By Elisabeth Almekinder | Politics North Carolina
From coastal NC, to Washington, D.C., out from the whirlwind political climate that rivals recent hurricanes comes women strong and fit to lead. In Eastern NC, Dr. Kyle Horton is one who could help make political history considering the recent nationwide “blue wave.”
Horton’s ready for the challenge in Washington as she fights for North Carolina’s House of Representatives 7th Congressional District seat against Republican David Rouzer. With the primary coming up in May and election in November, she could be one of the only female physicians in Congress if she takes the seat.
Horton, along with seven other women physicians, is one of a new wave of physicians and women entering Congress in this election cycle. There are seven more women physicians running nationwide this cycle. There has been only one female physician in Congress to date, and there are none presently serving. The first was Donna Christensen, (D) US Virgin Islands, who served from 1996 to 2015.
Being a female and a physician running on a Democratic ticket in Eastern North Carolina is not something Horton takes lightly. Leaving internal medicine for the campaign trail was not an easy decision. Her family has a long history of military service, and Horton feels a passion for fulfilling her obligation to care for veterans, and for training the next generation of providers to understand their needs. She also feels an obligation to ensure health care as a right for all Americans, and is a champion for health care for women, children and families, as well as veterans.
“My dad lost his older brother about eight weeks after returning from combat in Vietnam in a car accident related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I figured that out when I was about eight or nine. I think the unfairness of losing veterans stateside has stuck with me my whole life, and I’ve always wanted to take care of veterans. I went to work at the Veterans Affairs in Richmond, and was on teaching faculty there, and it’s really the delays I was having with my patients that first made me get engaged in politics.”
“After I moved back to North Carolina to take care of my mother’s health issues, I was no longer bound by the Hatch Act, and receiving a government paycheck from Veterans Affairs, so I could engage directly in legislative advocacy and campaigns unrestricted. I was going back and forth to the Hill over the last few years, working on provisions of bills, and even grassroots work for integrated veteran suicide prevention, homelessness and female veterans’ issues. I’ve also been working on raising awareness for veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of agent orange in Vietnam,” said Horton. “I have devoted all my time and energy to doing volunteer advocacy work, and now, running for Congress.”
Her experience in Washington is intertwined with true grassroots volunteer advocacy, and she has never accepted pay for any political work. Horton has experience working on bipartisan legislation and advocating for passage. “I introduced a lead and copper resolution, after noting that over something like six years, North Carolina was on a short list of states in the country that were not routinely submitting lead and copper results to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Usually the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks data and trends, and I drafted a resolution that passed through the statewide party. The Democratic Party called for relief for the families of Flint, whose children were poisoned through no fault of their own, and vowed that we would take part, and be sure that we were getting data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a timely fashion. And we are now submitting that data routinely to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Being a woman in the South, a medical professional with a passion for veterans, women and working families, and a candidate for democratic office presents unique challenges. “The U.S. came in 101st on a list of international rankings of the percent of women serving in parliament (for most of the world), and here in the U.S., Congress – that put us right behind Indonesia, and behind countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), China, and even Afghanistan for the percentage of women in Congress right now,” said Horton.
“It’s not trivial to me to be running as a woman, and possibly the only female physician in Congress. In North Carolina, we’ve been lagging, while women are over 50 percent of voters, they’ve been under a quarter of elected officials,” said Horton. “I want to inspire and empower other women, and particularly girls, to consider careers in politics, and running for elected offices down the road. What’s wonderful, and what I love about this moment in the country, is that so many women are stepping up to run, ‘because if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.’”
“There are no women doctors serving in Congress, so I’m not taking it lightly that it would be a huge thing for me to be the first congresswoman representing this district, and a woman doctor living in the South, at a time when that is needed in Congress. For health care reform, we had 16 men on the Senate side, negotiating behind closed doors, and women have unique health needs and challenges. To really get to where we are achieving parity, I think that the important thing is we must have a lot more women running, and engaged in politics altogether. Just by having women running, other women will come to the table and pay more attention. It’s already changing the conversation to have so many women running and engaged this cycle. I think we’re going to see huge strides toward more equality for women in the next generation.”
“I should point out too, when women win in Congress, they are actually better at their jobs. There have been multiple studies looking at it, and the women in Congress introduced more bills, which are more likely to have bipartisan sponsors to work across the aisle, and are more likely to be passed out of committee and signed into law. It deserves mentioning every chance we get – that women work in a bipartisan manner, that we compromise, and that women are doing a better job than men on average in Congress.”
For women wishing to get into politics, Horton has some advice. “Start where your passion is, at the grassroots and local level, and get involved in a county level commitment. There’s always vacancies on advisory boards, and county library boards, education boards, environmental-related groups at the city or county level. There are many groups that are interested in ensuring that women achieve equal representation at all levels of government.”
“I would encourage women interested in politics to attend either some nonprofit leadership or direct political training. Certainly training, and knowing how boards work, and how politics work, is always the first step. Right now, in this moment, women are taking up the crux of calls. Disproportionately, they are the ones speaking to their representatives in Congress about the issues in government. They are the ones stepping up in policy right now, so there are plenty of organizations. I always help, and always recommend that people should seek out mentors as well. I’ve committed as a candidate to mentor and help other women get a start. That’s my other piece of advice, is to find a mentor and get training.”
For training related to women getting into political careers, there are many nonpartisan groups that are particularly geared toward women in leadership positions. There are trainings from groups like EMILY’s List and She Should Run, but also for progressive candidates and politicos that Horton has attended as well, and she encourages women to consider those, also.
With her medical background, Horton would have health care as her initial agenda. She even has a plan. “I’m passionate about stabilizing the markets from the Affordable Care Act, and working toward achieving the goal that health care should be a fundamental and basic human right, period. I support looking at a solution to get us toward Medicare for all,” Horton said. What I would like to see happen is to drop the Medicare eligible age to 55, right now. That would take the older, sicker patients out of the private market, and give them a public option. This would stabilize the private markets, with healthier pools of patients.”
“At this point, with what they are doing with cutting out the subsidies from the Trump administration, it’s going to drive our premiums up exponentially. People aren’t going to be able to afford basic health care coverage, and every other developed nation in the world has figured out that health care should be a right of everyone in their country. That would be my highest priority – to work toward a truly universal health care system. It would also create jobs.”
“In North Carolina, it was estimated that close to 1,200 people could die every year without health care, based on our state’s failure to expand Medicaid, putting partisan politics over people. Now with Trump’s sabotage of the Affordable Care Act and the radical attempts to gut Medicaid and Medicare, rural hospitals are fundamentally at risk. Our district was in the top five in the entire country for how many were estimated to lose lifesaving health care coverage with the House version, the American Health Care Act, of Trumpcare. We see now some of those provisions being put into the tax bill that would directly affect Medicare and Medicaid when signed by the president of the United States.”
“When it comes to how I’m thinking about this race, it’s really important to me to represent the people of the district. On the House side, where we’re not running statewide, but representing a district – it’s called the people’s House for a reason. It’s important to me to fight for the families in Eastern North Carolina. We have unique economic challenges. We have health care challenges. Now we are facing a lot of environmental challenges which are fundamentally about the health and safety of our families, so those are really the things that I want to focus on.”
With the issue of dumping GenX in the Cape Fear river by the DuPont/Chemours plant, the region is at the intersection of policies, many of which are threatening our fundamental human right to clean water. “Our children really should not be guinea pigs at the hands of a fortune 500 company,” said Horton.
“We need policies that make sense to protect our children from essentially being poisoned by these corporate polluters who get all kinds of breaks and tax incentives. Right now, as they are dismantling and defunding the Environmental Protection Agency, they can really do whatever they want, including recklessly risking our health and the health of future generations with these emerging compounds in our water, including many fluorocarbons.”
“One of the things I’m working on now is organizing physicians with the threats to our water. The Centers for Disease Control has an environmental public health tracking network, and there are certain states that can look at public health crisis, and they track it in relation to exposures. Here in North Carolina, where we have Coal Ash, and where we’ve had water contamination from our farms, and then with emerging contaminants like GenX, we’re working on researching and organizing some physicians and health care providers. We are trying to make NC one of the participating states in their environmental public health tracking network.”
Horton wants to find pathways to living wages, and is working on solutions to encourage corporations to invest their profits back into their workers and companies, rather than into lucrative stock buybacks to boost shareholder wealth. She hopes to champion other bills for working families. She will work to keep the “Dreamers,” who are “citizens in their hearts, in the only country many have ever known, and work on a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.”