The First-Ever Latina U.S. Senator Is Ready For A Fight

When Catherine Cortez Masto took her seat as United States Senator of Nevada on January 3, she became the first Latina woman in the U.S. Senate. Now, she’s attending the inauguration many of her Democratic colleagues are sitting out, even though the incoming president wants to build a wall between her country and the one where her grandfather was born.

Cortez Masto’s office is located at the end of a narrow hallway in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The day before the inauguration, there are Republicans everywhere: red hats, gun-rights tee shirts. They’re milling about to scout their spots for the big day, and catch Washington in action while they’re there. It would be an intimidating scene for anyone who doesn’t endorse those views, but Cortez Masto, a Democrat, seems energized; even after a busy morning taking Rick Perry to task over nuclear waste in his Senate confirmation hearing. She is already getting to work, and the inauguration, for her, is another duty she’s honored to take on in her new role. In an interview with Refinery29, she said, “I will attend the inauguration with my fellow Senators, out of respect for the office of the presidency and a peaceful transition of power.”

“That said,” she added later via email, “I’ll also continue to be a check and balance against the President-elect, if he continues to be reckless and divisive in the White House.” And with that in mind, Cortez Masto also plans to join the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday.
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I really don’t believe people in Washington should be dictating to women what they should or shouldn’t or can or cannot do with their bodies.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto
It’s tied into much of the platform that won her the election in Nevada (especially among Latino and Hispanic voters): a promise to fight to keep improving upon President Obama’s immigration reforms; to fight for equal pay and an increased minimum wage; to fight to get government hands off of a woman’s right to choose and unclench the grasp trying to strip away her health care in general. This conversation about access, she says, is “ridiculous” to even be having in this day and age.

Much like President Obama, Cortez Masto’s “fighting” is wrapped up in an infectious faith in the American people to do better. “We’re in it for a fight for women, and we have to be united,” she said matter of factly. She does not appear worried, only eager to settle into this role and see what she can do. In the interview ahead, it seems like that will be a whole lot.

What do you see as some of the greatest challenges facing women in the upcoming term?
“Let’s start with — right out of the gate, right? — repealing the Affordable Care Act; trying to defund Planned Parenthood… It’s the same old playbook. And it’s unfortunate, because a couple things: One, I really don’t believe people in Washington should be dictating to women what they should or shouldn’t or can or cannot do with their bodies. It’s ridiculous to me in this day and age, that a woman still has to fight. And it’s ridiculous to me that they want to take us back to a day when being a woman is considered a pre-existing condition, or that our healthcare costs are more expensive than a man’s, just because we’re women.

“Those are the things that we have to fight against, and we have to stand up. That’s what we’re seeing right out of the gate, and so that tells me we’re in it for a fight for women, and we have to be united. The only way we’ll get our voices heard, and the only way we’ll make a change and protect our rights, is to be united.”

Your state is one of the harsher ones in terms of reproductive rights for women; if Planned Parenthood is defunded, how do you bridge that gap and continue to offer care to the women who need it?
“Actually, we have three Planned Parenthood facilities in Nevada, and we’ve fought to protect them. And what people don’t realize is, in the ‘70s in Nevada, there were some really progressive women who codified Roe V. Wade through initiative petition, and protected women’s right to abortion in our state statutes. The only way that can be changed is through another voter initiative." [Ed. note: Anti-abortion groups in Nevada have attempted this before with "personhood" initiatives.]

“What we see now are Republicans trying to play with the funding mechanism. And here’s their playbook: ‘We’re gonna defund Planned Parenthood, because we don’t think that those services are necessary, because women and children can go to the community health centers and get the same type of care.’”

Right, except for abortion.
“It’s a false statement, for a couple of reasons. One: Those community health centers partner with Planned Parenthood, because Planned Parenthood provides specific resources and services. Two: Those same Republicans who say that? They voted to defund those community health centers. So, who are you to trust? It makes no sense. So what we should be doing is making sure we’re fighting for the funding of those healthcare needs. There are many women and children, who are low-income, who would not have access to health care but for Planned Parenthood. And it’s worth fighting for.”
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Ivanka Trump has been acting as a sort of consiglieri to her father with regards to these women’s issues. Has she come to you to talk about the family leave or childcare initiatives that she’s taking on? If not yet, would you work with her as a conduit to the president?
“No, I have not met her, I have not had any conversation with her. If the opportunity presents itself, absolutely I would. I think these issues are so important, and if she’s supportive of protecting women’s rights, access to not only affordable health care but equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, I think there’s something we can find common ground and work together on, and I think it’s worth that conversation.”

Is there a sense that her role, unofficial as it may be, is being taken seriously around Washington?
“I don’t know, I really have not had any conversations with anyone regarding it. I just know for my purposes, there are so many important issues that people are dealing with — real life issues that we need to stop playing politics with and we need to find common ground and we need to work together.”

In the first 100 days, what are your most urgent priorities?

“You know it’s the things I’ve talked about on the campaign trail: Economic security for our working families, and that comes in the form of increased pay, paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, fighting for an education system for our kids where they don’t have to go into exorbitant debt just to get it, immigration reform, continuing to fight for those families and their kids through DACA and DAPA. Fighting when it comes to the environment.

“Nevada is just primed to go down the path of green technology, and we should invest in that. It creates jobs and it impacts climate change! Which I believe is happening! I believe the science — so those are the issues that I will continue to work on, and I have the added value that I have three committee assignments that will give me the ability to do just that.”
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You have definitely been fighting tirelessly for immigration reform; what is your response to the promises (or threats) from the President-elect to build a wall?
“I think, again, it’s that divisive rhetoric and it is not based in reality, number one, and it is continuing to divide this country instead of unite the country, and it’s unfortunate. Because if he really says he wants to create jobs and help people and grow this economy, we all know that by passing comprehensive immigration reform, not only does it keep those families together, it contributes to the GDP, it contributes to the economy — we have studies that show that. Why aren’t we working to fix a broken immigration system, and have all these positive consequences as a result of it, instead of playing politics with people’s lives?”

You said Wednesday night, while accepting your award at the Latino Leaders Network event, that our government should be as diverse as the communities it serves. This is a record year for women and people of color in the Senate, but representation is still not where it should be — especially in Donald Trump’s cabinet. What does it feel like, for you, to be the first Latina Senator in this moment?
“You know, I am honored; we have made history in my state and across this country, but...it’s about time we had diversity! What are we, in 2017 and we’re just now having the first Latina in the United States Senate? Really, there’s only 21 women total, and that’s a record? No, we need to do a better job. To me, our nation has become so beautifully diverse, and we need to make sure we’re reaching and touching and talking to everyone, and representing all of their interests, all of their ideals, all of their hopes. And by having a diverse government, we can.

“And not only am I bringing that diversity, but I have a seat at the table. I get to use my voice for issues that I know are important for so many incredible people across this country and in my state.

“The other part of this, though, is something I truly believe in, which is that mentorship piece of it. I always believe that women should help other women and young girls. Women should cultivate them, and if they want to achieve something, help them, so they know that they can. So it’s exciting for me when I meet young girls, and particularly young Latinas, and I can see that they know, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ I want them to think that. I want them to know.”

And not just for Latinas, but any woman: Seeing a woman achieving what you have is really inspiring.
“Yes, and I want other women to know that! If I can do it, they can do it. These young girls, they should know that if they have an opportunity, they can do it now.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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