Democrat • Primary Candidate in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District
“My Opponent was Very Proud He’d Repealed Obamacare”
Elissa Slotkin began her graduate work at Columbia University on September 10, 2001. “My life was defined by 9/11,” she told Lilith. “I knew after the smoke cleared that I was going to do national service as a career.”
After a career at the CIA and the Pentagon, Slotkin, 41, entered the 2018 race feeling strongly that “the tenor of politics over the past two years has been unbecoming of the country.” Yet despite her tours of duty in Iraq and her work with the State Department and in national security, it was something more personal that crystallized Slotkin’s decision to run for Congress, which holds its primary in August.
“It wasn’t until the actual date of the health care vote in May 2017. This was the first time the House voted to replace Obamacare.” Slotkin’s mother died 2011 of ovarian cancer. She had no health insurance when she was diagnosed; she’d lost her job, and with it her coverage. “She’d struggled with health care her entire life,” said Slotkin. She’d had breast cancer as a young mother, and was already divorced from Slotkin’s father by the time she lost her job in Michigan in 2002, “so she went all those years without insurance. People said to her, ‘You were a Jewish woman with a history of breast cancer. How could you not get check ups’?” Slotkin and her brother and her mother’s lesbian partner helped her mom get health insurance for $1,000 a month, which she let lapse in July of 2009. In September of 2009 “she walked into the E.R. and was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer.
“She had that experience like so many in Michigan and elsewhere: They would not wheel her in for her scan and her blood work until they had her credit card.
We were filling out the paperwork for a month—for her to declare bankruptcy. Then, through a loophole, she got her insurance back.”
Fast forward to May 2017, and a televised Rose Garden ceremony at the White House. “It was a beautiful day. My [Republican] opponent was there, backslapping, very proud that he had repealed Obamacare. And with no alternative in mind.” He’d refused to meet with doctors or nurses or with Alzheimer advocates, she said. “When I saw his smiling face in that ceremony something just broke in me. You don’t get to ignore your constituents and still keep your job. In the military we would call this dereliction of duty. We decided to fight him.”
We? “Running for office is definitely a family experience,” says Slotkin, who lives now on the family farm in Holly, Michigan, where she spent summers as a child. “Your partner has to be 110% supportive.” Her husband is an Apache pilot, and she often says, “We are a service family.” So running for public office meant many changes. “He was a military officer and I was a civil servant in the CIA and the Pentagon. We were really reticent to get into politics because of the money.
“The day of the health care vote I posted on Facebook, for only the second time in my whole life. As a CIA officer you are discouraged from using social media. Anything you say online can be used against you by enemies.” Now, every aspect of her life is fair game for scrutiny and publicity. “When you are running for office, people want to know what you are having for lunch, or doing on vacation.”
Although Slotkin had held leadership positions in high school and college, she says that she’d never wanted to be in politics, “especially after I joined the national security world. Going to Congress for briefings…I was not impressed by the elected officials. It was never a club I wanted to be a part of.” Now, though, she’s motivated to alter the “vitriol and dysfunction in Washington. We don’t have to defend that.”
What she will defend, “to my grave,” she says, are women’s and LGBTQ rights, and in particular women’s right to reproductive justice. Slotkin is very clear that “Government does not have the right to tell women what to do with their bodies.
“EMILY’s List taught me a lot. I met them early on and got endorsed by them. It’s important to lift women up and try to get something near parity in the House and Senate.” Better jobs and better job training are high on her agenda for economic parity in her district.
Slotkin sees sexual assault as an issue particularly salient in the wake of Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual predations upon young female athletes and gymnasts, including at Michigan State. “The 300 or so women who were abused were young women from my district and my area. That has become an extremely important focal point for young people, for women. I spend a lot of time talking about how to make sure schools, universities, workplaces respond to women’s allegations and claims with the seriousness they deserve. That did not happen with the Nassar tragedy. The school did not take the charges seriously and did not have policy to make a place safe for the students.”
A first-time candidate running in a district that has suffered economically for more than a decade, Slotkin has financial support from diverse sources. She says that the Jewish community in Lansing is small—“about 900.” Then there’s the large Jewish community just outside her district, in West Bloomfield, “places where I went to temple, where I had my bat mitzvah, where my parents live.” Plus, strong backing comes from expats. “Michiganders are very attached to the state after they leave. A lot of women have approached me from Washington, California, New York. And people from the defense community.”
The word on the street, from politically savvy women supporters, is that Slotkin has a good chance of winning both the August primary and the general election. She agrees. “My district is one of two in the state that can flip from Republican to Democrat. It can be one of the 23 seats we need to take to turn the House Democratic.”