Interview by Trevor Fornara, Editor in Chief
Photos: Ridley for Congress
The following is an interview with Mikayla Ridley conducted on February 11th, eight days after she dropped out of the NY-22 congressional race. Ms. Ridley ran for the Democratic nomination before the state’s redistricting placed Binghamton and her hometown of Endicott in NY-19. Not wishing to run against incumbent Democrat Antonio Delgado in this election cycle, Ms. Ridley dropped out. If elected, Ms. Ridley would’ve been the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress, although she chose not to use this as a talking point during her campaign.
Ms. Ridley works as an admissions counselor at Binghamton University. She felt that the House of Representatives should consist of regular people eager to represent their constituents’ best interests, not career politicians. Ms. Ridley had never held political office before. I asked her why she chose Congress as a starting place and other questions about herself and her campaign. I recorded the audio of our conversation and created this transcript afterward. We talked for 40 minutes, so this is a select cut of what we discussed. The answers are mostly direct quotations from our conversation with minimal paraphrasing.
Can you describe the main points of your platform?
I’d say that the big things on it are healthcare reform, education reform, and protecting our planet. Those are definitely the three biggest passions of mine, and all of those have a socioeconomic justice component to them. These platform items are the building blocks. We can’t keep having a society without them. We need to put a lot more money into education; we’ve been gradually defunding it for decades.
For healthcare reform, switching to a single-payer system would be so much more cost-efficient for the whole country. The current proposal for healthcare reform is Medicare For All. While it wouldn’t necessarily have to be Medicare For All, I would fight for a single-payer system. While not truly a free market system, the multi-payer system is designed to operate as a free market system. People think that’s good because we’ve been trained to see free markets as the best possible way to run any system, but free markets work terribly for healthcare. That’s because free-market systems operate on supply and demand, but when people’s lives are on the line due to medical issues, they are willing to pay any price for treatment. Prices are bound to skyrocket in any free-market healthcare system. We need a single-payer system to stabilize prices. That’s why virtually every other wealthy nation in the world has a single-payer system.
For environmental protection, we need to reduce our pollution and find greener forms of energy that are actually affordable to Americans. I think that’s one of the biggest issues we’re facing right now with environmental policy—I can’t afford to buy an electric car or solar panels for my house, and neither can most Americans. It’s about making those options more affordable so that people can actually utilize green energy. I’m definitely an advocate for the green new deal. The bill has a lot of parts to it, but the most important are the infrastructure changes that will allow Americans to get jobs in renewable energy. This is good for the planet and our economy.
In your Ballotpedia survey response, you said that “the most important role of government is to respond to and alleviate systemic problems.” However, systemic problems are often caused and perpetuated by the government. How would you have used your influence to combat systemic issues in an institution riddled with them?
One of the purposes of government is to alleviate systemic problems, but government fails in that mission a lot. They perpetuate problems more often than they fix problems. That’s one of the main forces that drove me to politics; we need to fix these problems, they need to be fixed by government, and the people currently in government don’t have a great incentive to fix them. In their eyes we just need a few tweaks, because the current system has treated them well. We need more people in Congress who have experienced massive government failures. We need more people like me who have been dealing with the crushing weight of student debt for their entire adult lives. We need people who know what it’s like to avoid or delay healthcare because they can’t afford it. We don’t really have people in Congress who have had these experiences, so they don’t understand the gravity of these problems.
This also comes from how we elect Congress. One of my goals as a Congresswoman would be democratic reforms. We need better ways to select our leaders to be more representative of the people. We need the federal government to fully fund elections. Dramatic reforms to campaign finance are necessary so that elections are won by the stronger candidate, not the wealthier candidate. We also should use instant runoff or ranked voting so that elections more accurately represent the people’s will.
Are you still paying off your student debt?
I am. I graduated college with $95,000 in student debt. I’m down to about $60,000 at this point, but I’ve paid off about $60,000 already. I’ve paid tens of thousands in interest, and I have another ten years at best before they’re paid off.
I am definitely in favor of student debt forgiveness because it would be so beneficial to the economy. I spend about $700 a month paying off loans that go to an off-shore bank account for the CEO of Sallie Mae. The money doesn’t go into the economy; it’s not helping the working or middle classes. If we cancel student debt, that money would actually go into local economies. While it’s unlikely that we’d get the political support to cancel private student debt, it would be as easy as Biden signing an executive order to cancel all federal student debt. It’s the same way we’ve been freezing federal student debt for the last two years.
However, student debt forgiveness would have to come with increased education funding to ensure that we wouldn’t need to forgive debt again ten years later. Some are worried that people will go into more debt for college because they’re betting on the government forgiving it. We need to make sure that every student can go to four years of college for free, the same way it was free for K-12. This would likely start with getting associate’s degrees fully funded and then expanding to bachelor’s degrees. We could even take it further to high degrees. I think the economic benefit will be obvious as soon as we start funding higher education, and we will see that it’s a worthy investment.
Why did you choose Congress as your introduction to political life?
I went back and forth a lot because I believe that state and local governments have a lot of power and can get more done without political gridlock. However, I know that all of the problems I am most passionate about, know the most about, and know the most about how to fix, are at the national level. Things like fixing the healthcare system and education reform—the federal government has the resources to take real action on these issues. I felt it would be disingenuous to use local or state government as a stepping stone to Congress. We see career politicians do that all the time, and that’s not fair to local and state governments. There are many people who are passionate about local issues, and those government positions should be filled by them. It was a tough decision, but it felt like the most honest choice.
If you had been elected, on which congressional committees would you have wanted to serve?
The Education and Labor Committee and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis would be good fits considering my platform. I’d also be interested in serving on the Ethics Committee and the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. These two committees focus on making government work better.
You said that “in our current system both parties are skewed far-right” and that “the middle ground between the two parties is not the middle ground between the two sides. If you had been elected, how would you have navigated the disparity between engaging with an unfair and unrepresentative system and staying true to your beliefs?
That is one of the biggest challenges running for office. As we started the campaign, we learned that the system is so broken, and it’s designed to stay that way. We had to ask how we could work within the system to get a seat at the table while simultaneously working to fix the system. The approach we had throughout the campaign is educating the public about the issues we are actually facing, and it’s the same approach I’d take if I were to run again. People are justifiably angry at the government because they know that politicians aren’t doing their jobs. However, most people don’t have a good understanding of why that is. We tried to explain the reforms that could help them in their lives.
Did you run into any unexpected challenges running as a liberal candidate?
I had mentally prepared myself for the opposition. I hadn’t expected the number of people who totally agreed with me on all my policy issues but wouldn’t vote for me because they didn’t think I could win. I knew that there would be some of that, but we saw it in the extreme during our campaign. People don’t vote for what they want; they vote for what they believe is viable. However, if everyone voted for what they wanted, we would unlock a whole new array of viable possibilities. This is why we added instant runoff voting to our platform; it allows for people to vote for who they believe in without wasting their vote if that person doesn’t make the cut.
How has being a member of the LGBTQ+ community impacted your campaign?
I actually think being a woman has had more of an impact on my campaign than being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but I’ve gotten backlash over both. We had a Facebook advertisement running that had a photo of me, and one person commented, “I know everything I need to know about you based on your goofy-ass haircut.” I look like a queer woman; it’s a clear part of my identity. I’ve had people be dismissive of me because of that. Like I said, being a woman—especially a young woman—was the bigger challenge. When we first got into the race, there was an article written about me for Syracuse.com, and the same article was written for my opponent. His article was about his experience and accomplishments and that he was entering the race. Mine was “Tenney challenger wants to be the youngest woman elected to Congress,” which I never said in the interview. The tone of the two articles made the underlying sexism and age discrimination apparent. The system is very much skewed toward older folks, wealthier folks, men, straight folks, and Christians.
Can you see yourself running again in the future, and if so, for which position?
I definitely see myself running for office again. I’m leaning more toward Congress, or at least something on the federal level. For me, it’s never been about attention or being famous or things like that, so I may choose not to run for office again. Instead, I might work for a representative behind the scenes or take another job in Washington. I certainly haven’t ruled out state or local positions, and I’ve been contacted about the possibility of running for some of those since dropping from the congressional race. As I live in the area longer and learn more about local issues, then that might be the better fit for me in the future. However, I’ve lived in America for 27 years and Endicott for only 3 of those. Is it my place to make decisions about local issues when I haven’t lived here that long? I’ve been an American citizen my whole life and feel as though I have a good understanding of many of our systemic issues.
On behalf of the Happy Medium team, I’d like to offer a huge thanks to Mikayla Ridley for joining me for this interview.
Trevor Fornara is a senior from Mystic, Connecticut, majoring in philosophy, politics, and law. Trevor is a research fellow with the Undergraduate Research Center’s Summer Scholars and Artists Program, and works as a communications intern on the Leslie Danks Burke for State Senate campaign. He served as treasurer on the founding e-board of the Interdisciplinary Research Club last year, before leaving to focus on Happy Medium. During his first year at Binghamton, Trevor participated in the Source Project where he researched the affects of the university on the city’s housing market. Trevor also wrote for the Jewish Leader, a regional Jewish newspaper in CT, for 3 years.