Interview: Liuba Grechen Shirley

 Liuba Grechen Shirley is running for Congress in New York’s 2nd District against a 25-year incumbent, Representative Peter King (R-NY.) Her work spans the globe, reaching high-level organizations like the United Nations; and also grassroots organizations such as New York’s Second District Democrats, a group she founded after Trump’s election. Her campaign garnered nationwide attention when she petitioned the FEC for the right to use campaign funds to pay for childcare. Grechen and her husband are raising their two children in Amityville.Fire Island News (FIN): Why did you decide to run for Congress?Liuba Grechen Shirley (LGS): Basically, over half of our representatives are millionaires, and they don’t understand how we live, and how the policies they enact actually affect us. I had had enough of representatives who don’t actually represent working Americans. Peter King has been in office for 25 years and he consistently moves to hurt people all across our district. He voted to take healthcare away from 74,000 people in our district alone last year. He couldn’t protect us against this tax bill. Long Island will be the worst hit place in the country. Despite his 25 years of being a leader in the party that controls Congress, he wasn’t able to protect Long Island. We have students who are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Half of Americans who are in bankruptcy are there because of medical bills. And I’ve had enough. I wasn’t planning on running for Congress, I decided that we need more representatives who understand the issues because they live them everyday.FIN: Before starting your campaign what work were you doing?LGS: I have an MBA in Economics from NYU. I’ve worked all over the world, I’ve worked in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. I worked for the United Nations Association for many years and then for the UN Foundation. I managed the merger of those two multi-million dollar organizations. I helped to build a larger network of American activists for the UN.FIN: That’s an incredible journey. After your fundraiser in Ocean Beach a little while ago, what was your impression of Fire Island?LGS: It was incredible to see. I got a tour and we went around and saw how you are rebuilding out there after Hurricane Sandy, and how much effort is going into it. Fire Island is a really unique place. There are so many jurisdictions and it’s the first line of defense really for Long Island. It is such a unique place and it’s really interesting to see the work that’s going on out there. It’s critical that we have a representative that’s taking climate change seriously. We have so many people who are not back in their homes after Hurricane Sandy. The bay has been shut down for most of this week because of bacteria in the water. We’re a coastal community and we need somebody who takes that seriously.FIN: That actually brings me to my next question. I was wondering if you could speak to the ways in which Long Islanders can count on you to address environmental concerns.LGS: Absolutely. We need to make sure that we’re investing in renewables. Green jobs are the largest growing sector of the economy. We need to make sure we’re investing in solar power and wind. It’s a matter of making sure we can continue our way of life out here. We have so many fishermen and so many oyster farmers and so many people who make their livelihoods off of the water and their economic wellbeing is affected by the environment. We have representatives who supported Donald Trump leaving the Paris Accords. Peter King voted for coal companies that put waste into our water. He actually was on the bipartisan legislation caucus and was the only person to vote against legislation that would’ve protected our military bases against rising sea levels. We have a military base right on Fire Island. I will be a staunch advocate for making sure we have strong environmental protections, that we have a fully funded EPA, and are investing in green jobs.FIN: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your work campaigning the FEC to allow the use of campaign funds for childcare. You really came to national prominence with this petition and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about it, why it’s so close to your heart and why it’s so important for families in this country.LGS: I started this campaign when my children were 1 and 3 years old. For the first six months of this campaign, I did not have a babysitter. I was campaigning with two children, two babies. My mom is a teacher. She would come home at 3:30 and take the kids so that I could go on my campaign. It became unsustainable. We weren’t able to continue unless we had childcare. There’s a reason that so many of our representatives are independently wealthy because they can take a year off of their life without a salary to campaign. Campaigning is a 24/7 job. To be able to do that and then at the same time pick up the cost for childcare is really challenging for most working Americans. And we’re missing out on a vital voice in Congress, we’re missing out on the voice of people who know what it’s like not to have quality, affordable childcare. I know what it’s like on a visceral level to not have access to paid family leave, to worry about healthcare, to worry about where you’re going to send your kids to school. In the country it’s more expensive to send your newborn to daycare than it is to send your teenager to a four-year public college. And those are the voices that we need in Washington, so this request was groundbreaking. After six months we reached out for help, and were shocked at the outpouring of support. Hillary Clinton wrote a two-page letter in support and the request was unanimously approved. I was shocked to see the response. CNN interviewed me, I was on the “Today” show, “Fox News” even said it was the one bipartisan thing they could agree on. I don’t think I ever thought that “Fox News” would agree with me on any policy and they agreed on this. It’s not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue; it’s an American issue – a family issue.FIN: Your campaign website hints at addressing issues of racial inequality in this country when you talk about issues like healthcare, women’s economic empowerment, or public financing of elections, but could you clarify more explicitly for our readers how you aim to advocate for communities of color on Long Island?LGS: If you look at healthcare right now, women are dying in childbirth in this country. Black women are four times more likely to die than white women in childbirth. This is an issue that we need to be discussing, that we need to be addressing. We have a history of discrimination and racism on Long Island, and across the country. These are issues we need to be talking about to make sure that people have access to the same information, the same quality of education. We want to make sure we’re taking care of all communities across Long Island. We want to make sure people have equal access to affordable housing, that people have access to quality affordable childcare, and that we’re talking to different communities about the issues that matter to them.FIN: I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about immigration. Discussions of immigration, as you know, are incredibly prominent nationwide right now. What would you say to President Trump about his treatment of families coming to the United States?LGS: Donald Trump said that he supports torture. Separating babies from parents is a policy of torture. It is not an immigration policy. It is shameful that in our country they are using that technique as a deterrent. They literally took a baby who was breastfeeding away from her mother and handcuffed her mother. That is un-American. It is completely against the values we hold as a country. I shame our president for thinking that is a policy he should be pursuing. We need to address immigration reform. First and foremost, we need to make sure we’re not separating children from families. We still haven’t reunited all of these children with their families. There are parents being deported without their children. My grandparents came here as political refugees. My grandmother was 5 years old and her baby brother was a newborn when they came through Ellis Island. And I cannot imagine if they left Russia to come here and then they were taken away from their parents. That’s what we’re doing in this country and it needs to stop immediately.FIN: Could you speak a little bit about legislation that voters can count on you to work towards if elected?LGS: I will be fighting for Universal Health Care. I will support paid family leave. I would love to work with Senator Gillibrand on her FAMILY Act. We see paid family leave in the news a lot right now and the Republican proposal that Ivanka Trump has been talking about is yet another Republican attempt to cut social security. We need real paid family leave. The FAMILY Act is a strong bill that is currently on the table. We need to make sure that we have equitable funding for education for all public schools. We have lots of tax breaks for corporations at the expense of working Americans and we need to reverse that.FIN: Could you speak about the advocacy that you look forward to doing for LGBTQ communities and families?LGS: Donald Trump saying we should not have transgender people in our military is just shocking to me. It’s shocking that this is something we’re still fighting for. We need equality for everyone. Love is love. Our administration is trying to attack LGBTQ rights. We need a strong representative who will stand up for equality for everyone.FIN: Is there anything else you want to discuss?LGS: We have a really strong opportunity to unseat Peter King. We actually out-raised Peter King this quarter by $22,000. We have more individual contributors than anyone who has ever run against King. We have knocked on more than 40,000 doors, and made 40,000 phone calls already. We’ve built a really strong coalition with numerous elected officials across Long Island. We have Democratic supporters, Republican supporters, and Independent supporters. This is a grassroots movement. The energy that we have seen is really exciting.