Stefanie Smith says she’s running for Congress because issues she feels are important are not being considered in a meaningful way.
“Historically, in politics, I feel like politicians have always told me what I need, instead of asking me what I need,” said the Urbana resident, in explaining her candidacy in the Democratic primary for Illinois’ 13th District. “And so the reason that I’m running is to sort of be an antithesis to that.”
In an interview for Illinois Newsroom, Smith said health care was one of the primary issues in the 13th district race, because of what she described as its high poverty rate. But she says her personal experience also drives her support for a single-payer universal healthcare system.
“It’s important because I’m not into dying,” said Smith. “As somebody with chronic illness, and I have private insurance, I still can’t cover all of the copays for the specialists. And frequently there are medications that aren’t covered under insurance. It becomes very, very taxing.”
Smith says a widespread lack of access to healthcare has broad repercussions, such as when emergency services are tied up treating people who were unable to get early medical treatment.
Smith is a founding member of the Rose Caucus, a political organization that supports congressional and state legislative candidates who identify as socialist or democratic socialist. She says she doesn’t necessarily identify as a socialist. But Smith says she supports socialist policies, and says much of the criticism of socialist is “rooted in propaganda”.
“If you look at the policies that we’re talking about supporting, they’re populist, you know, they’re overwhelmingly supported by people from a variety of different backgrounds,” said Smith.
Smith says reports of a strong economy based on low unemployment figures are misleading, because they don’t reflect actual unemployment or underemployment.
“I feel very, very skeptical when people tell me numbers that say things are going well,” said Smith, “and they I speak to people and they’re, like, I can’t feed my children.”
Smith says she wants to learn more from farmers in the 13th District about the policies they believe would help them, something she says current Republican-backed policies may not do. Smith contends that financial aid for farmers hit by low crop prices due to the trade war with China mostly went to large farms and “hadn’t provided much relief for people in our district, like the everyday sort of person”.
Interviewed on the day that President Trump signed an implementation bill for the new U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade agreement, Smith said she needed to learn more about the topic before commenting. But she said she wants U.S. trade relations with other nations to emphasize mutual benefit, and be less exploitative and imperialist.
“Like, the garment industry is incredibly tied to slave labor,” said Smith, “and it’s also very, very much tied to sex trafficking. And a lot of people don’t understand how those ties work, that there are a lot of non-governmental organizations, NGO’s that actively, basically pull people from the sex trade and then put them in sweatshops. And that is a large part of the global economy. And I never hear people talking about those sort of issues, when it comes to trade deals.”
Smith is a critic of the federal Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, also known as SESTA/FOSTA. The legislation, signed into law in 2018, is meant to crack down on internet sex trafficking, but Smith says the laws have done more harm than good.
Smith, who says she turned to sex work in years past to survive as a homeless teenager, argues that SESTA-FOSTA’s goal of banning online messaging related to sex trafficking is flawed, because it has only driven the work of the sex traffickers deeper underground, making them harder to prosecute. Meanwhile, she says sex workers have lost an avenue of communications that helped them protect themselves.
“And now they’re no longer using the websites, even which had been working with law enforcement to get these traffickers,” said Smith. “So it has failed to protect the people that it said it would, and it has really become nothing but a censorship bill.”
While some critics have called or changes to SESTA/FOSTA, Smith says the legislation cannot be effectively repaired, and should be repealed entirely. She supports decriminalization (which she says is different than legalization) and programs to help people make new lives away from sex work.
Smith is running against Betsy Dirksen Londrigan of Springfield for the Democratic nomination in the March 17 primary for Illinois’ 13th Congressional District. On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis is running for re-nomination unopposed.
Jim Meadows is senior reporter for Illinois Newsroom. He has reported for WILL since 2000.