- Interview by
- Karma Samtani
One of the most consequential elections for American foreign policy this cycle could be in the Pacific Northwest, where House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith faces a challenge from socialist and union organizer Stephanie Gallardo. Gallardo’s background as the daughter of refugees from Chile’s Pinochet government stands in stark contrast with Smith’s hawkish record as a top recipient of money from the military-industrial complex and a strong proponent of the Iraq War.
Gallardo’s strong criticisms of US imperialism around the globe — including demands in her platform to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force and honor Indigenous sovereignty — are underlined by her family history as a member of a long line of Chilean socialists. Her anti-imperialist and socialist views have earned her the endorsement of Seattle Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), while her community roots have garnered support for her campaign from a slew of local elected officials. As a local and national union leader with the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union, Gallardo’s candidacy is also an opportunity for the Left to continue ties with organized labor.
Karma Samtani spoke with Gallardo for Jacobin to discuss her work as a union leader, her views on foreign policy, and the challenges of running for office as a working person.
What led you to decide to run for Congress?
My father and his family are refugees from Chile, so we always had a background in activism, especially in the immigrant refugee community and with political exiles. I’ve always had this very deep drive to stay political, coming from an inherently politicized family.
I’ve always been in political conversations with my family about what we can do to uplift those around us. A year and a half ago, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, and I took a leave of absence from work to take care of him. I was his primary caretaker for the four months leading up to his death in May 2020.
That process coincided with the Democratic presidential primary. I was at home every single day with my dad, watching all the news about the primary. We talked a lot about Bernie and just couldn’t understand how it looked so good for Bernie and then, so quickly, it changed. It was around the time that my dad cast his last ballot for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, that I started to think, “Something has to change.”
At that time, I started talking to my dad, asking “What do you think about someone from our community stepping up to run for office?” At the time, the conversation was broader than Congress, but we started to focus more on the congressional conversation because of my role on the board of directors with the National Education Association.
We have quarterly conversations with our congressional representatives from Washington State. I was talking to my father about some of the things that were upsetting to me about Rep. Adam Smith and his corporate Democrat nature.
So the conversation started there, around the desire to step up to something new. But my decision really came in January of this year, when I had my quarterly meeting with Adam Smith in the same room with a lot of other educators and union organizers. The conversation was around sending teachers back with vaccinations to school.
Our shared view on the union side was that we’re not sending educators back into the classroom without vaccinations under any circumstances. Adam Smith agreed that vaccinations were important, but he didn’t agree that it should be a requirement before going back to school. We started to butt heads right there. The way he talked to us as educators and, most specifically, the way he talked to our newly elected first black woman, the vice president of our union, was incredibly disrespectful. I’ve never seen anything like it. It really pissed me off. It made me mad that somebody like him was talking to us in that way, especially in the position of power he holds. That’s really what motivated me to actually run for Congress.
How has your work as a union leader shaped your outlook toward policy, politics, and socialism?
I think my identity as a union organizer is completely interlaced with my desire to run for this position and informs it in every way possible. My grandfather was also a union member back in Chile, my father was a union member, my mom was a union member. We’ve always stood on the line with folks who are working-class labor leaders. A key part of what has informed my platform is the needs of workers across the board, and not just the union members that I serve, so that we can really create a working-class coalition.
You’re running against Adam Smith, who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and voted for the Iraq War. You, on the other hand, are a strong critic of American foreign policy in the last few decades — your father himself is a refugee from the Pinochet government in Chile. Can you expand on that a bit, and elaborate on the contrasts between yourself and the incumbent?
The saying goes, “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know that we were seeds.” That’s exactly how I view myself, my brothers, my cousins — as seeds. We believe in socialism, which is this beautiful ideology and way of living among people.
In Chile, my grandfather was held at gunpoint by the Pinochet regime and taken to a political prison camp. He was there for three years and was tortured and brutalized on a daily basis. They took electrodes to him, electrocuted him daily, and beat him. They engaged in different types of torture for three entire years. When I think about somebody like Adam Smith, the military agenda that he’s a proponent of, and his military budget of almost $800 billion — he’s literally creating refugees.
American foreign policy has tried to bury so many people across the globe. What Americans in power don’t often think of is the fact that you truly can’t bury the power of the people. You can’t bury people who are collectivized and unified. Even in death, you cannot bury them. So I see myself as the fruit of generations of labor, and what I’m going to do here is try and unseat Adam Smith, whose foreign policy is creating deaths across the globe.
How are you incorporating your socialist beliefs in the way that you’re running your campaign?
The first organization to endorse me was the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America. They were the ones who believed in me deeply, so that I even got this campaign off the ground. Because of that, the community that I feel most accountable to is Seattle DSA and specifically the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus within DSA.
When I think about this question, it’s a constant conversation of how you can be accountable to your community and also how you can ensure that you’re staying true to socialism as a candidate for Congress. The fact that I come from a socialist family makes me know that I can’t deny ever being a socialist — that would be a disgraceful thing to even my family.
As many educational environments nationwide return to in-person classes, what’s your perspective as a teacher on the best path to protecting the safety of teachers and students?
It drives me wild to even think about it. In the beginning of the year, when we were going back into virtual learning, we were told that we’d have proper mental health resources in place for students: “We’re going to provide training for teachers, we’re going to have all this structural support for everybody so that we can make it through this year.” Of course, in my district, and in every other district, we didn’t get anything like that.
In fact, in my school district, we had zero nurses for the entire year. We didn’t have anybody worrying about the health of our students in my high school, except for three counselors for 1,100 students. It speaks to the inherent impossibility of trying to move forward when we don’t have the structures and funding and support in place to be able to advance students and educators.
We cannot go back to school in the same way that we’ve done before. We can’t just ignore the fact that COVID happened, that we just saw mass death across the globe. We cannot ignore the reality of what’s happening. I think the path forward is to address first and foremost the very basic needs of students and educators. We can do that by putting nurses and counselors in every building, and ensuring that the mental health of young people is at the center of the conversation as we go back into the school year.
A key plank of your policy platform is immigration justice. Can you elaborate on how your leftist ideas are connected to justice for immigrants, and expand on some of the policies you hope to advocate for if elected?
Borders are not real; they are created by man. I say “man” very specifically there, too, because I’m talking about colonial people who created these boundaries that push and pull people to make them feel like they don’t belong.
Part of the reason why this is so important to me is because I’m not only the daughter of a refugee but a member of a mixed-status family. Not everybody in my family has citizenship status. We have refugees, undocumented folks, recent immigrants, and citizens. In my family alone, we’ve been able to see the entire range of support that is available to immigrants.
So, when I think about immigration justice, first and foremost we have to abolish ICE. There’s just absolutely no reason for us to be having an organization that hunts down children and adults.
In addition to that, Democrats don’t want to talk about the fact that the immigration system that we have right now, in place in June 2021, looks like a mirror image of what it was when President Trump was still in office. We need serious changes in the immigration system, and it’s going to come from socialists, not just Democrats and Republicans.
Washington uses the “jungle primary” system, which is designed to benefit centrist candidates. This often means that general elections consist of two Democrats, but because of the limited yet crucial number of Republicans in these districts, it’s most likely that the conservative Democrat will end up winning, unless the progressive wins an overwhelming share of the Democratic vote. This occurred in your district in 2018 with Sarah Smith and in a neighboring district with Beth Doglio in 2020.
What’s your campaign’s plan to overcome this hurdle that often plagues insurgent campaigns?
I’ve been in conversation with those candidates, and I have taken a lot of lessons from them. They’ve told me a lot about the missed opportunities that they experienced in their own campaigns. One thing that I know that we have to have in order to win this election is a serious ground organizing campaign. That means movement building, that means knocking on doors every single weekend.
A campaign that I currently look up to in terms of organizing is Nikkita Oliver’s campaign. I’ve never seen movement building like I’ve seen in Nikkita’s campaign, but they are movement building in union organizing, among housing activists, just creating coalitions across the board. In terms of our campaign, I think that’s what it’s going to take — being out there on the ground every single day and in conversation with people.
What do you see as your path to victory in your district? It’s extremely diverse, racially and economically. It’s moved 14 points more democratic in the past thirteen years, and has a large Latino community.
The secret weapon of our campaign is going to be young people. I think that young people are the best organizers on the planet, especially Gen Z. So, one thing we’ve done is started a Youth Accountability Council.
We’re recruiting at least two students from every single high school in the district, and we are organizing together, but they are also creating their own separate entity in a nonhierarchical structure. That entity is not to be determined by me, because what’s most important to me is that young people know that I am supportive of their organizing, but I’m not going to be doing their organizing. What we’re supposed to be doing is creating space for young people to do their own organizing.
In your launch video, you claim that “when those who write policy for us no longer reflect the change in us, it’s time for new leadership.” What did you mean by that?
Adam Smith has been in this position since 1996. The actual congressional district was created in 1990. And it was created as a result of population changes in Washington State. Our district is the only district in the entire state that has a majority population of people of color — it’s been that way since 2010. We’ve only ever had a white male leading this district. That simply is not going to work anymore. We are ready to have representation that isn’t just figurehead representation, but true representation of the populations that are in this district.
You’ve had to quit your job as a teacher to run for congress full-time. How has that been?
My last day of school was June 17, so I’m fresh into it. I’m feeling pretty good. I feel hopeful.
I also feel really scared, because our fundraising numbers aren’t where they need to be. Because in order for me to be able to keep this campaign going, I also need to pay myself a salary at some point. It’s scary as hell. But a lot of organizing that we’re doing right now feels like we’re envisioning and building the future, and that makes it worth it.
You’re a supporter of leftist ideas not just domestically but internationally. You’ve compared yourself to Pedro Castillo, another teacher unionist, who recently won his election in Peru. How will you use your platform to uplift progressive and leftist movements globally if elected?
I see myself being able to build coalitions across borders. And that’s something that I’ve learned from my own family. My grandfather created socialist coalitions from Chile to Seattle.
In our entire time here in the United States, since 1976, my family has been able to maintain their socialist roots in their socialist beliefs, and that’s why I find myself a socialist — because of my family.
When I envision working with folks from across the globe on building a socialist vision and legacy, it makes me extremely excited about the possibilities of what we can do to build worker coalitions across the world. It keeps me up at night just thinking about the possibilities.