One of the key elements of Pam Keith’s message as she runs for the Democratic nomination for Florida’s 18th Congressional District seat is restoring the integrity of American institutions and making it work for Black Americans who are often left out of the process of justice. A labor lawyer by training and Navy veteran with experience as defense counsel during her deployments, Keith sees her ideal goal in Congress as repairing the fissures within the legislative branch of government and bringing an experienced national security voice to Washington, where so many other elected officials—on the Republican side, especially—have abdicated their duties protect the homeland she risked her life to defend.
She will have a chance to convince Floridians that she is the person to do that on August 18, when she takes on her primary opponent Oz Vazquez. If Keith wins, she’ll take on GOP incumbent Brian Mast, who voted against impeaching President Donald Trump. Keith’s endorsement list includes U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and VoteVets.org.
Keith, who earned her law degree from Boston College, spoke with The Root’s Terrell Jermaine Starr about the policing, labor law, the environment and national security issues that she would take on if she wins her seat.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Root: How do you view yourself within this new climate because, in 2018, we saw all these black women overthrow establishment candidates. There’s this big push within these uprisings around policing. So with you, how are you framing yourself within this movement?
Pam Keith: I walk in the skin as a Black woman, but I also walk in the lanes of corporate America. So, in a way, I kind of connect those dots. I was starting on Black Lives Matter back in 2015. Miami had a really active BLM, and some of that was connected to My Brother’s Keeper and Dream Defenders and these other groups. And I just kind of bopped around to listen, because I wanted to know what’s on their mind? So, where I am is I’m a person who bridges the gap. I guess that’s the way that I think of myself. I have a corporate background, but I’m a progressive. I bridge that gap. I’m African American, but I’ve lived all over the world. So I had that, I’m military, but I also am very anti-deploying our troops everywhere.
The Root: Would you say anti-imperialist, per se? I mean, that’s my language, but ...
Keith: I would reframe that to say that I want the United States to be the top dog in the world so long as we are top dog in a way that’s based on our values and is decent and is uplifting and is centered on mutually beneficial, not exploitative. We have the economic power and the political power to make the existence of regular people in Liberia or Rwanda or Vietnam, better. We have the ability to do that. And, if we’re playing in their country for our purposes then it has to be part of our mission that we make it for their benefit as well. That’s the way that I think about it.
The Root: Got you. So, when you hear all these calls for demilitarization of the police and the defunding of the police, you come from this military background, I just want to ask, one, what’s your reaction to it?
Keith: Well, the first thing I’ll say is, I don’t like the word defund because it’s not the right word for what they’re really talking about. What they’re talking about is reinventing what community safety and policing should look like. What’s it supposed to do? And where are we putting our money? Because we seem to be putting all the money into these extreme, aggressive forms of policing and zero money into community building and job training and mental health counseling, and other things. So, to the extent that that’s where they want to go, I’m with them. But to the extent that they use the word “defund,” that’s just not what that word means. As a person who was in the military, I know that our military is trained to engage combatants.
Because before engaging an enemy, it’s not to just wound them, right? If we get to the point where we’re shooting, we’re shooting to kill. And that mentality is appropriate for warriors engaging combatants. It’s totally inappropriate for police engaging citizens, but what we’ve done is we’ve allowed many of our police departments to take on this kind of militaristic thinking, and to the extent that they do, they think that the combatants that they’ve got to contain and control are young Black men and people of color and poor folk. And I have real problems with that.
The Root: What do you think is the most consequential mistakes in a national policy standpoint that Donald Trump has made and how would you, as a member of the House, particularly with the majority, along with the Senate, if Democrats win the majority, what would be some priorities that you would take with you?
Keith: Priority No. 1 has to be restoring the Voting Rights Act, and funding full-throated, full broad-based election security. Because we can really fix nothing that is wrong if we do not protect and preserve our ability to vote good people in and bad people out. No. 2, we have to reestablish that we are a global player and that our allies can trust us. That may not be my lane in terms of Congress; that’s more like a State department, but we’ve got to work together and that’s going to probably require some appropriations and things like that. Because it’s that network of information that keeps us safe. If we think about national security, you’re talking about vulnerabilities, both external and internal. And if our allies are not talking to us anymore, there’s a whole lot of information that we’re not getting. So we need to establish that.
The Root: What’d you think about the New York Times report that the Kremlin paid the Taliban to kill U.S. troops. The White House was briefed. We know they were briefed. Right?
Keith: They were.
The Root: And so Trump says, no, they weren’t, but which ultimately is if you were briefed, you failed. If no one briefed you, it’s also a failure.
The Root: So what are your thoughts?
Keith: How’s he still president? As a member of the military who was in Bahrain for two years, I can personally speak to the anxiety that you face when you start to get intel that you’re being targeted. Because most of the combat and interaction out there is what we call a low-intensity conflict. So, that causes everybody to be a little bit on tenterhooks. But when you are literally in-country in Afghanistan, you no longer have a way of knowing who you’re fighting, because we’ve been there for 19 years.
Most of the major Taliban fighting has dispersed. A lot of these guys had gone back to shepherding their goats and whatever else they do, raising poppies, whatever. And so for the most part, our troops over there are engaging with people that they can’t really tell are the combatants. Are they friendly? Are they foe? Because they’re kind of just all living there. And so Russia paying bounties on their heads created a material incentive for those people to target our guys from that existence that’s not constant combat.
Do I expect Russia to do that? They’re our enemy. Yeah. Do I expect Iran to do that? Yeah. They’re our enemy. Do I expect the Taliban to do that? Yeah. They’re our enemy. Do I expect the United States president to be OK with that? No. Not on any level.
The Root: National security is a very essential thing that Americans should know, but it’s a country club type of culture, as you know, there’s not a lot of Black people who even engage in the conversation. So what are some constructive ways that you talk about the urgency of these matters in ways that they can grasp it?
Keith: Well, the first thing I tried to tell them is that national security is not just military over there. National security is about protecting citizens right here, from any threat. Climate change is a threat. White supremacy is a threat. Drug trafficking is a threat. Opioid overuse is a threat. Those are all part of our national security conversation.
If we look at national security holistically, then we’re going to want to say, ‘Okay, what are the things that are threatening our people?’ Coronavirus is a threat. It’s killing a lot of Americans, but we don’t ever talk about the management of coronavirus as a national security issue, and I don’t understand why. Because if the goal is to stop Americans from being killed, then does it matter whether it’s a virus or it’s drugs or it’s a terrorist? You’re still dead.