Jennifer Lawless’s storefront campaign office in Warwick’s Conimicut section is bedecked with inspirational aphorisms from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Henry Ford, Casey Stengel, Dr. Seuss, and Margaret Mead — appropriate encouragement, one might surmise, for someone making an intra-party challenge to US Representative James R. Langevin, one of Rhode Island’s most popular Democrats.
Yet Lawless, 31, a professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, is running an energetic campaign against the more socially conservative Langevin, a Warwick native who is serving his third term in House. Besides winning support from progressives, including backing from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, her campaign has raised more than $260,000 and recently announced the hiring of a “top-notch team of giant-killer consultants.” (For more details about Lawless, who has lived in Rhode Island for a little more than three years, visit www.lawlessforcongress.com.) With the lack of a Republican candidate in this district, for the first time in more than 100 years, independent Rod Driver will face the winner of the September 12 primary.
The Phoenix spoke with Lawless this week at her campaign office.
Tell me about how and why you made the decision to run for Congress.
Quite frankly, I think the status quo in Rhode Island on the issues that I care most about is unacceptable, and I think that the current representative is out of sync with his constituents on those issues. Education, jobs, health-care, reproductive freedom — we can be doing much better in Rhode Island on all of those issues than we currently are, and we need someone in Washington who is going to be an outspoken advocate to improve education, and to bring more jobs to Rhode Island, and certainly to fight for reproductive freedom and a woman’s right to choose.
Go into some greater depth in sketching the differences between Representative Langevin and yourself.
The biggest policy difference that people tend to refer to is reproductive freedom. I am pro-choice, and since my opponent has been elected to Congress, he has voted more than 25 times against a woman’s right to choose. That’s not the only issue, though. He voted for the Patriot Act and for its renewal; I think that the Patriot Act infringes on civil rights and civil liberties. He has not been an outspoken progressive advocate for marriage equality; I certainly believe in marriage equality. He was one of the few Democrats who last year helped the Republicans pass the Terri Schiavo legislation. I think that was an issue that should best be left to families, and certainly it’s a privacy matter. And the war in Iraq is another example. I think that we need a timetable to get our troops home, and he has pretty much advocated for President Bush’s staying the course.
How about differences on jobs and education?
I feel that the biggest difference is about leadership. It’s not enough just to vote the right way on the issues if you’re not going to be a leader on those issues, and let me give you an example. Last year there was a vote which would have rolled back the Bush tax cuts for the top one percent of taxpayers. It would have generated $40 billion in revenue for education, and health-care, job-creation, and deficit-reduction, and my opponent voted with the Republicans — against rolling back the tax cut in that case. So that’s a clear example of what I think; we need a tax policy that will reward working families and that rewards work, not wealth. And that’s a way to fund education, and health-care, and jobs.