When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

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Mikie Sherrill: Challenging Authority and Reaching Across the Aisle

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“I get asked frequently, "would you sit down with the president to talk about infrastructure?" And I've always said "yes, of course." You know, just because I disagree with somebody, doesn't mean I'm not going to do everything I can to fight for the things that people in my district need.” - Rep. Mikie Sherrill

Mikie Sherrill, former navy pilot and federal prosecutor and current Congresswoman from New Jersey, discusses the challenges of pushing back against leadership and reaching across the aisle to do what she believes is best for her district and the country.

Mikie is the Representative for New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. She sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, where she is the Chairwoman of the Oversight and Investigations. Learn more about Mikie at her website, https://sherrill.house.gov/, and follow her on Twitter at @RepSherrill.

Participate in Episode 3 of Burn the Boats with Gina Ortiz Jones by leaving a voicemail at 216-245-5461 or sending a voice memo to burntheboats@evergreenpodcasts.com. Tell us your first name (or anonymous, if you prefer) and tell us about a time when two parts of your identity seemed to be in conflict, or when you felt you had to choose between different parts of yourself.

Mikie Sherrill: I get asked frequently, "would you sit down with the president to talk about infrastructure?" And I've always said "yes, of course." You know, just because I disagree with somebody, doesn't mean I'm not going to do everything I can to fight for the things that people in my district need.

Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is a podcast about big decisions. The kinds we face when failure is not an option. The kind that Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and order his men to burn the boats. There was no turning back.

In Episode 2, I talk to Mikie Sherrill, former navy pilot and federal prosecutor and current representative for New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. A Democratic congresswoman for less than a year, Mikie is already making waves. She challenged her own party’s leadership by voting against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. And she has become an outspoken advocate for impeachment investigations into President Trump.

Well, Mikey Sherrill, it is awesome to have you on the show. Thank you so much for making time. How's the whole governing thing working out?

MS: It's certainly been a very interesting time to be in politics and I have to say I think the thing that was driving me crazy and so many of the people in my district crazy over the past couple of years was this idea that our voices weren't being heard. At no level of government did we have the pathway to have our voices heard and now having the House, even though it's just one part of our government and, you know, we're still in divided government, just having the House I think has been so incredibly important to be able to work towards the things I think we all know this country needs us to work on.

KH: Well, in terms of being heard and ensuring that your constituents are heard you have an uncanny ability to make that happen, to project your voice without slamming your fist on the table. I thought it was really funny, among the superlatives used to describe you like the "the most important new woman in Congress”, “rising star of the party”, “the future of democratic politics"... This gem: "unfailingly polite".

MS: Well I think after all of those are sort of the- "that you've never heard of"... The most this that and the other thing “that you never heard of”. But unfailingly polite. Wow, I'm gonna have to tell my husband that one. I don't know that he's gonna agree.

KH: I’m using that as an entree to maybe a bigger question about the responsibilities of a lawmaker. If they change when you become responsible for an entire congressional district. I mean you have a responsibility to serve people who may disagree with you vehemently. How do you take that in?

MS: Well, I think you know, everyone sort of asks the question, that question we all kind of learned in civics in grade school, do you follow your belief system when you vote or do you follow the will of your district? And I don't think it's an either or. You can best serve your district if you truly understand the people of your district, the needs of your district, and in many ways reflect that in what you've done with your life. So having served in the Navy, having served as a helicopter pilot and a Russian policy officer, and then serving at the US attorney's office, not just as a federal prosecutor, but as somebody who's helped to start up the re-entry program, the prisoner re-entry program, and helping people coming out of federal prison and re-enter their communities. I think all of these pieces of my past and of the focus that I've had reflect a lot of the thoughts of the district in some areas, sort of deep traditional beliefs in our country and what it means to be an American, but also progressive beliefs in how we tackle things like criminal justice reform. So I think that my belief system sort of reflects a lot of people in my district. And yes, you can't be all things to all people, but I do think that you are responsible for making people understand why you're voting a certain way or why you have a certain belief system and they can agree or disagree at the end, but you owe that to the people you serve. You owe them some understanding of how you're thinking about the hard issues, how you're voting on the difficult issues, and why you're doing that and then they can make their decisions at their polling place. Whether or not they agree with what you're doing.

KH: Have you ever had a real conflict laid bare between a deeply held belief you have or a way that your conscience is telling you to vote and not just a vocal minority within your District, but the prevailing sentiment of your district? Have you ever had to vote in what you would consider the best interest of your district when they don't agree?

MS: That's a great question. I can think of more instances of sort of the piece you mentioned where there is a vocal group of people who feel passionately about something and I voted differently from the way they think I should vote. Now to say has there ever been a large vote that I took that I think is not in line with my district, no. Now, it's just been 6 months, so, certainly, I assume -

KH: But it'll happen.

MS: I assume it will, but to date I think the votes we've taken in the House have been largely supported in my district, things like universal background checks for gun purchases and more voter transparency and bringing down health care costs. These are all things that I ran on and I think really comport with the views of the people in my district for the most part.

KH: Not to say there haven't been some tough and controversial votes. One of the first was a vote for Speaker of the House. How did you talk to your District about about that and your decision there?

MS: Well, there were a couple things. I had committed to people as I was running that I would be working towards new leadership and to me that meant not supporting Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. That was an important issue for many people in my district. In fact, many people, I think, voted for me based on that commitment. And so when I got into the House of Representatives, that was the very first vote I had to take and it's not necessarily the easiest thing to do to enter into your new job and vote in a way that the leadership in your new job is not going to like very well. But it was important, because I had made that commitment-

KH: And you still wound up with your your preferred committee assignment. The retribution I'm sure people warned you about.

MS: It was tough. It was something I had to fight really hard for, but I thought it was important for my district. I wanted to be on the House Armed Services Committee. Picatinny Arsenal is the largest employer in my district. That also is an area that I have some background and expertise on, so I really felt like it was an important committee assignment to hold and so I fought very hard to get on it. It was a fight. It wasn't easy, you know, I explained to the caucus why this was an incredibly important way for me to serve my district and at the end of the day, that's what prevailed.

KH: So you now have this incredible perch from which to not only fight for your district, but advance one of the few bipartisan issues left in Congress, which is the Armed Services Committee interests and I'm wondering how you square that with your mandate going into the Congress as a progressive Democrat having to work with people who on social issues have antithetical views, are you able to, as we would have said in the Navy, compartmentalize and just get stuff done on?

MS: You know, the House Armed Services Committee is an interesting committee to be on and many of the divisions in the committee don't break down along partisan lines, many of the divisions don't break down along the social issues. A lot of times it breaks down along the lines of experience. Some of us think that it's appropriate to have some cases of sexual assault heard outside the chain of command and some people don't. And a lot of the people that don't think that have been at the top of the chain of command and they see it as a command issue and they're very passionate about it and I certainly feel as if we've given the military enough time to handle it appropriately within the chain of command and we're just not seeing the results that we want to see, so we need to try something different. So, of course in this NDAA - the National Defense Authorization Act - out of committee, we passed some legislation to have a special counsel hear these cases, instead of the superintendents of the academy, so we'll see how that works. But you know, in that instance it broke down differently, but in the larger group in the House, I do work with people who, probably if I looked carefully at their votes, I wouldn't be happy with all of their votes. And I get asked frequently, "would you sit down with the president to talk about infrastructure?" And I've always said "yes, of course." You know, just because I disagree with somebody doesn't mean I'm not going to do everything I can to fight for the things that people in my district need. So I think it's important that where we can build those bridges, where we can find areas where there's wide agreement and we can get legislation passed, we need to do that. And that's something that I have been encouraging leadership to do and I hope to see the House do more of.

KH: Well, you're you're certainly living up to that. If reports are correct, you've co-sponsored a bill with Joe Wilson. And just for context, I mean Joe Wilson is the congressman from South Carolina who some would say, I would say, debased the institution of which you are a part by saying "you lie" to President Obama on the House floor.

[Audio from President Obama’s September 9, 2009 joint address to Congress, featuring Joe Wilson shouting “You lie”]

KH: -yet you have found common ground. I mean, that is a big gap to bridge. Can you share your thinking on that?

MS: Yes, and I hear you. I thought that was a pretty- pretty much a low moment of our recent State of the Union addresses. But putting the country first and putting our troops first is something that I've committed to doing and that's what I did in this instance. So yes, I think it was important to reach across the aisle, to build as much support within the House Armed Services Committee- he sits on the House Armed Services Committee- as possible to ensure that we got that in the National Defense Authorization Act and we were successful in doing so.

KH: You've sort of described a lawmaker's responsibility as different than than a citizen's responsibility, who is not making laws and forced to make those compromises, but that has been a journey for you. You have been a representative for six months. I would imagine your concept of rights and responsibilities of citizenship was a little simpler at one point in time, especially throwing on the flight suit and heading out for a mission in your Sea King. Is that fair to say that that transition has been an evolution?

MS: It's certainly been an evolution. You know, sometimes when you're not legislating, you're thinking of, in a vacuum, the best way we could proceed. And yet unfortunately, or fortunately depending on the case, in Congress you have to- especially in a divided government like this, to get to make progress on an issue, to get legislation passed, you have to get it through the House of Representatives, then you have to get it through the Senate, get Mitch McConnell to even put it on the floor for a vote, and then get a vote on it, and then have the president sign it into law. And so that's very different from operating in a vacuum or being somebody in the community advocating for change. I think people in the community looking at the best possible solutions and advocating for them, that is an important role, but I have a different role as a member of Congress now. I have the role of trying to get to the best possible result for people in my district and across the country and it's not always the best solution, but I have to come to the best solution within the divided government and getting legislation passed. And it's a it's a responsibility I take very seriously-

KH: I really appreciate how you're describing that, that your responsibility differs, but that if I'm hearing you right you don't begrudge those in your district, in your community, especially those advocates who are who are fighting for the perfectly correct solution, even though it might be politically impossible. You said everyone has a role, but yours is different.

MS: Right, I think it's incredibly important. We have a caucus with a lot of diversity and very diverse opinions and we want to hear. You know, often when a ship runs aground, there were people on the bridge of the ship that knew it was going to run aground and they didn't say anything to the captain of the ship. Because they were afraid of the captain or the captain didn't want any other opinions, you know, kind of that old "if I want your opinion, I'll tell you what it is" kind of thing. But for whatever reason, people on the bridge knew what was happening, but didn't inform the captain and the ship ran aground. And I think it's critical that people on the ground here talk up. That they speak up about what they see happening, that they speak up about the concerns they have and how we need to move forward in this country. And I don't think it's a good path to have somebody at the top telling everybody what the plan is and nobody gets out of line and nobody speaks up and if they're concerned about certain issues, they don't discuss those issues. And I think we've seen a little bit too much of that in the Republican party. A little bit, you know, people too afraid to speak up and too afraid to talk about some issues that we have in this country. So, it's important. It's important to have people on the ground advocating for what they believe in.

But you know, my job is a bit different from that and I think because of my background, because of understanding in the Navy how you need to work with a team to get the mission accomplished and get everybody on the same sheet of paper so you can get things accomplished. I think, you know, that's kind of lent some sort of background to my view now that if I want to get stuff done, I've got to get people on board. You know, it's not enough to come up with a great plan if I can't get it passed through the House, if I can't get McConnell to take it up and pass it in the Senate, if I can't get the president to sign it. Then it's really just me advocating for a great plan, but not getting anything accomplished for the American people.

KH: Right. Do you think the massive influx of military vets into this class in Congress has had an effect on the sensibility there, on this idea that you just articulated- on the get-shit-done mentality that we operated under in uniform.

MS: Oh my gosh. I can't believe that language. No.

KH: Unfailingly polite.

MS: Yeah, unfailingly polite, that's what everybody says about all of us here in New Jersey, I'm sure. Yeah, I think it's definitely had an impact, in fact, I would say in the Democratic Caucus, a lot of the National Security and Foreign Affairs expertise is in the Freshman Class. I often hang out with a group I call the Gang of Nine and it’s nine veteran and CIA members, many of us are on Armed Services, some are on Homeland Security, some are on Veterans Affairs, some are on Foreign Affairs. So, this background that we have that has, the service to the country that's really called us all to run for office and now as we're serving has informed our opinions of the world, I think is incredibly important. So, you know, I think a lot of us had been hearing about how the Russians attempted to influence our election system and there have been movements throughout the House to support the election system. So we've given money, you know, New Jersey, we don't have paper ballots yet, we're working on that. We are looking at how to ensure that voter registration is secure, how to ensure that our ballot boxes are secure, our polling places are secure. But what seems to be missing from the conversation is how the Russians use social media and used, you know- infiltrated different groups, protest groups, to really create divisiveness and to influence the elections and that's something that I think many of us have seen overseas, you know, we've seen the Russians influence other democracies. We know what they've been doing over the past several decades and so to come to Congress in a time when the Russians have attempted to influence our democratic elections, there hasn't been the focus on it. Where is that kind of all hands on deck to protect the 2020 election mentality that we would expect to see? And I think there was some reporting that the former Secretary of Homeland Security tried to come up with the 2020 plan for the president and she couldn't even get that on his desk, so we have taken it upon ourselves. We formed a task force sentry to really drill down into exactly what happened in 2016 and what the legislation should be so that we can protect 2020.

KH: Does it scare you at all that six months into the job on one of the biggest stages on Earth, you are the Russia expert?

MS: Well, I don't think it's scary in the sense that we have a lot of resources and, because I come from that background, know people that quite frankly have far more Russian expertise than I do, mine's a bit dated, but I think the thing that I can lean on that not everybody in the caucus can, is an understanding of where to go for information and as we hold hearings in the armed services committee, an understanding of how to get to the bottom, you know, there's ways of sort of misdirection and stuff when you don't want to answer a question. I think being on the Armed Services Committee with people who've served in the military, with people who've served in the CIA, has been critically important to really getting to ground truth on some of the issues that we're facing.

KH: And has that, that camaraderie amongst fellow Representatives who have similar backgrounds, has that helped to drive away some of the partisanship or are you talking about people who are all are all Democrats and of the same mind?

MS: You know, we're working very hard to overcome the partisanship. In fact, I'm also in the For Country caucus, which is a bipartisan group of veterans that really works on legislation and and we're sort of starting with some low-hanging fruit-

KH: Is that fairly new, the For Country caucus? What's the history there?

MS: That just started. Part of the reason it just started is because this is the freshman class in the Democratic caucus with the largest amount of veterans. In fact, we've doubled the number of women veterans in the House of Representatives, but before you get too excited, it went from two to four, so we're still a little low on numbers there. But yeah, so the For Country caucus is working hard, but again, you know, right now we're starting with a little bit, like I was saying, of the low-hanging fruit. Things regarding gold star families and veterans and issues where there's wide agreement. But I think in working with people across the aisle and what I call building kind of that muscle memory of legislating with Republicans and what that means, I think we can move on to bigger issues and I hope we can move on to bigger issues and develop sort of a bit of trust. Certainly, there are going to be areas where we find agreement and where everyone in the country would expect us to find agreement, but then there are evolving opportunities. I'm on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee as well, I’m the chairwoman of the oversight committee, and I get asked a lot about climate change because in the last Congress, in the 115th, the chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee didn't believe in climate change science. So one of the first full committee hearings we held was on climate change and the Republican panel member spoke very compellingly about the need to address climate change, so I think that movement really speaks to greater opportunities. I'd say the Florida delegation, for example, many of the Republicans in the Florida delegation are concerned about climate change because of what they're seeing in Florida.

KH: I wonder why...

MS: Yeah, how could that be? These are new opportunities, so if we already have built those bridges as the new opportunities open up, we could continue to build on them.

KH: Well, that's comforting and all the more so because we have folks like you and your Gang of Nine. What was the biggest surprise for you, good or bad, when you showed up and started the job?

MS: Well, there's good and bad surprises. I guess the bad surprise was, I guess how unsurprising it was, how much we had sensed that something was wrong in Congress and then to get into Congress and be like, “yeah, this is kind of what we thought it was”. I guess I had hoped, because I'm sort of a perennial optimist, that I would get into Congress and think "Oh, wow. No, you know, you hear a lot of stuff on TV, but people are really working together incredibly well and everyone's sort of behind the scenes working together and getting things done". The problems with partisanship are real, the misunderstandings across the aisle are real. You know, my district expects me to get legislation passed and accomplished and they expect me to do so in a bipartisan way, so that's frustrating. I would say the good news is, this freshman class feels like it is making a tremendous difference. You know, we are working on things like building those bridges, you know, I think there are probably more people who have relationships with Republicans in general than we've had throughout the caucus since at least 2010. We've really come into office with that mandate and so, you have, like I said, the Gang of Nine, but then you have other people from across the country that have that same sense that we've got to get Congress working again and with this powerful group of freshman, you do feel that change is possible. If it had just been me, if I just got into Congress and I was working by myself as a freshman. I don't think I would have that same sense of hope that we could really foment change that I do because of the wonderful class I'm in.

KH: Well, that is a great note to end on. Mikie, thanks so much for being on the show, for giving us your time. Keep up the fight.

MS: Well Ken, thanks so much. It's great talking to you.

KH: Thanks again to Mikie Sherrill for joining me. Mikie is the representative for New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. She serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Mikie and I talked about standing up to leadership. She voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House and she is challenging President Trump by pushing for impeachment investigations. We wanted to hear about a time when you challenged authority. Here’s what we heard:

Speaker 1: When I was in fifth grade, I got in trouble for shouldering this horrible boy in my class. And in turn, I got a check on my behavior chart. And I had to bring it home every week to get it signed by my parents, so they knew that I had done something bad. And I really didn't want to get in trouble, so I forged their signature. And then I found out that you brought the same chart home every week. So it became this game of me forging my signature over and over again to avoid getting caught for having forged the first time. So I did that for like 10 weeks. And needless to say, that did not end well for me.

Speaker 2: So when I was about 18 years old, I led sailing trips off the coast of Maine and Penobscot Bay. And I had kids on the boat, probably most of them around age 12. And I was the captain of a fleet of three boats, all similarly situated with basically college age skippers and a group of kids. Well, the coast of Maine is rocky and full of hazards, islands, channels. And one day the fog was so thick, we could not see the end of our boat. I could steer the boat, I could barely see the mast. And I'd been taught my whole sailing career how to navigate around Coast Guard markers. They're not buoys, they're never to be tied up to. There were places where you were allowed to tie up, and places where you're not allowed to tie and allowed to anchor. Well it was, as I said, foggy - like pea soup fog, you can't see a thing. And I basically, against the rules, against the regulations, grabbed the Coast Guard buoy and tied up to it, and then had the two other boats tie up to me. And I thought, okay, this is completely illegal, and I have a boat of 12 year olds here. So I basically said I'd rather keep these kids safe and I got on our radio and called the Coast Guard and said, "I'm tied up to your buoy." And I was expecting them to yell at me. And the Coast Guard people said, "Thank you for doing the right thing and looking out for these kids, and you stay right where you are until it's safe to leave." And so I guess the lesson I learned from that is sometimes it's okay to do something that goes against the established rule that's set by the authority. You know, rules are important until they're not.

KH: Next time, I’m talking to Gina Ortiz Jones, Air Force veteran and Congressional candidate in Texas’s 23rd district. She tells me about the tough decision her mother made to immigrate here from the Philippines and about the challenges of being a gay service member under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

And we want you to join our discussion. Tell us about a time when two parts of your identity seemed to be in conflict or when you felt you had to choose between different parts of yourself. Leave us a message at 216-245-5461 or send a voice memo to burntheboats@evergreenpodcasts.com. The number again is 216-245-5461. We can’t wait to hear from you.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.

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