Swing ... Left. These are folks that I've been meeting with that are pulling in a ton of people. They're going door to door on the weekends in the summer of an off year of a midterm election.
People are energized and fired up to win this race, to take back the U.S. House. I am confident that we're going to have a higher turnout than we typically do. I think people also want to hear a positive agenda — what we're focused on and then some of the things I talked to you about earlier, what we're going to do for working families in this district.
What I'm hearing is that people are responding very favorably to that positive message. People need to make sure that they have something to vote for in addition to their passion against the president and Congress and Sessions.
Are you preparing for the potential that the district gets redrawn, too? That could change the entire nature of the election.
I don't know what you can do to necessarily prepare for that. I do know that what's important is that within Texas that we right a lot of wrongs that have happened with redistricting. I'm supportive of all the efforts that are taking place to make sure that we have more representative representation, that the lines are redrawn.
In terms of what happens in District 32, I just have to work hard every day to focus on the District as it's currently drawn, then see what happens, if anything happens, with the redistricting pieces in Dallas-Fort Worth.
It's kind of hard. You're almost playing a game that you don't know all of the rules of yet. They're not finished writing the rule book for this election.
It's just important to talk to the voters in the current District 32. Those are the people that I'm focused on and their issues and concerns. That's the district we're running in right now.
You talked about bringing a positive message to the voters in District 32. It seems like the national Democratic platform for midterms is mainly anti-Trump so far. Are you concerned about that national messaging and how that might apply to fundraising, how it might apply to your race?
People are really concerned about the president. They're concerned about the policies. They're concerned about having a president that doesn't seem to stand for anything. They're concerned about Pete Sessions, who is supporting him 100 percent of the time.
There is that element there. What I'm talking about when I talk about a bold, positive agenda is I believe that whenever there's a disaster that happens, imagine when there's a natural disaster that happens, the mantra is, "We've gotta build back better."
I really believe we need to come back with a bold, positive vision for what we want this country to look like after the disaster of the election of Donald Trump becoming president. I feel in the sense that people are responding very positively to what we're talking about, what I'm talking about in the campaign around better paying jobs where people are treated with dignity.
Around making sure that we have affordable quality health care for people throughout the country and throughout Texas. Making sure that we've got true educational opportunities that level the playing field for kids from pre-K all the way through college.
Do you feel like Obamacare is a model that can just be refined moving forward, or do you believe that some kind of significant change needs to happen to fix the system and get everybody covered?
First, as the child of medical missionaries, I grew up in Nigeria at a teaching hospital. My parents' mission was to make sure that there was quality, affordable health care provided to all the Nigerians that they worked with. I can't believe that decades later we're having a debate in our country about whether people should be able to have affordable, quality health care.
It is a basic human right. We've gotta be fighting for that. What we're seeing from the Republicans is they take people when they're at their most vulnerable. When they have a pre-existing condition. When they can't afford quality health care. All the policies that we've seen to date are policies that are just putting those people in worse shape.
I believe that we've got to build on the progress of the Affordable Care Act. I always think that we need to be moving in the direction of a Medicare-for-all system in our country.
There's practical step we can take to transition to a Medicare-for-all system. I think we've got to have a robust public option that's available to every single American. Employers should be able to buy into that public option. That's going to help bring premiums down. I also think that we need to lower the age of Medicare eligibility to start getting more and more people enrolled in Medicare at younger ages.
These are the practical next steps we can take that will build on the progress of the Affordable Care Act and start moving us toward a Medicare-for-all system that will be beneficial to the country.
Recently, just a couple of years ago, Medicare for all was considered a really out there, lefty idea.
How do you pitch a public option to some of the really conservative voters in North Dallas and some other places in your district?
I think we have to look at facts. We have to look at Medicare as a more efficiently delivered system than private insurance companies, in terms of how efficiently it's delivered. We have to look at prescription drug prices right now in our country and see how high they are. We have to look at ... skyrocketing premiums that we've seen in our country.
We have to look at the reality of the system that we have and realize that we need to build a health care system in [this] country that makes sure that we have expanded coverage for every single person. We have to also focus not just on coverage, but making sure that people are getting the quality health care that they need.
It's not just about insurance. It's making sure we've got health centers that have quality care that's provided to all Americans.
We have to make sure we're getting to this plan in fewer transitions. It's not just an overnight shock to people. There needs to be a transition plan that's minimally disruptive to people's current coverage and provider access.
That's what I think we need to be focusing on as we transition to Medicare for all.
When you're talking about raising minimum wage and moving toward, however gradually, Medicare for all or a single-payer system, how do you begin to do those things when, at best, you're going to be in a split government if you get elected in 2018?
We've gotta hold this president accountable. The best way to do that is to win back the House of Representatives for Democrats. I will admit that it's going to be challenging to push forward to get a lot of the priorities that we're talking about in this campaign through Congress and through the president if the Senate is still controlled by Republicans.
It's very important for us to bring our ideas to the table, to force the debate, look for possible areas where there might be areas of agreement. We might be able to get a big, strong infrastructure plan passed through Congress.
I don't know if all of the priorities that we would want in there would necessary be agreed to by the Republicans. First and foremost, we've gotta make sure we're holding the president accountable.
Secondly, we've just gotta come forward with what makes our positive agenda for the country and make the argument with the other party about why our ideas are better and present that before Congress.
This is going to be the best way to make sure that we're defending against the harm that Trump can bring while also presenting a strong, positive message that hopefully by 2020, we'll have the right president in place to really push forward with a lot of the progress.
It seems inevitable that if the Democrats do win the House in 2018, that there's going to be an effort to impeach President Trump. Is that something you would support?
We have to hold the president accountable. We have to wait and see how these current special investigators, what comes of that, before I can make a comment on that.
I do feel strongly that we have to hold the president accountable. Part of that is the policies that he's pushing, making sure that we're fighting back against that. Also, letting these investigations play out and see what they find out about the president.
Then, make a decision on impeachment from there.
District 32 is the one of the last vestiges of Republican electoral strength in Dallas. As Dallas has gotten bluer, the city has come under attack from leaders in Austin and Washington, D.C. How would you stand up for the city of Dallas?
I think that our leaders here in Dallas are really doing amazing things. They're standing up to what's happening at the state level with the "bathroom bill." They're standing up with the "show me your papers" law. The city of Dallas leadership, I think, are doing great things to stand up and really say, "We don't believe that these policies are right for our city."
That's what I say, first and foremost. We're seeing great leadership.
The second thing is I actually think that there are ways that the city of Dallas and cities across this country can partner directly with the federal government. I think of areas around clean energy, for example. We could have a clean-energy challenge in our country where the federal government works with municipalities and cities like Dallas to actually incentivize clean energy, incentivize solar-panel installation throughout the city of Dallas.
There are areas where the state doesn't have to be involved. There can be partnership between the federal and city level — I think will actually be quite effective in cities like Dallas [that] are, I think, entrepreneurial and innovative and ready to look for those kind of opportunities. Pushing back against the heavy-handedness that we've seen at Austin lately.
Let's swing back to public education. What do you think can be done at the federal level to help schools in Dallas and around the state?
First of all, I've got a real passion for public education. My kids have all gone to public schools everywhere we've been. I've worked for an education nonprofit called Big Thought that's really focused on closing the opportunity gap in education throughout the city of Dallas.
I'm passionate about making sure that every kid has a shot. I believe that starts at pre-K. Pre-K is so important. We need universal pre-K in our country. The federal government has a role in expanding universal pre-K. Make sure, in the next few years, every single 4-year-old in America has quality, free pre-K.
At the [kindergarten] through 12 level, I believe that the federal government can do a lot to help encourage and support our teachers, make sure that we have a very strong and robust teacher pipeline. Our teachers are out there on the front lines everyday working with kids. They are working hard. They're working with kids that come from so many different walks of life. We need to make sure that they've got the tools they need, the training, the preparation, so that they can work with those students. Make sure that they're working with those kids on their social and emotional learning skills in addition to their core academic skills.
We've gotta make sure that they're prepared for that. I also believe that we need to have computer science in every single classroom, in every single school in America. No kid should get out of K through 12 public education in the United States right now and not have computer science exposure. The federal government can help prioritize and incentivize that in our school districts.
At the college level, once you get to college, every single kid in America has to be able to go to college. If they can't afford it, it should be free for them. I believe that strongly. I don't think that we should necessarily pay for Donald Trump's kids to go to college. I do believe that if you cannot afford college, it should be free for you [at] a public university.
What do we do about the student loan debt bubble that already exists? It seems like at some point, that's an elephant in the room that's going to have to be addressed. What do you think the solution for that is? Is it massive debt forgiveness?
I think it is a massive problem for a lot of the students who have graduated from college. They don't have an opportunity to really get ahead in life. They don't have an opportunity to build a family, build their career.
We do need a loan forgiveness program in our country. We've gotta faze it in so it's affordable. The federal government has a role to ensure that people can have debt forgiveness and actually start their careers without massive debt hanging over their shoulders.
I do believe that's a priority that we need to be focused on as well.
Do you support that for federal loans and the private loans that already exist? We have a huge problem with private loans, specifically with regard to for-profit schools. What do you do to fix that problem?
The for-profit schools and a lot of these for-profit colleges have frankly taken a lot of students to the cleaners, have promised a lot without delivering. The kids are coming out with massive debt at the end of the day.
I think that we need to make sure that we're helping those students out that have kind of been sold the bale of goods that were not delivered on. They're facing massive debt right now with a degree that's not very valuable for them.
As progressive as Royal Lane is, you are still an evangelical.
I'm a progressive Baptist.
How do you reach out to voters who might be in line with Democrats on economic issues but feel like they can't vote for a Democratic candidate because they are anti-abortion or anti-LGBTQ rights?
I would talk to them about a lot of scripture that means a lot to me in the New Testament. I would talk to her about Matthew 25 that talks about, "Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me. Jesus said." What is really important in my Christian faith — again, I have a very progressive faith background — is making sure that we are caring for other people. We're looking out for other people and putting ourselves in other people's shoes, looking at things from their perspective.
My home church, Royal Lane Baptist Church, has been open and affirming of LGBTQ community and leadership roles throughout the church. I wouldn't go there if it weren't. That's something I'm very passionate about.
I'm very passionate about making sure that every woman has the right to make her own decisions about her health, including whether or not to have an abortion. I'll fight until the end to defend her right to do that.
I believe that the faith background that I come from is very focused on taking care of other people, treating people with respect and dignity. Those are the issues that I'm passion about and I will fight for.
By the way, that certainly includes, very importantly, it includes how we treat newcomers to this country, how we treat immigrants in this country. It's important to protect those people, treat them with respect and dignity as well. All too often, we don't see that in our discourse today.
Last week, you saw Tarrant County come out and say that they're going to begin running the immigration status for everyone who comes through their jail. Dallas County is not going to do that, but it's weird to see local governments and local municipal units in direct defiance of the federal government. What do you think the solution is for cities in the current immigration climate? What do you think should be done with immigration in this country?
I believe that immigrants are what built this country. Immigrants are a viable part of this country and should be welcomed and celebrated, and are really the lifeblood of what the United States of America is.
I do believe that we have to have conference of immigration reform in our country. We have to have a path of citizenship. That's first and foremost.
Number two, I think we've got to protect the people that are here. I think that ... DACA plan that President Obama put into place is very important. We have families that are getting torn apart in really tragic ways, being put in private family detention centers. To me, it's just un-American. It's not what we should be about.
We need to make sure that we're protecting those people that are here. We're providing the pathway to citizenship for those folks. I applaud what the city of Dallas has done. I applaud how the city of Dallas and the county have responded to some of the actions that President Trump is taking at the federal level.
Lastly, this idea of building this border wall is ridiculous. We've got Pete Sessions, who pushed through the border-wall plan through an appropriations bill so that Republicans didn't have to have an up or down vote. He's pushing that onto the House floor to be able to hide it in sort of a broader appropriations bill. I think it's just terrible that they don't have to stand up and affirmatively address what their position is on this massive, wasteful, hateful border wall.
How do you think you stand out from Colin Allred in a Democratic primary? Why should Democrats in District 32 vote for you in the primary election?
I think it's wonderful that we have so much energy in this primary. We had no Democrat run against Pete Sessions in 2016. The fact that there's a lot of energy and a strong candidate field in the 32nd Congressional field is such a positive development.
My experience in public service, where I've actually taken big challenges and actually addressed those big challenges, I think is something that voters in this district will look positively upon.
I had the opportunity to serve my country in the Obama administration at the State Department. My job there was to take on the challenge of: How do we make sure our diplomats and aid workers in Iraq are safe and secure when all of our troops were pulling out of the country. This is a big, weighted problem. I had the opportunity to sit in the situation room, figure out solutions to how we're going to address this challenge, really implement the logistics of that.
I traveled to Iraq 10 times as I managed that process for the State Department. Back here in Dallas, I've worked at the educational nonprofit Big Thought. That's really focused on the big challenge of how do we close the opportunity gap for kids throughout the city of Dallas. How do we implement scalable, big, public-private partnerships to actually get that work done?
We've had tremendous results. I really believe that the folks in District 32 will ... what I'm hearing is that people like the fact that I've got that proven experience. We're taking on big challenges and gotten results. I'll take these great ideas that we're all talking about on this campaign and make sure that we implement them in Washington.
One more question: How did you guys lose to Donald Trump?
There was a lot of factors that influenced the election this year. I think that Donald Trump somehow struck a chord with voters that felt a lot of economic insecurity. He had absolutely no policy ideas behind his rhetoric.
The Hillary Clinton campaign had a lot of really strong policy ideas on how to actually address the economic insecurity that people were feeling in this country. For a lot of those people, the message did not break through for them. Somehow, again, Donald Trump's message was able to, with all the other factors that went into this, was able to convince enough of those people to vote for him.
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