Meredith Mattlin, a Vanderbilt graduate, is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in Tennessee’s fifth congressional district. The TN-5 district encompasses the Vanderbilt campus, as well as surrounding neighborhoods in Davidson county, including 12 South and Edgehill. Mattlin faces incumbent Rep. Jim Cooper in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary. She spoke to VPR about the race and her goals for serving in Congress, as well as her democratic socialist policy platform and the future of the Democratic Party.
VPR: Why are you running for Congress?
I’m running for Congress because we don’t have adequate representation in the House here. We have had Jim Cooper in office since 1983, with a little bit of a break for a few years, but almost continuously and he just doesn’t represent a changing demographic and changing understanding of… he doesn’t represent us anymore. He doesn’t stand for any of the things that this constituency wants or needs at this point. He doesn’t support Medicare for All. He didn’t support the Green New Deal until he had primary challengers. We are a state that didn’t expand Medicaid and doesn’t want to extend health care to the hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans who are disenfranchised in the healthcare system. That’s a problem. And he is just so out of touch with what’s happening on the ground here. We saw what happened with the flood here in 2010, the people who were completely screwed by that were the poorest people. You know what I mean? People’s lives are at stake, and the current representation is very cold and apathetic to that.
VPR: What in your previous experience has prepared you to serve the Congress?
I think that that’s a mixed question. I think there are two sides to that. The first is activism and organizing work that I’ve done in Nashville and while I was a student. I was involved in a group while at Vanderbilt that’s now defunct, called Students for Nonviolent Action, that was very active in divesting from the private prison industry within the Vanderbilt administration and combating police violence. Then upon graduation, I got involved in DSA here and started to do some organizing work outside of Vanderbilt. I’m involved in a Medicare for All advocacy group there. I have this organizing experience, drafting Medicare for all proposals and that sort of thing. Forming Medicare for all working groups in my workplace that I get yelled at for, and sort of thing. Working on the ground to get the city to divest from the private prison industry. Doing canvassing to get us to vote for the spectacularly failed transit bill a few years ago. And during the 2016 election, I was very involved in Vanderbilt Students for Bernie; did a lot of canvassing and phone banking for Bernie Sanders during that [time] and now, obviously. Also, from a young age, I was super into the fight against wealth inequality. When Occupy Wall Street happened, that was kind of what started all that for me.
VPR: You said that Jim Cooper is not an adequate representative for TN-5. Why is that?
The majority of TN-5 is not interested in what he represents. His interests that he’s representing in Congress are not our interests. What I mean by that is he comes from a political dynasty. His brother is the mayor, his dad was the governor, his grandfather was the Speaker of the Tennessee House. He comes from political royalty here, and that is his bread and butter. He is an establishment conservative Democrat. And that is not what Nashville and the surrounding counties are anymore. I think that maybe they were in the 80s and 90s, but this demographic has changed so much, and our interests have therefore changed a lot.
And he has made it very clear that he’s not interested in doing things like expanding healthcare or placing protections for minority communities or low income communities here. He hasn’t been great about pushing a minimum wage raise. He’s been for it but very milquetoast about it. And he’s just a weak legislator, and that’s not what we need in this city. It’s not what we need in this state in general. There’s so much at stake; I feel like Middle Tennessee is really at a turning point right now, and he is not a champion of progressive change. He is not a voice for working people. He is not a voice for disenfranchised people. He makes people feel left out of the conversation, not brought into it because he literally refuses to hold town halls. He’s not open to discussion with his constituents.
VPR: As a younger female candidate challenging a longtime Democratic Congressman, you have some things in common with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In Congress, do you see yourself voting with “The Squad” on those policy issues?
That’s the dream. I’d love to obviously. AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Pramila Jayapal especially have been huge influences for me. I think we need to send a strong message that the South is on board with those sorts of things. Maybe not the whole South, but a lot of Nashville, and even Dickson County, Cheatham County, are on board with those sorts of things. So yeah.
VPR: Over the past decade, Congressman Cooper has consistently voted for someone other than Nancy Pelosi to lead the House Democratic Caucus. Do you plan on supporting Pelosi’s reelection to the speakership?
That’s a hard question because I’m not even really supporting Pelosi in her own primary. I’m supporting Shahid Buttar in that primary. I know he has a very slim chance of winning, but I think he’s bringing a really important conversation to that district in California. I think that symbolically what Pelosi is doing is important, but like, behind the scenes, she has been an enabler of what’s happening in the Republican establishment even and so I don’t know if I am even on board with her reelection.
VPR: You mentioned Medicare for All as probably your signature policy proposal. Why do you see that as the way forward for healthcare in America?
I think that there’s a moral argument that I hold very dearly: that healthcare is a human right and no Corporation, or insurance company or oligarchy or legislature should have a right to say how much a life is worth.
And that is the bottom line for me on Medicare for All. is like Medicare for all would take away any of these external groups’ ability to quantify how much a given life is worth, or use any person as fodder for a political conversation in terms of their health and their right to exist, frankly. There’s a fiscal argument that it would save $2 billion. That’s kind of debated, obviously, but the bottom line is anybody who is struggling to pay medical bills right now would never struggle with that again and would be paying less overall than they ever have. I think what it comes down to is, is a moral argument. And that extends to pretty much every other issue like we this is a woman’s issue a trans issue an LGBT issue because it, everyone needs health care. Everyone needs healthcare. Every woman or female identifying person deserves women’s health care and reproductive care. And so that’s how it’s a women’s issue. The closure of rural hospitals.
This is a practical and moral and fiscal issue to me. And it’s the only option going forward. Frankly, I think that it’s inevitable every other quote unquote developed nation has Medicare for all or some system very similar to it. But we are not going to thrive as a society if we don’t choose this as our way forward.
And we can’t have legislators like Cooper who have been waffling on it. This time around, he is staunchly against it. A few years ago, he mentioned he’d be for it, but then the second it became viable in the house now half, about half of the Democrats in the House have signed onto Pramila Jayapal’s bill. The second that happens, Cooper gets cold feet. Wonder why, you know, because he doesn’t actually want it to happen. He does whatever’s politically convenient for him.
VPR: In 2018, Congressman Cooper voted in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget. Would you support such an effort in the next Congress?
No. That decision enabled the Trump administration to do what they’re doing now.
VPR: Why will you be better at getting results for the people of Tennessee than Jim Cooper?
These social issues and political issues that we’re capitalizing on right now have a lot of momentum right now. I mean, we saw Bernie win in New Hampshire and pretty much won in Iowa. And I think that we need to capitalize on that momentum before someone before we have a weak president in power like Pete Buttigieg. If we set up a precedent that the status quo is okay, that’s what’s going to extend to Tennessee, which is a very neglected state on the federal level. People outside of Tennessee aren’t thinking about Tennessee. it sends a very strong message to have someone in that faction in the house who is not just kind of going with the status quo, especially from Tennessee, because you don’t expect that in Tennessee. You do expect it in a place like New York with AOC and Crowley’s race: you know, she was an underdog, but it was ridiculous that Crowley was representing the people in the Bronx and Queens. That was just like people weren’t paying attention now that that happened. I think people are paying attention. The people who are paying attention are realizing they don’t care much for Jim Cooper because he hasn’t done much for them and their lives haven’t improved notably because of his time in office.
VPR: Do you think the democratic socialists can win over the support of the Democratic Party and ultimately, the American electorate as a whole?
Yes and no.
I think right now, it is necessary to win over the Democratic Party and show that these policies aren’t radical… the word socialist isn’t a bad word. I think that it is necessary to prove that. And every time they throw Venezuela in your face, you have to come back with all these Scandinavian countries that are doing democratic socialism very successfully. But it’s more than just changing hearts and minds. I think that eventually, we need to fracture the two party system because it has been so detrimental to discourse.
It just becomes a game of whose side you are on. it is appalling to me that I am in the same party as Bloomberg. I don’t identify with that. And I think that a lot of people who support Bernie and Warren and state and federal level candidates that either identify as democratic socialists, or even incorporate policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All into their platform, do not identify with people like Bloomberg. I think that it is partially about winning over the party, but also the centrism is probably either going to break off from it or we’re going to break off from them eventually.
But I think that the general direction is proving that these are viable options for this country and they’re not just pipe dreams. They’re real policies that work in other places and can benefit everybody here.
VPR: Why do you support the Green New Deal?
I support the Green New Deal because it is literally the only way that is going to bring us back from the brink of climate apocalypse.
We have such a problem with the oil lobby in this country. I mean, there are billions of dollars poured into influencing what happens in Washington from the oil lobby. And that just needs to stop because that is partially how we ended up in this mess. We need to prosecute the corporations that were denying how climate change was going to impact the environment back in the 60s when they already knew about it. And just kind of reverse this, the Green New Deal is literally the only way forward. The science is so sound, we understand what’s happening with the climate and what is going to happen. If we don’t do something, I think also like myself, like working in healthcare seeing how that affects the spread of disease, like there are so many unforeseen consequences of climate change, like these new epidemics that we’re not even anticipating happening. it’s also the only way to have a just transition to renewables. So not just pulling the rug out from under these coal mining communities but transitioning the entirety of these communities, jobs and livelihoods to renewable energy, and re-enfranchising communities that have been disenfranchised because of our dependence on fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry. is the only way to reincorporate those communities into the future of a renewable economy. So it not only has the betterment of the environment, but also the betterment of economic society.
The Green New Deal is going to lay the groundwork for the future of climate justice in this country. And obviously, young people understand that and once all those young people are old enough to vote, and a lot of them are already, we’re going to send a very clear message. that that is the only way forward. I mean, if you’re a candidate right now, and you’re not acknowledging that climate change is the biggest threat to society, you are denying science, and the Green New Deal is the only thing that really embraces that science and embraces a just economic transition, that responds to that science.
VPR: Let’s shift now to foreign policy. Under what circumstances would you support a declaration of war or to otherwise authorize a military conflict?
Very few. I think that first of all, presidents shouldn’t have the ability to perform any extrajudicial acts of war like he did with the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. But I think that wars should only happen when literally every effort of diplomacy, every effort of economic sanctions, everything has been exhausted. I think that that’s, I think that the military should be significantly defunded and that efforts into diplomacy should be funded, including the creation of a department of peace and creating an economy like a peace economy if that makes sense. Rather than essentially, what’s a war lobby that funds a lot of people in Congress right now? So yeah, very few circumstances.
VPR: Do you support mandatory buyback for “assault weapons”?
Yes. I support a mandatory buyback, I support the Assault Weapons Ban of 2019, I think that gun violence, especially in the rural South, is a huge issue, and moving towards a mandatory buyback is the only solution.
VPR: Do you see yourself reaching across the aisle in Washington DC?
Yes. I see, like on a personal level, I see myself as a very, like, diplomatic person. There are people that I am just like baseline not going to agree with and I am going to fight for bold progressive legislation at every turn.
If it’s what the constituency wants and needs, like, being a representative is about representing your community and saying, “This is not my seat, it is our seat. What do you want? What kind of change do you want to see here? And how can I be the conduit for that change?”
It’s not the community’s responsibility to come up with solutions. It’s the community’s responsibility to say, “Hey, this is messed up. How can we fix it?” And then it’s the representative’s responsibility to say, “Hey, our community says this is and here’s how we can come up with a collective solution that benefits everybody.”
And so yeah, I see myself working across the aisle because I’m a I’m a values-based person, not a party person. I don’t feel beholden to the established rule of the Democratic Party. Even staunch Republicans want to decrease pharmaceutical costs and hold the pharmaceutical lobby and industry accountable. That is something we can all agree on. We just have different ways of getting there. And so I feel comfortable in uniting us on how we define problems, and having this discussion and a candid conversation about how we differ and there are people who don’t agree with me on that, and that’s that.
VPR: Since Tennessee’s fifth congressional district includes Vanderbilt’s campus, what is one message you would like to send to the Vanderbilt community ahead of the election?
Your voice is really important here.
And the second you moved here, you became part of the Nashville and Middle Tennessee community and this is now your home turf and you are part of this community. So make your voice heard, because I think that Vanderbilt students… it’s a bubble. I know everybody says that in terms of like the campus literally being a bubble, but people don’t realize how much power they have. There is a huge student population here
You know, there’s about 2 million people in the district and it doesn’t seem like a lot, 12,000 Vanderbilt students. But Vanderbilt has such a presence here like being a student at Vanderbilt your voice is really powerful. And I would hate to see Vanderbilt students take that for granted. And the first thing you should do when you move here is switch your registration to be in Tennessee. But yeah, get involved on Vanderbilt’s campus because there are so many opportunities to do so and being a college student is just like the perfect time to do it.
I’m sure you guys all know this by now, but be aware of what’s going on in your own community because there’s corruption in places that you wouldn’t even think there’d be corruption or you wouldn’t even need corruption. I mean, there are vested interests in the private prison industry in Vanderbilt’s administration that they’re refusing to admit, no matter how hard we try to get them to admit it. Just be very vigilant to what’s going on in your immediate community because what you do is your voice is so powerful, like they’re speaking out is really powerful as a student, especially at a school like Vanderbilt where it’s a little bit more conservative than other campuses of its academic caliber. Just get as involved as possible.