This story is the second installment of “Could She Flip It?,” a series from The Lily about the women running in 2020 who could flip House and Senate seats long held by the opposing party.
No one thought a Democrat could win Arizona’s 8th Congressional District. The area is overwhelmingly White, full of older voters who have retired to the Phoenix suburbs. In 2016, President Trump won the district by 20 points.
When a special election was held to fill the seat in the spring of 2018, it was expected to be a landslide.
Then-Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni lost by only four points.
The result made national headlines. If Democrats could come this close here, pundits asked, where else might they have a shot?
Tipirneni ran again in November 2018 and lost, again by a narrow margin. This time she is running in the neighboring 6th District, which is slightly more moderate. Polls show Tipirneni in a single-digit race with her Republican opponent, congressman David Schweikert.
Health care is the top issue for Tipirneni, a doctor who has worked in the emergency room for over 10 years. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, she believes that Congress urgently needs more female physicians, who she says will bring a unique sense of empathy to the job.
I spoke to Tipirneni about her run for Congress, her experience as a doctor and what it was like to move to the United States from India at age 3.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: You live in one of the most conservative districts in the state, where Trump completely dominated in 2016. What made you want to run there as a Democrat?
Hiral Tipirneni: It was the day after the 2016 election and I was speaking to my two daughters who were both in college at the time. I was giving them a pep talk, and one of the things I said was that more women had to run for office. And my oldest daughter said, “Well Mom, if not you, then who?”
I didn’t have an answer for her.
CK: Give me a sense of that district. Did people think you were crazy for going after a seat that Trump had won by 20 points?
HT: Historically, this seat has been occupied by a conservative. And not just a conservative: We’re talking far right, very extreme voting record. But if you look at the data, you could see that it had been shifting more moderate. The number [former Republican presidential nominee] Mitt Romney won this district by in 2012 was less than [former Republican presidential nominee] John McCain won it by in 2008.
CK: Why did you decide to switch over to the 6th District for this election?
HT: I mean, look, I’m proud of what we did in eight. We made a huge impact and shaved 16 points off the gap in the 2016 election. But I also feel that we did everything we could in that district. I turned over every rock and stone.
District 6 is more moderate and went to Trump by 10 points instead of 20. And after 2018, a lot of folks reached out to me and said, “Lets keep going, let’s keep building on this momentum.” I don’t think there’s ever been a moment when it’s been more clear that we need more physicians in politics.
CK: I listened to your lecture on why you believe that more female physicians, in particular, need to run for office. Why does Congress need more women doctors?
HT: I’ve done some research on how health care is delivered differently by women physicians as opposed to male physicians. Study after study shows that women tend to be more empathetic. Empathy is one of those things that’s really important in leadership. Because frankly, you can’t represent constituents if you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
As an emergency room physician, you walk into a room with someone you’ve never met before. It’s not your regular patient that you would have as a family doctor. You have no rapport. But in minutes, this person has to have full faith and trust in you. They have to believe you’re going to do everything you can for them. That takes some skill. And as women physicians, we have those skills and we have honed them through experience.
CK: How do you go about establishing that level of trust with a patient?
HT: You go in there free of judgment. You don't know this person’s story. You don't know their challenges. The first thing I always say is, “I’m Doctor Tipirneni, how can I help you today?” I sit down, make eye contact, and listen.
It’s important that you establish trust early on, because they may not be telling you everything. They might come in saying it’s belly pain, but it’s actually something else entirely. They may be holding back because they’re afraid you’ll judge them or somehow treat them differently.
CK: Are those skills you use on the campaign trail?
HT: Absolutely. Talking to voters, I don’t ask if they’re a Republican or a Democrat first. I ask, “What could we do better for your family?” It’s about finding that common ground. People want to know you actually care about their family.
CK: You immigrated to the United States from India at age 3. What brought your family here?
HT: I marvel at my parents’ courage. My mom was 31, my dad was 34. They picked up their young family, crossed the ocean, with no guarantee of getting jobs. For my parents, it was the idea that their kids would get a world-class education, and there would be no limits to what we could be.
CK: What did they do as soon as they got here?
HT: My dad was a structural engineer, but he couldn’t find any jobs in engineering. In the meantime, he worked in a paint factory on an assembly line. At one point, my parents became the proprietors of a 7-Eleven. That was like my day-care center, before I went to school.
CK: Do you have memories of the 7-Eleven?
HT: I remember sitting behind the counter. My parents would give me little activities, counting out change, or counting things as they were stocking a shelf, just so I’d be learning something.
My parents couldn’t afford to hire anyone else to man the store, and so they just split all the shifts. It’s a 7-Eleven, so it opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. So when my mom would go to relieve my dad or vice versa, the question was always: What do we do with Hiral? The parent who was at the store would get me on the phone, and then the parent with me would leave and walk to the 7-Eleven. I’d spent about 40 minutes home alone, sitting there on the couch with a phone in my ear. I’m a parent now, they must have been terrified. But they had no safety net.
CK: How long did that last?
HT: Maybe 15 months. Ultimately my dad, after sending out I don’t know how many résumés, got a job in Cleveland as an engineer. We moved to the west side of Cleveland, a leafy middle-class working town, where the Ford motor plant was the biggest employer. That’s when I feel like our real American story began.
CK: Were there any other Indian Americans there?
HT: We were the only non-White family in town. I never went to school with another brown kid.
CK: What was that like?
HT: It’s funny, you get so used to knowing you’re the only brown kid in the room, that it doesn’t hit you until someone else points it out. But I do remember noticing the cultural differences. My parents, having been raised in India, obviously it was a new world. There were things I was hesitant to even ask to be able to do.
CK: Like what?
HT: Like dating, dances, prom. Even sleepovers were a big deal. Fortunately my mom was fairly progressive for her Indian generation, so she was much more open to all these ideas of American life than my dad at the time.
CK: How do your parents feel about you running for Congress?