Rep. Susan Wild is old school in the new Congress
Representative Susan Wild (D-PA), outside her office on Capitol Hill holding her mini-poodle Zoe. (Laura Kelly)
It’s been over a year and a half since Representative Susan Wild started her journey representing Pennsylvania’s 7th district — the Lehigh Valley — in the halls of Congress. She calls the pace of her new job, “fast and furious.”
The long-time civil litigator had been looking for an opportunity to make a bigger difference in people’s lives, more than the one she could in the courtroom. When the Republican incumbent of her district, Charlie Dent, announced his resignation in May 2018, she found her opening.
“I would not have run against [Rep. Dent] if he decided to stay in. He was a good congressman, very strong on Israel issues, but just in general was well-liked in our district,” she said. “But when he announced [his resignation], I very quickly decided that this was a time for me to take the skills that I had developed as lawyer and bring them to this venue.”
“I feel very fortunate to be here. It’s been an exhausting but exhilarating ride,” she said during an afternoon interview in her office in early April.
That ride includes winning two elections, flipping a Republican district, becoming the first woman to represent that district and joining the largest female freshman class in the history of the U.S. Congress. The former Allentown City Solicitor first ran to fill the vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 15th district and, in the second election, for the new 116th Congress — based on the redrawn lines that now make up the 7th district.
Though small in stature, Rep. Wild makes herself heard. Recently she made headlines for standing up to a Republican colleague for “mansplaining” during debate on the House floor. In an effort to remove certain text from a bill, Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL) accused the congresswoman of not understanding her own legislation. “I didn’t realize while I was on the floor that he was speaking in such a way that it could be construed as being condescending,” she said. “I was really focused on making sure my position on the legislation was set forth, and that’s based on my training as a lawyer.”
Looking at the next two years, Rep. Wild says she’s focused on how issues affect the every-day lives of Americans. At 61-years-old, she’s looking to have the most immediate impact on the greatest number of people – using her training as a lawyer to identify ambiguity in the law, to correct it with clarity, and to ensure Congress achieves what it needs to. “I want to do the most ‘good’ I can, for the most people I can, and that’s why I’m here,” she tells me.
Since January, Rep. Wild has authored at least five pieces of legislation – on taxes, healthcare, voting rights and defense – and has co-sponsored over 150 bills and resolutions.
Her committee assignments reflect her focus in this Congress – she’s a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor and holds a seat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where she’s vice-chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.
“I believe that we have to have a broad view of the world, we have to think globally, we have to understand the interrelationship between the United States, both friendly and unfriendly,” she tells me.
We sit in her office on the sixth floor of the Longworth office building. The historic, marble-interior structure was built in the 1930’s to accommodate for the expanding number of representatives, named for the House Speaker that authorized its construction, Nicholas Longworth of Ohio.
Rep. Wild has an office mascot, her grey and white mini-poodle called Zoe. “We call her the chief morale officer,” Rep. Wild says with a smile during our interview.
A dose of cuteness and comfort felt necessary in that particular moment. Earlier that day, the House passed a controversial Yemen War Powers resolution, overcoming attempts by Republicans to complicate the bill by introducing a last minute amendment on Israel. Rep. Wild, who is Jewish, said she became “very emotional” about the Republican effort to manipulate Democratic support of Israel to block a separate bill. “It’s really very upsetting to me that [Israel] is being used [that way],” she said.
Born in 1957 on the Wiesbaden Air Force Base in Germany to a Quaker mother and Methodist father, Rep. Wild spent her adolescent years in West Los Angeles, California, raised among a predominantly Jewish community. “I felt like an honorary member of the tribe for a long time,” she said matter-of-factly. “Eventually, [I] made that more formal.”
Her son and daughter were born and raised in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, and reared in the Jewish community. Rep. Wild underwent conversion to Judaism, but said it only occurred after seeing her son’s early excitement for his bar mitzvah.
“I had felt as though I was Jewish even before that — that was just the way I lived my life.” Despite being surrounded by the Jewish community, she wanted to deepen her knowledge and understanding. “So I just embarked on a process of studying and learning over the time where my son was also studying and learning but learning different things – I didn’t have to learn a torah portion and all of that,” she confides.
She first traveled to Israel in July 2008, which she describes as a “wonderful, eye-opening, educational experience,” joined by her two children and their Jewish Federation. Security and safety for her own family was at the top of her mind on this trip, particularly because of her young children. But, “when we got there — and I had spent less than a day there – I felt a sense of unbelievable security and safety in a way that I don’t know that we always match in this country,” she explains.
Issues surrounding Israel and American Jews have dominated discourse over the past few months in the 116th Congress. At times, it’s been partisan: Republicans have seized on the perception that Democrats are divided over support for Israel by focusing on comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — who criticized U.S. support for Israel as based on financial incentive and accused American supporters of Israel as having “allegiance to a foreign country.”
“I find it upsetting that they [Republicans] continually are using Israel and our relationship with Israel as a basis for [Motions to Recommit] and amendments because I have not seen any sign of division in the Democratic caucus about support for Israel,” she says. “But, I think that’s what they’re trying to create an appearance of division.”
“I think it’s really important for people who are not Jewish to understand that those of us who are, view Israel, very much, through the same prism that we view the United States,” Rep. Wild said. “I’m an American, I consider myself to be a patriotic American. It doesn’t mean that I always agree with what our lawmakers or what our administration does.”
“It’s one of the beauties of a democracy, and Israel — of course — is also a democracy. I think that it’s important for people to understand that we don’t just stand in lockstep [on] all matters Israel, all matters [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, or whomever the prime minister might be at the time, but rather that we view these things through a prism of critical thinking and reconcile issues within our own core values.”
Laura Kelly is the Capitol Hill reporter for Jewish Insider. Follow her @HelloLauraKelly