CANDIDATE INTERVIEW: BRENDA LOPEZ ROMERO

Brenda Lopez Romero is a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s Seventh District. The district featured the closest election in the entire nation in the 2018 midterms. In that election, Republican Rob Woodall beat Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux by less than 500 votes. Earlier this year, however, Rob Woodall announced that he would not be running for re-election, spurring candidate announcements among both Republicans and Democrats. Romero is currently a Georgia State Representative and part of her district overlaps with the Seventh. She is hoping that her experience and relationship with constituents can edge her past a wide field of Democrats in the primary and beat out a Republican competitor in the general.  Read the “2020 Battlegrounds” post on GA-07 that digs deeper into the district’s history and 2020 prospects. This interview was conducted on June 11, 2019.

The following interview has been condensed and edited to remove unnecessary words, phrases and questions for clarity. If you want the full, messy, extended version, you can find it in under Candidate Interviews –> Extended Interviews.

Seth: How is the campaign going?
Lopez-Romero: We’re obviously very excited. We’ve been building the infrastructure of the campaign and getting logistics out of the way. And doing that engagement to the community and grassroots organizations and the people.

Seth: What are  your policy priorities on the campaign trail and if you were elected?
Lopez-Romero:  There are five platform areas that I have for this campaign. I have no interest in bringing D.C. talking points to Georgia. My interest is making sure that the interests and concerns that affect the constituents are brought to D.C. I’m bring Georgia’s voice to D.C. It’s very common  to hear some of the same things being repeated [by Democratic candidates], but for me they’re not just clichés, they’re not just talking points. They’re lived experiences.

One issue that I’m focused on is supporting education access and supporting public schools. I grew up in Dekalb County, right around the Seventh. And went to public schools there were both overcrowded and underfunded. So, I know how vital and pivotal it is to improve our schools and what it means when they’re not.

Likewise, one of my interests has always been that pathway into higher education. If it weren’t for someone helping me along the way, I wouldn’t’ have probably where I am today. In high school in fact, I had a high school counselor tell me that because I was bilingual that I would be a good secretary or receptionist. I also had a pretty good French teacher that was the one that helped me fill out my college applications. He was the one that told me what FAFSA was because I didn’t know what it was. And so, it’s always important for me that we continue to provide the resources and information so that our students are able to go into higher education and technical education.  We can look at a lot of other issues but if we’re not improving the educational opportunities for people, then we’re not improving their lives generally and generationally.

Seth: Which specific policies would you be focusing on? And so how do you see your fight for better education changing from working on the state level to federal level?
Lopez-Romero: I see the importance of not necessarily dictating way about how education processes should run. I know the negative impacts of things like No Child Left Behind where there was a lot of proscribed metrics.  At the Federal level we can be most useful by focusing on providing funding and resources, especially for schools with greater need — whether that would be schools with Title 1 or schools that have high need students, whether those are special education or students with disabilities.

One of the other key components at the Federal level is to ensure and protect the civil rights of students in school systems. That cuts across the issues of making sure that we have compliance for special education for students with disabilities, for students with limited English proficiency.

I would also focus on providing funding for revitalizing the infrastructure of public schools. In the state as a whole, is the fact that our rural schools sometimes are in major need of infrastructure funding. I want to work with these school systems to ensure that when we need capital investment infrastructure improvement in our schools, that we can collaborate with the state and local government.

Seth: Do you support public funding for charter schools and voucher programs?
Lopez-Romero:  In the State of Georgia, there are different varieties. We have public charter schools that are a part of the local system. I think that is a state and local issue. They still have to comply with many of the state regulations and accountability measures. But there are also private charter schools and that is where I have my greatest concern — when we’re using vouchers to fund private charter schools that no longer have the same level of requirements to meet the state or local government regulations or accountability measures. And so vouchers or anything that takes away money from the public-school system into other entities, is something that I have opposed in the legislature. That’s something that has come forth numerous times and it’s something that I consistently stood and voted against.

Seth: Do you support free public college for all Americans. Or is that something that is not feasible or too expensive?
Lopez-Romero: I would be supportive of making sure that our technical education aspect of college is free. In fact, in Georgia, we have 12 industries that are considered high need industries and require technical school that actually are tuition free. And so, we’ve already recognized how valuable and important it is that we have industry-based needs that need to be covered and something that we have incentivized by making those tuition free.

The issue is never for me about feasibility. That’s something that you definitely have to take a look at and being in the legislature I see how important that is. For me you never start with that question. You start with about “what is a good program? What is a good idea? How is it workable and if it is, how does the cost come in or where does the funding or money go?” So generally, I support the general idea of tuition-free education — definitely technical education and some college education.

Seth: What are your other priorities?
Lopez-Romero: Good, strong economic growth that leads to good jobs with livable wages and good benefits.

One of the most important things a congressional person can do has less to do with the legislation aspect and more about being present in your district and providing information and resources and helping bring funding and grants to the different needs that we might have in the district. I will be engaged with the local and state government to ensure sure that were collaborating on economic growth in the seventh.

One of the other things that I want to ensure with economic growth is to ensure that women and minority owned business continue obtaining contracts for a lot of the economic growth that we see here in the Seventh. We also need to ensure that economic growth does not displace residents or small businesses. That implicates issues of affordable housing.

Seth: Why do you want to move from state to federal politics when it sounds like you are dedicated to your community and the local area?
Lopez-Romero: It took a lot of thought to decide to make that final decision to run for Congress. It wasn’t official until the beginning of April and that is why I didn’t announce until about a month ago. I had to wait until after session to make that final decision. On the personal side, my background, especially academically, is in federal issues and international issues. The policy areas that really get me excited focus on national policy, particularly as it relates to international affairs or foreign policy.

I need to backtrack: I was actually born in Mexico but I moved here to reunite with my father when I was five years old here to the State of Georgia. I didn’t speak English. At about seven years old I learned enough English and so I became what I call a sort of de-facto interpreter. With teachers, parents, neighbors, students, I was kind of pulled along to make sure that I could interpret for them. That grew a sense of duty to help people with something as basic as language access.

I’ve been heavily involved in community advocacy work since I was young. So, despite the fact that my policy interests are at the federal international level, I do understand the daily lives and the daily needs of people. That  implies the best combination of a congressional person that you can have: someone that understand the big pictures and big issues that affect our country but that understands how those big picture issues affect day to day lives for the person that is just getting by.

And on the practical side, I did a review of what happened in 2018. Quite frankly, one of the reasons that I decided to run is because I think that this primary is about one thing only. This primary is about flipping the Seventh. And I don’t think the other candidates that we have are actually going to be able to flip the Seventh in 2020 if we weren’t able to flip it in 2018.

Seth: The district almost flipped in 2018, but not quite. What was the problem for the Democrat?
Lopez-Romero: In 2018, we had what I call the Abrams1Stacey Abrams was the 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial nominee in Georgia effect. We saw historic turnout because of her infrastructure and bringing out voters for the first time.  Here in the Seventh we had five House seat districts flip, one Senate district flip, the Solicitors office in Gwinnett flip, a school board seat flip, a Commission seat flip. All of Gwinnett County went blue.

Quite frankly, you said ‘almost’. There’s no almost. In elections you either win or you lose. Considering the fact that we had such great turnout. The fact that we had so many seats flip in the Seventh. The fact that even the Sixth Congressional District was actually considered slightly more Republican than the Seventh says that the problems have nothing to do with our voter base here in the Seventh.  That fact that the prior nominee wasn’t able to reach out to the voters the way that she needed to. She could not bring any more votes on her own than the votes that already came out for the other candidates, whether it was a statewide ticket or a local candidate. 2020 will be that much harder to win and I say that because for starters, we won’t necessarily have Abrams as the top ticket. It will be a presidential year; therefore, turnout is going to be higher. We are going to have Trump on the ballot or a Republican nominee that will continue to increase that extreme conservative turnout.

In terms of how I see what our campaign can do differently, I see it twofold. One is the fact that I have been doing a lot of the community, grassroots outreach. There is already a trust factor that is built in with a lot of voters within the district. I mean that even before I was elected. I have built these relationships over the last five to ten years. And the other is I have always been able to connect well with people. I haven’t had to come in and ask people to vote for me, some random person who woke up one day and said, “Hey I’m going to run for office”.

When I first ran, we ran by reaching out to first time voters. We ran by reaching out to all voters. That is one of the things that we haven’t learned particularly here in the Seventh. It’s a very diverse district. It’s one of the most diverse districts in the Southeast excluding Florida. We intend on reaching that diverse set of voters. All of them. And giving them reasons and incentives to actually come out and vote. And I think you do that by having that personal connection and building that trust with voters.

We are a part of that suburban arch of City of Atlanta proper and some of the issues that we see here in Georgia as it relates to health care and the abortion ban the right to privacy and the right to physical autonomy, I think that resonates a lot with suburban women. That is a demographic that we should all focus on. When I say all voters, I truly mean all voters.

Seth: The candidate last cycle, Carolyn Bourdeaux, might say, “The district in 2016 went 20 points for the Republican and then last cycle it was almost even. The trajectory of the district is getting more diverse  younger. With those trends, I’ll be able to flip it.” Why do you think that is wrong?
Lopez-Romero: It’s not that the district is turning blue. The district turned to blue already and it turned blue before 2018. You weren’t able to flip it in 2018. In 2020, the general election is going to be that much harder. The issue here is about the candidate. Which candidate is going to have the turnout necessary and to engage and reach and connect to the young voters, to the new American voters, to those first-time voters that no one has really come to them about what their daily life concerns are? That is what I bring to the table as a candidate.

In 2018 we had Woodall, who made zero attempt at fighting for his seat. He actually told the media he had no reason to campaign. In 2020 we are going to have a Republican nominee that is actually going to want to fight to keep their seat. So, you add all of these things and the real issue here is, who is the candidate that’s going to connect and reach all of the demographic points that we mentioned and motivate them to actually come out and vote?

Seth: Some voters will want to hear your position of the big issues of the day. Let’s start with your position on Medicare for All as it has been proposed by Senator Sanders.
Lopez-Romero: I’ve been at the legislature fighting for full Medicaid expansion under the ACA and so I will continue to do that work here in our State.

Part of what we can practically begin in Congress is ensuring that we continue to protect the ACA. Protect it and improve it.  The ACA, during its negotiations, at some point we had a public option. And I think that could work. Because the issue here in the question about Medicare For All isn’t the title Medicare For All. That’s just the messaging talking point. The issue behind that is how do we get affordable and quality health care to those that are either uninsured or underinsured.

I would be willing to look at all policy proposals that provide for affordable and quality health insurance whether it’s improving the ACA, whether it’s revamping the health care system all together.

Seth: There are progressives who say, “Medicare For All is the message that the Democratic party needs to be putting forward. We should not have private insurance and we should have a single payer government system.” But it sounds like you’re open to more options than that. Is that correct?
Lopez-Romero: If we can cover more people and provide it… because one of the other things that’s important to the healthcare discussion that is vital is how do we reign in prescription cost and the billing and cost of medical procedures. Sometime you will see some hospital facilities have prices for Medicare and Medicaid that are overinflated from what they would charge a privately insured or uninsured person that would be able to pay out of pocket.

When we talk about health care, you’re correct, I’m very open to options that actually provide universal healthcare that we need — that’s quality universal healthcare. The fact that other similarly economic developed countries have prescription costs that are sometimes twice or ten times or a hundred times cheaper than we have them here in the United States is a big problem. So yes, I’m not willing to exclude any policy idea so long as we’re getting to our goal.

Seth: Gwinnett County recently extended the Immigration and Nationalities Act section 287(g) that allows local law enforcement to hold people for federal immigration enforcement. What’s your position on that provision and also immigration overall?
Lopez-Romero: Fighting against 287(g) programs in Gwinnett County and the other three counties — Hall County, Whitfield and Cobb County — that also have 287(g) is something that I’ve done since 2009. I understand it both from its legal implications and how that has affected our locality.

Particularly here in Gwinnett since 2009 to 2011 there was a huge enforcement in 287(g) when it was first introduced. And I lived through that and it was devastating to the economy of this county. We had several businesses basically close because of the impact. That’s on the economic side for the county. On the people side of 287(g) we saw so many issues of egregious racial profiling. We would see “check points” being put out around people’s places of worship, around shopping centers that were primarily consumers from immigrant backgrounds. We have a very high both Latino and Asian population particularly here in Gwinnett County. It was very difficult.

The Stewart Detention Center which is the largest detention center in the southeast, close to 60% of people that are detained in Stewart actually come from Gwinnett County. The disproportionate number shows you how much of this is really implies the racial profiling issue.

I’ve been working on advocating for comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act or some variation of both probably since 2004. I think it’s vital that I bring both those personal stories and experience of being and immigrant here in Georgia but also the legal knowledge of immigration law.

I want to push the conversation back to where we were it was in 2012, when this had bipartisan support. We do have bipartisan support; we just need someone that’s able to talk about it both from a personal story context and from the practical legal obstacle side of it. We had in 2012 and 2013 legislation that basically had comprehensive immigration reform and Dream Act kind of all in one. That included border security funding. It was comprehensive immigration reform as we should have it. I will want to continue to push the dialogue to make sure that we’re actually proposing something very similar that was voted on in 2012.

Seth: Georgia recently passed a bill that would restrict abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected in many cases. And I know that you’ve spoken out against that. Can you elaborate your position around abortion?.
Lopez-Romero: My position is valuing two things: the right to privacy and the right to body autonomy. When and if a pregnancy can be carried to full term is a decision of the woman in consultation with medical needs. It’s important to highlight, that particularly if we’re talking about pregnancy terminations that are not early on, most often that has to do with medical situations and medical treatment. I think that we do a huge disrespect to women that have to make some of these decisions because they’re experiencing very difficult times in their lives.

I will continue to support Federal statue to safeguard against potential future Supreme Court decisions the right that was enshrined in Roe and Supreme Court decisions since.

In Georgia specifically, we do have that bill. The Supreme Court, assuming it would hold its precedent, will and should rule the abortion ban itself unconstitutional. One of the things that I’m more concerned about  is the fact that our legislature was one of the few that also included issues of personhood. That detail gets lost as we’re only talking about the abortion ban itself. One of my concerns is whether the Supreme Court will allow States to have restrictions based on personhood issues.

At the Federal level, we have to communicate with voters why all elections matter. Why our U.S. Senate elections matter. Not just at the Supreme Court level, but any Federal level, we have had our judiciary with federal lifetime appointments being appointed under this current administration by individuals that may not necessarily value that right to privacy and that fundamental right to physical autonomy. It’s important that we highlight that to the voters.

Seth: Do you support: 1) impeaching the president and 2) beginning impeachment proceedings in the House.
Lopez-Romero: Have we seen a large disregard for even the ethical processes of what we would consider our president and presidential candidates to abide by? Of course. Would we have allowed any other presidential candidate in the past to have done this without any repercussions? I don’t think so. We’re in an unprecedented situation. And so, I say this: I would be supportive of what you mentioned.

For me it’s very important to explain to voters what the process is. I would be supportive of starting impeachment inquires and the impeachment process. On the House side it is very likely that we would be able to impeach on the House side. But that is unlikely to be the case on the Senate side. I find it very important to clarify to voters that when we say we could start the impeachment in the process the House, that that would not necessarily imply an approval of the impeachment on the Senate side.

We also need to be very aware that there will be a backlash if that is done. We have to be willing to put in a lot of work to ensure that our voter base comes out to vote to try and negate that backlash from the extreme right.

Seth: To clarify, are you at the point where you support an impeachment inquiry or do you feel like you still need to speak to more constituents to find out where they are?
Lopez-Romero: I think right now I still need to continue to have that conversation. I want to continue talking to people throughout the Seventh and having conversations and that understanding to make a final decision.

Seth: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me. I know that you’re probably very busy so I don’t want to take up more than an hour of your time.
Lopez-Romero: Thank you for reaching out. If you have any questions down the line, give me a call or send me a text message and let me know if you have any future questions.
Seth: Thank you very much.