North by South West: An interview with a local US politician with global credentials

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Interview conducted by Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

Dear Jill Ann Roberg-Abahsain| former candidate for the Minnesota state senate, Democrat party. Firstly, thank you for granting us the opportunity to get to know your good self and your country’s politics.

Please introduce yourself? Where do you come from and what’s your background? What made you go into politics and how are you connected to the Middle East?

I am the granddaughter of Scandinavian immigrants. My father’s side were Swedish storekeepers. My mother’s side were Norwegian. My maternal grandfather was a charismatic and well-educated pastor for prairie towns and a one time the mayor of a mid-sized Minnesota town. Unfortunately, some unclear drama took place, and he left his family just before my mother was born. My mother was filled with the idea that men of religion cannot be trusted. I was raised in Minneapolis, not far from the place where, decades later, there would be the Floyd George disturbance. But it was a typical and rather uneventful childhood. I attended the University of Minnesota and, surprisingly or not, graduated with a degree in Religious Studies. While attending University I met my future husband, Muhammd Abahsain. He had been sent by his country, Saudi Arabia, as the first cohort to be trained abroad so as to return and teach at universities in KSA. He would take a PhD in Medieval Arabic Literature. We were married in 1984 and lived and worked in KSA until his retirement in 2000. I had taken training from the British Council to teach English as a Foreign Language and taught in Riyadh, Bahrain and eventually Cairo.
Entering politics was of course not a pursuit for me in KSA. However during college years in the USA I worked to further women’s’ rights as the Equal Rights Amendment was struggling to be passed. I was widowed in 2007 and remained in Cairo. I worked at the Egyptian Gazette as a copy editor for the political page and perhaps political ideas began to coalesce with my literary aspirations at that time. I remained in Cairo through the revolution of 2011, but began to see that Egypt, as much as I loved the life there, was getting to be too nerve wracking for a widow. I returned to Minnesota, to a small town of Sauk Centre (home to America’s first Nobel prize winner for literature-Sinclair Lewis) where my brother and his family now lived. I wrote for the local newspaper and eventually worked with the Hispanic community here as an English language teacher for adults. I learned from within the community some of the struggles they faced because of unjust laws. I watched as the education system was gutted by conservative republican politicians and how services were removed from rural families struggling to raise their families in decent conditions. With more stringent tax cuts and service removals, in health care, education and senior services, when the 2020 campaign began, I attended Democrat group meetings. They announced in January 2019 that there was no Democrat to run against the incumbent Republican. I was flabbergasted. “How can we be a democracy if there is no choice of who to vote for?!” I announced. “No one wants to run” they replied. “Would you run?” and so, I did. I was placed as a potential candidate and eventually gained the endorsement of the Democrat party in Central Minnesota.

You’re a Democrat. Have you always been a Democrat and can you tell us something about Trumpism?

My family was a Middle Class working family. My father believed in unions. We believed the Republican party supported the rich. What the Democrats wanted was to have policies and programs which included everyone. A very well-respected Democrat Senator, Paul Wellstone, ran on the belief “We all do better when we all do better”. That is, helping the disenfranchised reach the ‘American Dream’ improves the lot of all Americans. Trumpism was a different angle even for the Republicans. He was more of a Popularist. But holding absolutely true to the GOP belief that was distilled by Ronald Ragan, that if the rich do better the poor will benefit. So we suffered service cuts and program cancellations so that the very rich could have their taxes cut drastically. I still find it amazing that the very poor followed hard behind Trump. I believe they felt so disenfranchised by the political system that they longed for a hero, and a very narcissistic personality was able to fill that gap.

In your election manifesto you talk about the need for ‘Medicare for All’ to help reduce administrative costs. Could you elaborate please?

I can’t believe those exact words are on my political declaration sight. Because it is too partisan. I would say I believe that decent health care is a human right. I have lived in USA between insurance policies, where I had to put off seeing a physician because I could not afford it. Other democratic European countries seem to be able to provide healthcare for their citizens. I find it appalling that American cannot or will not. How can we pursue the right to Life, Liberty and Happiness if we are too ill to do so?

It’s a mystery to us here in the Arab world why America is notorious for the complexities of its health insurance system. Why is the US so unique in this area, even compared to other Western countries?

My answer to this question would be that it is capitalism run amok. Prices are set for and by large insurance companies. Much of the price goes to the stock portfolio of those same insurance companies. People struggle to find one insurance company they can afford. But usually at the cost of lessened services. The working poor, the millions who work at fast food places or gas stations etc. get no health insurance. Since they are working, they cannot get help from the government. Their health suffers immeasurably. It is a bad result of Capitalism. Much of Capitalistic theory helps our country, but in the case of healthcare it is not. To speak publicly of this truth is to be called a socialist.

Your top priority is education but you also talk about the “lack of affordable and reliable broadband inter access for our rural and farm-based families” and how only “72% of households in Senate District 12 have internet access.”

Do you propose to use 5G tech to accomplish this? Could you elaborate?

I made broadband and internet accessibility a platform of my campaign even before the Pandemic made it crystal clear that internet access is critical in our rural area. For video medical visits and distance learning it became crucial. Moreover, the large farms rely on the internet for dozens of ever increasingly detailed tasks from ordering feed, to weather motoring and monitoring the quality of milk and the price of beef on any given day, or the newest theory of weed control and seed hybrids. The Internet is a crucial service in my rural area. I actually do not know about the 5G issue here. There are so many sectors that have weak or no connectivity that I don’t think upgrading has yet to become an issue.

Moreover, is fixing this wise? The internet is pretty addictive. In Egypt, in the countryside, farmers have become glued to the TV screen, watching music videos starring pretty pop starlets, and realising how shoddy their lives are in comparison with city life?

My district consists of farm families. All members work on the farm or in town to support their families. Leisure addiction to internet gaming etc. may be a problem in our cities. The citizens here are very practical. They know how and where the parental permission setting is and generally set it accordingly. Parents can and do control the internet in their homes.

In light of what took place on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021, do you envision any restrictions on social media? Is it right to focus exclusively on the supply side of things (the internet) without focusing on the demand side, analysis why people want to consume conspiracy theories and believe them so easily?

I really can’t see the curtailment of freedom of speech in the USA. I do strongly believe there should be a re-examination of journalist standards and ethical behavior. I believe we are going through a transition in communication. Perhaps it will take a decade, but when certain incredulous theories fail to happen, then there may be a resetting of communication goals. Not unlike the various religious sects that occurred in the USA in times past that predicted the end of the world. They attracted many followers, but when it failed to occur, the movement faded to oblivion.

Concerning childcare you advocate subsidized child care and high quality child care. Could the traditional family, the ‘extended’ family, but a suitable solution? Japan and Malaysia have been able to keep welfare costs low specifically buy using the extended family as the corner stone for caring for the aged, not to mention the psychological health of children?

America is a county of immigrants. Not much more than 100 years ago people were breaking off from their families in a homeland to seek a better life here. That set a precedent for a non-communal family style. We generally have only a nuclear family, and one which adult children are expected to make their own way outside the family unit, starting one of their own. An older society like Japan did not experience this break. Here, to maintain or attain a decent standard of living both parents generally need to work. Grandparents are not viewed as automatic child minders. They have lived their lives and can pursue their own goals for the golden years. Childcare promotes professionalism, promotes employment and supports working parents. Same with care for the aged. While our elders can and do live with their families as long as possible, we have professionals who can provide much superior medical and psychological care than the average.

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