by Connor Mustakas, Merion West
“In the Democratic caucus, we elected more new women than men. Think of that statement!”
Before beginning her first term representing Pennsylvania’s Fourth Congressional District in January, Madeleine Dean served for six years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Campaigning on issues such as ending the opioid crisis, addressing gun violence, and expanding access to healthcare, Ms. Dean defeated Republican Dan David to win the seat in the newly-redrawn Pennsylvania congressional map. Since arriving in Washington, she has joined a number of congressional caucuses, including the PFAS Task Force to fight water contamination. She joins Merion West and Connor Mustakas to discuss the key issues she is prioritizing in Congress.
To start on the topic of gun regulation, Congresswoman Dean, you have a history working on the issue of gun violence. You were a founding member of the PA SAFE Caucus following the Sandy Hook shooting. Do you think there’s anything that you have done as an organization that can translate to the national stage? What do you think should be the next step on a national level when it comes to gun violence?
I am a member of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force with Chairman Mike Thompson (D-CA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and you will see an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the very first bill that I introduced; it will prohibit the possession of any firearm that is undetectable by airport screening devices.
In 2012, we sat down to write the mission statement of the Pennsylvania state caucus, and it was argued to me that we should not use the word “gun.” Imagine that. We’re talking about the slaughter of babies and trying to get our arms around the difficulty in this country. Last year, 40,000 people died from gun violence, and another 80,000 were literally caught and wounded in the crossfire.
I had called for a bipartisan caucus, but what I learned from that—and in the years ensuing—was that this was not going to be bipartisan, and it was not going to be easy. Legislators’ voices alone weren’t going to do it. It was going to take the advocates, grassroots organizations, and, sadly, victims of gun violence. So, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve banded together with advocates and others, and I think it’s going to take that exact same pressure in the United States Congress.
I hope you also saw that H.R. 8 was also introduced. I was honored to stand with former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) and many, many others, including the Speaker of the House, to introduce H.R. 8—the background check bill. I, and others who have greater experience, believe that we can get that passed. We’re going to get that done.
Another issue you have spoken about in the past is sexual assault and the lack of accountability on this issue in Washington. Obviously, this is a hot-button issue right now. It’s something people are rallying around and speaking about, and there’s been the #MeToo movement of course. What do you think the next step should be to shift the culture in Washington D.C. from the top down to change the way people view sexual assault and the cover-up scandals surrounding it?
I think the election of 2018 was the next step. In the Democratic caucus, we elected more new women than men. Think of that statement! I would have been excited to say we elected 30 percent women, or 40 percent women. It’s more than 50 percent women within the incoming Democratic class. That is changing the conversation. That will require that we shine a light on sexual assault, sexual harassment, and any other kind of inappropriate or criminal behavior.
I want to talk to you about opioid addiction and how it has become another national issue. In 2017, in Pennsylvania alone, almost 5,500 people died from opioid-related overdoses. That’s an increase of 64 percent from 2015. What sort of national programs do you think should be pursued to combat this issue?
Thank you for shining a light on that. It’s a public health crisis and a humanitarian crisis in this country. You cite the Pennsylvania statistics. Sadly, I used to cite the number 66,000—that’s how many people died in a single year [from opioid abuse in the U.S.]. In 2017, the year for which we have the most recent statistics, that number increased to 72,000 people. It’s hard to get your head around 72,000 people [overdosing] in a year. Another way of looking at it, sadly and horrifically, is 200 people a day. That’s like one airliner going down a day in this country—and I mean every day, 365 days a year. If that were happening, would we not say that we had an aviation crisis? A security and safety crisis? And yet, we don’t see it that way because it’s individual souls and because we stigmatize addiction.
I think we need to shine a bright light [on this issue], which I will very much be a part of. We need to show how it affects everyone in our community. Nobody escapes this; addiction doesn’t care about your color, your age, or your economic status. And then, when people fall into the crisis of addiction, we need to hold insurers accountable for covering treatment for recovery. I think we need to think completely outside of the box and put dollars, resources, and treatments toward the issue, embrace the addict, and say, “We are here. Your government is here to help you because it’s our job to save lives.”
I saw a press release regarding you decision to join the PFAS Task Force as a founding member. In your statement, you spoke about how towns in your district, including Horsham and Willow Grove, have dealt with water contamination. What do you think is the cause for such a large-scale issue that is affecting people’s everyday lives through the water they drink? Why do you think it hasn’t been put in the spotlight outside of Flint, Michigan?
Your question is a great question, and I don’t know the answer. I always like to start with the Pennsylvania State Constitution. One thing that I absolutely love about our Pennsylvania Constitution is Article I, Section 27, which reserves for us Pennsylvanians the right to clean air, clean water, and the preservation of our natural and scenic aesthetic. We have a right. It’s not a prefatory clause, like, “We wish, especially in good times, to keep our water safe.” We have a right to tell our government to protect us.
One contributing factor has been the science. It wasn’t really discovered until recent years that this contaminant was in the water and that it is dangerous and screenable. (We can detect for it through carbon filtration.) The next part of it is the government lagging behind and not taking a lead, frankly. For example, we just learned that the EPA isn’t going to regulate these chemicals. Instead, they’re going to stick with non-binding health advisories.
Then, here in Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is tasked with carrying out the charges of the EPA, and their hands appear to be tied. They’ll say, “Well, the EPA has not told us that [PFAS] is a harmful contaminant so that we can reduce the numbers.” Also, it goes to the Department of Defense. So, here at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Willow Grove, that contamination is continuing, and the remediation, while they’re working on it, is not moving quickly enough. And everybody sort of points the finger at one another and says, “Look, the EPA hasn’t told us what to do!” It’s a reluctance, I think, to really face this problem, perhaps because it’s going to be extraordinarily costly. It’s a contamination you can’t see, and people are just now learning about PFOS and PFOA and where they come from. For decades now, we’ve understood the extraordinary harm lead can cause to people and children, but PFOS and PFOA are newer.
It’s a host of things going wrong, and that’s why I’m glad we have the task force. It’s bipartisan and it says, “Look, people have a right to clean water and we have to get to that.”
Thank you for your time today, Congresswoman.
Thank you, Connor.