U.S. Rep. Susan Wild on the upcoming election, the COVID-19 response and the movement for police reform

06/17/2020

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild based her vote May 15 against a second coronavirus stimulus bill, the HEROES Act, on several factors: The $3 trillion package was crammed too full, it was being rushed through with too little time to digest it all and it was deemed DOA in the Senate.

It also served as a preemptive strike against a political challenge that would come into focus less than three weeks later.

On June 3, the day after Pennsylvania’s primary election, Lisa Scheller claimed victory as the Republican nominee to challenge Wild’s re-election bid in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District. Though her primary opponent, Dean Browning, had yet to concede, Scheller had moved on -- calling on Lehigh Valley Republicans "to re-elect President Trump and defeat the Nancy Pelosi puppet Susan Wild this November.”

The vote on the HEROES Act, which is still before the Senate, was “probably best example of how I’m not a Nancy Pelosi puppet,” Wild said Tuesday, referring to the Democratic speaker of the House from California.

"The speaker would have much preferred that I voted for the HEROES Act and I didn't because of concerns that I had about it," Wild said. "I have taken positions adverse to the speaker on plenty of occasions. I have no concerns about speaking my mind or taking my vote in whatever way I feel guided to do so."

With the Nov. 3 congressional race set for the PA-07 district covering Lehigh, Northampton and southern Monroe counties, Wild spoke Tuesday with lehighvalleylive.com for a look at her top issues, including ways she sees to begin addressing social justice issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and what's next in the fight against COVID-19.

In the coronavirus battle, Wild said that assuming positive cases continue to decline, the focus now must be on reopening the economy. She points to her intervention with Gov. Tom Wolf on behalf of Realtors frustrated because Pennsylvania was the only state not allowing in-person real estate work under mitigation strategies. Almost immediately after they talked, she said, he changed his position.

On Tuesday, she held a virtual roundtable discussion with Lehigh Valley restaurateurs looking to get back up and running, from pizzerias to high-end destinations: "I want to hear what their concerns are and the problems they need to have addressed."

On the social front, Wild sees an opportunity to shift some duties away from emergency departments and the criminal justice system in an area very close to her own life: mental health.

Wild is about 13 months removed from the suicide of her partner, 63-year-old Kerry Acker, in May 2019.

According to her office, she has legislation directing federal education and health officials to encourage colleges to develop suicide prevention plans, make the suicide of a loved one a qualifying event for family members to enroll in or change an insurance plan so they have mental health coverage, and also an amendment that was signed into law through the Older Americans Act reauthorization to make pre-screening for suicidal thoughts mandatory for seniors entering long-term care. Last week, she rolled out a new bill to create 24/7 mobile crisis units to respond to mental health threats at the county level, in addition to funding crisis call lines and long-term mental health care.

It's in that last area, through new mental health block grant funding, that she sees the potential for shifting some duties away from police. She cites the fatal shooting by police Friday in Atlanta of 27-year-old Black man Rayshard Brooks after he was found sleeping in a Wendy's drive-through. The killing drew widespread attention amid Black Lives Matter protests across the nation in the wake of the police homicide of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis and countless other police killings of Black people in recent years.

Police can't be blamed for everything, Wild said. But taking a more holistic approach to a community's mental health needs might have led to a different outcome, had better trained professionals intervened with Brooks instead of armed police, she said.

"The loss of my partner was my impetus for going into this area," Wild said. "But I have to tell you, that as soon as I did I realized how neglected this field has been for so long. Every time I turn around something reminds us of that."

COVID-19 has also exposed the fragility of the nation's collective mental health, she noted, from families who might be confined to home with someone who's abusive, to the unemployed growing desperate to others seeing their "anxieties are off the charts, people that haven't previously sought mental health care," Wild said.

For Wild, serving in Congress "has saved me in the sense that it's given me real purpose and not only the ability but the need to put one step in front of the other and keep moving."

When she spoke about Acker’s death on the House floor last June, she began to hear from others across the country who have attempted suicide or had loved ones who died by suicide.

"That provided me the opportunity to quickly pivot to what I like to do best, which is problem-solving," Wild said Tuesday. "I try to make a point of looking for where the problems are. That's kind of counterintuitive in your personal life -- you don't go looking for problems -- but in your congressional life you do."

Wild prides herself on her accessibility and availability to constituents, who might have (pre-coronavirus) visited her offices in hopes of seeing not just Wild but her miniature poodle, too. Zoey was voted “Cutest Pet on Capitol Hill” over Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Bailey in a 2019 Animal Health Institute contest.

"She's our chief morale officer," Wild said.

Wild has been in Congress since immediately after the 2018 election, when she was sworn-in to finish the term of retired U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, the moderate Republican who represented Lehigh Valley communities in Pennsylvania's old 15th Congressional District.

Working with the Republican administration, Wild said she has seen successes and frustration. On the positive side, she worked to get protections against pharmaceutical monopolies included in the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement hailed by Trump as one of his top achievements. She also had two bills signed into law through the first coronavirus stimulus bill, the CARES Act, both to support seniors -- one regarding meal delivery and one regarding in-home care.

Her main frustration with the administration comes when they lock down witnesses, such as refusing to schedule or postponing at the last minute appearances by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss his department's budget. She also believes the government's response to the pandemic would have gone more smoothly if some of the myriad vacant positions were filled.

"The slash-and-burn approach to government agencies and staffing has not served us well in COVID at all," Wild said.

Looking ahead, Wild said she is running for a second term because serving in Congress isn't about quick victories, but about "setting building blocks for future legislation and I feel like in the last two years I've done a lot of that groundwork and I want to keep working on these same issues and actually seeing them come to some sort of conclusion ... ."

And she said she has more listening to constituents to do on priorities like public school funding, universal pre-K and increasing higher education opportunities like apprenticeship training.

“To me the job is as much about being there and listening and taking action as it is anything else,” Wild said. “You could negotiate the greatest peace deal in the Middle East and if you’re not doing the work back home for the people who vote for you or don’t vote for you, all the people in your district, you’re failing them. That’s where I really feel my strength has been.”

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