Even in ordinary times, 37-year-old Dr. Cameron Webb’s campaign to become a Democratic house representative for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District would be noteworthy.
If elected, Webb would be the first Black physician elected to Congress with a vote in the nation’s history (the first Black physician elected in Congress was Dr. Donna Christian-Christensen, who held office from 1997 to 2015 but was a non-voting delegate from the Virgin Islands). He would also be the first Democratic representative from the district since 2008, which intersects with a county that voted for Trump in 2016 and Obama in 2008 and 2012.
However, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than a million people worldwide and more than 200,000 Americans, a doctor trying to become a member of Congress carries a certain added poignance.
“Covid-19 has become the lens through which we see how fair or unfair our society is to people.”
Webb is no stranger to politics, having worked in both the Obama and Trump White House as a fellow, focusing on healthcare policy, criminal justice reform, and education. Prior to his entry into the race, though, Webb was working at the University of Virginia as co-director of the Department of Public Health Science’s Health Policy Program, while also pulling shifts as a physician at the university’s affiliated hospital. Webb has largely run on healthcare, calling for an end to the lack of health coverage for approximately 30 million Americans as of 2019 (recent data, however, has suggested that millions more have lost their employer-provided insurance during the pandemic.)
We talked to Webb about why he decided to wade back into politics, what the covid-19 pandemic has shown him, and whether being a politician is any less exhausting than being a doctor. This following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ed Cara, Gizmodo: You’re a young practicing physician, law school graduate, and assistant professor. What made you want to run for office?
Cameron Webb: Well, I take care of patients in the hospital. And I’ve known for years that my patients’ health is forged in the places where they live, and not necessarily in hospitals and clinics. But after I worked at the White House for a little while, I really saw that there are levers to change those outside factors. So when I came back into clinical medicine, I just couldn’t shake the observation every day that the diabetes, high blood pressure, or lung disease I was treating was sometimes also about food access, housing instability, or environmental justice.
I just think it is a really important time for voices like mine to be in policy spaces to help improve patient experiences, both inside and outside of the hospital.
Gizmodo: Obviously, in the middle of your campaign, a pandemic happened. Do you feel covid-19 has altered any of your legislative priorities?
Webb: I think it has highlighted the necessity for some of those legislative priorities. So conversations about access to care are all the more critical with millions of people losing their jobs and losing their health insurance; conversations about the affordability of prescription drugs are all the more important with our folks losing that additional unemployment insurance that was keeping them afloat.
This has really highlighted how challenged our healthcare system is, but it’s also exposed a lot of other inequities in our society, from the education space to the availability of resources for small businesses. So covid-19 has become the lens through which we see how fair or unfair our society is to people. First things first, though, speaking as a doctor, as somebody who’s a public health professional, we’ve got to get this virus under control before we can get anything else taken care of.
Gizmodo: What should be the next step in terms of healthcare reform?
Webb: I think the next step is expanding coverage through a public option. It’s important that we get those 30 million plus individuals covered. It’s also really important that we acknowledge the values that a lot of people have and that they like this idea of choice. And so, maintaining private insurance makes some sense.
At the same time, we’ve got to get the cost of prescription drugs down. We’ve got to make sure we’re taking care of the folks who’ve been affected by covid-19, both the financial impact of having this illness and also the community public health impact. It’s one thing to say that somebody has access to care in the form of an insurance card. It’s another thing to say that it’s approachable, acceptable, and available.
Gizmodo: You’re running in a district that has often but not always leaned Republican. What makes you feel like you can sway voters to go your way?
Webb: Well, I’m kind of a unique character in this district. I’m from Central Virginia, my wife is from the South Side—and those are the two main components of the district. But beyond that, I’m bringing the life experience of working on both sides of the aisle. I worked in the Obama and the Trump White Houses. And I always tell people, I’m a consensus builder. By nature, I’m pragmatic, and I’m practical, and I’m focused on actually getting things done. And I think people see that and they want effective leadership.
Lastly, it’s really important the skill set that I have from being a physician. I walk into rooms and I ask people where it hurts, and I listen for an answer, then we move forward working together to find solutions. That’s the same skill set that I’m using here. And I’m hopeful about our chances.
Gizmodo: You’ve been doing one longer than the other, of course, but what has been the more tiring job so far: running for office or being a doctor?
Webb: Oh, there’s nothing that compares to intern year in residency [the first year of training after medical school].
It’s funny, people ask me often, “Oh you must be tired, right?” Or they’ll ask my wife, “Oh, this must be a crazy time for you.” And she’s like, “Ah, this is pretty much business as usual.” Between the two of us—she’s an emergency doctor—we’ve been running at a pretty high clip for years, to where we’re kind of built for this pace. But no, there’s nothing like spending a month working in the intensive care unit taking care of really sick patients.
Being a representative is a really important service. It’s a really important role. But the intensity that comes with taking care of really sick people, that’s something altogether different. So I think it’s prepared me to take this job that I’m applying for really seriously and to make sure that I know how to bring that highest level of effectiveness and work ethic to it.