“I’m a woman of color, I’m Latina, I’m an immigrant. I’m an unrecognized refugee: someone that took an oath to become a citizen of this nation.”
So begins a video posted by Democratic candidate Wendy Carrillo as part of her run for the 34th U.S. Congressional District seat in California’s Los Angeles County. Carrillo has been leading a campaign that could make her the “first formerly undocumented woman in Congress.”
Carrillo threw her hat in the ring after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) appointed the seat’s occupant, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), to be state attorney general. In total, there are 23 candidates in the April 4 primary race, 19 of them Democrats. Under California’s election system, the top two candidates receiving the most votes will move forward to the general election, regardless of which party they represent.
A February 15 poll of 500 likely voters found that Democrats Jimmy Gomez, Sara Hernandez, and Carrillo held the top three slots, with 20 percent, 9 percent, and 5 percent of respondents ranking them as their first choice, respectively. Republican William Morrison was polled at 5 percent. Gomez, who is viewed by some in media as an establishment candidate, has far outpaced his rivals in fundraising. As of December 31, Gomez had already brought in more than $300,000 for his campaign, according to a March report from the Los Angeles Times. Hernandez had raised just over $200,000, while Carrillo reported having raised $51,683. No Republican has advanced to the general election since 2012, when Becerra ultimately won his race against Republican Stephen Smith.
We spoke with Carrillo about her background in journalism and where she stands on issues relating to reproductive health, rights, and justice.
Rewire: Your decision to run for Congress partially came from your time at Standing Rock in North Dakota last year, during the Dakota Access pipeline actions. What about this experience pushed you in the direction you are heading now?
Wendy Carrillo: What I experienced at Standing Rock was a multitude of things, some of which were incredibly beautiful: prayer, ceremony, being invited to participate in Native American traditions. But at the same, I saw some of the most egregious human rights violations. I saw people be water-cannoned in 14-degree weather. I saw grandmothers and young women be pepper-sprayed and hit by rubber bullets. I, myself, was caught in a tear gas attack and was hit with a flash grenade that exploded right next to me and hit the side of my face.
All of those experiences changed me, and I began to see our government in a whole new way.
So I kept asking questions like “Where is Obama?”;”Where is Congress?”; “Why is this happening?”; ‘Why does nobody think to care?’ And then I learned that my [then] Congressman Xavier Becerra, who’s now state attorney general, was going to be stepping down.
I thought to myself, “If Congress isn’t here, then I’m going there.”
So the decision to run was easy. I feel like I’ve been preparing for this fight and I thought “If not now, when? And if not me, who?” And the 34th Congressional District is where I grew up, where I live, where I have roots, and where my family is from. So I jumped. I said, “I’m all in.”
Rewire: As you’ve been campaigning, what have you heard from constituents as some of the key issues that they’re concerned about?
WC: So key issues would be health care—maintaining the Affordable Care Act—immigration, jobs, the economy, and education. Immigration continues to be a top priority. This is a district that encompasses some of the most multicultural and multilingual communities in all of Los Angeles County. And so immigration continues to come up and not only for immigrant communities, but for the general public as well, including white voters who are nervous and scared for their neighbors.
It’s an issue that dives into who we are as a nation and what we can do so that we are not complicit in the separation of families.
In addition, the March on Washington for Women and the Women’s March here in L.A. clearly show that women want to be in this space where we are able to make decisions about our bodies. For far too long, men have been making decisions about what we can do and should do. The fact that we are even having a conversation about overturning Roe v. Wade in 2017 is outrageous. My campaign is mostly run by women and women of color, and we want to harness everything that we’re feeling and do something positive.
We can’t keep talking about women’s rights and immigration rights and undocumented families and mixed-status families and refugees and war and violence and not have a seat at the table.
Rewire: Your campaign website says that you’re in favor of “Medicare for All” and comprehensive reproductive health care. What does this mean to you?
WC: Going into Congress as a junior congressional member requires working very closely at building alliances with other members And so what this is going to look like is going to be a very clear drawing of a line in the sand about protecting our values and our rights. The defunding of Planned Parenthood is something that we can absolutely not negotiate on. We need to be bold and unapologetic in defending communities that rely on services like Planned Parenthood or other free clinics are covered, and that the facilities are continuing to receive the federal funds that they need to stay open.
At the end of the day, this is about protecting the rights of people and women to ensure that they have access to quality health care and that they are not putting their lives in danger. And so I think it’s important that we are champions, that we are pro-choice 100 percent, and that we are unapologetic in being that way.
It is my intent to be unapologetic, to form alliances to ensure that programs protecting women and women’s rights are protected.
Rewire: Other politicians in your state, namely Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), have championed such legislation as the EACH Woman Act and have been at the forefront of opposing the Hyde Amendment. Would you see yourself getting involved in this work? And what is your position on the Hyde Amendment and abortion in particular?
WC: I think Rep. Barbara Lee has been a champion and a “shero” and has really shown us what new leadership and innovation can look like. I agree with her positions, and I would want to be an ally to the work she’s already started. And that’s, quite frankly, that’s why we need more women. Right now, the representation of women in Congress is 19 percent. And women of color in that is even smaller.
Rewire: You’ve spoken today as well as in various other interviews about the intersectionality in your life. How would this translate into your policies?
WC: I believe in what Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) calls “good and necessary trouble.” Intersectionality for me means that I don’t need to be Black to say Black Lives Matter; that folks don’t need to be undocumented or an immigrant to say that we are here to stay and that we believe in “Not One More” deportation; that you don’t need to be a woman to say that women’s rights are human rights; that you don’t need to be at Standing Rock in North Dakota or be indigenous and Native to say “Mni Wiconi,” which is “Water is Life;” and that you don’t need to be LGBTQ to say that we need and should have trans women’s liberation. So for me this is very easy. I’ve been very open about and transparent about my support for those groups. And I’ve been privileged enough to be invited into those groups and understand that there is such a thing as an undocumented, queer, woman of color who deserves to have a seat at the table and to have a champion for her issue.
Rewire: You started off your career as a journalist. Given the current state of politics and narrative around news, what do you see now from a political candidate’s perspective as the role of journalism today?
WC: I think it’s incredibly timely for me—in particular being a formerly unrecognized refugee, a formerly undocumented child that fled war and violence, somebody that’s gone through the process of becoming a citizen of this nation, and who has been a journalist asking the tough questions—to see journalists being kicked out of the White House, who are not allowed in the White House press briefings because they are not writing favorably of the president. This is a violation of our Constitution. It is very clear to me that a country without a free press is not a free country at all. And we need to ensure that above anything else we are protecting the First Amendment and we are protecting the Constitution.
When becoming a citizen, I took an oath to protect the Constitution of this country and that means something to me. So to see it disregarded and to see our First Amendment rights be trampled over, it’s infuriating.
I think journalists play a critical and important role in being the eyes and ears of the American people and we should ensure that they’re able to do their jobs.
Rewire: You came to the United States with your family from El Salvador and you and your family were undocumented for many years before you became a citizen. So with immigration being a key issue at all levels of government today, what do you see as the role of this seat in Congress on the issue?
WC: I’ve been attacked by the alt-right and by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK. Their comments on social media are not only about body shaming but also about how I don’t have a right to be here, how people like me should be deported, and that we have no reason to run for office.
The presidential administration clearly doesn’t believe that I have a right to be here; it doesn’t believe that immigrants should have any rights whatsoever; and it is creating policies that would separate women and children if they are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as they attempt to come into this country while they are fleeing war and violence in other parts of the world. And so this is all very real, and I think immigrants and undocumented communities and folks that are allies in this movement need to know that they have a champion in their member of Congress.
It’s not easy to tell my story. It is not easy to relive a constant trauma because that is what it is. Every time I tell my story I am telling a story that is incredibly painful. But it’s also a reminder to people that we can achieve the American dream, that we do belong in this country, and that we have a rightful place to take ownership and responsibility in the direction that we want this country to be in. When people talk about “we are part of the resistance,” this is it. This is what the resistance looks like. And it’s right here in Los Angeles.
Rewire: What do you think are a few primary things that the Democratic Party needs to do or change in order to move forward as election season begins to build again?
WC: I think we’re at a critical time in which the Democratic Party is going to need to figure out how to be more inclusive of different voices. So this race, for example: For the 34th District, there are 23 people that are running, some incredibly good Democrats that are running. And people are saying, “Well it’s a crowded field, there’s too many people.”
I think that is a really great problem to have—and I shouldn’t call it a problem—it’s something that we’re going to keep seeing across the country as we reach the 2018 midterms. The Democratic Party has a very unique opportunity right now to engage in a more robust way. Not just talk about diversity, but actually work toward it to reach new candidates, new voices, women, vulnerable communities and ensuring that we’re running and that we also have viability in raising money to ensure that we win.
I believe that we have a lot of politicians in office and what we’re missing are public servants. Politicians talk a lot and rarely listen. Public servants, on the other hand, listen to people and try to pass legislation and policy that actually impacts people in a compassionate and humane way.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.