Evan Smith: You’re the most prominent African American Texan in Washington, and you have Barbara Jordan’s old congressional seat, so this must be an incredibly resonant moment for you—to see the election of the first African American president in our history. What were you thinking on Election Day?
Sheila Jackson Lee: I didn’t want it to be taken away from us. I was reminiscing about the drama of 2000 and 2004. I was intimately involved in those presidential campaigns—I was actually in Florida for the recount for a period of time.
ES: You were one of the few members of Congress who refused to certify the Ohio election results four years ago.
SJL: That is correct. This time I just kept wondering: Will it be? But with the memory not only of the Honorable Barbara Jordan but also of [her successor] the Honorable Mickey Leland as a backdrop, I also imagined a kind of celebration, shouting, and joy. Well, I could see Congresswoman Jordan in a serious celebration, because she always gave that very focused and somber expression, juxtaposed against Congressman Leland’s exuberance—either “I told you so!” or “Long overdue!”
ES: Where were you the week of Election Day?
SJL: I was in Ohio the day before the election—I had the privilege of going there for the campaign. I did street work, visiting polling sites, talking to voters, shaking the hands of early voters. It was moving to be there, late into the night, and then to look up on election night and see that margin of victory. When Ohio and Florida went into Senator Obama’s column, that was significant.
ES: The margin was so wide—eight and a half million votes—that even if there had been a recount in one state or another, there was really no way for the election to turn.
SJL: There is a gospel song, usually sung by someone with a deep baritone, that goes, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” That was the feeling that a lot of us had on Election Day. Even as the numbers were coming in, we were just holding our breath to see if it would really happen.
ES: You were a loyal supporter of Senator Clinton’s during the primary. Was it bittersweet for you to see this victory, thinking that it could have been her?
SJL: I think what I understood, as someone who has been engaged in the process of winning and losing over the years, is that it was meant to be. So the joyousness was not diminished—it was aided. When I agreed to support Senator Clinton, I viewed her values as welcomed by Texans, welcomed by African Americans, welcomed by Hispanics, welcomed by Asians, welcomed by the diversity of our state.
ES: I’m sure that you were asked by African Americans along the way, “Why are you not supporting Senator Obama?”
SJL: As I often said to my questioners, I knew Senator Clinton’s heart. As the resolution of the race took place in June and we hit the road and started campaigning for Senator Obama, I can say that I began to immerse myself in the significance and the singleness of electing an African American president, and the emotion overtook me. But I didn’t back away from my support of Senator Clinton.
ES: You never thought to yourself, “Maybe I’m on the wrong side of this”?
SJL: I can calmly and frankly tell you no. You know, Evan, it was a tough primary. There were moments when it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. But I think I was a better person for it. I felt the tradition of the people who held this seat. The one thing you could say about Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland is that they were true to their word.
ES: But your district was for Senator Obama during the primary.
SJL: Oh, absolutely. I was right out in the open—right in the bull’s-eye, if you will. But I tried to do it with courtesy and decency and respect for the challenges being waged.
ES: I remember seeing a YouTube video of you being booed at a Democratic district convention.
SJL: We won’t call it “booed”—we’ll say that people were vigorously expressing their support for their candidate. As you’ve surely heard, if you can’t stand the heat, you’ve got to get out of the kitchen.
ES: So what happens now? What will be the material effect of Obama’s election on the lives of Texans?
SJL: Over the years, I’ve used campaign slogans such as “She works and gets results” and “She works for you.” With Barack Obama we will get results—people-based results. We’ll be engaged in the fight for Medicaid and Medicare. We might actually get into a decent debate about the return of the tax dollar to the people of Texas.
ES: How do you think the president-elect’s team regards Texas, given the fact that the state went for John McCain by nearly twelve points?
SJL: When his political people run the numbers, they see a different Texas, an emerging Texas. One that includes some of our more-conservative elements—God bless them, I respect them—but younger Texans as well. A Texas that is looking for change.
ES: Do you buy the idea posited by the Los Angeles Times that Texas may flip in the next two presidential cycles the way Virginia and other red states flipped this cycle?
SJL: I believe in Legos. What we saw in the 2008 election was an amazing shift of building blocks. We were successful in moving the ball a little bit in Harris County—as you know, we elected a Hispanic sheriff. We’ve got wonderful building-block opportunities in the Valley based on the work we’ll do for Hispanics. We are a larger state than Virginia, so it’s going to take us a while, but I think once Texans see a results-oriented president and Congress, their hearts and minds are absolutely going to change.
ES: Do you believe that the Democrats will be competitive statewide as soon as the 2010 elections?
SJL: I truly believe so. Obviously we’re going to have to do a road map that has us in all 254 counties with a message for those communities. Barack Obama did a fifty-state strategy, and it worked.
ES: You’re returning to a U.S. House that will have many more Democrats than it did last session. The U.S. Senate will be much more Democratic too. So it’s a solidly Democratic Congress—
SJL: From a philosophical perspective, we want all Americans to see this as an American Congress, not just a Democratic Congress. Our issues and ideas will be focused on the new direction of America.
ES: Okay. So to that end, what are three or four or five things that the American Congress, working with the newly elected president, will get done in the early part of the administration?
SJL: We’ve got to ensure that the economic stabilization package works. We want a Secretary of the Treasury who listens to us. Many of us want mortgage workouts; unlike Secretary [Henry] Paulson, we think there should be another look-see at buying troubled assets. The Secretary, in his hesitancy with respect to this economy, is contrary to FDR. Democrats have a history of not being afraid of action. We have to convince the American people that we can take aggressive action while protecting the basic economic infrastructure. So that’s the first thing—I want people to feel good about their pocketbooks. The second thing is that we want to create a health care system that gives access to the 47 million Americans who don’t have it, and we want the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Texas to work.
ES: The health care system that you’re talking about obviously will not come cheap. Where do President-elect Obama and the Congress get the money to pay for it and other programs? Is it by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to pre—Bush administration levels? Or do you accept the fact that we’re going to live with enormous deficits for some time?
SJL: I would agree with President-elect Obama that the deficit is going to have to rise for a period of time. As it relates to the richest among us, I have to be very cautious in putting more taxes on my fellow Texans. But where there is benefit, there is burden. In a war economy, there must be sacrifice. I want my fellow Texans to understand that at an income level of $250,000 and under, they’re not going to be taxed [any more than they already are], but yes, there is a reason to provide some [additional taxation] above that level to provide resources to turn back the tide of a recession.
ES: And yet, Congresswoman, there are those who say that in an economy as bad as this one, raising taxes—even on the wealthiest Americans—is not the way to get us out of this problem.
SJL: I believe they’re absolutely wrong on that. The other part of it, of course, is that we have a commitment to bringing the troops home [from Iraq]. The more than $300 million we’ve been spending each day can be better spent ensuring that our economy is building things. I happen to be a believer in putting manufacturing and inventiveness back in the hearts and souls of Americans. I want to promote the solar and wind industries in Texas.
ES: You’re gonna make Boone Pickens happy when he hears that.
SJL: I want to see green energy. I want to promote natural gas—Boone Pickens has a point. It can’t be solely that, but a shift to natural gas will create jobs.
ES: Do you think it’s realistic for people who supported President-elect Obama to think that we’re really going to see movement on Iraq—especially since he’s retaining Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon?
SJL: I’ve found Mr. Gates to be a reasoned protector of the nation’s security. We had a hearing on the agreement that has been quietly struck between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government on drawing down all troops by 2011. I challenge that. I think President Obama should have his say. But more important, I think there is an understanding that we need to bring our troops home.
ES: You would have it happen sooner than 2011.
SJL: I would like the Obama administration to put its handprint on it. Sheila Jackson Lee, an opponent of the war, would like to have our troops brought home with dignity and respect, safely and sooner.
ES: Is Iraq our most important foreign policy issue going forward?
SJL: In order to give our attention to a peaceful resolution of the Mideast conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in order to address the question of Iran, in order to address the questions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, we will have to have something stable to stand upon, and that is a commitment to resolve the issue of Iraq. I believe if we get our hands around it—if we stabilize Iraq, if we cause the government of Baghdad to embrace the different sects there, if we can get them to use their own oil resources to rebuild their country, put people back to work, build schools for their children, fix their health care system, fix their infrastructure—we can get them on the pathway to success.
ES: Speaking of Pakistan, President-elect Obama said repeatedly during the campaign that if we knew Osama bin Laden was hiding out in that country and its government was unwilling or unable to get him, the U.S. should take military action to capture and kill him. That’s a fairly hawkish position for a Democrat. As an opponent of the Iraq war, do you agree with it?
SJL: I’ve never wavered on my willingness to rid the world of Osama bin Laden. I recognized the necessity of doing what we needed to do after the horrific attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. In fact, I made the argument, as many have, that we should have continued our focus on Afghanistan and eliminating the horror of bin Laden. I will not second-guess the president-elect. I believe he will use the right judgment.
ES: Any other policy challenges for the new administration?
SJL: Absolutely: education. I know that with the economic crisis we’re facing, our minds have been distracted. But in my work on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I’ve come to understand the competitive nature of the world today. I want our children to be able to stand front and center as the leaders of the world academically. We’ve got to quash the high dropout rate, particularly for African Americans and Hispanics and in the rural areas of America. We have to retool our education system—there has to be a balance between people who use their minds and people who use their hands. We should make cars and ships, build buildings and build roads. There’s no shame in building things.
ES: We used to build things. What happened?
SJL: We began to worship the god of intelligence, to worship the god of technology, which is very important. But people can be as astute about technology using their hands. Our system has to give dignity to those who wish to be educated to a certain level and then go into making things.
ES: Any other priorities for education?
SJL: Fixing our old and deteriorating schools. Making sure that there isn’t a school in America in which a child doesn’t have access to a computer. Making sure our libraries are complete—there’s nothing more enhancing to learning than having books to read.
ES: What about immigration?
SJL: We must fix our immigration system. It’s not befitting of a country that looked to the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty in our early history. We have a murky immigration policy that does not reach our ideals. We mix the politics of scapegoating immigrants with our standard position of welcoming those who’ve escaped persecution. Our numbers of refugees accepted from some of the harshest places in the world are low and unacceptable. We need to develop a program of access to legalization—as much as people want to call it amnesty, those of us who’ve written this legislation know it is not.
ES: That’s an enormous set of challenges. When you think about the mess that President-elect Obama is inheriting, it’s fair to ask: Who would ever want that job?
SJL: I believe somewhat in destiny.
ES: Although it’s easy to forget, you were born and raised in New York and educated up East. How did you get from there to here?
SJL: This has been an idyllic odyssey of wanting to go south and make a difference—to be part of what I thought was an emerging attitude in the South and Southwest. My husband, Dr. Elwyn Lee, who’s the vice chancellor of the University of Houston, wanted to make a difference. We were each in the student movement in our undergraduate institutions. We didn’t know anything other than change at that time. We thought we could come to Texas and not take it by storm but be as helpful as possible. I’ve now been here for more than half my life, and I have native-born children. I’m embedded. I certainly love my roots, but I’m so much a part of Texas. I hope that in my service to this community and the excitement that I feel in always coming back home to Houston that I’ve proven myself, that I’ve gotten my belt buckle and my boots. And I love wearing my hat.