Image for Gluesenkamp Perez and Winning Back Dem Voters
Washington's Marie Gluesenkamp Perez exemplifies the value of Members of Congress with "grease under their fingernails" who empathize with those who feel left behind.

Off-Brand Congresswoman Supports Workforce Pell Grants

There aren’t many Democrats in Congress who support abortion rights and gun rights. One of them is 34-year-old Washington Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who was recently profiled by New York Times editorial board member David Firestone.

“She came to Congress in January with a set of priorities that reflected her winning message,” Firestone wrote, “and she is determined to stress those differences in a way that might help Democrats lure back some of the voters it has lost, even if it means getting a lot of puzzled looks and blank stares in the Capitol.”

Calling her victory the biggest upset of the 2022 election, Firestone said Gluesenkamp Perez wasn’t expected to win in a blue-collar, Republican-leaning district that is 78 percent white and where 73 percent of voters don’t have postsecondary degrees. Donald Trump carried the district twice, national Democrats gave her virtually no financial support and she had no previous experience in elected office.

What Gluesenkamp Perez does have, Firestone explained, is a compelling personal story that she has translated into a legislative framework. She grew up in Forks, Washington in a family decimated economically by old-growth timber logging bans. “People had trouble feeding their families,” Gluesenkamp Perez told Firestone. “That indignity cast a really long shadow. People felt like they were being told they couldn’t work.”

The co-owner of a Portland auto repair shop said she was in high school when shop classes were replaced with computer programming. That switch, Gluesenkamp Perez claims, has resulted in a serious national shortage of tradespeople. “There’s a six-month wait for a plumber or a carpenter or an electrician,” she says. “You’d better be married to one.”

Gluesenkamp Perez’ background and rural lifestyle (one of her campaign ads featured her felling a tree) have influenced her early congressional priorities, which include making self-sufficiency a political issue. She supports “Workforce Pell” legislation that would expand Pell grant eligibility to include training and apprenticeship programs. The legislation is supported by conservative Republicans and only some moderate Democrats.

Gluesenkamp Perez admits to being guided by efforts to “relieve economic pressures” and providing a future for young  people who don’t go to college. She points to Pacific County, where she lives, which had an 8.4 percent jobless rate in January, more than twice the national rate. Without government support, she says, many young people in her district won’t be able to gain a foothold in mechanical and construction trades.

Grease Under Their Fingernails
“It’s a little bit of a hard message for lawmakers to hear, because part of the solution is having a Congress that looks more like America,” Gluesenkamp Perez told Firestone. “It can’t just be rich lawyers that get to run for Congress anymore.” During her campaign, she said Congress needs more people “with grease under their fingernails” and fewer lawmakers locked into “groupthink” and political “tribalism”, unwilling to consider alternative solutions to vexing problems.

Her role as an independent car repair shop owner made Gluesenkamp Perez a natural  cosponsor for federal right-to-repair legislation that would require automakers to share diagnostic software with independent repair shops. She supports a broader movement to enable consumers to make basic repairs of products they own such as replacing a smartphone battery.

“From where I live, it’s a three-hour round trip to go to the Apple Store,” Gluesenkamp Perez told Firestone. “Right to repair hits people on so many levels – their time, their money, their environment, their culture. It’s one of the unique things about American culture. We really believe in fixing our own stuff and self-reliance. D.I.Y. is in our DNA.”

Gluesenkamp Perez believes voters would prefer to hear about issues of direct relevance to their lives. “We have to stop talking about these issues of ‘oh, the creeping dangers of socialism,’ and start talking about getting shop class back in the high schools,” she says. “I don’t know anybody who stays up at night worrying about socialism. But they worry about a kid who doesn’t want to go to school anymore. Or, am I going to lose the house? Is there a school nurse? Those are the things that keep people up at night, and we have to find a way to make their lives better.”

Gluesenkamp Perez doesn’t seem intimidated by the Capitol, the trappings of her office or big-name politicians. She told Firestone how she listened to President Biden’s State of the Union address straining to hear him mention “rural”. “I went back and looked at the transcript,” she said, “and he only said the word ‘rural’ once.” In character, the guest Gluesenkamp Perez invited to Biden’s speech was Cory Torppa, who teaches construction and manufacturing at Kalama High School.

She didn’t win her nail-biter of a race in a conservative district with a typical Democratic appeal.

“She didn’t win her nail-biter of a race in a conservative district with a typical Democratic appeal,” Firestone concluded. “To court rural and working-class voters who had supported a Republican in the district since 2011, she had to speak to them in a way that her party’s left wing usually does not – to acknowledge their economic fears, their sense of being left out of the political conversation, their disdain for ideological posturing from both sides of the spectrum.”