Lillian Salerno (left) greets potential voters in Dallas.EXPAND
Lillian Salerno (left) greets potential voters in Dallas.
Lillian Salerno for Congress

The Dallas Observer Q-and-A With Congressional Candidate Lillian Salerno

Earlier this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it's targeting the seat of U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, the Dallas Republican in District 32. Sessions has drawn four competitive Democratic challengers — former Obama appointee Lillian Salerno, former WFAA-TV reporter Brett Shipp, 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 Salerno about her ambitions, the consolidation of corporate power and being a woman in the age of Trump. This is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length, clarity and content.

Why run for Congress now? Why are you running in Texas’ 32nd Congressional District?

Grew up in Dallas, where I call home, and just want to make sure that this district has somebody that represents them. What I've seen with Pete Sessions is that he represents somebody, but it's not residents of Texas 32. I just want to make sure that the same opportunities that I received growing up in East Dallas — I was able to get an undergraduate degree from UT, a law degree and start a small business despite not having a lot of resources — are available to everyone. I feel like this next generation doesn't have the same opportunities. They're riddled with student debt, aren't able to borrow money like I was in order to start a business, and I believe that the concentration of wealth in this country is dangerous to our democracy. I believe right here in the 32nd District, we can send a message that says working families matter, people in Texas want good government, and they want a fighter to go to Washington and fight for them.

What was it like for you, growing up in Dallas?

I grew up, born in Baylor Hospital, with eight brothers and sisters. My grandfather was an Italian — Sicilian, actually — immigrant. He started a shoe store in Dallas and was part of the generation of Sicilians that came to Dallas and settled in the 1920s. His shoe shop is where the Adolphus Hotel parking garage is now. I actually grew up on Swiss Avenue, before it was Swiss Avenue, and then went to Catholic school before my family moved out to Little Elm, which was a rural school at that time. There was only 300 people that lived there, and I went to high school and graduated with 18 people in my class. I didn't really know how to get to college.

I had a financial aid counselor at UT tell me that I could get to UT through a Pell grant, and if I worked hard that I could take out low-interest loans. So I waited tables in the morning and then I went to UT in the afternoon. When I got out of UT, I came back to Dallas, and I started my first company when I was 25. I had an opportunity to grow a little business, and eventually it turned into another business, and then I got a master's at the University of North Texas. I eventually went to SMU law school, and I was given this amazing opportunity to create a life for myself.

Sometime during that period, I started a company with my business partner that — in response to the HIV epidemic — invented the world’s first retractable syringe. We did that because in the early 90's, there was no cure for HIV. Everybody died. We had friends that were HIV positive. I was working alongside my partner, who is an engineer on another project, and we were heartsick that our friends contracted HIV. We actually called the National Institute of Health and said, "Is there anything we can do out here in Texas to help with the epidemic?" And they said, "You know what, we're having a big problem because syringes are being, reused and it's helping drive the epidemic, and secondarily, we have a problem because nurses are at risk when they treat HIV positive for accidental needle sticks." So my partner bought some standard syringes, started throwing them at a dart board in our little office, and eventually we patented the first retractable syringe.

We then confronted the challenge of trying to get your syringe into the health care market, which is a closed system. In our product sector, 90 percent of the market was controlled by one company. So we had to fight our way to get into the market, which included filing a lawsuit and then fighting, with nurses who needed our needles, to pass federal needle legislation that mandated that nurses be provided the kind of technology that would help prevent them from contracting any infectious disease. Coming from a little bitty high school and then going to UT and getting this experience of confronting power molded me as an individual and turned me into someone who fights for what's right.

I don't settle for behavior that hurts the folks who do the real hard work in this country, like people that work in factories like the one that we ran. I don't put up with it when people treat women or workers poorly, and people were treating nurses really poorly by forcing them not to receive the kind of equipment they need to treat our loved ones. So I helped write and pass legislation, I put together hearings, and then eventually I moved to Washington, D.C. I started working in Washington as an activist and advocate for small business people, consumers, nurses and people who care about transparency in health care. I was on the front lines of the debate when we passed health care reform and people — me and my colleagues that were fighting for transparency and costs to come down — we got Obamacare. It was very hard to do. There were a bunch of us who really wanted a total reform. We didn't get that, so we still have a lot of work to do to make Obamacare work for people.

Earlier this month, you spoke at an anti-monopoly conference in Washington about your experiences in the health care industry. Why is it so hard for innovative products to get into the health care market, and how does that harm health care workers and Americans seeking health care?

I was on a panel discussing what we call corporate concentration, which is why, in so many sectors of the economy, we only have one or two players. In telecom, we have Comcast and Verizon, and there's no one. In platform technology, it's Google, Facebook, and they own the information highway. What happens is, when you're innovating, if you go to sell your device or idea or app, you can only go one place because there's only one or two players. That's very unhealthy for an economy, and it's very unhealthy for a democracy.

We're a country based on small business and entrepreneurship. I worry — and it's the issue I want to work on when I'm elected — I worry that we created an economy that has never been this consolidated, and we've got to start unpacking that, and we do that by enforcing the laws. Both Republicans and Democrats have failed us on this issue, and they haven't really funded the Federal Trade Commission or funded the Department of Justice and given investigators and lawyers the tools so they can start going after companies that are violating competition laws.

So if it's not just an unsolvable systemic problem, what do you do to fix it? Is it just through enforcement of existing laws, or is it creating new regulations and new laws?

We have laws on the books which were passed because of stuff like the railroads. Railroads, yes, good idea. Bad idea, one guy running all the railroads. So we had laws put on the books that would make it so if you own a certain percentage of the market, you, by definition, are under a different obligation than the small company that only has a certain percentage. If you own a certain percentage, then you can't lock up all the markets so the new guy or gal can't get into the market. But those laws have not been enforced, so up until the ’80s, companies used to look over their shoulder and even call regulators and say, "Hey, we're thinking about merging" or "We're thinking about buying this company — give us an opinion." Look how many mergers and acquisitions we have every single day.

That's because we've had the Department of Justice and the FTC asleep at the wheel. The Obama administration did a horrible job. By the time we started getting our head around it right at the end of the administration, it was too late. We keep putting the wolf guarding the henhouse, so the head of the anti-trust commission then goes and works on the biggest company in telecom, and in a different administration, they come back and they're head of the FTC. We can't have that anymore. We can't have people that go and regulate and enforce and then they go work for the very companies that they cut a deal with. We gotta stop that. I saw that — we've seen that since the Clintons, since Bill Clinton all the way through Obama and then all Republicans between those.

It's not a Democrat or a Republican problem; it's a we gotta clean up our politics kind of problem. Everybody's finally waking up to what I’ve experienced as a small business person. We've allowed too much consolidation in this country. It's not about we need to go and regulate. When people violate, laws we need to find them, and sometimes you have to put people in jail.

How do you change the incentives for members of Congress to get them to support something like this? Just off the top of my head, I don't even think you'd get the majority of Democrats to say that this is a good idea to strongly enforce anti-trust provisions.

We've got to vote people in with that kind of idea. It's not idealist. Right now, there's what they call an anti-trust caucus in the House of Representatives, with more and more members from various parts of the country. You’ve got to hold companies accountable, and if you get a big enough caucus that worries about these things, then when new members come in, you try to get them in your caucus and then you fight for it. This is very much an issue that is in line with our Democratic values. Everybody tries to act like they care about small business. If you care about small business, you should care about anti-trust. Everybody uses the word — oh, it's not good for small business. Everyone that's a small business person has been affected by this corporate concentration.

I had that experience as a small business person, and then when I went as an Obama appointee, I was in charge of economic development for small town USA, and we saw it clearly in places where main streets were shuttered because all these little companies were put out of business because of big-box stores and Amazon and that kind of thing.

What other priorities would you identify for your campaign, and, if elected, what issues will you push as a member of Congress?

I feel like health care because my background is in health care. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone at the health care table that is not just someone who's written legislation, but also someone who knows what things cost, so when the pharmaceutical companies come in and talk to me about patents and how much pipeline they have that I can call whether or not that's correct? One thing that we never talk about is our manufacturing is so advanced in this country. We know how to do things at such low costs, but our prices have never been higher.

So in the health care market, we're not taking advantage of any of the reduction in costs that we should be getting from the fact that we've made so many advances in manufacturing. So health care, for sure, I want to just lean in completely. I also want to focus on corporate consolidation, which means that I would try to get on a judiciary or an authorizing committee for folks that fund the DOJ or the FTC to make sure that we give the folks that need to investigate enough tools. That does not mean regulation; it just means allowing people to do their job.

Then thirdly, I think there's so much opportunity to create workforce development — apprenticeships, a way to give workers more opportunities. Not everyone is in line to do a four-year university. There's lots of people that we need in our trades, and we have, as a country, not invested in them.

How do you balance resistance to President Trump with the normal priorities you would have as a member of Congress?

I think that's one of President Trump's strategies — the world of distraction. Maybe my growing up in a family where there were eight brothers and sisters and lots of chaos, if you're going to get anything done or get through school, you just have to be focused. I'm not running because I'm a Democrat. ... I think a lot of the people around the country are running ... because we wake up and think if we don't take these seats, something really bad could happen with this president and Republicans still controlling both chambers of Congress.

So what do you think you bring that's unique to the Democratic field? I certainly did not expect to see the field get as deep as it has in District 32. How do you differentiate yourself from your fellow Democrats?

First, I'm somebody who — I didn't wake up in November of 2016 and say hey, I'm Lillian Salerno, and I want to be the next congresswoman from Dallas. I saw we didn't run a candidate [in District 32] in 2016, and Hillary Clinton won this district. In order to win this seat, you have to bring something to the table that brings people on the progressive side — all the Democrats and all the new energy that we have as Democrats. To win the general, you also have to appeal to folks that feel alienated from the Republican Party. What I truly believe is that in Dallas, Texas, and in Garland and Richardson and Rowlett and Wylie, there's people that are waking up, especially women, that this Republican Party and this president, they can’t go there. We have to give them an opportunity to step over, and I think I'm the kind of candidate that they could step over for.

How do you feel being the only woman in the race?

I just happen to be a qualified candidate, and I'm a woman and I want to represent this district. It's certainly worth noting in our current environment that women don't have enough representation in the United States Congress. With the almost daily news on the behavior of folks in power against women, it’s something that I think people are recognizing we can't continue. In the state of Texas, we have a 38-person delegation that goes to Washington, and only three of those are women. In the United States Congress we have less than 20 percent representation being female. I'm somebody who has worked in a lot of roles without many female colleagues. I was a lawyer and then with a medical device company with a lot of engineers, and when I was with the government ... I was on committees where many times, I was the only woman in the meetings. What I know for sure is when you bring diversity to committees, leadership, business, politics — including women and people of color, you just get better decisions. I just know it from a lifetime of working. This idea that we're going to do better if we don't bring different ideas in is wrong.

I think we now have enough discussion out there that now young women, old women and men, too, that feel like because of someone's power they'd get to exploit them or harass them. It's all about power, and ... when I was an attorney, I represented at least two cases, maybe three, of women who had been sexually harassed, and I think about how hard it was. We’ve got to make a lot of changes. You get changes by getting diverse populations to lead.

How do you begin to fix the problem?

What we know about when we try to create diversity in our schools, our universities, our corporate culture, you can't just bring one person up. I'm going to have my token female, my token Latina. You've got to bring people in in groups, we know that. The studies tell you that. It just happens that we have a lot of women running for Congress right now across the country, and I do think if we could get a wave in there, it would give a safe place for people to adjust to the fact that we're going to have to alter our way of thinking about power.

Do you feel like more women are running for office because of President Trump’s election?

There is this huge outcry, and you saw it in the women's march, and you'll see it again in the next women's march. It's hard for a lot of women; a lot of my girlfriends still suffer every day when they wake up. I don't because I feel like I'm doing something about it, but a lot of my girlfriends still — it makes them sick to their stomach that Donald Trump is in the White House. At a physical level, they can't reconcile how we got here. It makes them less able to do their family and their life because they feel so uncomfortable, and that's because someone has violated and abused his power and was still allowed to occupy the highest office in the land. It's not going to be OK for them until we make sure that it never happens again.

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