This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.
Update: On Friday, June 23, Sen. Dean Heller said he would not support the newly released Senate health care overhaul bill in its current form. Heller is seen as a pivotal swing vote in Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, according to The New York Times.
Sarah Jaffe speaks with Autumn Zemke, co-chair of Northern Nevada Working Families Party in Carson City, about fighting against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) repeal in her state. Nevada is an interesting case study in the Obamacare rollout. Gov. Brian Sandoval was one of the few Republican governors to endorse Obamacare and run with it in his state. He instituted a state exchange and expanded Medicaid, which extended insurance to more than 300,000 Nevadans. The percentage of uninsured in the state dropped from 23 percent, one of the worst in the nation, to 11 percent.
Last Friday, Gov. Sandoval vetoed a bill put on his desk by the state legislature proposing to expand Medicaid to all Nevada residents. Zemke talks about the state bill and her concerns about the US Senate bill repealing and replacing Obamacare released today. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Sarah Jaffe: You visited [Nevada Republican] Sen. Dean Heller’s office about the health care bill over the weekend. Tell us about it.
Autumn Zemke: We were planning on doing a sit-in at the federal building in Reno but were only allowed to enter the building one person at a time. I went in with a group of three and we asked if we could go up together but were told: no, only one at a time. I said, “Well, what if we were men, lobbyists in nice suits? Then, would you say only one of us at a time?” The response from security was that they couldn’t answer my question. I was actually filming and was told that I was rude for trying to get an answer.
Heller really does limit access. He has had only one town hall in six years. He is not very interested in what we have to say here in Nevada.
SJ: Six years — that means he is coming up for re-election very soon.
AZ: Yes, in November 2018. His approval rating has really plummeted and I’ll be very surprised if he wins the election. Nevada is purplish/reddish/bluish. It is full of people who really are not partisan. People are increasingly noticing that Heller will be at a meeting and say one thing to one group of people and then within hours tell another group something else entirely. What I always find interesting is that in this day of technology, how can you still think you can get away with that and that it won’t be publicized?
When we were down at Heller’s office Friday night, one of the things that we were discussing is the fact that the Medicaid-for-all bill was still sitting on the governor’s desk. He had until midnight to veto it. If he didn’t, it would have become law. Then, shortly after we had left the senator’s office, we got word that the governor had vetoed it. Now we are really in this place that saving the ACA is even more important.
I supported the Medicaid-for-all bill. I personally don’t have insurance, so Friday night was a devastating blow for me.
Just because I don’t have insurance right now doesn’t mean that I’m going to say [about Obamacare], “Well, just let it be repealed. Let’s just let 24 million people suffer [and] the 600,000 people on expanded Medicaid in Nevada, we don’t care about them because I personally don’t have insurance under that system.” That is not right. We really have to fight against the repeal, but we also have to talk about ideas like expanded Medicaid, like Medicare for all and what that truly would mean for this country.
SJ: Tell us more about the Medicaid-for-all proposal in Nevada for people who don’t know about it.
AZ: I’m not an expert, but the way that I understood the bill is that it would have meant that all 2.9 million Nevadans would have been able to have the option to buy into the Medicaid system. You wouldn’t be forced into the system and private insurance would still exist. Medicaid would just be on the exchange so anyone could buy into it. For those people who still qualify for Medicaid, they would get their Medicaid.
SJ: Tell us a little bit more about what has been going on in Nevada since November, the work that you have been doing building the organization out there.
AZ: I really want to focus on some positives right now. Nevada is an interesting state in terms of politics. Nevada went for Hillary Clinton and we formed Working Families thinking that Clinton would win. Then she didn’t.
Now we have this new coalition of organizations working together that we didn’t necessarily think we were going to have. We meet regularly and do actions together. It is Indivisible and Northern Nevada Marches Forward, Planned Parenthood and Progressive Democrats of America. We are all at the table together and we are holding strong. We support each other’s actions and we really push our members. Because we are such a strong coalition, that means something different than if we were all each doing our own thing. I used to think that there weren’t a lot of truly progressive people in Nevada, but because of this [coalition], we have found each other.
One of the first things we did is attend an event at the Carson City Chamber of Commerce where both Sen. Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) were speaking. I think there were close to 500 people there. We were able to turn people out and there were people who purchased tickets to be in the luncheon, people who had voted for Amodei and Heller, too. They were holding them accountable.
That was the first time where they said, “No, we aren’t going to vote for the repeal [of the Affordable Care Act].” Then, we know what happened with Amodei. [Amodei changed his mind and voted for the bill in the House.] They also addressed our joint legislature. They only meet every two years. We showed up to hold Amodei and Heller accountable.
Then, every Tuesday since Jan. 10, people show up at the federal building in Reno where Heller’s office is for our Resist Trump Tuesdays. We don’t even have to advertise it anymore. People just know to show up and individually want to hold him accountable. I think that people are really angry and scared. Health care, being able to go to the doctor — it’s our lives. This is how we continue to live. It can be really discouraging, but having the coalition does help because we can stand together.
SJ: I have been talking to a lot of people who have been organizing around health care and it seems like an issue that breaks down a lot of walls for people. People find it easier to come together and talk about health care than maybe some other issues.
AZ: When we really start talking about issues, I think people are more closely aligned than not. When we get into cult of personality and politicians, that is where the breakdown really happens. But on an individual level — in my Republican family, if we talk about issues we can come together more easily than if we bring up a specific name.
My husband works for Medicaid in Nevada. Until he started working for Medicaid, I didn’t realize that people died because they didn’t have health care. There was such a disconnect [with] that reality. I’m from Nevada and my family has lived in Nevada for 150 years. There is this narrative that “These progressive people are coming into our state from California or other places.” No, I’m Nevadan and I’m changing my state because it’s my state.
We lived in Seattle and I never understood that people died because they didn’t have health care. Seattle is a pretty progressive place and there’s a medical school there that is really good. People get taken care of — not always, but more so than here. In Nevada, people are denied Medicaid for not meeting certain financial criteria. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have cancer or if you have diabetes or if you have any condition that is going to kill you. If you don’t fit those parameters, you find the cash or you die.
Then there is this other assumption: “Well, if people need treatment, they just go to the emergency room.” That is not accurate. People who go to the emergency room, if you are having a heart attack for example, they perform life-saving measures and then you are in medical debt for the rest of your life. But if you have a condition like diabetes or cancer or anything that needs treatment over a long period of time, you don’t live. They don’t treat you. They will stabilize you, but they are not going to give you chemotherapy.
I think the American public needs that kind of realization, the kind of wake-up that I had. I think it is important for us to tell that story, “This person died.” There is this gentleman who I just came across on Twitter and he was trying to crowdfund his insulin. He was big in the arts scene and comic book scene. This man actually died because he couldn’t raise the money.
We shouldn’t be crowdfunding health care. Not in the world’s wealthiest country. It is insanity. Plus, it just doesn’t make financial sense. The reality is we have to hold Heller accountable: Why would you do this? Why would you take health care away from us? And hold them accountable to the fact that there is no financial reason for it either.
The reality is, the people who are in the 1 percent are there off the backs of our labor. It is not like we are trying to take something from them. They have that wealth because they have workers, they have employees and they have people who have lifted them up. They got there because they have companies where they have people working for them. That is our wealth. We helped make that wealth. Asking for health care shouldn’t be that big of a deal when we create the wealth as employees, as workers.
SJ: Did you successfully get to say any of this to Heller or his aide, or did they just completely block you all out?
AZ: People did go up. I always bring comment sheets with me. People brought those up. It was kind of interesting because the staff lingered, like not really engaged I would say, but lingering. It’s just not how you should treat your constituents. You should engage them. It just wasn’t a dialogue. It was interesting, the security guard had a sheet with the law of why we weren’t being allowed to be let in, because we would disrupt or block the egress. The thing is, like my co-chair Drew List of the Carson City Chapter of the Working Families Party said, we had no plans of disrupting in that way. We just wanted to come in as a group, as a united front and speak with our senator’s staff. That shouldn’t be a big deal. If we were a group of lobbyists, we would have been let in.
SJ: What are you guys planning for next steps?
AZ: This week we have just a week of actions. I think there is almost something going on every day between now and next weekend. We are going to continue our push trying to get Heller on the phone. A lot of us use Resistbot, where you text and it faxes your written comments, and then, continue to go in person. Then we will see what he does.
But, even now, especially with Medicaid-for-all being vetoed, we just have to continue to hold him accountable, and long-term. Because if you vote to repeal our health care, there is so much going on that people kind of forget. We have a year and a half to get out the vote, to get Heller out of office if he is not listening to us. We need to continue to hold him accountable regardless of what happens with health care, because there are so many other things, but this is our focus right now.
I honestly think Heller will probably vote with his party. Statistically, he used to be a little bit more independent, but he now just votes along party line. He did for all of Trump’s appointees. He has just gone along. But I was really shocked about Amodei, I really was. I was because he was so on the record as being against the American Health Care Act bill. Then, long-term, we will continue to hold Heller accountable, especially as the August recess comes up and he will be in the state of Nevada. He has yet to have a town hall in southern Nevada. He is from where I live [Carson City] and owns a ranch out where my family has lived for over a hundred years.
I think he needs to look his constituents in the eyes. We want to force him in the north to really get down to Las Vegas and have a town hall down there, too. I think he is really scared to. We are just going to keep pushing. You see people kind of getting tired, but when it comes to the issues, I think some people are getting tired of the Trump/Russia stuff and really just want to focus on the issues that impact everybody’s daily individual life. Health care is that.
SJ: How can people keep up with you and with Working Families in Nevada?
AZ: We are on Facebook. Right now we’re the Carson City Working Families Party, but we’re merging into Northern Nevada. Then, on Twitter it is @CCWFP. I also recommend going to the Working Families Party national organization and seeing what we as a national organization have to offer.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.