‘I’m a good compartmentalizer’: Susan Wild talks moving on from Capitol riot

Democrat says riot gave her ‘a weird form of PTSD’

Rep. Susan Wild, shown here last August, says she’s wiling to work with election objectors.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Susan Wild, shown here last August, says she’s wiling to work with election objectors. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 25, 2021 at 6:00am

Susan Wild has been talking for a full four minutes before she pauses to take a breath, seemingly her first since I asked a question. “And then finally,” she begins to say with a big exhale, before correcting herself. “Well, no, never mind — it’s not ‘finally’ because I have two or three things I want to say.”

Wild is known for being chatty, even for Capitol Hill, but she’s no blowhard. The Pennsylvania Democrat, who came to Congress as part of 2018’s blue wave, has tried to keep a low profile — even as two devastating events pushed her into the limelight.

On not running for Senate

Pennsylvania is losing a congressional seat thanks to the latest census, and that has some of Wild’s peers from the 2018 class eyeing a potential Senate bid. But not Wild — no matter how the maps turn out, she won’t join the already crowded field. 

“I love having a district I can know every corner of … I think it would be incredibly frustrating to represent 67 counties and barely ever get to some of them,” she says. “So, no, I’m solid staying where I am.” 

It’s a district she came to more than 30 years ago, almost by chance.

On feeling like an outsider

When her then-husband interviewed for a job in the Lehigh Valley, in the northeastern corner of the state, Wild had never heard of it. “We had to look up on the map where the heck this was,” she says. “And I had no interest in going, but he needed the interview practice.”

It felt insular and unwelcoming to Wild at first, full of people who could trace their local lineage back generations. But the young lawyer agreed to give it a try, on the condition they could move away after two years. “Long story short, after two years he was ready to uphold his end of the bargain, and I was anxious to stay,” she says.

On the best advice she got from Charlie Dent

“Our kids dated in high school,” Wild says of her Republican predecessor in the House, calling him a “personal friend.”

Dent retired in 2018, she jumped in the race, and before long she was a freshman lawmaker in Washington, assigned to the Foreign Affairs Committee. “No frontliner ever wants to be on Foreign Affairs because you can’t talk about it much back home,” she says. But that position led to an interest in trade — despite the area’s Rust Belt reputation, it remains a manufacturing hub to this day.

“I remember Charlie Dent said to me, ‘Make sure you join the cement caucus,’ and I was like, ‘What?’” she says. 

She took his advice — cement from the Lehigh Valley can be found all over, in places like the Panama Canal, One World Trade Center in New York City, and Walt Disney World.

On how she sees her role in Congress 

“I’m a workhorse, not a show horse,” she says, using a well-worn phrase.

Wild says she tries to balance the interests of her region’s businessmen with concerns for workers — she supports a $15 minimum wage and voted for a suite of labor law changes that would empower unions. She’s a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and co-chairs its task force on climate change. She acknowledges that cement is a huge source of carbon dioxide, but says the companies in her district have taken steps to cut their emissions.

On losing her partner

“I did not come to Congress thinking about mental health issues as being one of my priorities,” she says. “It has grown to be one of my greatest priorities.”

A month after her partner of more than 15 years, Kerry Acker, died unexpectedly in 2019, Wild gave a moving floor speech revealing he had died by suicide, urging others struggling with depression to seek help.  

“The good news is that we have gotten a whole lot more attention for mental health issues,” she says, pointing to a handful of bills that have attracted bipartisan support.  

“The bad news is I don’t think we’re doing nearly enough in terms of resources, and by that I don’t just mean pouring money at mental health care establishments, but also bringing mental health care workers into the system,” she says.

Reducing the stigma can only do so much if people can’t find a psychiatrist or social worker.

“I want us to hurry up and get there,” she says. “I don’t feel like we’re moving at a fast enough pace.”

On trying to forget Jan. 6

“I think I’ve actually compartmentalized it to the point of it not being healthy,” she says. “I think I have a weird form of PTSD — that isn’t where I’m reliving it, it’s almost as though it never happened.”

As a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol earlier this year, Wild took cover in the House chamber, lying on the floor with a hand on her heart. Fellow Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, who once served as an Army Ranger, reached out to comfort her. CQ Roll Call photojournalist Tom Williams took a picture, and it became an indelible image of the day.

After she made it to safety, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer she was “very, very worried for how we will move forward after this.” Those worries remain. “It's just become terribly politicized,” she says.

She places some of the blame on the left, saying lawmakers are too worried about a repeat attack and have been unwilling to move on. 

“By and large, I’ve just decided that I’m going to continue to do the work that I was sent there to do, and I can’t do it without working with folks on the other side,” she says. 

On moving on

Wild points to work she did on a bill with Republican Rep. Fred Keller, who objected to Pennsylvania’s electoral vote count after the attack. Keller wanted to give credit for on-the-job training to unlicensed nurse aides temporarily pitching in during the pandemic. Wild co-sponsored the bill.

“So, the fact that Fred and I completely disagree on the election and everything else just has to be put —” she says, cutting herself off, and beginning to laugh. “I guess I’m a good compartmentalizer, is what I’m telling you.”