Domestic Affairs

A Conversation With Julie Oliver

*Disclaimer: Olivia Conway is currently involved with the student volunteers for Oliver’s Congressional campaign. 

Julie Oliver is the Democratic challenger for Texas’s 25th Congressional District seat, which is currently held by Republican Roger Williams. Oliver grew up in Ovilla, Texas, and spent 20 years working in the healthcare industry before being appointed to the board of Central Health in Austin. She lost to Williams by a remarkably close margin in 2018 and is back in 2020 for another attempt. I spoke with her about the political engagement she’s seen from younger demographics, her role models, and the preeminent goals she hopes to accomplish if elected in November. 

Recently on social media, I’ve seen people asking each other what radicalized them — as in, what happened in their lives that showed them that the current system wasn’t protecting them. Do you have anything that radicalized you? Any specific moments you can point to?

Julie Oliver: When I decided to run for Congress in 2018, Congress was actively working to limit healthcare for folks by trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It’s not a perfect piece of legislation, but there’s an important provision in the ACA that protects people with preexisting conditions from discrimination by an insurance company, and my son is literally the walking definition of a preexisting condition. If an insurance company could drop him, they would in a heartbeat (because) my son can’t make them money. I think that’s what got me stepping out of my comfort zone, leaving a 20 year career behind me, and stepping into something completely new: running for Congress and sharing my knowledge of healthcare finance with folks. Healthcare did it for me, and seeing how dismissive Republicans are about it. You can’t live without it. 

I agree. I feel like our healthcare system doesn’t have the best interests of the people it’s supposed to be serving in mind. 

Julie Oliver: Not at all, and that’s not a knock to the people who are actually providing healthcare. Nurses and doctors do a wonderful job caring for patients, but it’s the administrative side of things where you get this component of why do we have health insurance when we could pay into a system that pays the providers to provide healthcare. You’re just creating a layer of inefficiency and a layer of headache. Most people hate calling their insurance companies when they’ve been billed for something they weren’t expecting to get a bill for, and at the end of the day, you’re paying for the profits. You’re paying for the CEO salaries, you’re paying for their bonuses, you’re paying for their stock plans. All of that is a function of our healthcare system and what we pay for. We could do it so much better and at a much lower cost; improve outcomes and save lives. 

I feel like that’s something a lot of people have noticed during the past several months with the pandemic. Since you’ve been campaigning during the pandemic, what else have you learned from interacting with potential voters or from trying to get your message out there when we can’t really interact with others face to face? 

Julie Oliver: We’re doing things in a different way. We can’t have in-person town halls, we can’t have rallies, we can’t go knocking on doors, but we can still talk to people on the phone. Since so many people are at home and looking for connections with other human beings, they’re answering their phones, and you can have really engaging conversations. We do phone banks every night of the week, and I was on one, and two people back to back were like “Wait, you’re the candidate, you’re calling me? I’ve never had a candidate call me in my entire life.” And I was like, “Well, don’t you think that’s the problem? That we aren’t reaching out, we aren’t engaging with people? Don’t you want to have direct access to me so you can share what’s important to you?” 

I do think the pandemic has shown us our fragility is in a healthcare system that is tied to employment because when people lose millions of jobs like has happened in this pandemic, you lose your healthcare coverage. But beyond that, all of these ideas that seemed really radical nine months ago when all of those candidates were on the debate stage running for the Democratic nomination don’t seem so crazy anymore. Universal healthcare coverage doesn’t seem crazy, universal basic income doesn’t seem so crazy, and making sure that banks can’t foreclose on people willy-nilly when you’re going through a huge economic crisis doesn’t seem so crazy. I think people are starting to see “Oh wow, this is the perfect storm, and I can see why this would be a necessary thing to have as part of what we pay for in our daily lives.”

Do you think it takes something devastating like a global pandemic or the economic downturn we’ve seen recently to change people’s values? 

Julie Oliver: Something has shifted between the 2018 (election) cycle and 2020. In 2018 I wasn’t hearing from folks that their party was gone, and (now) I’m meeting Republicans who say “My party’s gone, I’ll never vote for another Republican.” I don’t know if it’s that need for connection with people, I don’t know if it’s this administration’s handling of this pandemic, but so many people have reached their tipping point. And the pandemic isn’t a discriminator on what your political party is. We do know that there’s a higher prevalence in communities of color (who are) typically working on the front line and in unsafe conditions, but we didn’t have a federal response to this, and a haphazard response at best from the state government. Every location has been left to fend for itself, including trying to figure out how to get PPE to our communities and to our healthcare workers and how to get testing. I think people have seen that regardless of political party, and the Republican party is over for them. 

Your stories about how you would call people directly, they were surprised to hear you on the phone as opposed to a volunteer makes me wonder, how would you describe your responsibility as a Congressperson if you’re elected in November? 

Julie Oliver: I tell people that this is a customer service role that I’m applying for, and I hope I can provide excellent customer service. But seriously, it’s being an advocate for the folks in this community. I have made a commitment to do the town hall pledge — when you come back to your district, you have a town hall (and) anybody can come. You don’t limit it to just one party because it’s not just Democrats who have issues. It’s Republicans, it’s Independents, it’s Green Party, it’s people who don’t vote, and they should all be able to have their representative advocate for them. 

But the other thing I would love to do, and I wish this could just be a rule, is that if you’re spending time with lobbyists, then you have equal time with your constituents. We know that constituents call their members of Congress, we know they email them, we know they write them letters. How amazing would it be if you had to spend time in your office saying, “Hi my name is Julie Oliver, and I saw that you wrote an email to our office, let me tell you what we’re doing on that?” You hired me for this role, I report to you. 

Do you think that the younger populations that don’t usually vote in as large numbers seem more mobilized for this election, as opposed to in 2018?

Julie Oliver: Absolutely. What I’m seeing now is numbers (of engaged young people) that rival the numbers that you would typically see of people who are retired. I actually think the younger people volunteer with more frequency and more dedication than perhaps the folks who are retired and have more time on their hands. I’ll tell you that in the runoff election here in Texas, which is one of the lowest turnout elections that you can possibly have, absent of constitutional amendments for the Texas Constitution, the people under the age of 40 turned out in numbers that were equal to the 40-64 age group. For a runoff election to have young people show up is remarkable, (and) that gives me a lot of hope for the general (election) in November. 

What do you think has been the biggest obstacle in the past for young people in voting or getting involved in local campaigns? 

Julie Oliver: It’s not normal that their engagement with somebody who wants to get elected, or is elected, would be met with anything other than “Oh there there,” or completely ignored. I think the organizing around the climate change issue has made candidates and elected officials pause and say, “I need to listen to this constituency,” and honestly, y’all are much wiser than we are. There’s strength in numbers and y’all have shown your power. I think prior to that, maybe there was this feeling like “(Politicians) are not going to listen to me,” and y’all have coalesced, come together, organized in a really meaningful way that catches the attention of elected representatives, and you have power now. I’m hoping that that’s the difference, now you have all the power, it’s in your vote, and it’s in your organizing and your commitment to holding people accountable. 

I feel like a lot of issues that we perhaps thought we could ignore two years ago, or even four years ago, are no longer the peripheral background issues that we thought they were. What’s the first issue that you want to address if you are elected in November? Where do you want to start?

Julie Oliver: I would love to start with healthcare, and I think there’s a real opportunity because of the pandemic to say, “Hey, look, what we’ve got isn’t working, and what we’ve got is leaving way too many people behind.” Texas actually has the most to gain from this because we had the highest uninsured population prior to the pandemic, and that’s only exacerbated when people lose their jobs and their healthcare coverage. 

Beyond that, I would hope to see more of a commitment to weeding out special interests. There are only six members of Congress who take no PAC money. Only six, (and) I hope to become number seven. There are, I think, about 62 or 63 that take PAC money from a union or Planned Parenthood, but don’t take corporate PAC money, and that’s great and a step in the right direction, but we need those numbers to grow. We really need to press on people to stop taking that special interest money. The Citizens United (Supreme Court decision) said corporations are individuals and money is free speech… marry them together, and you have this limitless flood of money hitting our electoral process, and it is corrupting. You have members of Congress and the Senate and the White House that listen more to their special interest groups than they do to the people who elected them, so I hope to tackle that in a massive way when I get to Congress.

That’s a very admirable goal. Who have you looked to as role models, either in life in general or in your political career so far?

Julie Oliver: I find a lot of parallels in Senator Warren’s story and her lived experiences. It’s hard for me not to look at her as “Wow if you can do it, I can do it,” coming from those very humble beginnings, having people write you off, being dismissive of you. I’m incredibly amazed by her. I feel the same about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’ve got this woman who’s older than me and has blazed this trail, but I’ve also got this woman who’s younger than me who’s blazed this trail, and it’s just so meaningful because we know that women are not on parity with men in Congress. We know that women don’t get paid what men get paid in work, and to have these women who say, “You know what I’m going to do the right thing, and I’m going to speak truth to power…” We need more of those women, so I look to them. 

I also look at my mom, (who) passed away a few years ago. I was 17 when I had my oldest daughter, and if she hadn’t been there for me and been willing to help me out, we were incredibly poor, I wouldn’t be here today. My mom got breast cancer in 1981, I was nine years old, and in 1981 breast cancer was a death sentence for women. I remember she brought all of us kids into her hospital room after she had had surgery (and) said “the doctor told me that I need to go home and get my affairs in order because I won’t be here in six months,” and I remember I just started crying, and then my mom said “and I told that doctor, who do you think is going to watch my kids.” My mom beat cancer when the odds were against her in an era when that was a cancer that was supposed to take the lives of women prematurely. And I’m like “if my mom can beat cancer, then I can do anything.” I’ve got her genes in me.

She sounds like a great woman, I’m sorry for your loss. 

Julie Oliver: Thank you. I miss her, but I’m grateful I got to say goodbye to her. We don’t always get that with the people we lose. 

What do you think is the best way forward for reducing the disparities between men and women in Congress and other sectors of the public sphere?

Julie Oliver: We need to encourage women to run for office at every level, and we need to pass the Equal Pay Act so that women can get paid. (After) I went to law school, I went to work for an accounting firm. They were hiring attorneys out of law school for their tax practice, and a guy got hired a year or a year-and-a-half behind me, and I found out he got paid more than I got paid a year-and-a-half in, and he didn’t have a law degree. I brought it up with one of the managers there, and he said, “Well that’s just negotiating, that’s just what we had to pay him to get him to come work for us.” It’s an entry level position, (and) he got paid more than me. That one chapped my hide. 

I love when you get women who are stepping into leadership roles in companies (and) bringing their perspective — not trying to be a man in that role, (but) bringing themselves, their humanity, their family, their interests into that role because when I was growing up and coming out of college and law school, if you wanted to be a partner as a woman in a law firm, you typically didn’t have children. You just didn’t because once you had kids, it was thought that you weren’t going to put in the time. The expectation (is) that you’re going to give your life to that firm, (but) nobody should be doing that. We need more women in every area, and what Elizabeth Warren has done for me, I hope that I can model that for others. You don’t have to be perfect, you can do this, we need imperfection in all of these areas.

It’s been so wonderful to talk to you and my last question is what makes you angry, but also what makes you optimistic?

Julie Oliver: What has made me angry is this administration and our state’s response to the coronavirus. To be so dismissive of epidemiologists and doctors and experts in this area and to intentionally try to disrupt any of the things that could have helped us. We still have a shortage of PPE and PPE is still incredibly expensive, yet the federal administration did nothing to try to streamline the supply chain or use their ability to say “We’re going to sell (PPE) to hospitals at what they were paying before the pandemic, not five times what they were paying after the pandemic.” It makes me mad that they politicized the mask mandate — masks should not be a partisan issue, public health should not be a partisan issue. This should have been one thing that coalesced Republicans and Democrats: we have to defeat this coronavirus so we don’t go down in history as a country that had 200,000 Americans die from it and that hasn’t happened. That has made me mad. 

But what has made me optimistic is the level of engagement that I’m seeing in 2020 that I did not see in 2018. From my perspective as a candidate, we rely so heavily on volunteers (and) people want to volunteer right before the election and then the election happens, and there’s a break. (For a) primary — you get all these volunteers, and then it drops off. I was in a runoff in 2018, all this engagement and excitement, and then poof. I haven’t seen that in 2020. This year has been like just a slow and steady ramp, there have been no dips (in engagement). 

What’s even more remarkable is that when these primary (elections) have passed around the country, people from other states will be like, “I just finished on the whatever campaign, and now I want to come phone bank on your Tuesday night campaign to get you and Clayton Tucker, who’s running for state Senate, elected.” That is what gives me so much hope. If I can give one more thing, I got to speak to two classes (recently) at UT, and the questions the students had for me were the most incredible. They knew what was happening in the world, and they wanted to know what I was going to do about it and they cared. And that’s exactly right, you keep doing that.

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