JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It may not be the single most important moment in her lengthy political career, but winning a congressional race in a long-standing Republican district in Florida may prove to be one of the toughest challenges for Nancy Soderberg yet.
The former U.S. National Security Council member has accepted the task at hand and is now saddling up for the long haul down the Florida campaign trail in 2018.
Soderberg said her decision to run for U.S. Congress was founded partially on the belief that court-ordered redistricting in 2016 has carved a viable path for Democratic candidacy in Florida's 6th Congressional District.
The district was redrawn in 2016 and now includes only southern parts of St. Johns County, all of Flagler and Volusia Counties, and northeastern parts of Lake County.
Amidst rumors of higher aspirations, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis has yet to publicly declare whether he intends to run for re-election in the district. Nevertheless, Soderberg is taking her nascent congressional campaign serious, hoping to win votes in a district that has been void of Democratic representation for nearly two decades.
While staffers are working diligently inside a pool house turned campaign headquarters next to her home in Jacksonville Beach, the University of North Florida professor is busy preparing material for her foreign policy classes in between plotting her next move.
Despite her illustrious career in Washington D.C., Soderberg admits she is not independently wealthy and will need to keep her job at UNF to fund her campaign efforts.
Soderberg said her camp is currently focused on getting 7,000 ballot petition signatures, or roughly one percent of the average population of a congressional district. The signatures will effectively waive the $10,440 in filing fees required for congressional candidates.
First Coast News sat down with Soderberg to talk about her campaign, what she plans to do in Congress and where she stands on some of the more recent foreign policy issues.
Let’s go ahead and get the formal question out of the way and I’m sure you’ve been asked this numerous times already, but why are you running for Congress?
I’m running because I’m outraged at the failure of Washington to deliver the needs of Floridians and they are trying to take away people’s healthcare. Seventy-one-thousand residents would lose their healthcare if the Republican plan that passed the House went forward. High unemployment in the district. We are not matching the jobs to the education. There’re great logistics jobs we are not training them for and we don’t have jobs for the 21st Century. Roads aren’t even being fixed. Politicians in Washington are just failing them. I think I can do better.
How exactly do you plan on connecting with the voter base in CD 6, not necessarily as an outsider, but as someone who hasn’t lived there for an extended amount of time?
First, I think it’s very important to live in the district you are running in and so, I’ve moved my residency to Crescent Beach before I announced and I still have a day job at UNF, so I’ll be commuting back and forth. But I have already, since last spring, spent time with health groups, with workers, with small businesses, with various clubs getting to know them. I’ll be teaching at Stetson University starting in the fall, as a guest lecturer, perhaps other universities. So, I’m going to be there all the time.
Let’s talk about that. Instead of being solely a career-politician, you are doing both jobs. You are going to be teaching and you are going to be campaigning. How do you plan on balancing the two?
Well, I think it’s hard, but like most people, I have to work for a living. I’m not independently wealthy and I think that makes me able to identify with people who are having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. That’s what Americans are having to do. That’s where the middle class has been squeezed increasingly. While the rich get richer, the middle class, their jobs, their healthcare, their basic needs to live the American dream have been squeezed over the last decades and I just think that’s wrong.
UNF seems to draw a lot of students from various parts of North Florida and Central Florida. Is that one of the bigger voter bases you plan to focus on?
I need everybody. So, yes. There’re five state colleges there, so you have lots of student base. I’m going to go after that vote, but you also have a lot of retirees. Half the district is over 50, so I can identify with them. I really need to have support from across the political spectrum and across the demographic base. But yes, I’ve already got a lot of students who want to volunteer to help on the campaign and I’m saying yes to every one of them.
What are you hearing from the students you teach? What are they concerned about? What do they want to see in a politician?
Well, first of all, they’re excited to know someone who is a normal person, stepping up to run. I’ve got students who are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, but they know me. They know that I’m genuine, that I generally care about people and I genuinely want to help and that I’ll work hard every day to make sure that I win. And they want to be part of the effort. They want the same things that everybody wants. They want a good job and a good house and a chance to live the American dream.
What would you say your ideological placard is? Is it progressive, traditional, or would you say it’s more Blue Dog?
I’m very practical. I’m a life-long Democrat, but I believe in solutions that actually work for people, not slogans. I’m not ideological. If it helps people, I’ll work with Democrats, Republicans, Independents, but the focus should be what helps real people.
You’ve done some traveling recently and you continue to make appearances on national news programs. Has all of that been sort of a strategic move with the idea of a congressional campaign mulling about in the back of your mind?
That’s who I am. I’ve been a foreign policy expert for 40 years now and I’m regularly asked to comment on events in Washington and have always done that and I enjoy doing that. I think it’s important for people to hear a common sense voice. So, I go on Fox. I go on MSNBC, CNN. I’ll do a lot of all sides to try and get a message of common sense across. I’ve done that all my professional life and will continue to do that, during this campaign and in Congress.
As of late, Congressman DeSantis has made some strong comments regarding foreign policy. He’s mentioned Venezuela, Pakistan, heavy water going to Iran. What is your take on some of his ideologies and where do you stand on some of those issues?
Well, he’s about as extreme as you can get. He voted for that healthcare bill. He wants to have tax cut increases for the wealthy and squeeze the middle class. I fundamentally disagree with his domestic agenda. And that’s one of the reasons I am running, is that I think those extreme views in Congress are not helping the people.
On foreign policy, there’s less of a difference. I thought the strike on the Syrian chemical weapons was the right thing. He’s been urging diplomacy in North Korea and Venezuela. So, it’s really more on the domestic front that I have deep, deep differences with his approach.
As a member of Congress, what is your role in formulating foreign policy for the United States?
Well, there are 435 votes in Congress, 100 in the Senate and you’re one of those votes. As you go up the ranks, you get more powerful in running various committees, but my approach on foreign policy is that America has to lead. If we don’t lead, the solutions that emerge don’t tend to be in our interest. And I think we have to stand up to China, to Russia, ensure that we fight terrorism and I’ll be a strong voice for that.
On the domestic side though, that’s really where I think the residents of Volusia and Flagler, North Florida in general, have not been represented by members of Congress that fight for their interests. They use cheap slogans to divide and destroy the middle class and I think that’s wrong and that’s one of the reasons I am running. That’s the reason I am running.
Let’s talk a little bit about your book, “The Superpower Myth.” Is what you wrote about in that book still true today?
Very much. The message of that book is that as a lead superpower, America has to lead but we can’t do it alone. Today’s challenges are global challenges and every single one of them need allies to do it. We can’t defeat terrorism or shut off terrorist financing without help from other countries. We can’t keep nuclear nonproliferation without help from other countries. We can’t combat climate change without help from other countries. We can’t ensure that trade is fair and that wars don’t break out. All of those issues require others to help us. So, we need to lead. The myth is that we can do it on our own and we can’t.
Who would you say is our biggest ally right now?
It’s always been Britain. Still, we have a very special relationship with Britain. Germany has emerged as a strong force for leadership within Europe. Europeans tend to be our strongest ones and I think will be for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work with others. The democracies in Latin America are good allies. We’re increasingly working with India. Democracies are emerging throughout Africa. We do have an adversarial relationship with Russia and I think we need to recognize that Russia is not our friend and we have a very complicated relationship with China. China is emerging as a world power and we need to make sure that it’s a competitor, not an enemy. And that requires, again, strong leadership.
Would you say you agree with proposed tariffs on imported steel from China in an attempt to boost business here in the United States?
It’s a more complex question than a yes or no answer there. I believe we have to have trade that defends America’s interests but the United States benefits from global trade as long as it’s fair and we make others play by the rules. So, in terms of steel, we need to have some domestic steel production to make sure that our defense is safe, but overall on the trade side, I think we need to have tough rules that America negotiates, not others and that are enforced.
I know your experience with national security and foreign policy is a big part of your professional background. How will that factor into your campaign and your role in Congress?
Americans want their leaders to keep them safe. I know how to do that. I have dealt with terrorism and cyber-attacks, negotiated peace agreements, peace processes and will be a voice for continued U.S. leadership on that front. I was in Norte-Dame in June and got locked in while there was a terrorist incident outside and it just brings home how it’s everywhere now and we have to do a better job of keeping ourselves safe abroad and again that requires U.S. leadership in trying to get to the root causes of some of these hateful entities that are threatening Americans.
Bringing it closer to home, where do you stand on some of the issues like oil and gas exploration off our coast, renewable energy and medical marijuana?
On the environment, anyone who lives on the St. Johns River, the Matanzas River, the Atlantic Coast, understands the risk of having offshore drilling, the sonic booms that affect the wildlife. We all are dependent on the aquifer and we need to really protect that wealth of resources and natural beauty that we have and I’ll fight in Congress to do exactly that. I think we should be investing more in solar and wind. I’d like to see solar panels being manufactured in Volusia County. Why are we not making batteries for cars that are cars of the future? That’s coming. So, let’s get the Floridians who need jobs into those areas that will actually happen.
And the medical marijuana situation here in Florida, where do you stand on that? Do you feel it should remain solely a state issue or should it be reviewed again on a federal level?
I firmly believe that patients that have a medical need for marijuana should be able to have access. It’s been proven to be very effective in some cancer treatments and others and I believe firmly in the individual’s right to have that medical need.
U.S. Rep. John Rutherford recently introduced a bill that aims to improve the E-2 visa program in the United States. What are your thoughts on some of the foreign visa programs the U.S. offers?
I think we should have visas to match the jobs that Americans want to hire foreigners for. If an American is available for that job, then we should hire the American, but if we have specialties in businesses where the expertise can be fulfilled from abroad, then I think it’s just common-sense to enable an American business to hire that worker. I do believe Americans are the ones that should be hired first, but if they’re not available then we should make it easier to bring in talent that we need.
How about bringing in foreign refugees? Do you think we should be accepting more or less?
I think Americans have a role in the world in trying to help the poor, the oppressed and those fleeing violence. We have traditionally been a source of refuge for those who face persecution at home. We have traditionally welcomed those who are fleeing war. I’ve been teaching at UNF for a decade. We have Bosnians, we have Afghanis, we have Iraqis. We are going to have Syrians and Yemenis and I think that’s the right balance. Jacksonville is actually a huge base of immigration. The Catholic and Lutheran services bring people here and they fuel the growth in our society. Forty percent of the Fortune 500 companies in this nation were founded by immigrants or their first-generation kids. So, they come, they are innovative and I think we need to make sure that we have a balance in the immigration that meets our needs but also doesn’t overwhelm us.
All the time you’ve spent teaching students, how do you see that factoring into your role as a congressional leader?
It gives you a passion and humanizes it when you see students coming from families that were struggling to pay for their college. Most of them work their way through college, full-time. So, they are full-time students, they are full-time workers and then they can’t get a job when they get out and that’s just wrong. So, I’m very passionate about it, to create good jobs, good wages, make sure that they have healthcare and can go home and raise their families in their hometown and they can’t right now and that’s just wrong.
Teaching these students is really a large reason why I’m in this race because I see it every day and I just love the kids and I want them to be able to have a good life and I think I can make a difference in helping them achieve that dream.
Governor Rick Scott talks a lot about jobs. A lot of what he touts is the amount of jobs he has helped create and bring to Florida. Do you agree with that notion and if you do, is the issue here more relative to the wage people are getting paid as opposed to the amount of jobs available?
You hear a lot about jobs, jobs, jobs, but in reality, what that is creating is that you have to have two or three jobs to make a living wage and that’s just wrong. So, yes, we need jobs here and we’ve brought some good jobs here, but we are failing to meet the needs of the middle class to have good jobs. And not three jobs to make a living wage, but one job that enables a man or woman, a father or a mom, to care for their family with dignity and we are failing to do that. So, I don’t look at the lip service of politicians. I look at the impact on everyday, hardworking Americans and they are being failed by the leadership in Washington. It’s very clear.
Assuming Congressman DeSantis makes the decision to run for re-election, how do you plan to stand out from the spotlight that he has created for himself?
Well, I just want to shine some light on his record. He voted to rip the healthcare off of 71,000 people. He’s voted to increase tax cuts for the wealthy. He’s voted against any environmental protections and he’s not bringing jobs and good wages and good healthcare to the people of this district and that’s just wrong. So, exposing his record, when people get past the rhetoric and look at what that really means, to cut taxes for the wealthy and rip healthcare off, I think they’ll want an alternative and that’s what I’ll be focusing on.
Despite the amount of money that has been dumped into races, Democratic candidates have had some difficulty wining elections. Even recent polling information has been skewed and seems highly inconsistent with the outcomes. Why do you think this is and how can a candidate as yourself appeal to voters and overcome some of the troubles the party has had?
Well, I’m running my own race. Talking to people who I think will support me, those who haven’t decided yet, they want a better answer. They want a better solution. I’ve looked at problems my entire life and tried to come up with the right solutions, not the left or the right, or the Republican or Democratic one, but what works for people here. I think people across this country are so tired of patican discord in Washington.
By looking at the current political climate surrounding D.C. and assuming not a lot changes in 2019 in terms of majority control, how does a Democratic congresswoman make a difference and pass legislation that benefits her constituents?
Well, I think the House is likely to go Democratic in 2018. Historically, American people don’t want the president to control both houses of Congress. It’s just common-sense and they’ve done it repeatedly throughout history with Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, George W., Barack Obama and they’ll do it in 2018.
With a Democratic-controlled House, you force a new compromise and discussion. So, instead of ripping healthcare from the American people, they’ll say, “Alright, how do we fix the current system? How can we make sure the 23 million people who have it, keep it, and the 20 million who don’t yet, can get it?” And it’s just as simple as that.
Follow Jordan Ferrell on Twitter at @J_E_Ferrell.