Jess King, candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania's Eleventh District, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for the launch of People's Action's Rural Strategy.
I’m a native of Lancaster County - born and raised in this community, never thought I’d be running for office in my own community, but here we are. I grew up in a small business family – my parents, neither of whom had college degrees, my stepdad never finished high school, decided to start a small business when I was just a kid.
I grew up working in that business with my older siblings, learned the values of hard work, sticking together as a family through thick and thin in a working family that had a lot of hard times getting by.
I also grew up Mennonite, which is a deep tradition in this community. And I learned, and I think take away from that experience, that other than loving God, our responsibility is to love our neighbors as ourselves. And I think that’s true for so many people and for so many places across this country, regardless of race or religion or creed or background.
I’ve spent my career working to support working families in the state of Pennsylvania, ten years in Pittsburgh and then came back home eleven years ago, and have been fighting to support small business owners: working with women, and with women and men of color, to start small businesses so that our economy starts to look a little bit more like our community, because it doesn’t.
Trying to create good jobs, trying to address our city’s thirty-percent poverty rate, which is higher than Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, recognizing that every small city in our region has a poverty rate of between twenty-nine and forty percent. Reading, which is right next door, has the poorest small city of its size in the country.
This is a moral failure; entirely. And I look at this across the board – that poverty rate in Lancaster City has gone up fifty percent since the time I started working in Pennsylvania. It’s kind of humbling, if this is your goal, right?
If you look at what is happening across the country, half of working families have seen zero wages growing since 1980, the same year my parents started their small business. The biggest barriers that I see with small businesses that I’ve worked with is the fact that half of working families don’t have enough money to actually spend in our local economies that support those small businesses.
The other big competitor: monopoly power. Corporate interests, and the fact that small businesses, which employ the majority of Americans, cannot compete in this environment. We do not have the political will to actually enforce the laws that we have on the books.
So I’m stepping up to run for Congress because I’m sick and tired of working my heart out to support other people working their hearts out to not get any further ahead. We can simply do better.
And I think we’re fundamentally at a point in our history where we can decide bout two different kinds of politics. One of fear, division, nationalistic sort of “Build walls, keep people out,” pit neighbor against neighbor for our problems.
Or, we can actually fight for a politics that work for all of us. So that’s what we’re doing, and we’re doing it deeply.
Now I don’t know if you’ve followed the drama in Pennsylvania, but we have completely new Congressional districts, just in the past couple of months, and we were already in a Republican-leaning district, but it got even more so in the Eleventh District.
But for me, that distills this exact argument. We need to run on progressive values in the Reddest places in this country, to bring it back by speaking about the economic needs of working families that have been left out by both parties. That we can win even in places that Trump won – in our district, by 26 points.
We can win when we actually step up and speak to the economic needs of working families. And we’ve got to do it; this is how we do it. And when America works for all of us, we know that healthcare will be a right and not a privilege, that we’ll pass Medicare for All, that we’ll have debt-free public college, that students can afford to get the training in technical school, college that they need to get a family-sustaining wage.
We’ll work with small businesses to raise the minimum wage so that people aren’t living in poverty after working a full day’s work, that we’ll have a hundred-percent renewable energy within our generation, so that our rural communities stay beautiful, and strong, and we see jobs connected to that green infrastructure being built in our own communities.
This is the America that we can build if we choose to do it; and this is what it looks like. And so I am just so pleased to tell you that in our particular race, it’s never been so clear to me that it’s us against the wealthy and the well-connected in Washington. And when you look at my opponent’s FEC filings, all of his money has come from corporate PACs, and none of ours has – none at all.
And what’s so exciting is that we’ve actually raised more money than he did the last two quarters, so it’s working!
And what’s so encouraging is that we’re putting that money into an unprecedented field campaign to build power, to build organizing, to knock on thousands of doors, and make thousands of phone calls in a district that has never been organized.
And that is how you win. By having persuasive conversations about things that matter most, by meeting with our values, and talking with people about what is at stake in this moment.
So thank you for this work. I feel like I’m at home – this is what it’s about. And together, we will build an America that works for all of us.