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“It’s the Demand of the People that Creates Real Change”

Heidi Sloan

Heidi Sloan is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America running for Congress in Texas's twenty-fifth district, challenging Republican incumbent and very rich used car salesman Rep. Roger Williams. Sloan sat down with Jacobin to talk about her story, how she came to socialism, fighting for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, and which supervillain she would most like to interrogate as a member of the House of Representatives.

Heidi for 25

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Heidi Sloan is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) running for Congress in Texas’s twenty-fifth district. She’s challenging a Republican incumbent, used car salesman and incredibly rich person Roger Williams.

Sloan recently sat down with Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht for our podcast The Vast Majority to talk about her story, her work with homeless people in Texas, how she came to join the DSA, her socialist political vision, and which supervillain she would most like to grill as a member of the House of Representatives.

You can listen to the episode here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


MU

You’re running for Congress in Texas. Tell us, first of all, your story and how you came to run.

HS

I’m a native Texan. I’ve been here my whole life. After college, my first job was working in a pre-K classroom for kids with disabilities. It was this beautiful space that I loved, where children from three to six years old were taking each other by the hand and overcoming whatever life put in front of them that day. Whether it was negotiating colors or figuring out how to communicate with sign language or learning math for the first time.

When I stopped teaching, I made it into the nonprofit world through this really incredible organization that provides permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless of Austin. And this place is my heart and my passion, and a lot of the people that I love the most in the world live there. But I’ve been there for seven years now, and over the years, I have seen the deterioration that comes from a chronic cycle of homelessness.

And I’ve lost people. I’ve been there when people have died, and I have lost people to incarceration, and I have walked with people as they struggle with substance use. And in these circumstances, the nonprofit world wants to say this is a homelessness issue. I started to realize that these are not issues that are just on the margins, these are issues for all of us.

That the folks that I was walking alongside of and continue to walk alongside of today are not so unique, are not so different or so removed that their health problems; their lack of access to community, to financial stability, are the things that we all struggle with. And if we’re not solving for the prevention of chronic homelessness by looking at poverty and by looking at trauma and by looking at mental health care, then we will never stop this ever-flowing stream of people that are coming to nonprofits like mine all around the county. And not just that, but we won’t stop this ever-flowing stream of trauma that affects all of us.

So that really intense life experience at work brought me into community organizing for the first time, trying to see what we could do to stem that tide, to alleviate some of that suffering in the world. And community organizing has brought me to this space, mostly through my work with Austin DSA, but through a lot of grassroots organizers here in District 25 who are on the ground trying to solve these same exact problems.

MU

You’re talking about moving from viewing an issue like homelessness as an individual problem to one that is tangled up in a whole system. I assume this is part of what brought you to join the Democratic Socialists of America — this systematic analysis of the way the world works?

HS

Yes, definitely. When I first started going to DSA meetings, someone read the demands card out loud. And I just remember this moment of hearing a person doing the work in the community say, “We demand the abolition of poverty.” And it was such a refreshing moment for me, such a moving and powerful moment for me, to know that that is something we are allowed to ask for and something we are allowed to envision. And we are not just talking about the effects of poverty, we’re talking about poverty itself and the power that is tied up there.

MU

I feel like there are a lot of people, either running for office or activists in their communities, who felt, before the Bernie Sanders campaign, like they couldn’t say that we should be able to get rid of poverty, or that everybody should have free publicly provided health care, or everybody should be able to go to college for free. You couldn’t say those things and be taken seriously.

And one of the things that the Sanders campaign and everything that’s happened since, like the rise of DSA, has brought us is an expansion of people’s political imaginations. You can demand these things, and you’re not seen as someone who isn’t tethered to reality. We can accomplish these things.

HS

And we don’t just accomplish for ourselves as individuals. We can and must make these universal claims. And to know that our struggles, whether it is with medical debt or a lack of education access or the carceral state — that when we end up bound to these systems that we know are just churning out injustice, we stop seeing that as a personal failure. That we are able to say collectively, yes, me too. I am in this struggle.

And I’m not just in this struggle, but I am going to struggle alongside of you. It’s this strange pattern for us in DSA, of actually building a movement around an issue almost takes this a confession of our own suffering — that this impacts me. And when we are able to say that to someone else and really hear that it impacts them, too, no matter what their life background or their political background has been up to that time, that’s our starting point.

MU

You mentioned being at an Austin DSA meeting. What brought you there?

HS

I think I went to my first Austin DSA meeting because I ended up at a polling location contemplating voting for someone that I know condones the murder of children in war. And just looking at those two options and saying to myself, this can’t be it.

MU

Who are you referring to there?

HS

Hillary Clinton.

MU

So in 2016, you’re ready to vote, and you’re not feeling good about having to cast your vote for this person whose values you didn’t agree with.

HS

Yeah. It wasn’t even like the lesser of two evils, it was “there has to be more than voting here. I have to do something more than mark this box or that box right now.” And that’s where organizing comes into play.

MU

Was Austin DSA much of a presence in the city after the election? How did you go from that feeling to joining Austin DSA?

HS

Austin DSA has been active for a long time and has a fascinating history. For me, Glenn Scott was a huge influence. She was an incredible organizer. We lost her last year, but she had this way of modeling exactly what we want to be doing in our communities, which was to hear that concern and that contemplation and that stuck place, and then to invite you into the next small step forward.

I went to my first Austin DSA meeting in December 2016 not knowing anyone, not knowing what was going on, and Glenn was there. And she would remember your name and your work, and she would just bring you in, step by step, into the spaces that you felt drawn to, and empower you. [She made you feel that] it didn’t take being a professional, it didn’t take being born to do this, it didn’t take being a politically savvy person. Because you are human and because you have experience, you are valued here. So Glenn, and then the character of Austin DSA — both being welcoming and ready to get down to business — really just brought me into the vortex.

MU

Since you joined, in addition to your day job focusing on homelessness, what campaigns have you been involved in?

HS

I’ve gotten to be a part of a number of local campaigns that have really impacted my political thinking and impacted our community here. Paid sick days comes to mind. The demand was that every worker within the city limits of Austin has the right to earn paid sick time. That’s something that I got to be part of with an incredible coalition of folks working from the grassroots on up here in Austin, and then we got to help with in Dallas and San Antonio.

Which is just now bearing fruit, because Texas is at war with workers. Austin has been sued over their paid sick policy, which we won and we got in place, but we haven’t felt the effects of yet. San Antonio, too, is going through the struggle. But in Dallas now we have thousands and thousands of workers accruing this right. So paid sick time was a huge for me, learning how to talk to people at their doors and in their workplaces and seeing the power of the intersection of those two things in people’s lives.

In addition to paid sick days, we have worked on issues like the police contract negotiations to hold the Austin police department accountable to increased levels of transparency — to not just write a blank check and say, if we give you more money that we think you will be more transparent; actually, it works the other way around. You have to do it better first. You have to prove that you can create safer policing policies here in this city or you don’t get anything.

That was a hard line to walk, but it’s been fascinating to see how that idea has spread. I don’t want to take credit for that, but I got to be a part of that [campaign], and that was really powerful for me and really influential on how I see the justice system.

I also worked here locally, speaking of the justice system, to decriminalize homelessness in Austin. This is a more recent campaign, and highly intersectional for me. We had until July 11 ordinances that kept people from being able to sit, lie down, camp, or solicit help in the form of money in public. We went to the city and made the case for this being totally unconstitutional and totally inhumane. And we got those policies changed.

The backlash has been fascinating. Our [Republican] governor, Greg Abbott, has weighed in against that. Trump has hinted at throwing his weight around against this issue, and our city council has really gotten a lot of pushback. But again, that’s creating these spaces where we can wade into the waters of people’s fears and really talk to them about what decriminalization of folks who are really experiencing the highest level of suffering in our society means for them as housed individuals. Does this threaten your existence, or is this more of a perceived threat?

On the national level, we’ve worked on a Medicare for All campaign. We targeted the district just south of me, Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s district, to encourage representative Doggett to sign onto to H.R. 1384. Which was a very long campaign. It took us about a year and a half, and we learned a whole lot about what power actually looks like in that context.

We eventually got Doggett to sign on to endorse H.R. 1384. We are still pushing him to do more than endorse — to actually go out and promote this to his community. Because we know that electeds putting their name on something does not make it so. It’s the demand of the people that creates real change. So I consider that an ongoing campaign, even though we officially got it signed off.

MU

Doggett is a Democrat whose district butts up against yours who wasn’t willing to endorse Medicare for All until Austin DSA pushed him over and over again.

HS

That’s right. Doggett is a progressive Democrat, and he actually, before these districts were so highly gerrymandered in 2012, would have been the representative for this area. He kind of got displaced.

So he knows the full effect of that kind of politicking. But he really needed to hear from his constituency and from labor organizations and from grassroots leaders that Medicare for All is important to us and that we are asking this of him specifically.

MU

You’re running not against Doggett, but against Rep. Roger Williams, a Republican. Which sets your campaign apart from others like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, which was against a Democrat. A lot of the successful DSA campaigns have been intra-party challenges, against Democratic incumbents. Yours isn’t.

In trying to research this guy, I didn’t come up with a lot. I did find out that he is one of the richest members of Congress, worth $27.7 million. And his fortune comes from selling used cars. He’s literally a used car salesman!

HS

He’s like a caricature. He’s just like this sort of dud figure, who doesn’t show up anywhere. And I have run into this same issue. I just really want to be able to point to a specific policy that he has supported that is horrible; he votes straight ticket all the time, so we can do that.

But at the same time, he’s not out there making waves. The Republican Party does not call him to do their big, dirty work. He is not one of those figureheads. For a long time, people in his district called him Roger the Dodger, because he just wouldn’t show up — like, no one had seen him in years. Which is kind of amazing.

My favorite story from researching Roger Williams is that the one piece of legislation that comes up was in negotiations between consumer rights and car dealerships. And there’s an ethics investigation that happened a couple of years ago, because he definitely had some things to say about where consumer rights end and the rights of car dealerships begin. But that’s about it.

MU

I read in a story from the Center for Public Integrity that he introduced a provision that would have “allowed car dealers to rent or loan out vehicles even if they are subject to safety recalls.”

HS

Definitely a person who is out here fighting for the little guy.

MU

Luckily, the amendment did not become law. A House ethics investigation was opened on him; the CPI headline read, “House Ethics Committee Scolds, Doesn’t Punish Roger Williams.”

But that’s about all I could find about him, besides that he’s very rich. And he votes with Trump 93.4 percent of the time, according to 538. What do you do with that record, as a candidate?

HS

I think that our recourse is not to talk about left/right politics here because he is part and parcel of the Right. He is a candidate representing the Republican party in a red district, in a red state, where people feel like that is part of their identity, or they have for an awfully long time. And we don’t win by saying, you need to move further left. I’m not sure that everyone in this district agrees on what that means. What we need to say is that actually it’s not about the left and the right, it’s about the top and the bottom. That this district is rural and urban and suburban. This district is the working class. We’re talking hugely high percentiles struggling just to get by.

And if we can make that case — that Roger Williams, the owner of used car dealerships, the multimillionaire — is not speaking for you because you are the working class and he is in opposition to your rights to democracy at home, in your communities, in your schools, in your workplaces, and in government, then I think we can move together. But that’s what it will take. We absolutely have to create an alternative that includes everyone in this district, that allows them to cultivate an identity other than just conservative, liberal, left, right. It has to say, you and your station and your class, you matter. We see that, and that is powerful.

MU

You’re also running against another candidate vying for the Democratic nomination. Can you talk about her?

HS

Julie Oliver ran last cycle as well. And she narrowed, or was part of the narrowing of, the spread in this district to around nine points.

Julie Oliver is what I would say is slightly progressive of centrist Democratic. She has come around to such policies as a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Though I will note that once upon a time, when she was running last go-round, her husband knocked on my door, asked for my vote. And I said, “Is your candidate for Medicare for All?” He said, “No.” I said, “Then I’m going to have to pass. I’m not really interested in generating a lot of support for this.”

She’s come around to that, and I appreciate how much the movement, how much the work of organizers across this country have credit for that. That is the work of many, many people to move centrist and slightly progressive democrats into more universal policy land.

But Julie Oliver is running a campaign for Julie Oliver to be elected. We are running a campaign for people in this district to have a voice. We are running for people to make their demands heard. And I think that is really the biggest distinction: that I wouldn’t be doing electoral politics if I didn’t think it was important. But electoral politics without community organizing, without issue-based organizing and a platform that empowers people, is electoral politics that will keep us exactly where we have been.

MU

Can you talk about your vision for how your campaign can create more than just your victorious path to office, but creating those larger movements that you say are so important?

HS

So when we talk about a movement-building campaign, what we’re talking about is lifting up the work that is already happening, both locally and across the country. And so, it is platforming the voices of people who are working for change, who are holding levers of power in their hands right now. We went up to the northern tip of our district, up near Fort Worth, and we rallied with UNITE HERE, where airline catering workers were demanding a living wage. Their slogan was, one job should be enough. And that’s right.

UNITE HERE is a union, and it is doing incredible work to organize people across several sectors. This one in particular, cooks and catering workers and people who work in airline industries in particular. So I think it’s really important to understand their position of power in the world, that when UNITE HERE makes demands, they are making demands on this massive global transportation system, and they really do recognize that they have a lever of power in their hands.

So going up and struggling along with them, marching and picketing along with them, seeing these people from around the country from a vast array of backgrounds and a vast array of languages and ages and experiences and being able to say, this is what happens when we organize, is where I think electoral politics can lift up both the necessity for democracy in our workplaces, people’s right to do that kind of organizing, and also let other folks across the country know what that struggle can look like, what their voices look like when they’re engaged in democratic processes outside of the ballot box.

MU

How does a campaign like yours not just show up when those struggles are popping off, but create more of them? One of the really innovative things the Bernie Sanders campaign has done is use his campaign infrastructure to turn people out to picket lines when there are strikes or immigrant rights protests.

Obviously his campaign infrastructure running for president is slightly different from yours in a single House race. But how do you see that dynamic of using the campaign to support not just the organizing efforts that are already happening, like the UNITE HERE campaign you mentioned, but to actually create more organizing?

HS

When we go out and campaign for the Heidi Sloan for Congress campaign, when we go out and identify voters, we’re not just talking to them at their doors about checking a box. I think that the Green New Deal framework is one of the most urgent and necessary political platforms that we have. We have created a language now to be able to talk about climate change — not just in the “disastrous” sense, which is absolutely true and apparent, but in the “responsive” sense; that it’s going to take all of us to build a world that can cope with climate change. This is where the conversation starts, with that.

So we are going out and talking to people about Austin, about what we see right here right now. About how our family’s health is affected by dependence on the fossil fuel industry. What it will look like to transition from that and to push the envelope to say that we have to transition more equitably, more quickly, and we have to account for the jobs that are moved from that sector as well as for the people who may be displaced by the damage already done.

But we’re not just talking about the voter end, that democratic space of the Green New Deal. We’re also talking about the workplace end of the Green New Deal. So we’re in conversation with rank-and-file union members, particularly people in the building trades. These are the folks whose hands are going to create a world that provides a just infrastructure that gets us through this. So we need their input. We need their wisdom. We need their buy-in. We need their leadership. So we’re talking to them already about what that can look like, whether it is in their apprenticeship programs, in the contracts that they already have.

We’re beginning to say, what is the vision for just jobs? Which for me, “just jobs” means union jobs. And a future that is built for everyone. The Green New Deal is the intersection of our democratic control over the energy that we use, our democratic control in our built environment, but also in things like housing. We know that the impact of gentrification and urban sprawl and homelessness as it relates to both affecting climate change and being affected by climate change is profound.

This is a conversation we have to have. We have to talk about unions, building better houses for everyone, and those houses have to be able to withstand and mitigate the climate crisis. I just think it’s this brilliant moment that we absolutely have to be leveraging.

MU

How would you join the fight for Medicare for All if you were elected?

HS

I think about Medicare for All every day. I think about how I’m not sure how my sister and I are going to care for my mom as she’s aging without Medicare for All. I think about how my partner as an adult has never had his own health insurance. I think about Medicare for All and the people that I have lost to the experience of homelessness and to the many, many years that their body went without care.

When I think about building this universal policy, which I think will be the first of many, this is the ground on which we get to prove so many things. We get to prove our commitment to equity, to inclusivity; to saying that when we mean Medicare for All, we mean everyone who’s here. We mean the gender that you identify with, we care for. We mean that your preference for home-based or community-based care, rather than institutionalization — we care for.

We mean everyone. We mean folks in rural areas where hospitals are closing. We mean folks struggling to pay their rent in the urban core. We mean that when we achieve Medicare for All, the workers who have been part of this enormous insurance industry not making a profit, but being used for the profiteers at the top — they will find just transition into other work.

Some of them got into health care because they actually wanted to do good for people. I think we will find the opportunity to empower this group of workers that has been so maligned; that has been so sort of disregarded. We’ll find a place for them.

Medicare for All proves these concepts. It proves our solidarity with one another if we do it right. And so I see my role as not just getting a bill that is passed, that is good enough, but demanding that everyone be accounted for, that everyone get the same quality of care, that we not be divided and that we’re not just seeing the care for our bodies, but the care for our social structures as part of these universal policies.

MU

If you were elected to the House, you would be the third DSA member there, with Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with the rest of “the squad,” which includes Ilhan Omar. Recently, President Trump worked with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to keep Tlaib and Omar from visiting Israel, as well as a general campaign against them, spuriously and insanely, of being antisemitic.

If you were in the House, how would you relate both to the question of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, and the broader pushback against Tlaib and Omar by Trump and Netanyahu?

HS

Not to harp on the same framework over and over again, but as an organizer and as someone who deeply believes that our strongest identity is our identity as the working class: when we talk about the situation in Israel and Palestine, what I think about is not just the entities, the governing bodies. What I think about is the people, and the squad pursuing conversations with the people in order to promote democracy. I do not have any fear around that.

What I see is that the people who are afraid of those kinds of conversation, of leaders from the US going to talk to people on the ground with lived experience — the squad threatens power. It threatens the people who own the system. It threatens the people who profit off the system. That is the same story that we are [hearing] over and over again.

If people in power try to stop you from talking to those without power, it is not a mystery why they would do that. They are threatened, they are fearful of what happens when we who experience oppression gather our stories and share them amongst ourselves and fight to build something that works for all of us. I don’t think it is that unique of a situation, I just think that it is a profoundly difficult and deep manifestation of the power dynamic that we see at play all the time.

MU

How would you characterize that, in the case of Israel-Palestine?

HS

I think that justice is always international, and when Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were going to go and bring a conversation about justice in visiting Israel and Palestine, that the response to that by Netanyahu and by Trump and the coordinated conversation therein is a fear of justice. It is the understanding that we are stronger when we work together, and that the squad and these amazing women in congress have been doing such a great job of building power and conversation here in the US.

We know there are voices in Israel and in Palestine that are building for justice there, and if those two forces come together, there is a fear on both sides. Because the corporate party is the corporate party across the world. There is a real fear of what would transpire in that space. That is the reaction that we saw. And I would not be surprised if that continues to be the reaction across the world: that these women are maligned, not just by Trump, but by everyone in Trump’s class.

MU

Last question: AOC, Ilhan Omar, Bernie Sanders, and others have gotten a lot of viral moments when they have been on committees and questioning various evildoers to their face. If you were elected and in the House, who would be your dream corporate villain to interrogate?

HS

I would really love to see every single person who takes corporate donations from Lockheed Martin stand up in a big line. Because it would just be this absurd number of electeds. And the contracts that Lockheed Martin has . . . We have no idea how deep their roots go into this system, and I think it’s just so telltale and fascinating. I just want people to know that the entire system is wrapped around their little finger.