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.
Today we bring you a conversation with Mari Cordes of Vermont, a registered nurse, union leader, candidate for local office, stalwart of the single-payer campaign and founding board member of Rights and Democracy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Jaffe: You were in Washington, DC, on Thursday when the vote went down on health care reform, right?
Mari Cordes: I have been here since Thursday. I am running for the Vermont House of Representatives again in 2018 and I am here for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s national candidate training. I was selected as one of 300 candidates to attend this amazing training, which coincided with more actions by the amazing Center for Popular Democracy and Housing Works in the Senate offices, in the Capitol, and at senators’ offices. I was part of the protest and the rally outside of the Capitol building the night the vote came down.
SJ: Tell us a little bit about what that was like, while you were waiting to hear about the vote.
MC: It was an amazing experience to hear, once again, many stories of how everyone not only would have been impacted by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but by the reality that our elected leaders intentionally were [basically] attacking the American people.
As my friend Sampson and I were heading toward the rally that night at the Capitol, we passed near an outdoor movie theater and it turns out they were playing Star Wars. It was the perfect setting to hear that bombastic, symphonic music, because all of this still feels so unreal, so surreal, that this actually is happening in the United States.
We heard so many incredible and painful and heartbreaking stories about friends, people that we know, people that we don’t know that would have died and/or families that would have lost their homes and/or gone bankrupt, all in the name of an obsession with an ideology, an obsession with a hatred that a black man was president of the United States and was successful in creating policy that was definitely not perfect, but did help millions of people. It was very powerful to be in that circle, that communion of sorts, and hold a vigil for our country, whatever the outcome [was] going to be.
In that moment, there was the moment of “We are going to lose” and that feeling of hopelessness and despair. Then, a pause and a quiet moment and Ben Wikler [the Washington Director of MoveOn.org] delivered it beautifully. He became really somber. I thought it meant that we had lost, but it created this silent space for us to hear the statement that the vote was “No.” I don’t think I have ever experienced anything so powerful in my life. It was incredible.
SJ: That vote was “No,” but you are not stopping. We are talking on Saturday evening and you are about to head to another rally for health care. Tell us about that and tell us about why the fight is still going on.
MC: We got to bed at 4:30 that morning. We did rest a little bit, but with the awareness that the American people are still under attack on many fronts, not just health care, but the freedom and liberation of many individuals in this country is at risk. So, we can’t stop. In fact, there is no better time to increase the pressure and increase our activism than after a win like this, because especially those who were at risk of losing so much and especially those who have been working so hard in this fight, we have that lived experience of collective power of movement building, the organizing work. We cannot stop. We have to take this momentum and move forward.
SJ: You went to DC a few times. You were involved in a lot of organizing, even though Vermont, obviously, didn’t have a senator that was going to vote “Yes” on this thing. But, what are some of the important lessons that you learned from the seven months of fighting to try to stave off cuts to health care?
MC: I think the most important lesson is to never give up. In a fight like this, never give up. I have been very active working in Vermont towards a universal publicly funded health care system that gets rid of the highly profitable insurance companies and creates a real system. We have had our successes, like when Act 48 in Vermont passed, and we have lost in Vermont when Gov. Shumlin pulled the plug on that. We are still working hard in Vermont to move towards a universal publicly funded system. I would say that is the most important thing. We have to keep going. It is OK to rest for a little bit and take care of each other and ourselves, but we have to keep moving forward.
SJ: I want to go back to the situation in Vermont in a minute, but was there a particular moment or a particular tactic around Trumpcare that you thought was particularly successful? Some moment that maybe you saw somebody’s mind change?
MC: I think there were many moments that were successful, but they were most powerful because each action, each arrest — I was in the first group of people of 150 or more and 40 of us were arrested; I was in the second group, I don’t remember how many were in there, but 80 of us were arrested. Then, the third time, I was a legal support for ADAPT. Hundreds were arrested, I believe, in that action.
I think it was a cumulative effect, in addition to all of the actions and emails and calls from people across the country that created enough pressure on senators. All of these actions, and the media that they generated, including all of the social media, I could see on my own personal social media sites people getting engaged that might not have gotten engaged before and taking actions. It is a cumulative thing. That is the thing about collective power and movement building — it is generative. It is obvious now that people are rising up and that more people realize that organizing does work.
SJ: As you said, you are a nurse, you have been a union leader, and you have been working on health care for your entire adult life. Why is this such a powerful issue to get people organized around?
MC: Health care is a very powerful issue to get people organized around because it impacts every single person personally, often in potentially devastating ways. As I mentioned earlier, many people that I have met though doing these actions and then all the patients that I work with every day, I hear, I see how critically important having access to health care is for them and their families.
I work in a busy cardiology unit at the University of Vermont Medical Center and every day I am at work, when I have three or four patients, I look at each one of them and wonder: “What if they didn’t have access to health care, if they didn’t have insurance? If they couldn’t get health care when they needed it, would they be alive right now?” The huge majority of the time, the answer is “No.”
Then, it is personal for me, too. I have health issues, like most of us do. I would say, more than anything, it is such a huge area of injustice in our country and the fact that in 2017 we are having to fight to stay alive is ludicrous beyond ludicrous.
SJ: You were involved in a fight to end insurance discrimination against transgender people. Of course, this week while the health care fight was going on, Trump came out and said he was going to ban trans people from the military because their health care was too expensive. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that particular fight that you were in and what we can learn from that.
MC: My friends and I were just at the rally at the White House today around Trump tweeting military policy changes. I was involved in some major change work in Vermont, in co-leading a coalition of organizations and people, including physicians that provide medical care for transgender individuals. The organizations we worked with have been working on transgender justice issues for a long time. Vermont, at the time, I think it was 2011 or 2012, did have a law that said it was illegal for health insurance companies not to provide insurance for transgender individuals, but that was a pretty broad statement and, of course, what the health insurance companies did was refuse to cover medically necessary care for transgender people.
I became aware of that when an amazing nurse friend who is also transgender came to me and told me that he needed to have surgery and it was not covered by our hospital insurance. The University of Vermont Medical Center self-insures, so they get to decide what their policy looks like. This person and I and the other leaders of these organizations worked together on a campaign that eventually led the commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, which oversees insured companies in Vermont, to issue a clarifying bulletin that made Vermont, at the time, the fourth state in the nation to have such clear language that denying medically necessary care for transgender individuals was against the law.
SJ: I am wondering if there is something about this happening in the midst of the health care fight, your experience on both these issues, that you think we can learn from going forward, as Trump is clearly going to keep doubling down on attacking marginalized groups, especially as he is losing?
MC: More than anything. Because of all the attacks against marginalized groups, more than ever we need to be unified. I do see that happening. I do see people in organizations working toward being as unified as possible. I believe it is the only way that we are not only going to survive, but thrive.
SJ: Let’s go back to the single-payer struggle in Vermont. Vermont was the first state to vote for a universal publicly funded health care system but had trouble getting it implemented. I wonder if you could tell people a little bit about that process, the organizing that got the bill passed, and then the efforts to move forward with it.
MC: We began around 2008 — “we” meaning the Vermont Workers Center — started the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, which was an amazing grass-roots mobilization and education project all across the state of Vermont that got thousands of people involved in not only the education of people in the community about how our health care system, or lack of it, is broken and what we can do to fix it.
We did things like holding peoples’ forums across the state where the people led the forums with legislators present. It was a chance for people to ask legislators questions, but also ask them the main question: Do you and will you actively work to support universal health care, publicly funded? The Workers Center organized annual rallies. I think before the Women’s March, it was one of the Healthcare Is a Human Right rallies on May Day that was the largest rally in Vermont’s history. Eventually, working with other organizations like Vermont for Single Payer Now [part of Dr. Deb Richter’s Physicians for a National Health Program], working with other organizations across the state led to us winning by putting pressure on legislators and supporting those who were doing the policy and taking the political risks. We did win Act 48, which has embedded in it the five universal human rights principles.
I was appointed as a commissioner to two, at the time, of Gov. Shumlin’s workgroups: the Consumer Workgroup for Health care to try to move toward this new system and another commission. We did a fair amount of good work there, but in retrospect it seemed like a farce. What was really being planned was not happening in those groups with members of the public and health care professionals. It was happening at the governor’s office. That meant that eventually Gov. Shumlin and some of the legislators decided that they didn’t have the political capital to pull this off, so they pulled the plug on it.
SJ: Where are things now? You have a different governor now. So, what are things like on the ground in Vermont, working on health care on the state level?
MC: We are organizing. Always organizing. Actively … the main organizations that are working toward a universal publicly funded health care system are now working together to figure out what that looks like going forward. We are back on the ground organizing in communities, setting up town halls, talking with legislators.
The one possible step that actually was in the state house as a bill last year is universal primary care, which would do just what it says: provide access to health care for everyone in Vermont as primary care. Primary care is often one of the obstacles that people face when they are sick or have something going on and they can’t afford it. They can’t access it. So, they don’t go and then, they get sicker and end up in the emergency department with a worse condition. A patient that I remember … had a simple infection [and] waited too long, and it turned into a devastating full-system infection that killed him. It was something pretty simple that could have been fixed had he been able to access primary care. That is what we are working on now.
SJ: You mentioned at the beginning that you are running for office. Tell us what your platform is. I presume that universal health care will be part of it.
MC: Yes, it is and it was. I ran in 2016. My main platform items are working toward an economy that works for us all. That includes having a health care system and working toward progressive tax reform that [e]nsures corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share, further developing and safeguarding the public services that are the foundation of strong communities. Also, that Vermont must lead on climate change. I am also a board member of 350Vermont.
And quality education — we have had some major changes in how school governance is run in Vermont with the passage of Act 46, which is very controversial and in many ways, took the local direct engagement away from small towns. The intent, or the stated intent of Act 46, one of them, is to help reduce property tax burdens. I am not sure how effective that is going to be. There are some one-time savings that we will see, but the real issue is that the biggest line item in a school district’s budget is health insurance for educators and staff. So until we get control over that, it is still going to be a major issue.
Then, I will continue to work very hard in organizing and also as a representative [of] my district to develop a health care system that is financed and administered publicly with strong and transparent government regulations and ample public engagement.
SJ: How can people keep up with you and your campaign and your health care organizing?
MC: A couple of different ways, they can go to www.maricordes.org. There are Facebook and Twitter links on my website. You can also find me on my personal Facebook page: Mari Cordes. I am working with Rights and Democracy a lot, so I would encourage people to follow Rights and Democracy Vermont and New Hampshire.
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.