Lauren Ashcraft’s background is eclectic. She worked at JP Morgan Chase and is a Democratic Socialist. Ashcraft was also a standup comedian in New York and a policy analyst in Pennsylvania.
Now, she’s a dark horse candidate in what many see as a two-person race between the insurgent Suraj Patel and the incumbent, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, to be the representative of New York’s 12th Congressional District.
Running a self-described grassroots campaign that has amassed more small dollar donations than any other candidate for NY-12 as of April, Ashcraft spoke with Greenpointers about her plans to reform campaign finance, advocate for a single-payer healthcare system and her participation in the city’s recent protests.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
To voters who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself and explain why you’re running for Congress?
I’m running for Congress because in a democracy everyone deserves to have an equal voice. We’re living in the third most unequal district in the entire country. That means people are having to choose between having a home and having food on the table or having health insurance and paying their student debt. These aren’t choices we should have to make.
I bring with me my struggles of my family in everything that I fight for. My grandmother was an immigrant from Japan who faced racism throughout her entire life here. And her husband, my grandfather, was killed by corporate greed in a coal mining accident. My other grandfather fell while he was working and became a quadriplegic. Of course he didn’t have the money to hire round-the-clock caretakers, so it was his family who helped. I grew up understanding that the government isn’t there for you.
Hearing messages from people calling for people-powered representation, that’s why I’m running. We’re seeing the lack of this representation right now so vividly. Now we’re paying the price every single day.
You’re billing yourself as a progressive and Democratic Socialist. Doesn’t the fact that you recently worked for JP Morgan Chase run counter to that narrative?
Absolutely not. I became a Democratic Socialist when I was working in the financial sector. I’ve seen corporate greed with my own eyes and how the federal government throws money at corporations. It doesn’t trickle down to the average worker but stays at the top and becomes record-setting bonuses and stock buybacks.
I am calling to break up the big banks and for proper regulation. Because even after the Great Recession in 2008, we still don’t have the protective barriers that will prevent exactly that. My opponent helped repeal the Glass-Steagall Act in the late 1990s, and that has allowed for big banks to play with consumer funds in a way that leaves all open to the corruption that caused that recession.
You’re running to be our representative in the federal government. What would be the first piece of legislation you’d push for if elected to Congress?
Why are we still relying on the fossil fuel industry? Why do we have such a broken for-profit healthcare system? Why do we have for-profit prisons? I look at corporate PAC money and special investment flowing towards our politicians. My opponent has taken quite a lot of it herself in her career. I am pushing for public financing of federal elections so people are incentivized to run grassroots campaigns as I have done. That would get rid of a lot of negative influence in our politics.
Have you participated in the protests sweeping across the city? What would be your advice to protestors in your district?
I’ve been at protests every single day since the vigil for George Floyd. We absolutely need true criminal justice reform that includes defunding the police, abolishing for-profit prisons—making sure that we use those funds to help amplify education and social work and mental healthcare.
From the federal level, we also just hand surplus military weapons and equipment to local police forces. We need to demilitarize the police and we also need to repeal qualified immunity, so that they are held accountable if they commit crimes and harm the people they’ve sworn to protect. I’m also calling for body cams to be worn 100% of the time. It should be a crime if that body cam is taped over or covered up.
The police are mostly funded at the state and local level. How would you push for legislation that would mandate the police to wear body cams 100% of the time. Can you legally do that at the federal level?
We actually have a lot of power at the federal level. There is funding that comes through the federal government in the form of grants that are thrown at police forces for adopting “national priorities.” There is a flow of federal money and military weapons from the federal government. We have to either completely stop it or make sure that with that funding we’re requiring certain actions taken against police brutality.
The 12th Congressional District cuts across Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. What do you think is the most pressing issue here in North Brooklyn? What do you think is most important in Greenpoint?
There is a misconception that this is a wealthy district. I’m the only candidate east of the East River. Because of my background as a standup comedian, I also am very tied into the gig worker and freelancer economy. As of the last study, 23,000 people in our district have no health insurance. That means they are afraid to go to the doctor and then ending up with a lifetime worth of medical debt to pay off. I am pushing for single-payer medical care for all because it’s a very urgent issue locally.
Also, we surround the East River. This river is rising at one and half times the global average. The New York 12th Congressional District is the first to pay the price for neglecting urgent action against the climate disaster. We do need a Green New Deal and a Green New Deal for public housing.
Is there anything else that you’d like to communicate to voters?
One more issue that I’m really passionate about is accessibility and disability rights. Multiple members of my family have hearing loss. I myself have generalized anxiety disorder. In New York’s 12th Congressional District, there are over 50,000 people that identify as having a disability. It’s probably much greater because people like me couldn’t afford to get diagnosed for a very long time.
I am fighting to expand the American Disabilities Act so that it’s enforced by the federal government. Right now, the enforcement is done by taking an entity to court. If you can’t get into your work building or if you can’t use public transit, somebody with a disability has to sue. That’s a terrible way to put that burden on those with disabilities.
I am also pushing to make sure that every single person has a livable wage and can live in dignity, because if you’re living off of Social Security disability you could be receiving around $700 a month. We all know that’s not enough to survive in New York’s 12th Congressional District. This entire community has gone completely ignored by our representation, and it’s part of my responsibility that I advocate on their behalf and on behalf on every other community that hasn’t the had the kind of say that they deserve in Congress.