Lee Auman, 25

Lee Auman.jpg

Lee Auman for Congress

Alabama’s 4th district is probably the last place you’d expect a progressive Democrat to be running for Congress. Yet in a district Trump won with over 80% of the vote, this 25-year-old youth minister is proving he can be the change candidate his district needs.

 What was the best advice you received before you ran for office?
Take the leap, and build your wings as you fly. I figured out a lot of this campaign as I went, but making that first jump was the hardest part.

If you could get a beer with any politician, who would it be and why?

My answer might surprise you. I’d actually say, Donald Trump.

The reason why is because I think he needs a friend. I would just be really curious to sit down with him and try to get at the heart of who he is as a person and find out what's going on inside his head.

A lot of the work I’ve done inside and outside of politics has been conflict resolution. I'd really be curious to take the skills into the ultimate arena of arrogance and ignorance.

What is your favorite place in your district?

Bankhead National Forest. It is one of the four national forests we have in the state of Alabama. There’s just so much to see there, and the diversity of life is unbelievable.

I've only been to a small portion of it, even though I've been there many times. But when you go there, you walk around and feel like no one has been here in hundreds of years. There’s something about the novelty of that experience. There’s almost this perpetual feeling like you are the first person who has been there. I highly recommend going there as it cools down in the late fall.

You were a youth minister who then transitioned into politics. Why the move away from theology and into government?

It wasn't a direct transition. I was a youth minister during college and shortly thereafter. I also grew up going to summer camp at a place called Camp McDowell, which is a summer camp and conference center of the Episcopal Church in the state of Alabama. I was a youth minister during college, but it was a part-time job because I was also a student. After I graduated, I got a full-time job at Camp McDowell managing our conference center. That moved me out of youth ministry and into a more managerial role at a conference center that we would host youth groups, but we would also have all kinds of other all kinds of other groups, some secular, some religious, and definitely not all Episcopalian.

In terms of politics particularly, I have always believed that politics can be a force for good. But I grew up in an area where that narrative wasn't true. I was told politics meant a corrupt person.  To be a politician, you kind of got to be a certain type of person, a type of person that people shouldn’t trust.

But I realized over the years, as I worked with the parents of my youth and did intergenerational work, I realized I built up a pretty good platform of relationships and people who trust me.

Why not use those relationships to tell a story that I believe can be really helpful, which is that politics can not only be a force for good, but that's what it ought to be? It’s our role as people, as concerned citizens, to get into politics and make the changes that we want to see made.

I thought for a long time, I would go into seminary, so I studied philosophy in college working in the church. Maybe one day I will go in that direction. But right now, I think I need to use my gifts, my passions, and talents to try to make a change in politics where change so desperately need to be made.

In the media, liberal politics is often pitted against religion. How do we reconcile the two?

I never had much of a feeling that they need to be reconciled. I think the best thing that Democrats and progressives can do, especially if they do have religious convictions or spiritual beliefs of any kind, is to get up there and not be scared to talk about that. What I don't want to do is commit the same sin as a lot of people I see on the other side who get up there and use their faith to get votes, as if being a Christian was a qualifier for office. I don't want to do that. But we also don't want to be scared to talk passionately and honestly about our faith and our beliefs.

I think especially in an area like this, where religion is so important, it’s important to people that you can relate to them. I’m Episcopalian, that’s a little bit different than the rest the religious folks in Alabama, but we have some common underpinnings of our faith that I think brings us together.

But as someone who identifies as a Christian, I look at the person of Jesus, and I see Jesus as a pretty progressive, and pretty liberal person. That character that I read about as a role model as a post that we should use to live our lives. If we actually tried to live that way, we would be tearing down some of the systems of oppression that are in place right now.

You are running for a district that Donald Trump won by 80%. When the numbers seem stacked against you, what do you believe is your path to victory?

So the district is the only one to go 80% or more for Trump, and actually, I used to live in Winston County, which I voted around 88% for Trump. I think it was the most Trumpian county in the whole country.

On paper that's a really hard statistic to overcome. There's often an extremely low turnout among Democratic voters in states like Alabama and especially in districts like this one because it's so heavily Republican and so heavily conservative that people liberals think their vote doesn't count or won't matter. That's a really sad narrative and isn’t true. I think Alabama's more of a purple state than people think, but I would in no way would I make the claim that it's a blue state.

We do have a huge uphill battle to fight. One interesting fact is that thousands of people in the district voted for the first time 2016 election. So they registered to vote, just so they can vote for Trump. As I've been on the campaign trail I've met dozens of these individuals who also plan to vote for me. That sounds perplexing, but the truth is that these are people that don’t actually care about the party but who are solely looking to upend the status quo. People who are so fed up with the system as it is that they were willing to show up to vote for the change candidate. No matter what you think about President Trump, it was clear who the change candidate was in that election. He got people really fired up.

Now they're willing to cross over and vote for Democrats. So if we can have a high turnout, people who want to see old perspectives go down and replace it with new perspective, if we can have a really good turnout among Democrats, and of course, if we can convert enough moderate Republicans who are fed up with a party that doesn't know who it is or what it stands for, then I think we can win with a close margin.

You’re running against a 22-year incumbent who has been in office most of your life. What obstacles do you face challenging someone who has held that seat for so long?

We're actually not running against another campaign. Mr. Aderholt is the incumbent of 22 years but he is not campaigning in the district. He's not really doing much in the district at all and people in this district are fed up with him. Aderholt gets in his section of the ballot gets more undervotes than any other candidate in the state.

What are undervotes?

Undervotes are when somebody looks at two names on the ballot and they don't like either, so they don’t vote for anybody. When people don’t vote in certain elections, that counts as an undervote. So more people look at his name and decide that if they can’t vote for the Democrat in that race, they’re just not going to vote. So generally he’s not that popular, he just has all the all the tools in his arsenal to keep winning these elections.

Based on the Cook PVI, this district is R+30. But that's all on paper. I've lived here my whole life. And I've talked to people and I think it's a little different. There's something brewing on the water. We've got a huge uphill battle, but there's going to be a perfect storm and we're working to make it happen.

Another astounding fact about your district is the number of opioid prescriptions, 165 prescriptions per 100 people. How did your district to get to that point?

It goes back to big pharma's big advertising push which started in the 90s, that basically marketed their drugs as a cure-all for all types of pain in chronic pain. When you have a drug like opioid painkillers that are incredibly addictive, and you start prescribing it for chronic pain, you're really laying the groundwork for a severe epidemic of addiction. And that's exactly what happened.

There was really no oversight. There was really no regulation of the doctors prescribing these drugs or the CEO of these companies that profit financially from the sale of opioids. Which is not to say that is intentionally creating this epidemic and throwing people's lives away from money. But the reality is that every time opioids are consumed or prescribed, these companies profit from it, and if we just let that system continue without any checks and balances, then we get to the place where now we are now.

What do you see the solutions moving forward?

I really wish the state legislators would expand Medicaid, which is in their purview. I don’t think they will. We have a Republican supermajority right now and they seem to have no interest in it accepting the federal money from the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion, mostly because they want to put the politics of healthcare before the people who need healthcare. I would really like to see a Democratic majority in Alabama State House, which would be a massive uphill battle.

It would provide basic health care for a few hundred thousand people in the state who don't have access right now. And it would also help us save our hospitals in our rural areas that are struggling to keep their doors open right now. Just in my district, we've had one hospital that had to implement a new sales tactic to keep it open. We had a hospital that had to sell keep the doors open. And since 2011 or 2012, we've had seven or eight hospitals in the state close down.

If you don't have a hospital in your county, you don't have a place to go if you have an emergency, need care, or if you are someone who is addicted and those that want to get treatment. That's a problem. So how do we save hospitals to help with the opioid crisis? We need to write legislation at the federal level that would reign in the reductions and a disproportionate share of hospital payments. Those are the payments that go to hospitals from the federal government from Medicaid. It goes the hospitals that disproportionately serve poor patients, who just so happened also the Medicare and Medicaid patients. That’s why the Medicaid expansion matters.

How do we prevent further epidemics?

I think of it as a 3 prong approach. We need to, number one, reduce the number of prescriptions that are being written. Number two, we need to help those who are already addicted or who are at risk for addiction. And number three, we need to prevent the overdoses and overdose deaths.

Going back to number one, how do we reduce the prescriptions that are being written? We need to create a national database and national prescription drug monitoring system so that doctors can know who the patients are and what prescriptions are being written to them. 49 states have their own prescription drug monitoring program that again, it's just a database for doctors to use. So no one's privacy is interrupted.

But it's a database so the doctors know who the patient is and what prescription they've been written. So the two doctors don’t accidentally write the same prescription to the same person. But the problem is that those databases are not shared readily between the states. If you look at prescription rates by county, some of the highest prescribing counties will be on the borders of states.

People who are addicted know that if they are on the border of Mississippi, they can jump over to Alabama and get the drug there, and the doctor has no way to know that they just got the same prescription at a different clinic. That's called doctor shopping. It’s the behavior of someone who is addicted or heavily at risk for addiction or who is selling drugs. And the opioid crisis is hard because people who are addicted are also dealers many times.

If we were to take the infrastructure we have in place in 49 states expanded to the national level, we could see a lot of success. Two rules which would be critical to making it work with the first rule, the doctors were required to check this database before they ever wrote a prescription. Two, they would need to be required to update the database as soon as they wrote a prescription. If we were to do that we'd have an ongoing system that was always accurate. There are seven or eight states now have prescription drug monitoring program with those two rules. And in those states, there are 75% fewer cases of doctor shopping. And in a state like Florida, just a year after they implemented those rules, opioid-related deaths were cut in half, which meant about 1300 people's lives are saved just because they implemented this non-controversial legislation.

How do we help people who are already addicted?

When it comes to helping people who are already addicted or at risk for addiction to invest in medically assisted therapy (MAT), which basically is having doctors in a controlled setting, administer medication and drugs to help people who are addicted to wean off of the drugs.

When it comes to preventing overdoses and opioid-related death, we need to give firefighters and police officers access to the to the antidote so that they can walk in there with a with a needle and quickly administer that to anyone who's having an overdose. And we also need to strengthen the amnesty laws so that if two people are using drugs together, and one of them overdoses, the other person can call the police get help immediately without having to worry that they themselves are incriminated and sent to jail for that.

What do you think are the biggest doubts people have about you as a candidate? And what do you say to people who think you're too young to run?

I think the people who have doubts don't typically directly say it to my face. But I can always tell. They say, “We're really glad you're running. If you don't win this time, we hope you'll stay in politics.” And that's their way of saying, “You're not gonna win this because you're young and inexperienced, but we like you.”

But I'm not looking past November 6th. I have some critical issues that I think need to be addressed. And since no one else is addressing them, that's why I'm running and that's why we're fighting hard every single day to win.

It's a pretty stark contrast between myself and the incumbent when it comes to issues. He doesn't really talk about any solutions, any plans or any vision. And so people can doubt me if they want based on my age and my experience, but what good is 22 years in office, if you have so little to show for it? Wouldn’t you rather have somebody who may never have been a legislator before, but who actually has a vision they want to implement and plans to address the opioid crisis, plans to try to save rural hospitals, and plans to try to bring good jobs to the district?

What advice would you give to somebody else who is considering running for office?

I would tell them to lean toward yes because you will learn a lot. I hope we can get to a place where being a politician is an admirable profession, and that all little kids growing up want to, in some sense, work in politics, and maybe even be elected officials.

If they do determine that running for office is not the thing for them, I hope they will find another way to get involved in politics. You have to be involved in politics if you want to make changes. No matter what the issue is that you care about, you at some point will end up at the door of a politician. So people really need to get involved in politics. In fact, our word for idiot comes from a Greek word that basically means someone who is not involved in politics. So, don’t be an idiot.

Lacy Wright