Members of the Carson City Working Families Party protest at the Carson City Chamber of Commerce Luncheon on February 22, 2017. (Via Northern Nevada Working Families Party)

Defeating the Senate’s Trumpcare Bill Is a Life-or-Death Fight

An organizer for Nevada’s Working Families Party discusses the efforts in her state to block the Senate healthcare bill and push for single-payer.

BY Sarah Jaffe

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"When we really start talking about issues, in general, 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."

Since election night 2016, the streets of the U.S. have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we'll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They'll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn't, and what has changed, and what is still the same.

Sarah Jaffe: Can you introduce yourself?

Autumn Zemke: I’m the Co-Chair of Northern Nevada Working Families Party and have been since November 8th. I live in Carson City.

Sarah: You had an action this weekend at your Senator Dean Heller’s office around the Republican healthcare bill. Tell us about it.

Autumn: We were planning on doing a sit-in 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, no. Only one at a time.” This is in the federal building in Reno. I just said, “Well, what if we were men, lobbyists in nice suits? Then, would you say ‘Only one of us at a time?’ What if we were lobbyists coming to speak to our senator?”

Security couldn’t answer my question, but I was filming and was told by them that I was rude for trying to get an answer about that.

Sen. Heller really does limit access. He has only had one town hall in six years. So, he’s not very interested in what we have to say here in Nevada.

Sarah: Six years, that means he is coming up for re-election very soon.

Autumn: Very soon. His approval rating has really plummeted. Nevada is purplish/reddish/bluish. It is full of people who really are not partisan. I will be very surprised if he wins this election in November. I will be shocked, especially because he will be in public at some meeting and say one thing and then within hours tell another group something else. What I always find interesting about that is that in this day of technology, how can you still think you can get away with that and it won't be publicized?

Then, with Planned Parenthood and the Obamacare repeal, he has been saying that he was against it. A tweet from Gov. Sandoval says something like, “Dean Heller and I are working to stop the repeal.” I can’t remember the exact words. That is interesting because now you have a Republican governor who is against the repeal and for expanded Medicaid in Nevada.

When we were protesting at Sen. Heller’s office, one of the things that we discussed was the fact that the AB374 Medicaid-For-All bill was still sitting on the governor’s desk and he had until midnight to veto it. If he didn’t, it would have become law. Gov. Sandoval didn’t have to have his name on it, but he didn’t have to kill it either. I had real hopes for the fact that he would just let it go through. 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 support a single payer system. I personally don’t have insurance, so last night was a devastating blow for me. But just because I don’t have insurance right now doesn’t mean that I am going to say, “Well, just let [the ACA] be repealed. Obamacare wasn’t good enough for me, so let’s just let 24 million people suffer. 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.

Sarah: Tell us more about the Medicaid-For-All proposal in Nevada for people who don’t know about it.

Autumn: I understand that healthcare is complex and I am not an expert, but the way that I understood the bill is that it would mean that all Nevadans, all 2.9 million of us, 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 people could buy into it. For those people who still qualify for Medicaid, they would get their Medicaid.

We have a doctor shortage whatever system you are looking at. Take family care, especially in places like Nevada which is very rural. You have Las Vegas, which is a population center, and Reno. We are growing a little bit. But the majority of Nevada is rural. Doctors don’t exist in rural Nevada anyway.

Sarah: 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.

Autumn: I really want to focus on some positives right now. Nevada is an interesting state with our politics. Nevada went for Hillary Clinton and we formed Working Families thinking that Clinton would win. Then, she didn’t. So we have this other focus that we didn’t necessarily think we were going to have.

But through that focus, we have this amazing coalition of organizations that have come together and we meet regularly. We do actions together. It is Indivisible and Northern Nevada Marches Forward, Planned Parenthood, 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, and I think because we are such a strong coalition, that means something different than if we were each doing our own thing.

One of the first things we did was that we got wind of the fact that Senator Heller and Congressman Amodei were going to be the keynote speakers for the Carson City Chamber of Commerce. We, as a coalition, went together. I think there were close to 500 people there. We were able to turn people out and not only that, there were people who purchased tickets to be in the luncheon, people who had voted for Amodei and Heller, too. They were there holding them accountable.

That was the first time where Sen. Heller and Rep. Amodei were like, “No, we aren’t going to vote for the repeal.” Article after article [of the AHCAA] they responded, “No. No. No. We are not going to vote for this.” Then, we know what happened with Amodei (he voted for the bill in the House). They also addressed our joint legislature. They only meet every two years. They were in session and they addressed them, we showed up to hold Amodei accountable and to hold Heller accountable.

Then, every Tuesday since January 24th, people have shown up at the federal building in Reno where Sen. 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. We are not just angry; we are really scared. Healthcare, being able to go to the doctor, it is 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.

Sarah: I have been talking to a lot of people who have been organizing around healthcare 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 healthcare than some other issues.

Autumn: I also think that is an interesting point. I think when we really start talking about issues, in general, 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—my Republican family, if we talk about issues we can come together more easily than if we bring up a specific name.

I also have to say, my husband works for Medicaid in Nevada. Until he started working for Medicaid, I did not realize that people died because they didn’t have healthcare. There was such a disconnect between that reality. I am from Nevada. My family has lived in Nevada for 150 years. I always say that because there is this narrative like “Well, these progressive people are coming into our state from California or other places.” No. I am Nevadan. I am changing my state because it is my state.

We lived in Seattle and I never understood that people died because they didn’t have healthcare. Seattle is a pretty progressive place and, also, you have a medical school that is really good. People get taken care of. Not always, but more so. Then, moving down here, people are denied Medicaid for not being in a certain financial stratum. 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, 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 giving you chemotherapy.

I think the American public needs that kind of realization, that kind of wake-up that I had, and I just happened to have it a little bit sooner than some people are coming to it. 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. I think he was in Houston, Texas and he was big in the arts scene and comic book scene. This man actually died because he couldn’t do it.

We shouldn’t be crowdfunding healthcare. Not in the wealthiest country. It is insanity. Plus, it just doesn’t make financial sense. The reality is we have to hold Sen. Heller accountable. “Why would you do this? Why would you take healthcare away from us?” And hold them accountable to the fact that there is no financial reason for it.

I have to add, the reality is that the people who are in the 1% got 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, they have people that have lifted them up to this point of extreme wealth. 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 healthcare shouldn’t be that big of a deal when we create the wealth as employees, as workers.

Sarah: Did you successfully get to say any of this to Dean Heller or his aide yesterday or did they just completely block you all out?

Autumn: 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. Like we were going to do something. That’s just not how you treat your constituents. You engage them. It just wasn’t a dialogue. 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 ingress and egress. The thing is, like my co-chair Drew List 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.

Sarah: What comes next? The bill is still secret. What are you planning for next steps?

Autumn: We have a week of actions planned. I think there is something going on almost every day between now and next weekend. We are going to continue trying to get through to 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 the Medicare-For-All being vetoed, we just have to continue to hold our politicians in the state accountable, and long-term. Because if you vote to repeal our healthcare, 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 if he is not listening to us. To continue to hold him accountable regardless of what happens with healthcare, because there are so many other things. But this is our focus right now.

I honestly think he will probably vote with his party. I really do. Statistically, he used to be a little bit more independent, but he now just votes along party line. He did for all Trump’s nominees. He has just gone along. But, I was really shocked about Amodei because he was so on the record [as being against the bill]. Long-term, we will continue to hold Heller accountable, especially during the August recess when he will be here in Nevada. The thing is, he has still yet to have a town hall in southern Nevada. He is from where I live and he 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.

We are just going to keep pushing, though. 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 stuff that impacts everybody’s daily life, like healthcare.

Sarah: How can people keep up with you and with Working Families in Nevada?

Autumn: We are on Facebook. We are right now Carson City Working Families Party, we're merging into Northern Nevada. Then, on Twitter it is @CCWFP. Then, I really recommend, too, 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. 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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