This interview is part of a series with the candidates for California’s 16th Congressional District.
Julie Lythcott-Haims ’89, who currently serves on the Palo Alto City Council, is running as a Democrat in the crowded open primary to replace Rep. Anna Eshoo, who has represented the district that includes Stanford for the past 16 terms. Lythcott-Haims served as dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford from 2002 to 2012 and has written three books on parenting, adulthood and her life story. The top two candidates from the March 5 primary will advance to a general election on Nov. 5.
The Daily spoke with Lythcott-Haims about running as the only woman and Black candidate, developing her progressive platform and discovering public service as a Stanford student.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): You have deep ties to Stanford. What’s your message to the community at this moment? Why should voters on campus support your candidacy?
Julie Lythcott-Haims (JLH): I feel called to serve in this moment. It’s a dangerous moment at the national and international level. People who can lead not just with brains but heart have to step up. I am running because I’m one of those people. I am so proud to be a graduate of Stanford and to have had the honor of serving my alma mater as an administrator. Stanford is a place that says, no matter how great we are, we must always seek to do better. I learned that mindset at Stanford as a kid and carried it with me.
I love Silicon Valley — and I think it could be better. We have this tremendous prosperity, but we have left a lot of people behind. Similarly, I love America. Yet, I know that for many, America’s promise of liberty and justice is still unmet. There is so much more we still must do to be a truly democratic society.
TSD: Did any specific experiences or people from Stanford lead you down the path to public service and a congressional run?
JLH: There was a class in my day called “Civil Rights, Civil Liberties” taught by Jim Steyer. That’s where I learned American history, particularly concerning civil rights. I began to appreciate the depth of historical inequities. Jim Steyer was a mentor to me when I was 18. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Because as a Black kid, I was afraid to raise my hand and be wrong, because of the stereotypes about my people. Now I’m not afraid to raise my hand, but I can remember when I was, and I have a lot of compassion for anybody in that circumstance.
Kennell Jackson was my RF (resident fellow) as a frosh, a Black man in African and African American Studies. Once we were standing in the lunch line. He was up ahead of me and he was talking to the person behind him. He looked over at me and said, “I don’t think Julie knows how smart she is.”
I took it as criticism. Of course, it was a compliment. Having mentored so many Stanford students myself, I now know he was saying, “I see you kid, you are more capable than you realize. And I invite you to step up and into the truth of it.”
TSD: How did you decide to run for Congress?
JLH: Anna Eshoo announced at the 11th hour that she was not seeking re-election. A number of men instantly threw their hat in the ring. I kept looking to see which women would run. Seeing none, I began to approach women. “Are you going to run?” The answer was no.
Having looked left and right at four women, I finally looked in the mirror and asked, “Is it your turn?” The answer was yes.
Our region deserves progressive leadership, both for the sake of our region and for the sake of this country. I am the most progressive person who’s running.
A woman should replace a woman in post-Roe America, as our rights as women are literally under assault and being taken away.
TSD: What’s an achievement of yours that voters should know about?
JLH: I’m an activist. When the Trump administration was holding migrant kids in cages at the border of Texas and Mexico, I drove my Jeep Wrangler down to El Paso and created what I called a “Caravan to Clint.”
Others joined me by car and plane. When we arrived, the press was there, including The New York Times and local TV. By the end of our week of protests, two Democratic presidential candidates flew in to give talks.
A career politician has to make compromises; they’re worried about raising money or saying the right thing. I haven’t been in a straitjacket of having to hold back to appease voters.
I’m here on the progressive left pushing for more.
TSD: What does being a progressive mean to you?
JLH: We look on either side to see who’s missing, who isn’t here, whose voice is overlooked, who’s not at the table. Whose needs do not seem to matter?
I’m always going to be an advocate because I’m that Black biracial kid who learned as a 3-year-old that something was wrong with me in the eyes of many. It’s given me compassion for anybody who is treated as if they’re on the margins. To be a progressive is to say, this government ought to ensure that people have the basic things — safety, shelter, education and healthcare.
TSD: What are your main policy priorities?
JLH: Codify Roe and protect reproductive rights. Medicare for All. Sensible, common sense gun safety laws. Climate action. Send more money to the states for housing.
TSD: Given the level of partisanship in Congress, how do you plan to realize those legislative goals?
JLH: Every human wants to be treated with dignity and kindness. That’s where I start, whether I’m meeting with a family member, a student who wants to be mentored or a Trumpster. When we open with that, we begin to establish respect and trust, which is the foundation for any kind of communication or cooperation. I would be less about labels than relationships. I would seek to learn from my elders.
I’m someone who has built unlikely coalitions. I have colleagues in the Palo Alto City Council who have said, “I didn’t think I was going to be able to work with you.” Yet, here we are, trusting each other.
TSD: How do you see your path to victory in this race? What constituencies do you need to reach?
JLH: We have a clear path to victory. The constituents we most aim to reach are women. Women will decide this race.
I’m also very eagerly going for the youth vote. Everybody I’ve talked to says they don’t vote. But I am the candidate who wants to energize youth — I’m actually running for you.
We’ve handed you a raw deal with the climate and the cost of living being out of control. You do everything right at Stanford but you can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment.
I am in it for my kids who are 22 and 24, your generation and the one to come after you.
TSD: You’ve said being the only woman in the race — and the only Black queer woman — sets you apart. How has your identity shaped your campaign and perspective?
JLH: When I ran for city council, I put in my press release that I was Black, biracial, queer and bisexual. An old white guy said to me, “Why do you have to tell us you’re queer?”
I have to say it because representation matters. There are people out there who belong to those communities, who would be delighted to know that someone who has walked a similar path is a leader.
I know that sharing your identity can alienate some people. But I’d rather stand up and try to be visible for those who need to see it than be afraid that my identity is going to turn someone off.
TSD: How do you plan to represent all of the district’s diverse communities at once? What are their different needs?
JLH: When I was a dean at Stanford, I had first-gen kids, queer kids, computer scientists and literature majors. Students come in all different varieties and the district is no different. Tomorrow, I’m headed to Pacifica where they’re facing coastal erosion. There are people right here in a mobile home park.
I will approach every issue with my Stanford brain and compassionate heart. I’m a lifelong learner. I take a beginner’s pose — let me listen to people’s stories and show compassion. Fundamentally, it’s about humans solving problems together.