Liz Watson does not use the word anti-establishment to describe herself.
As a registered Democratic candidate for the Congressional 9th District and a former congressional staffer in Washington D.C., the term seems like a misnomer. Her main talking points often overlap with those of the three other Democrats competing for the nomination in May: a commitment to jobs, affordable health care, and education and a better future for working-class families.
But even though she won't use the word anti-establishment, Watson said she has based her campaign on the idea that something is fundamentally wrong with how the establishment — in this case, Congress — is operating, and she positions herself as the only candidate capable of changing things from the inside.
Watson, a 42-year-old Bloomington native who graduated from Bloomington High School South, left the state to earn degrees at Carleton College and Georgetown University Law Center. She clerked for a federal judge, worked as a legislative counsel for Workplace Flexibility 2010 at Georgetown Law and privately practiced employment law. Over the course of her career — particularly the parts spent as a congressional staffer — Watson said it became clear Congress was not working on behalf of all Americans.
"The kinds of things that would really make a difference to families, those are things this Congress has not accomplished," Watson said. "There are bills that would solve these issues, but that's not what this Congress wants to do. What this Congress has been about has been very different."
Watson drafted legislation to raise the minimum wage that was supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, as well as legislation to ensure fair scheduling for service-sector employees that received support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, only to watch both pieces stall after being introduced in multiple congressional sessions. As a number of congressional decisions continued to disappoint her, Watson said she began to consider a run for the open congressional seat in Indiana.
"I think that what made me take this step was watching when the 115th Congress came in," Watson said. "I watched as they voted — as Trey voted — to take Hoosiers off their health insurance, to shut down the government, deny safety and health protections that would have protected people from dying on the job, roll back clean air and clean water protections. I got so angry about it. I just feel like we could do so much better than this."
Watson announced her campaign earlier this summer, joining Tod Curtis, Daniel Canon and Tom Pappas in a race to clinch the Democratic primary in May 2018. The winner will try to take the seat from Republican incumbent Trey Hollingsworth. Because the candidates' messages sometimes overlap, Watson touts her experience with Congress as her most differentiating feature from the others.
Laura Collins, a member of Monroe County National Organization for Women said some critics of her campaign do not approve of her time spent in D.C.
"Some people see it as a 100 percent negative that she went to Washington," said Collins "That she's now a 'Washington insider.'"
Collins said she believes the current political climate has affected the way people perceive political candidates, creating a level of skepticism among some.
"People can be very distrustful," Collins said.
Watson said she had not heard criticisms about her experience and stressed it was one of her strongest qualities.
"If I took you into any hearing room in Congress, you could pick out for me who the freshman legislators are, because they don’t talk," Watson said. "They don’t introduce legislation very much. They don’t introduce amendments to bills because they don’t know how Congress works. I think we need to send someone in who’s going to be effective in a first term. I’ve been very effective. I can be effective if I’m elected."
Indivar Dutta-Gupta met Watson while living in D.C. He said his career has allowed him to meet "dozens and dozens" of legislators, but something about Watson struck him as different. He still lives in D.C. and is not from Indiana, but he has used Facebook to encourage people to vote for Watson.
"There's a lot of others who would spend their time here with people who are well-off, well-connected, so they can prosper at the expense of others," Dutta-Gupta said. "That couldn't be further from who Liz is or will be."
Watson also differs from the other candidates in another way: She's the only woman. If she were to win, she would become the first woman to hold that seat ever.
"I am always looking for candidates who care about the low-wage workers, but the cherry on top of the sundae is that she's a woman," Collins said. "When I look at four different candidates who would all work hard, but I see one that has experience and is a woman, that's the candidate I will work, work, work for."
Both Collins and Watson said they were concerned by the lack of women in Congress. Despite comprising half of the population, women make up only 19.6 percent of the members of Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
"I think it would be very meaningful to send a woman — and I don't mean any woman, I mean me — to Congress to fight for families," Watson said. "Women talk all the time about how they're upset at the lack of women in Congress. There's something you can do about that: You can vote for one."
Watson said her run for Congress was a way to take what she describes as a "lifelong fight for Hoosier families" to the next level. She traces the origins of that fight to when she was the "breadstick girl" at Fazoli's during high school.
"I was a high schooler, but most of them weren't," Watson said. "They were trying to raise families on what was a poverty wage then and what is a poverty wage now."
Watson cites this awareness as something that helped direct her public-service career. Her subsequent choices to work on low-income and working-class issues, as well as women's issues, has caught the attention of some people of influence.
Collins said she valued Watson's "working relationship" with Sanders. Additionally, former United Steelworkers Local 1999 President Chuck Jones, who drew criticism from President Trump last year, appeared with Watson at a Good Jobs Nation stop in Bloomington earlier this year. Jones said her career history influenced his decision to support her.
"I think, without a doubt, she's a fighter for the working-class people," Jones said. "We need more people in politics who are willing to stand up for working-class people. Over the years, we've been forgotten about. It's all about the elite."
With Jones' public support and a vocal, pro-union stance, Watson has received endorsements from various labor groups across the state, including the Indiana State Pipe Trades Association, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Jones said he sees a rare opportunity when he looks at a candidate like Watson.
"They come around once in awhile," Jones said. "When we get a candidate like Liz, we have to really support her."
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