- Interview by
- Indigo Olivier
Jess Scarane is a thirty-five-year-old Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member running for Senate in Delaware against Democratic incumbent Chris Coons. Scarane is running on a platform that includes Medicare for All, Housing for All, a Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, and strengthening the labor movement. She has been endorsed by Brand New Congress, the Working Families Party, 350 Action, the local Sunrise Movement hub, and Rep. John Kowalko (D-DE).
If elected, Scarane would be the first woman senator from Delaware and the first millennial in the Senate. Scarane spoke with writer Indigo Olivier about why she decided to run for office and what a just COVID-19 response should look like.
What inspired you to run for office?
We are a country facing multiple crises right now, and we don’t have leaders who are focused on those issues. Between wealth inequality, the public health crisis, climate catastrophe, and mass incarceration, we cannot continue to accept the status quo. For my entire lifetime, we’ve only had leaders who nibble around the edges of change, and it’s led to a government that fails to adequately support its people. I’ve seen the effects of that predominantly through work that I did in nonprofits focused on serving girls from under resourced neighborhoods here in Delaware.
We need more leaders who are actually focused on solving the root causes of suffering in people’s lives and creating a society where every single person can thrive. Right now, this is a moment where we can push forward and make progress in our country. The last thing that I wanted to do was look back in five or ten years and realize that I had an opportunity to make a difference here and didn’t take advantage of it. That is one of the things that inspired me to get in the race.
We also have in Delaware, a senator who does not align with the values of the people who live here. We are a state where people are big believers in the platform that I’m running on, but we have a senator who actively fights against those things and is out of step with the views of our state. He does not have the perspective of working people and does not have a connection to working people and is not bringing them into the Senate when he’s going to make votes or make legislation.
Can you talk about the work you were doing before you decided to run for Senate?
I came to this role predominantly through nonprofit work and through some campaign work for candidates who were talking about the problems that people in the city of Wilmington, where I live, were facing. I saw how that brought people into the political process who were otherwise excluded from it or uninspired by it.
In a lot of ways, the biggest thing that we have to fight is disillusionment, and people who feel so disempowered and disenfranchised that they’ve completely dropped out. Having some candidates who ran here locally sort of helped me get into the idea of running as a whole.
There’s also this other side of the work I was doing with some nonprofits here in our city. I’ve been doing that sort of volunteerism and activism since I moved to Delaware ten years ago, and that first took the form of tutoring and mentoring young students, particularly in reading.
Students who were more than capable of succeeding, but were unable to get what they needed from the school that they went to because of underfunding, class sizes, and teachers not having the tools and supplies that they need to be effective at their work. That really morphed into education activism.
From there, I got recruited to join the board of a nonprofit called Girls Inc. of Delaware, which is focused on delivering programming to girls predominantly from under-resourced neighborhoods in our state, and programming that helps them grow up and thrive and find their space in the world.
While I felt very proud of the work that we did there, it really showed me that trying to make these societal-level improvements through nonprofits and charity will never succeed. While they absolutely make a difference in the lives of the people that they reach, they aren’t making any real systemic change.
That’s the change that I think we absolutely need to be focused on. It cannot be harm reduction or trying to create programs that create more reliance on charity. It really has to be about creating a broader societal change that ensures that everyone’s needs are met. That’s what I want to run and fight for.
Could you talk about some of the policies you are running on?
Our platform is very broad and focused on creating a government that puts people over profit. Those three core issues are really universal health care through Medicare for All, guaranteeing economic and housing justice, and combating climate change head on. And when it comes to Medicare for All, right now we have a situation where so many people can’t afford to even go to the doctor, either because they’re uninsured or they’re underinsured, or because they live in an area where medical infrastructure just doesn’t exist. And yet, we’re still managing to spend more than almost any other country for worse results.
We have politicians right now who fund their campaigns with money from Big Pharma and the insurance industry and tell us that we can’t have [universal healthcare] because it’s too expensive or because people like their private insurance.
We know that those things are all untrue. Medicare for All costs less, provides better care, and saves lives. At this point it is really both the pragmatic and the moral choice particularly as we live through a public health crisis where millions of people have lost their jobs and lost their employer-based insurance along with it.
I know that every single person in this country deserves stability in their lives through good wages and safe and secure housing. I believe that housing is a right. Right now we have an economic system that rewards the already wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. The vast majority of people in our country are living just one step away from losing everything while there are also people who have accumulated more wealth than they could spend in several lifetimes.
I support raising the minimum wage and indexing that to inflation, as well as expanding social security and disability insurance. We can guarantee livable wages to every single person in our country. But that also has to include building labor power and workplace democracy, as well as federal investments and public and affordable housing.
Combating climate change through a Green New Deal is incredibly important to a state like Delaware. We are the lowest-lying state in the country and we are already seeing the effects in our state from rising sea levels. We are losing farmland to salt water intrusion. We are losing beaches through rising tides and constant flooding. We have the potential of losing almost 10 percent of our landmass to rising sea levels. And we face losing half of the Port of Wilmington, which is a massive economic center, as well as a huge employer of good union jobs, particularly for black and brown people.
So this is not just a question of theory for people of Delaware. This is absolutely something that we are already feeling the effects of around our homes, our jobs, our health, our food supply, our freshwater supply. We need solutions that actually match the scale of this threat. Incremental tweaks that are going to continue to allow fossil fuel companies to buy their way out of regulations are not going to prevent climate catastrophe, and it’s not going to repair decades of environmental degradation.
We are in a place where we can’t afford to not take transformative action. We have an opportunity to not only avert climate catastrophe, but also create millions of jobs, protect workers, and build a new economy.
You’re running against Chris Coons, an incumbent Democrat who has held the seat since 2010. He’s a staunch proponent of the filibuster, and Politico has called him the “GOP’s favorite Democrat.” Could you talk about how he’s worked against progressive reform?
[Coons] has continually stood up for the filibuster. He’s starting to say that maybe he is open to thinking about getting rid of the filibuster. But the problem with the filibuster is that it allows a minority of representatives and senators to hold back progress that our country needs. Quite a few progressive people are now calling for the end of the filibuster.
But it’s not just a procedural issue. He is often using conservative or even Republican talking points against the policies that we need. He has referred to universal health care as “pie in the sky.” He’s referred to the Green New Deal as “wild-eyed.” He’s even made odd comments about diversity in the Senate and a concern that it might create irreconcilable discord in the body. He said he hopes that won’t be the case, but history might show otherwise.
He holds these very regressive views while trying to claim progressivism, and he works against the things that people in Delaware stand in favor of. Two-thirds support Medicare for All, 60 percent support a Green New Deal. They support the legalization of marijuana and raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. These are all policy decisions that the senator opposes.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign inspired a wave of socialists to run for office. How do you see your race fitting into this broader national trend?
The trend that we’re seeing has excited a lot of people about our race. There has been a lot of conversation about how we are making wins in the House and need to get those wins in the Senate. Delaware is a fantastic opportunity to do that because of its size. A statewide race in Delaware is about the size of a congressional seat, and in some cases, a very large city council district, when we’re talking about the votes that we need to get.
I think we have to move forward by being really strategic by looking for these races where we can absolutely win, particularly when we’re talking about strong democratic states where the representation does not align with the needs of the people of the state.
We have to look at this from the perspective of things we’re fighting for. We’re gonna have to keep fighting no matter who’s at the top of the executive branch. The way forward is to continue those policy fights, but also continue organizing on the ground.
We have to fight for additional labor power. About 10 percent of people in our country are in labor unions right now. That’s a space where we can be focusing our efforts to organize and build more labor power. This has to come down to not only instituting social programs and a strong social safety net. This movement can’t just stop at programs and reform. It has to include a push for workplace democracy, because creating an economy where workers have control is really the path to longevity for those couple of goods.
What does it mean to be a democratic socialist?
It has to be working toward a world where everyone’s needs are met so they can actually thrive. That should not solely be through top-down programs, but through our own control and empowerment of our lives.
If elected, you’ll be coming into a situation where we’re still dealing with an unprecedented health crisis and likely a mass eviction crisis. The policies you support like Medicare for All and Housing for All obviously address these, but they’re not going to be passed immediately. What would you say are your immediate priorities if elected?
I support the bill that is in the Senate right now to give every one $2,000 a month to guarantee stability for people. I support eviction moratoriums and cancelling rent and mortgage payments, because I don’t think that we should have ever let a public health crisis cascade into an economic crisis. Our federal government needs to be using its power to create stability for people through this crisis.
Ensuring that people have money and stability as well as guaranteed housing through this period and the months following it until things are back on track is essential. But we can also be supporting granting Medicare in its current form to more people. It’s not Medicare for All as we think about it from a policy standpoint, but it is a way that we could ensure that people who happen to get sick don’t end up going bankrupt.
It’s been said that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. Do you see any opportunities, through this pandemic, where we could pass more progressive policy?
I think what we have to really resist is this idea of getting back to normal because normal was failing millions of people. Normal was creating climate catastrophe and housing instability and people who are held in wage slavery. An opportunity here has presented itself to people who maybe weren’t experiencing those things who have now had the curtain pulled back a little bit, or potentially been exposed to more of what people were experiencing more broadly.
We have to capitalize on that and say going back is not going to prevent this from happening again. How do we instead go forward and protect ourselves from this situation? How do we create an economy and a society that better cares for every single person and restores the dignity of every single person?