On the Record: Democratic House candidate Susie Lee
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of "On the Record" pieces highlighting the policy stances of candidates running for major offices in the 2022 Nevada election. Check back in coming days and weeks for additional coverage, including a look at the policy positions of Lee's opponent tomorrow."
With the Las Vegas metropolitan area returning to normal following the devastating economic blow dealt by the pandemic, Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) believes that the situation would be worse had congressional Democrats not forged ahead to pass their go-it-alone aid packages.
"There's no state like ours that was ground zero for the potential economic devastation, but also now ground zero for all of the economic opportunity," Lee said in a wide-ranging hour-long interview with The Nevada Independent.
Nevada's unemployment rate hit 28.2 percent in April 2020, the highest rate recorded since 1976, when unemployment first started to be tracked. The statewide rate was 4.4 percent in July, ranking 47th among all states and the District of Columbia. The unemployment rate in the Las Vegas area (Lee's district includes the west side), was 5.7 percent in June.
She cited the recovery in part because of the bipartisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November and the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, enacted in March 2021 with no Republican support. She also named the recently passed, roughly $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act, which Democrats also enacted on their own.
Lee is in a difficult re-election campaign, which could help save the Democratic majority in the House or keep at bay the number of GOP seats under a new Republican majority.
After losing in the Democratic primary for the state’s 4th Congressional District in 2016, Lee ran and narrowly defeated Republican Danny Tarkanian in the race to represent the 3rd Congressional District in 2018. She won re-election to a second term in 2020 over Republican Dan Rodimer, and will now face real estate attorney April Becker in the 2022 election.
Long one of the state’s most competitive congressional districts, the 3rd Congressional District encompasses most of the Spring Valley area in Las Vegas and large chunks of rural Clark County.
Republicans anticipate winning the majority, partly because the president's party typically loses seats in the midterm election. Currently, Democrats control 220 seats and Republicans have 211. Four seats are vacant and the party with at least 218 seats wins control.
Below, we explore Lee’s positions on a variety of topics and policy issues. Click on one of the following subjects to jump to a specific section:
- Workforce development
- Student loans
- Higher education
- School choice
- Afghanistan withdrawal
Despite the approval of several major spending bills, the path to passage was far from straightforward and Lee took a pragmatic approach, including at times crossing her Democratic leadership.
“I think that people in Congressional District 3 are craving a pragmatic type of leader who's not afraid to roll up their sleeves to reach across the aisle and work on tough issues and deliver results,” Lee said.
On the infrastructure bill, Lee was among the moderate Democrats who called for immediate passage of the package after the Senate cleared it in August 2021. She is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of Republican and Democratic House members who try to find areas where the parties can work together.
The group helped lay the groundwork for passage of the infrastructure bill despite calls from progressive Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), to delay House consideration of the infrastructure bill until the passage of a measure consisting of progressive priorities.
Lee said it was not easy taking an unpopular position to de-couple the two bills and pass the infrastructure package, which provided more than $4 billion for Nevada roads, bridges and broadband.
“That was one of our biggest wins in Congress and it wasn't a popular position to take,” Lee said. “People wanted a bigger package, but we just knew that in order for us to get something done in a bipartisan manner that was the way we were going to go.”
Asked if the shift to the left of the Democrats' progressive wing is a concern, Lee said that under Democratic leadership, the House and Senate managed to rack up a series of legislative wins on bipartisan and Democrat-only bills.
Along with the inflation and infrastructure laws, those include legislation to incentivize domestic manufacturing of semiconductors, legislation to address gun violence and a measure making it easier for veterans to get health care for illnesses associated with burn pits.
For example, Democrats eventually came together to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which Lee said would provide close to $3 billion for climate change and renewable energy. The measure enacted was a scaled-down version of what the House passed in November after stop-and-start talks with conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia yielded the final iteration of the Democratic agenda bill.
Lee added that she was more concerned about the loss of moderate Republicans. She said six GOP members from the Problem Solvers Caucus were defeated in their primaries or are retiring.
“That worries me because I do value that ability to work across the aisle, and I do worry about the extremism on the right and you know, that's exactly what I'm running against,” Lee said.
Lee demurred when asked whether she would support Biden for re-election in 2024.
“First and foremost, I'm concerned about my election in 2022,” Lee said. “We'll see who runs. I can't make a statement on that.”
She also declined to give Biden's performance so far a letter grade.
“I think he was sworn in during an incredibly challenging time,” Lee said. “I think he ran on the fact that he was going to be a unifier and deliver bipartisan wins. And I think it's safe to say that he's been able to do that.”
She attributed his low approval rating to people being “exhausted and uncertain.”
When discussing her approach to lawmaking, Lee often reflects on when her father lost his job at 56, which resulted in her family not being able to afford health insurance and almost losing their home.
“A loss of a job is the most disruptive thing to a family,” Lee said. “I think that first and foremost, everyone needs security, and economic security.”
But inflation hit a 40-year high in June. Higher inflation means the buying power of workers' take-home pay is shrinking, which could threaten economic security.
More than four in 10 Nevada voters believe the economy is the most important issue facing the state and it could be the single biggest force driving them to the polls, according to a recent Nevada Independent / OH Predictive Insights poll.
Republicans have argued that Democrats exacerbated the inflation problem with massive government spending through the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Lee said that no legislation is perfect, but she argued that the American Rescue Plan helped Nevadans, adding that two years ago, the Las Vegas area had a 34 percent unemployment rate.
“Two years ago, you walked down the Las Vegas Strip, it was shuttered, which has never happened before in the history of Vegas,” she said. “And now we have seen our major economic driver have, month after month, record revenues.”
“What we did was prevent our economy from bottoming out,” Lee continued.
Concerning the Inflation Reduction Act, critics point to a study from the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Wharton Budget Model that contends the bill would have little impact on inflation over the next decade.
But this means it is unlikely to add to the inflation problem, as Republicans have claimed.
“Democrats have taken action to fight inflation and bring costs down, and Republicans want to use inflation as a political talking point,” Lee said. “And that's the choice that voters are going to have.”
Lee stood by the inflation measure, noting that it would take time for some of its benefits to be felt, but would be a net positive for the state.
When asked if the economy was in a recession, Lee said, "there are economists that say we are not in a recession."
Republicans have argued that the economy is in a recession, citing two consecutive quarters of negative growth. But Democrats contend recession typically includes high unemployment, which has not materialized.
Diversifying the economy is also a goal for Lee. She wants Nevada to ease its reliance on the travel and tourism industry as its primary economic driver.
To that end, she backed a bill — which passed the House in May but has not taken up in the Senate — that would authorize providing $80 billion over six years to help train one million workers per year by 2028. The bill also includes her legislation, the Community-Based Workforce Development Act, which would create a grant program to help state and local workforce systems establish partnerships that bring employers, educators, and workers together to train workers for in-demand jobs.
Lee brought up workforce development when asked about what a fair federal minimum wage should be. The federal wage is currently $7.25 an hour and has not been raised since 2009.
"I think a fair wage is a wage where people can afford housing, can afford health care, can afford childcare," Lee said, adding that those are issues on which she will continue to work.
Lee said the federal government could help out the teacher shortage in Clark County by incentivizing more people to be teachers with student loan repayment or tax incentives.
President Joe Biden announced Wednesday (after the interview with Lee) that he would forgive up to $10,000 in student loan debt for those making up to $125,000 a year. He also extended the moratorium on student loan repayments through the end of the year. The suspension previously ran through the end of the month.
She added that the state has underfunded K-12 education and doesn't see more federal funding — on the heels of billions in pandemic aid — in the offing, given that school funding is typically a state responsibility.
Lee also pointed to a shortage of nurses and doctors in the state and added that incentives, like student loan repayment, should also be explored for those professions.
"Are there incentives that we can put into place to encourage people to go into those professions?" Lee asked. "Absolutely. And should we look at them? Absolutely."
When pressed for details on her student loans position, Lee said she does not support “blanket, across-the-board student loan forgiveness.”
Lee added that she is in favor of increasing the maximum funding for the Pell Grant, which was $6,495 for the 2021 to 2022 school year.
Lee has made abortion a top issue in her campaign following the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which overturned the constitutional right to an abortion established under the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Following the Dobbs decision, Lee’s campaign launched a half-million dollar advertising effort casting the District 3 race as a stark choice between herself and her “pro-life” opponent Becker.
In May, Lee answered a slew of questions about abortion from The Nevada Independent, noting her opposition to mandatory notification to parents when minors seek abortions and support for providing care in Nevada to out-of-state abortion seekers.
She has warned of a potential effort to enact a federal ban if Republicans take over the House and Senate, though Biden said in July that he would veto any abortion ban bill.
Most polls show that most Americans oppose a ban on the practice, but allowing abortion in all circumstances also tends to get less than a majority.
When asked where she would draw the line, other than past her support for Nevada’s law that allows for unrestricted abortions up to 24 weeks, she declined to specify.
“I'm going to be very clear on this, that it is a woman's decision with her doctor and it should not be in politicians’ hands,” Lee said. “That's my position.”
Lee believes that students have had to take on more debt as states have reduced higher education funding. She also called for more transparency in the higher education financing system.
That includes “when students take out a loan for an education system or a school that they understand what their chances of graduating in four to six years are, what their student loan debt total will be, and what they're expected to earn and what the default rate is for students that have attended those schools.”
She’d like to see Nevada invest more in K-12 and higher education as a necessary factor for workforce development.
“Our booms are higher and our busts are lower,” Lee said. “COVID was a prime example.”
After first moving to Las Vegas in 1993, Lee founded and led nonprofit organizations focused on improving education by providing so-called wrap around services, including tutoring, after-school programs, college prep, nutrition, and mental health support.
“If you want to invest in economic development, you better invest in education,” she continued.
Lee cited a provision in the CHIPS and Science Act that will increase research funding for states, like Nevada, by ensuring that at least 20 percent of National Science Foundation (NSF) research dollars and scholarships are set aside for states that have historically received a smaller share of NSF funds.
Those are “important research dollars that we need in our state,” Lee said. “So absolutely, I think we need more investment in higher-ed and K-12.”
Lee dismissed the idea that expanding “school choice” would help improve education in Nevada. School choice refers to, among other things, using public education money to fund private school tuition or other qualifying educational expenses. Her opponent, Becker, is a proponent of the policy.
“I think that we need to focus on how we invest in public education. And I think that all children should have the choice to [go to] an excellent school in their neighborhood,” Lee said.
“I think that making sure we're making those investments in public education and not sacrificing any neighborhood or any group of children is really my ultimate goal,” she added.
Lee said climate change is an "existential" threat to Nevada, which she noted is suffering from a decades-long drought.
She touted $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act that would go toward drought mitigation, with priority given to the Colorado River Basin.
Lee also pointed to a provision that would provide nearly $8.5 billion in funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which “incentivizes agricultural users to maybe go to less water-intensive crops, or even fallow out their fields,” she said.
A provision Lee secured in the infrastructure bill provided $750 million for a new competitive grant program within the Department of the Interior for large-scale water recycling projects. The program would help build the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's Regional Recycled Water Advanced Purification Center project.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority is in talks with its Southern California counterpart to participate in funding the project, $750 million, in exchange for getting part of California's Colorado River entitlement.
Lee recently introduced legislation for another $700 million to the competitive grant program for large-scale water recycling. Lee’s bill would also make the temporary program permanent.
Lee was also critical of the administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan, which saw the Department of Defense underestimating how quickly the Taliban would defeat the Afghan army.
It led to desperate scenes at the Kabul Airport last summer, where mobs, including those who worked and supported the U.S. military, sought safe passage to America for fear of Taliban retaliation. Many were left behind, despite an effort that evacuated more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan partners.
"[O]viously there were major blunders in the withdrawal," Lee said
“But ultimately, the American people did not want troops on the ground in Afghanistan,” she continued.
Lee recently ran afoul, again, of financial disclosure law when she failed to report stock trades within the 45-day window required.
Business Insider reported that the congresswoman and her husband traded eight stocks during 2021 that Lee did not report until August 13.
Lee noted that a third-party money manager oversees her account, and she's never directed a trade while a member of Congress.
Insider’s article noted that unreported trades were discovered by her financial adviser while preparing her annual disclosure, which must be submitted by all members of Congress, and that she filed an updated report once she found out.
Asked if she'd support legislation to be introduced soon banning members of Congress from trading individual stocks, Lee indicated she would.
"I support legislation that bans members from directing trades of stocks," Lee said. "There are many ways you can achieve that. We will see what the options are on the table but I do not think that any member of Congress, and I've supported this legislation, should be able to directly trade stocks."
Some have called for the ban to include spouses and senior staff, and Lee seemed to agree.
“People should not be able to use inside information,” Lee said."We should have guardrails in place to prevent that from happening and I support that now and always have and will.”
Lee said she still holds stock in Full House Resorts, but that could change after she finalizes her divorce. Lee is married to Dan Lee, who is CEO of Full House Resorts.
“I'm going through a divorce,” Lee said when asked about her Full House Resorts holdings. “My husband is the CEO of Full House resorts. Yes, he receives stock as part of his compensation package. It is in negotiations in my divorce.”
Lee was instrumental in changing the rules for the Paycheck Protection Program, a pandemic-era relief effort to provide business owners with funds to prevent layoffs.
Full House received aid under the program. That raised allegations of a conflict of interest, which Lee rejected. in an interview in 2020 with The Nevada Independent, when she was just doing her job for Nevada business owners and had no knowledge that Full House would seek aid.