By Emily Brandt
Editor’s Note: Emily Brandt has campaigned in 2019 for Kim Williams for Congress and Bernie Sanders for president.
WHAT MOTIVATED WILLIAMS TO RUN FOR CONGRESS? “Poverty.” Williams goes on to reflect: “My day-to-day encounters and then researching the numbers and just seeing how many homeless families [there are in Congressional District 16] was so appalling to me and so unacceptable that I couldn’t understand why more federal resources weren’t being put into place and the more I saw that, the more I see that there was just a ton of political neglect here.”
No, this specific type and degree of poverty is not a part of her personal biography, but it is for the people in places where she has devoted her life’s work. As she tells her story, Williams’ life begins in a small community in Georgia. Her grandparents worked hard to provide for her parents, and Williams was the first in her family to receive a college education.
During her teenage years, the rural area in which they lived became absorbed into the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. Working several jobs to pay her way through Georgia State University, she went on to finish her graduate work and to teach international students, as well as, a very diverse population of U.S. students. An instinctive curiosity about communities seems to be Williams’ approach to problems.
One particular area of interest to Williams has long been American History which she taught for seven years as a tenured faculty member at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida. She studied the slave trade and traveled the slave route ultimately leading her to a U.S. State Department assignment in the African nation of Ghana. One persistent thread through her life seems to be to seek out geographical places and cultures that are unlike any she’s previously known.
This seems to be what led her to and has anchored her in the Central Valley of California working for Mariposa County as the Director of Human Resources where she is currently. This type of work follows naturally upon her work in Management and Communications in the U.S. State Department where Williams spent her last years before moving to California.
As a U.S. historian, she looks for the roots, the causes as the key to finding solutions; as a diplomat who served in places as diverse as the continent of Africa and the Russian province of Siberia, she also looks at everything on a large scale. As she emphasizes, the kind of poverty people experience in the U.S. isn’t happening in other parts of North America and there is a reason for that.
Her efforts to reach public officials to get answers here have been unsuccessful. She has learned, as many of us have, that the powers that be make a concerted effort to avoid taking our calls and engaging with community members. The reasons, she concluded, must be linked to the fact that they don’t want to answer for their conservative voting patterns and inability to take on this district’s tougher challenges.
Williams begins talking about her experience as a single mother. She describes the many moments of “low-grade terror of ‘I know she’s not well, I have a meeting at work and I feel forced to choose between caring for my child and for my job that supports my child.’ I don’t ever want another parent to feel that way and I know millions do.”
That’s why she was initially attracted to Elizabeth Warren’s Universal Pre-K Plan. Now, she’s recognized that Bernie Sanders offers exactly such a plan and offers much more along the lines of what Williams enthusiastically supports. This has won her the endorsement of Our Revolution, Sanders’ non-profit Political Action Committee (PAC). Other progressive organizations who are interested in her are in the process of finalizing endorsements.*
MONEY IN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: Williams has never run for public office before, so there is no record to compare her current practice of refusing corporately funded PAC money. Williams devotes a section of her VISION statements to the subject. She explores the damage it is doing to the whole exercise of government as the primary protector of the people from the exploitation of largely unregulated big money and corporate interests that pay few if any, taxes. A comparison of the three Congressional District 16 candidates Federal Election Commission filings is here.
At the Fresno County Latina Democrats Debate Forum, Williams addressed the persistent problem of billions of dollars being spent to influence Washington to make decisions that favor corporate interests and hurt the public in very direct ways. This is why she proposes solutions such as creating publicly funded elections and eliminating corporately-funded PACs such as those created by oil companies, pharmaceutical companies and the health insurance industry to name a few. They are ultimately creating, controlling and approving the litigation almost without the middle “people” sitting in chairs in Congress. Williams does not accept funds from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
ENVIRONMENTAL COMMITMENTS: Williams states directly that “everything is intersectional” or interdependent, and Climate Change is really at the center of this. She embraces the Green New Deal completely and is committed to the ways in which each part of the process from transitioning off of fossil fuels to renewable energy affects every area from producing electricity to manufacturing cars that are fossil fuel independent, food production, food waste management, toxic waste management to rethinking geopolitics on a global scale. Williams turns to history to draw parallels and make distinctions between the original New Deal and the Green New Deal.
Like the New Deal of the 1930s, she says the Green New Deal can establish “fixed-term projects and programs” and those types of investments, particularly to rural communities, that were just life-altering for generations to come, to bring in experts . . . who can solve the water and air problems and get us to where we have clean air, not the least-breathable air in America. Unlike the New Deal which often excluded women and people of color and would not work with unions, the Green New Deal would be worker protected and eliminate all the flaws of the original New Deal.
“The Green New Deal does two things: it fixes the immediate crisis of environmental concerns, but then it’s building that class of engineers, healthcare workers and scientists who can support a middle class for generations to come and attract jobs to the area because you have this great base of workers.” She explains, “This forms the new middle class, as sustainable and growing new businesses, attracting new businesses to the area who will depend on the now skilled workforce while also providing a need for the service sector once again. This then leads us into the future of the ‘next new bold ideas.’”
For Williams, the significance of the Green New Deal is that it refocuses the economy away from industries that currently pollute air and water to industries that will clean up and solve the problems polluting industries have brought with them. She goes on to contrast that picture of the future with what we currently have: Amazon-like businesses that do not choose to base their headquarters for management in Fresno but chose instead to build a fulfillment center that exploits a workforce largely without access to higher education and skilled job training.
These centers will fade into obsolescence in perhaps five years as they are replaced by robots and which, once again, leave Fresno with a large group of unemployed workers who have gained no skills and/or education to lead to better jobs and a better quality of life. Even the trucking industry is working very hard to develop systems of self-driving trucks to replace drivers.
The added cost to the community in forfeiting the Amazon, Ulta and other corporate taxes, that could have funded a myriad of improvements to the poor community, is what lured them to this poorest of areas in the first place. It is rank human and environmental exploitation which Soria defends because it brought “jobs.”
MEDICARE FOR ALL/SINGLE PAYER/MEDICAL DEBT FORGIVENESS: “Healthcare is a human right.” Aside from the fact that all European countries have some variation of universal healthcare which covers all medical, dental, optical and mental healthcare, Williams envisions a system that will absorb all the current healthcare workers who are now part of the private industry.
Tasks will largely still need to be performed for processing payments, prescriptions, procedures, therapies, hospitalizations, etc. Redundancies will be eliminated and the bloated executive class who are grossly overpaid will no longer exist. There will also be no corporations, no advertising for healthcare companies or big pharma and no stockholders. These are some of the major generators of the high cost.
In many ways, it would be a return to pre-Nixon healthcare when it was illegal to make a profit from healthcare-related industries. “Nixon signed into law, the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, in which medical insurance agencies, hospitals, clinics and even doctors, could begin functioning as for-profit business entities instead of the service organizations they were intended to be.”
The current system has only been in place some 46 years, therefore, reforming it shouldn’t be viewed as such an irrational move. As Williams states on her website, “California’s family coverage premiums have increased by 248.8%. This high cost has not improved the quality of our healthcare or increased access. In our district, 62,000 individuals have no coverage at all.”
WAR, IMMIGRATION, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Much of Williams’s work in the State Department related to building relationships and organizations to support peace-time development through HIV/AIDS education, through university education exchange programs in Ghana, Russia, Costa Rica, China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. A lot of these relationships involved creative ways to bring educators, citizens and students together such as the Young Diplomats Day in which 50 Russian students under Williams’ tenure (2010-2012) served as Diplomats for a Day at U.S. embassies throughout Russia.
Several such exchange programs were borne, including a photographer exchange that turned into an international photo exhibit, garnering media coverage in Russia for the better part of a year. This kick-started dozens of other programs and revitalized the sister city relationship and an essay program on aspects of U.S. and Russian culture between two sister cities, San Jose, USA and Yekaterinburg, Russia. An exchange called Send Your Teacher to Space helped highlight NASA Program.
These are the stuff that continue valuable peacetime relationships that prevent cultural isolation beyond the level of formal diplomacy and military alliances. They have also enabled Williams to develop strong ties to U.S. diplomats around the world which will be of immense value to us here in the Central San Joaquin Valley as we adjust to new markets and changing economies especially due to Climate Change.
Williams has such a deep knowledge of, not only, geography, history and culture, but of world economies, industries and political systems that both Soria and Costa lack. Her work in the Foreign Service has prepared her to consume a massive volume of information of all sorts before she could write policy and implement programs that have had a good record of being successful.
Williams is experienced at educating herself through stacks of reading about every area in which she has lived and worked around the world. She has the information at her fingertips showing the economic, social and educational needs of the Central Valley. As a history professor, she grew accustomed to absorbing large amounts of details and data for her lectures and publications. Of course, Esmeralda Soria has had to do this as well as an adjunct professor of law, political science and Chicano Studies at Fresno City College.
Likewise, at the State Department, Williams had to quickly grasp a wide variety of policies and recognize how those played out in countries all around the world. As a result, she looks at challenges and communities through a variety of lenses with the depth of understanding necessary to chart new paths to opportunity.
DISCRIMINATION: Williams graduated from college and came into the job market at an opportune time. Jobs weren’t in short order in any industry or institution. Jobs for women were opening up in many areas. She speaks often of being a feminist in college and reflects too that she could see some similarities between the discrimination against women and African Americans which, of course, means that women of color have had a much more difficult time than has she.
This observation spurred her to study the history of slavery, Jim Crow and the ongoing oppression of African Americans. She traveled the slave route to Ghana and studied the places where the slave trade took place in Africa and returned to the U.S. to teach this subject matter in ways that inspired her students to do their own research and be their own advocates and experts. Breaking stereotypes is never easy. Williams tells the story of taking her first class in African American History.
I remember the first African American Studies class that I took and I was the only white student in there. I remember a young woman in the class telling me that I didn’t belong in there. I argued with her (cause I was like that at the time–I was 19 so I was naive) and I said, I think it’s more important that I’m in here in some ways than anyone else. Why am I not supposed to be here? Why are you only supposed to be here?
For her class project, she interviewed a homeless man she saw from a highway. She had to walk a long distance by the side of a freeway, called “Spaghetti Junction”, in order to be able to reach him. When her professor received her project, she was surprised because “it wasn’t something a 19-year-old girl would typically do . . . I like going to places you weren’t supposed to go.”
FREE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY TUITION/STUDENT DEBT FORGIVENESS: Working her way through college was difficult but not an impossibility at the time that Williams attended in the 1980s and 1990s. It was vastly different from Soria’s younger brother’s experience. The first increase in the price of a public college education came after Baby Boomers had attended for nearly free.
Costs rose steadily through the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, but the recent jump in cost didn’t begin until five to ten years ago, perversely during the Great Recession. Working your way through college used to mean you could pay for your living expenses and use financial aid for your tuition. That no longer works after the massive cuts to financial aid, in addition to incredibly high tuitions, and the steep rise in interest rates on student loans.
Given Williams’ awareness of this history and her time spent overseas where higher education is often free or nearly free, it doesn’t seem like a pipe-dream or unrealistic plan to her. Forty years ago, California had such a system for public universities. Living expenses weren’t free; students either lived with their parents or they worked their way through college, but tuition itself was free.
Although the situation has reversed, decades ago Canadians left their homeland to take advantage of free public university tuition in California after establishing residency. Williams calls her vision for this “Debt-Free College.” On her website, she states: “Education is key to breaking generational poverty. Higher education leads to greater social mobility and economic opportunity, and when we prioritize education in all communities, the middle class will grow.”
Williams plan . . .
. . . I support student debt cancellation of up to $50,000 and public service loan forgiveness programs that connect graduates with high need communities like those in California’s 16th congressional district. I also support tuition-free community colleges and technical schools as well as tuition-free education at public four-year schools for financially-challenged families” (https://kimwilliamsforcongress.com/wpcampaign/debt-free-college/)
is very similar to that of Bernie Sanders.
Soria has no college debt plan nor any plan for funding colleges in a way that makes them affordable for all students. Costa’s website, like Soria’s, does not provide any policy positions or platforms beyond a list of his accomplishments.
Will the Central San Joaquin Valley recognize the rare opportunity to be represented by someone who has valuable State Department experience in the foreign service, which means being sent to new areas of the world to assess and embrace the cultures, problems, and solutions quickly and deeply? The Central Valley is another deeply troubled area, one that legislators and local politicians have left behind for decades to be ruled by real estate developers and corporate agriculture. Will Central California voters yet again be blindly loyal to the lure of unsatisfactory leaders simply because they are local?
(For additional resources on Kim Williams, see the interview with Lauren Steiner’s Robust Opposition on Facebook, https://bit.ly/31VnYQU)
* Editor’s Note 12/21/19: This section originally stated that Justice Democrats have endorsed Kim Williams. They are still in the process of finalizing their endorsements.