The first nurse elected to Congress. The first woman in Texas to lead a major house committee. The first African American woman elected to public office from Dallas. She breaks barriers, she sets precedents, she is Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.

Congresswoman Johnson renewed her seat representing the 30th Congressional District  Tuesday, November 7th, collecting 91.1% of the district’s vote in a landslide victory. The Roundup had the honor of meeting with Congresswoman Johnson to hear incredible insight on a lifetime of public service.

Today’s press consumes itself with the heated topics of Trump-this and Trump-that. The Roundup centered its interview around the less glamorous but equally pressing matters that impact the daily lives of millions around the country: STEM research, infrastructure, transportation, and immigration. Her areas of expertise, the congresswoman talked about the future in each sector, always returning to a powerful message of unity:

[American politics and research have] gotten to be more political than it should be because what we do is not partisan… We live in the best nation in the world. I’m 82 years old, born black, and grew up in Waco, Texas, so I’ve suffered all that you can suffer as a black face. But I’ve also traveled the world. And I would not want to be anywhere else.

The reason why is because we are made up of people from around the world and each brings value. We’ve got every religion.  We have every profession. We have almost every mixture so you’re very fortunate to be born in America because it’s not the same everywhere.

Pre-Congressional Experience

Before becoming a congresswoman, Ms. Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Texas Christian University. Her 16 years of experience as Chief Psychiatric Nurse at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital broadened the perspective she carried to her political career, explaining:

I think my nursing experience affected me in a positive way because as a nurse, you don’t walk into a patient’s room and try to determine what [political] party they belong to or what race they are or anything else. You look at that person to see what’s wrong with them and do what you can do to help. I think that having this  attitude has helped me in politics because I don’t care really who I work with. I don’t care if they are Democrat or Republican as long as we can work something out.

Her extensive experience has also translated to her progressive stance on health care:

My major input is to make sure that people feel the responsibility toward their health. When you neglect yourself and your health, it’s a much harder recovery, but it’s also hard on the Health Care system because it costs so much.

If they don’t pay but a dime per visit, let them feel the responsibility to pay that ten cents. When I was saying that around the table, Pelosi looked at me.

My basic approach to healthcare is to make people feel valued, so they can take care of themselves better. That way, health care will be cheaper and more available to everyone. It’s more expensive in this country than anywhere else in the world, and I think a lot of it is because we don’t have access to health insurance at reasonable prices because states have not paid much attention to regulation and accountability. Here in Texas, we have the largest number of working people who do not have health insurance, and I think that’s a problem.

Research & STEM Education

Congresswoman Johnson became the first African American and the first female to be elected as a Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and has since been a strong advocate for STEM education: 

“The major responsibility that we have is research, basic research for the nation. I have made it a part of my platform to encourage young people to think of those areas… what we call STEM education. It is basically geared toward just research, which is considered the door to the future. Unless we continue to have new knowledge, we become stagnant as a nation.

My biggest problem is trying to talk to the president about letting us lift restrictions on travel to the country, but that’s why I’ve continued to stress stem education. We need that creative thinking, we need that confidence in our imaginations, and we need that educational background and infrastructure to make sure that young people not only can conceive these ideas but also can express them and find the tools to bring them into reality.”

Under the research umbrella lies the issue of climate change. Congresswoman Johnson addressed climate change as “one of the biggest areas right now that [the United States] face[s],” yet condemns the controversy of the issue:

And [research] really should not be political. It’s a pure knowledge kind of thing that we look toward, but like everything else, has become a little bit more political. When I first went on the committee, it was not partisan. It was strictly based on scientific research and we got our directions from the scientists and some of the highest level achievers in the world in scientific research. We still do that to a point, but there’ve been more questions about some of the scientific findings more so than I’ve ever experienced in more recent years. I think it’s a phase and I hope that we’ll get past this phase.

Space Research & Weather Patterns

The research effort of her committee extends beyond STEM education.  Congresswoman Johnson particularly noted Space research as the most rewarding department:

We do a lot of research on astronauts when they go into space and return and we interview a lot of the astronauts.  It has proven to be research that was well invested. The number of products and a number of modalities that we have been able to discover from space research, and yet we have many people coming to Congress that think space research is a waste of time.”

But these findings were not restricted to outer space; one of the most significant effects of space research has been a greater understanding of weather patterns, as she explained:

But basically, that’s really because people don’t understand all of what has come from it. What has come from space research is the prediction of weather. There was a time when we didn’t know there was going to be a tornado until it hit. Now they can predict as early as two weeks or so ahead of the time, and what it has done is saved a lot of lives with God giving those warnings. It hasn’t saved as much material as what we like, but what it has told us is where we need to change those materials to be more resilient. And so we continue to work on that.

Passing Water Bill ft. President George W. Bush

Congresswoman Johnson served as the first African American and the first woman to chair the Water Resources and Environment subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2007-2011. As subcommittee chair, she sponsored the Water Resources Development Act, which sponsored improvements to rivers and harbors around the country. She explained the many roadblocks she ran into while trying to pass her bill:

[President Bush] said [the bill] was costing too much, and I said it’s cost some three billion dollars less than your Administration recommended! And so he said we’ll see if you can rework it, so I took the bill and wanted to make sure that every Democrat and Republican was standing behind it.

So anyway, we got this bill together. And we sent it to the president, and I said everybody on that committee, House and Senate leaders, that we gotta stick together on this bill every step of the way.

We stuck together and you know, the president has 10 days to sign a bill; if he doesn’t sign it in 10 days, it automatically becomes law.

It was almost into the end of that 10 day period. And he vetoed on [that] Saturday. The following Tuesday, we overruled [his veto]. He was shocked because he never had anything vetoed.

So a couple of days later, I went to the White House, and he called me “that Miss Trinity.” I didn’t have the biggest amount of money. What we had was what we needed, and they’ve never needed to come for much more since then.

President Bush and I were close before he ran for anything and we worked together when he was governor, and we remain close. But that did draw us even closer because we had a joke between us at that point.

I even told him one day, “Mr. President, do you plan to move back to Dallas when you leave the White House? He said, “ If I could afford a house.” I told him I need the address [because] I want to put something that runs from the Trinity to his front door, and he’s going to be the first to know when it overflows.

Improving the Local Standard

Congresswoman Johnson discussed the implications of her proposed bill within the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, possibly alleviating the water crisis in Cedar Hill or correcting the potentially dangerous Lake Lewisville:

But I was really dedicated to getting that bill passed, and I worked very hard on it, and we needed it, too. Even Cedar Hill didn’t have the access to drinking water up until earlier this year, and it took me three years to work on the project to get it available.

Cedar Hill was a small city that was growing, which has continued to grow into a beautiful city.

I was subcommittee chair and I requested an inventory of all levees throughout the country; at the time that we requested, we were considered A+. After that survey, we went to a D.

So we start working on those levees up here to Lake Lewisville. That’s when we discovered that if that levee gave up, the people in Lewisville wouldn’t feel it so much, but everybody in Dallas would because it would come right down that Trinity and spill. And so you read periodically about why we’re still watching lake Lewisville, and that’s the reason why.

When I chaired Water, we got the Trinity taken care of. We got the pumps to stop the flooding in West Dallas. That flooding doesn’t occur anymore because of those pumps.

Her impact extends beyond the DFW metroplex, explaining an anecdote:

Word Peace Conference: Taipei, Taiwan

“I got off the plane to go into Taipei, Taiwan for a peace conference and they met me at the airport with these roses [that] look just like the ones that I received from Cedar Hill. They said they knew I’d like them because they saw me accepting them from Cedar Hill at home. I didn’t know anybody took any pictures, but it shows how news gets around the world now.”

Transportation

Congresswoman Johnson has also served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee since 1992, currently working on the Highway and Transit Subcommittee. This subcommittee governs how highway and transit projects are planned, approved, and constructed across the country.  Congresswoman Johnson talked about the changing reality of transportation around the country:

With transportation, it really depends on the needs and size of the population. The population has more influence on transportation plans than anything else. First of all, Texas is very centrally located in the country. We are a border state. And we are a huge state. And so because of that, we’re one of the largest populated states with both urban and rural population.

And that has a great impact on the overall national picture and politics.  For example, when I went to Washington, California was the largest state and next to that state was New York, and then it was Texas and Florida. Now, Texas is next to California because of the population growth.

The thing that’ll affect our population is immigration law. And the upcoming census frightens a lot of people that won’t even fill it out. We’ve always had an under count and the count will probably be less this time, but the census is extraordinarily important because that’s how we can tell how many people are going to be retiring, how many people are going to be going to school; it tell school districts how many classrooms they’ll need. It tells all of our city and county planning on how many clinics and how many immunization shots you need and all of that is determined by your census.

DART

It’s tough to go on a drive in Dallas without seeing an iconic, yellow DART bus. Congresswoman Johnson explained the future of DART in Dallas, which favors expansion father North:

So we worked it out and got money to get some extra buses to go up [North]. And why do we do that? Because of the companies that have moved up there. Toyota, which is the largest one,  has found the land that was all Farmland up there. And so [Toyota and other corporations] have to build these houses for their employees to live.

Liberty Mutual Campus: Frisco, TX

I think Toyota has probably more high-level income people moving in, so they build some gorgeous homes up there. Then these companies start building other needs based on how they study people’s buying habits. A lot of fast food places open, but the people that work at those fast-food places live a long ways away. So get[ting] them up [to their jobs farther North] makes a difference. There’s a lot of fast food places that [have] open[ed] and can’t find staff now. The implication of that is moving to automation. We know [it’s] coming; we just don’t want that to come too fast. And so I immediately started to visit with Toyota to talk about not wanting to move too fast so we had to find ways to compromise.

Toyota Headquarters: Plano, TX

One of the major things we have to look at when planning Transportation projects: How can you get people from where they live to where they work safely and rapidly? And this is where DART comes in. DART is the largest rapid rail system in the country because we are so spread out.

Immigration

The topic of transportation and population naturally transformed into a conversation about immigration, one of the most pressing issues facing our country today.

Congresswoman Johnson outlined her philosophy on immigration policy in America:

Immigration has gotten to be really too partisan to the point where we have not been able to really look at what we really need like every other country in the world.

We can only take so many; [undocumented immigration] increases the cost of education and the cost of health care more than any other things because many of the people have more children than we normally are having here.

We are a nation of nations here. People have come here from all over the world, and we’ve had a limited type of immigration reform. We have numbers and criteria that every country around the world has [by which every nation must abide]; we are just a magnet in the world. [If] you go anywhere in the world, people are lined up trying to come over here. At the same time, you can walk down [Washington] Avenue in front of every Embassy, and nobody is trying to get out.  

What we have not been able to do very well without a good immigration plan is to protect the border. And the reason why we are not able to protect the border, you almost have to go see it to understand, is because we don’t have a real clear border.

Brownsville Border

You can be in Brownsville and walk two blocks and you are in Mexico.  A wall is not going to solve the issue.  We have a porous border, which makes it easier for people who are looking for a refuge to cross. The issue is, they’re looking for a better day–many of the people who come.

And so the objection, for the most part, is because of the services that we have to provide now. Let me just say this: most of them coming that way are Spanish-speaking, so they’re pretty unidentifiable because they don’t know the English language.

And so it’s not just color, it is income. Anyway, we don’t want to see so many more people needing food stamps and Medicaid Health Care. That’s the only reason why I think the President said he wants to stop kids being born here from being citizens.

Parkland Hospital: Dallas, TX

A lot of the people have learned that they can get better health care here. When you go to Mexico and sit and talk with a lot of those people a lot of them will say, “well I want my child to be born at Parkland and Dallas because they do better.”

Ending with Optimism

Congresswoman Johnson brought the interview full-circle by reminding us how lucky we are to live in the US:

 

I was in Vietnam one day.  And frequently when I traveled I’ve been the only woman.  It was very hot. And I had gone out to some of these kiosks to shop and came back and I said to the young lady that was assisting me, could I have some iced tea, and she said, ‘I’ll have to ask.’

She said, ‘I have to get permission.’ How many of you would have to get permission to drink some iced tea?  That’s a communist country. Just that little thing made me more aware of how free we are in this country.

When you lift your hands to welcome and to learn you’ll be a happier person. There’s no way that you cannot broaden yourself by getting to know more about other people. My great-grandmother was Scotch-Irish, and when I was growing up, I couldn’t figure out how my white great-grandmother was treated differently than me, and my family had a hard time trying to explain it.

Human beings are precious.  No matter where they were born. No matter what language they speak.  No matter what religion they have. They’re all God’s children.

Congresswoman Johnson’s final remark brought the idea of national unity full circle. In today’s heated political climate, it’s important to take a step back and realize that despite differences, we are all working toward the same goal.

Stay tuned to The Roundup for more exclusives with A-list political officials.

Comments

The Roundup welcomes members of the Jesuit community to post comments that foster respectful and intelligent debate regarding published articles. Comments to published articles will be accepted under the following guidelines:

  1. The author of the comments includes his or her name; no anonymous comments will be published.
  2. The author of the comments is a recognizable member of the Jesuit community.
  3. The author of the comments responds respectfully to the writer, without resorting to personal attack or other invective.