In-Focus Podcast

Building the Base Episode 20: Elissa Slotkin, Representative Michigan’s 7th Congressional District

Instagram Podcast 1.25.2023

In this week’s episode of Building the Base, Hondo and Lauren join Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan’s 7th District to discuss the future of the defense industrial network. 

Elissa’s experience in a locally known family business in Michigan and her extended career in national security and defense makes her a strong advocate for public-private partnerships. She advocates for faster government acquisition and contracting cycles of emerging technologies to sustain an edge over our international competitors and, having now worked in both the Executive and Legislative branches, she hopes to continue to encourage inter-agency cooperation. Her constituency in the heavy industries has been directly impacted by supply chain issues and dependency on China’s industry, so she advocates for a stronger US future industrial network.

Hondo, Lauren, and Elissa go on to discuss a variety of topics, including:

  • Public-private partnerships
  • Inter-agency cooperation
  • The state of the defense industrial base
  • Competition with China
  • Workforce development in manufacturing and other industries

Podcast Transcript

BENS Intro 00:00
The business executives for national security welcomes you to building the base here thought leaders and practitioners discuss how we can ensure our shared security and prosperity. They’re shaping the future of the national security industrial base. Your hosts or Silicon Valley defense expert, Lauren Bedula, along with Ben’s Distinguished Fellow and former head of acquisition for the Navy, Marines and special operators, Hondo Geurts.

Lauren Bedula 00:31
Welcome back to building the base. Again, we’re recording here from the Reagan National Defense forum. We are so excited to have Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin with us today. Congresswoman Slotkin has a really interesting background in national security, and is now a key policy leader when it comes to national security and defense issues on the hill. So we’re excited to dig into some of that today. Thank you so much for joining us.

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 00:55
Thanks for having me.

Hondo Geurts 00:56
So congresswoman, we worked together years ago in the Pentagon, and you just made it through another election. But I’m sure like many of us, you probably didn’t envision where you are now, you know, way back when when you’re growing up or going to school, or maybe you did. And so how, give us a little of your background and kind of where you’re coming from and your journey getting to this point of being a member of Congress.

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 01:21
Sure. And thanks for having me. So I grew up in Michigan, my entire family is in the hotdog business. But we we have one of those good, you know, American stories where my great grandfather emigrated and worked in a slaughterhouse and learned English and saved money, and then started his own meat company. We helped invent Nathan’s hot dogs and did all the meat for Nathan’s for the first 50 years. And then we invented the ballpark Frank at Tiger Stadium. So we are hot dog people. And so very far away from national security. And because of that, I think I wanted to do something really different. And but you know, I was always interested in international affairs and all that. But what really changed? My life certainly was 911. And I was in my second day of grad school in New York City. I just moved to New York. And by the time that day ended, I knew that I was going to go into national security, ended up being recruited to go into the CIA. And within a year of starting at Langley, I was sent on my first of three tours in Iraq. So the national security bug, I think, came from the same place it did for a lot of people of my generation, just being attacked on our own soil and wanting to do something about it. Met my husband in Saddam’s palace, he was working for General Petraeus, he was a career army colonel. And I have two stepdaughters both in service. So we are a service family never thought I’d run for Congress, if you work at the Pentagon or anywhere in Washington, you’re sort of trained not to like Congress, and avoid them at all costs of and so it wasn’t a group I was looking to be a part of. And but, you know, I left the Pentagon in early 2017. and felt like the tone and tenor of things was just fundamentally different. And I’d worked for George Bush, I’d worked for Barack Obama. So I ran and, and here we are,

Lauren Bedula 03:21
what a story. One of my favorites. One of the issues we’d like to talk about today on our show, is this, this dynamic between the high tech sector and the national security community, and you seem to understand the need for the two to work closely together. Can you talk a little bit about why you see that as so important?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 03:40
Sure, you know, I think we’re all to some extent, prisoners who are experienced and my experience had been only inside the executive branch at CIA and at the Pentagon, I’d never worked in the private sector. So I really didn’t have a view at all about how fast industry was moving the, the turn the, the startup culture, particularly in a place like Silicon Valley that just wasn’t in my universe. And, and then I left the Pentagon. And, you know, you go and visit other countries, you go and talk to other people. And everyone is complaining about the same thing, which is, I have this great idea. I’m a patriotic entrepreneur, living in California or living in somewhere. And I have this great idea and I want to work with the government, but it’s such there’s such barriers from financial to administrative that I just can’t make it work. Meanwhile, we’re losing our edge over China. And their decision cycle is you know, about six months, and ours is about three years to go from concept to to you know, something on contract. So the I have come to really believe that if we lose our edge to the Chinese, it’s not because we don’t have the best innovators or we don’t have the best military in the world. It’s because our bureaucratic systems are keeping us back in a really in a really fundamental way. And I think if we don’t deal with that, we shouldn’t be surprised if we lose our edge to China.

Hondo Geurts 05:11
So we were, we were both in the Pentagon for a number of years. I was at SOCOM, when you’re in a policy side, and and you brought up this kind of, you know, the friction between the two branches of government. And, you know, the Pentagon always, you know, having its opinion about Congress, and probably vice versa. Since you’ve went over to Congress, you’ve seen a different perspective, what are some things folks can do on either side of that fault line, so to speak, to get get better focused on issues and get the trust level up, so that we can operate at the speed of relevance?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 05:47
Yeah, I definitely have experienced, you know, being an assistant secretary and wanting to tell the Congress like as little as possible, because you were scared, they’re gonna leak or, you know, waiting for what weird question they were going to ask you that had nothing to do with the actual threat, you know, or whatever. Now, I’m on the other side, and, and asking the questions, hopefully, more informed. But I think the truth is, Congress can feel that the executive branch doesn’t want to be near them. And so we constantly feel like we have to pull things out of the administration, instead of the administration just being a little bit more strategic and saying, Look, we do want and need things out of the Congress. So let’s go to them brief our plan ahead of time, get their support for things, it takes a very small dose of, of sort of advanced planning and briefing to get Congress on board with something and I think that’s what is people are missing. And I see this acutely, frankly, because we have right now a Democratic House, Democratic Senate and a Democratic president. So like, I I mean, I’m, I’m gonna open door. And we still are still like pulling our friends in the executive branch, and saying, Please tell me how I can be helpful. Like we’re, we I want to advance our advantage over the Chinese to but like, You got to tell us what you’re doing or what you need. So I think that would be helpful. And then frankly, Congress is not properly when you become a new member of Congress, I don’t know if people know this. When you get your security clearance, all you do is sign a little piece of paper with your initials, and you’ve got clearance. It’s not there’s no proper training on how to handle sensitive information, classified information. And I think that training is desperately needed, because people don’t understand that you can’t just go around leaking stuff. So I think there’s work to do on both sides.

Hondo Geurts 07:39
And you know, it’s no surprise, you know, we’ve got kind of extremists on both sides of politics right now. But it does seem competition with China, getting our technology moving at the speed of relevance is one area, which is both got bipartisan interest and bipartisan support. Are there a couple things you can think of, you know, we should be working on in the next couple of months, that one would be useful to the mission and to maybe help get the trust level up between both parties and the Pentagon in this kind of critical area.

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 08:12
So I think if you if you looked carefully, the areas where we have broad bipartisan agreement, are the areas where the public has strong feelings, right, because as elected officials, we respond very quickly to things that are happening among our constituents. So I have a heavy manufacturing district, I have two auto plants in my district, the workers have been on again off again for 18 months, because we can’t get a 14 cent microchip, you want to get people agitated, talk about how we outsourced our supply chain on chips to places either in China or vulnerable to China. So that’s the same thing in a red district or a blue district. Right. And so I think there there is a ton of understanding at a sort of a gut level by the public that our dependencies on China are bad, right, and make us vulnerable. So that’s a good starting place. That means we have something to work from. But I think what will be and I think the Republicans or at least some of them in the next Congress want to do more on China in a more comprehensive way, which I welcome, which I think is great. Where I think in general, we need to do better is I think, people need to understand the Taiwan Straits, and the relevance of that area to our everyday lives. Because even in my own district, you know, when people say, you know, what do you think about China and people don’t want to go to war with China. We don’t want a war. They don’t want to send their sons and daughters off to fight and die over Taiwan and island that they can’t even place on the map. We in the sort of foreign policy establishment need to do a better job of explaining in normal English, not in PowerPoint slides. Why the Taiwan Strait would affect every single American if the Chinese got a hold of that. So I think we could do more. And then the public when they get it, it only reinforces that bipartisan work in Congress,

Lauren Bedula 10:10
you mentioned that you were driven to the counterterrorism mission. And that’s why you went into the intelligence community. And now you’ve mentioned China several times, can you give our listeners your take on what keeps you up at night? Or from a threat perspective? What you care most about right now?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 10:26
Yeah, you know, I am part of that generation, that 911 generation that did a lot of Middle East stuff. And I actually just got back from from Iraq, and I’ve been going to Iraq for almost 20 years at this point. So it’s, I’m certainly a card carrying member of that generation. But I think, look, we all know that Russia, and certainly China, are the real game. And but I think what I’m what bothers me is that on China, we’re doing the same stovepiping that Washington is unfortunately pretty good at where we have a whole military conversation going on, over at Commerce, totally different conversation, Treasury, I mean, different energy different. And I don’t, what I’m worried about is that they’re playing a whole of government game, and we are in our little silos of excellence. And I’ve done countless WarGames classified and unclassified on Taiwan scenarios. And every single time, you know, the facilitators will be talking about what a place like China could do as a first move in the homeland. And then, you know, my military friends just kind of like skirt past that, right, because that’s not their portfolio, and they’re like, they want to get to the war game part. And I’m like, Um, hey, as a representative, if we have major power outages all over the, you know, East Coast and Midwest, like, my public is panicking. I mean, so I think we need to look at this problem in a more holistic way. And we don’t have great habits of doing that. That keeps me up. I still think, sadly, that we are vulnerable to a cyber 911. I do not think we’ve had it. I think the Colonial Pipeline was our USS Cole, we, we knew it was bad. And we all talked about it, but it’s kind of gone away. And I’m worried we’re going to have an attack that and in its in with cyber, its civilians on the frontlines. And my public certainly doesn’t feel like they know who to call 911 with if there’s a big cyber attack. And, and look, I mean, I think I do feel generally it’s getting better. But the division among Americans will keep us from being as unified and muscular about our positions abroad, because there’s internal debate and that fractiousness affects everyday life. And certainly, in my district, a swing district, it keeps me up at night,

Lauren Bedula 12:54
you mentioned civilians on the front lines, it’s something we talk about a lot is really the private sector and businesses on the front lines to which you’ve certainly alluded to, and the Internet, international dynamics now that companies are facing when it comes to shoring up critical capabilities, like you talked about with semiconductors, could you give us your take on what businesses should be thinking about when it comes to globalization? Or now maybe D globalization?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 13:19
Sure. You know, it’s interesting. The folks I mean, in the private sector, everyone from you know, the big three autos, right in Michigan, down to really small startups, there is no unanimity on how to think about supply chains going into the future. You have some companies that have like, had their come to Jesus, and they’re like, That’s it, we were too dependent on foreign sources, we’re changing that we’re going to either bring stuff home to the United States or ally shore it, right, put it in in friends and allies and partners. And then there’s others where it’s almost like COVID Didn’t happen and supply chains, problems didn’t happen. And they’re like, really still have a lot of dependencies on China, frankly, a lot of big tech and big organizations, you know, Apple, and that surprises me, because I feel like I kind of got religion about supply chains during COVID. So really having someone in your leadership circle, take a hard and honest look on the vulnerabilities in your supply chain, should we have whatever comes next and something is coming next? And then I’ve just been fascinated by the private sectors response to the invasion of Ukraine. Right? That’s a dynamic that’s new for us. And I think is what China is watching very closely, right? It’s like McDonald’s and American Express and all these folks who had no demand signal from the White House or anybody else like to shut down who just out of sort of a sense of moral solidarity and you may PR or whatever was shut down. And that I think is having a big impact on the calculus of countries and thinking about it. And I think That’s amazing. So I think the private sector is going to have a bigger and bigger role in our thinking. And frankly, when I talk about those war games, who would be awesome to have private sector folks in a war game, I know we have classification issues, but figuring out how to get some bigger companies in there, so that they would be like, Oh, crap, if that happens, here are the 12 things that happen in my world. And here’s what happens to my customers. That’s what I mean by sort of, not just even whole government, I really should have corrected it, whole of nation. Preparedness for that God forbid scenario

Hondo Geurts 15:33
occurred to me, you talked about the manufacturing, and whether it’s on shoring again, or, or rebuilding that’s driven by talent, and workforce. And, you know, I think one tragedy over the last two to three decades was voc tech wasn’t, you know, we got rid of a lot of OTech. We got rid of trades, everybody had to go to college, even if it wasn’t out of the best for them? How are you thinking about rebuilding of the workforce that’s going to need to power this future industrial base? And are there things you’re working in Congress or things Congress could do to help kind of bring a new generation of workforce and that’s, you know, digitally trained in a digital age, but also understands and appreciates working in the industrial environment?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 16:21
Yeah, you know, as someone who has a ton of manufacturing, we have a ton of unions in our district. And they have, you know, these incredible apprenticeship programs that are now they’ve got, you know, way more slots than they ever had before, because the work, you know, work begets more opportunities. And there’s definitely a drag factor on getting people into those into those jobs. Congress has actually created and in many cases, funded a bunch of programs, none of which have, like any marketing dollars, like no one knows about them, we don’t use I mean, it’s really kind of a shame. But the programs that I’ve been the most impressed with, that I think, are are really working for this youngest generation, are the ones that I’ve seen, for instance, that like Dow Chemical, which is very devoted to Michigan, Midland, Michigan, they had, I think, 50 to 100 vacancies per year in jobs that didn’t require a four year degree. And of course, they had the money, but they went to a local community college, designed a curriculum with the Community College, the kids go to school, part time, work part time, and if they graduate, well, they go right into a job. So for this generation, there’s a lot of young people looking for certainty, there’s a lot of first generation would be college students who are terrified of the debt, who can’t hear, you don’t understand from their parents perspective, their parents don’t know what job they’re gonna get after those four years. So there’s the family is like trying to advance themselves. But it feels like such a risk. And these kinds of programs eliminate the risk, right, and you get paid while you’re going to school. So those are the ones that I personally, especially for our big, you know, folks in, in defense who, frankly, have the money to set up these same programs, like sometimes you got to prime your own palm, instead of just sort of cry that you don’t have the workforce.

Hondo Geurts 18:15
It’s interesting, I obviously coming from my last job in the Navy, getting workers into shipyards and the amount of workforce to generate there. And one of the shipyards actually has a signing night at the high school for and just like if you’re going into it, you know, you got awarded in this job. It was just fascinating. If you can see that kind of integrated piece. I think that’s an area we still have done some work ago. I’ve talked to me a little bit and we we spent a lot of time as a nation relearning how to integrate back the whole of at least whole of government, how to take on this very challenging counterterrorism problem which cross boundaries, borders, where’s multinational? What are some of the things you learned as you were helping lead in that challenging area that we think we that are transportable to the kind of challenges you see coming to the future? We excited? I think some people think it’s just, well, that’s characters are and we have to forget all that and relearn a bunch of new things. My experiences are probably some good things that can we can build on already, but I’d love to hear your take on that.

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 19:24
Yeah, for sure. And I think there are a lot of lessons actually, that we could bring with us. I think the biggest one is that you never know what friend you’re gonna need. So you better have a lot of them, right? And especially with a very networked world, like suddenly, you know, the servers and Lithuania can become the epicenter of a major, you know, counter China, you know, offensive or whatever. So, you just never know and so this is was was my heartburn with the last administration is like, Look, I’m not gonna say all of our allies and partners pay an equally or are always the best. But what is the downside? of keeping them close, keeping them warm, because one day you’re going to need them. And the end, I think that, to me is the same, whether we’re talking about counterterrorism, or we’re talking about Chinese cyber attacks, or we’re talking about Russian incursions, or something else, like a pandemic, right? I mean, you just never know. So make friends and keep them close, and keep trying to make friends. I mean, I think, you know, dividing the world up into adversaries and friends, doesn’t make sense, you need to constantly been trying to move the adversaries over to the friend column, you know, or the competitor, so the friend column, so that, to me, it was a primary lesson. I think, secondly, especially when ISIS took over big parts of Iraq and Syria, again, you know, I was played a big role in putting together the counter ISIS coalition, right, the political input we needed from all these countries. And we don’t and shouldn’t do everything as the United States of America, right? And the, the value in the war on terror of knowing like, wow, the Italians are way better police trainers, and we are don’t send my military in please, to train Iraqi police, please send someone who has a federal system, right. And, you know, the Norwegians have great F 16 capability. And, you know, knowing everybody’s strengths, and then playing as a team. Again, we hope we never want to have a military operation against China that feels like you know, I call it Mutually Assured economic disruption. But playing as a group, is something I think we really hammered during the war on terror that should be brought with us into the next series of threats.

Lauren Bedula 21:40
So you chuck talks a lot about what you’re seeing at the local level, in terms of jobs, I wanted to shift gears a little bit and get your take on the economic outlook, and how this might impact the newer entrants to the defense industrial base is ability to collaborate with DOD, just while I was out here, I heard about two pretty notable companies that are closing up their public sector businesses, because they don’t have the cycles to spend on going after business. So how are you thinking about the economic outlook,

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 22:08
from what I understand, and I am by no means by no means an expert, a lot of the companies that do both commercial and defense work, have always had defense be the smaller portion of their work. So that’s the first thing that’s that they’re going to sort of pivot from when the big factor of inflation, you know, just as with us, and so I, I, it sounds to me, like this really unstable economy is a really bad time to be, you know, a tough time to be bringing new players into the conversation. I obviously, it’s more than just the current economic situation. But I have, you know, I had an a microcosm in my own district, where I have a manufacturer who makes some land vehicle parts for the army. And they had a contract that expired in November. And then they had another one that they that they secured, that was started in April. And they’re like, if we don’t have continuity, all those workers, you know, we’re not going to do that contract, we’re not going to bring them back. So workforce issues, inflation issues, timing issues, which is again, part of a congressional problem. So it just like doing business with us is hard. And we fix that. And we brought that contract, we were able to get the contracting folks to bring it forward. But for the head of that business, the headache, that that poor man, I mean, if he’s reaching out to his Congresswoman, he’s desperate, right? I mean, he’s desperate. So he’s done everything he could. And so think about the time and effort and the next time he goes to figure out what he’s gonna do. I don’t blame him if he says, you know, what, that business is, too, you know, I want to have a normal life. So until we deal with that, the economic factors, I think are gonna dominate. And that’s that’s a problem right now.

Hondo Geurts 24:00
So, Congresswoman, I think the last Congress was the oldest Congress in the history. And you’re kind of this next generation coming up. And there’s no better rather small group now that have either military experience or national security experience. We’ve had Congressman Mike Gallagher on here, he’s a Marine, how do you influence the larger Congress and get them to understand the national security implications when maybe they haven’t, you know, had any experience whatsoever? Or their experience may be, you know, very well dated from the national security issues? How do you how do you leverage that knowledge to help improve the larger understanding from the congressional side?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 24:45
Yeah, we think about this a lot because there are there is a group of us and actually we did a number on both sides of the aisle. A veteran’s just got elected to Congress in this next class, which is great. On the Democratic side, we have three new leaders at the top Up, none of whom have any background in national security. And so we’ve been thinking about how do you what do you what is a primmer look like, you know, what is a one on one look like? And how can we be helpful? And I think those of us with backgrounds are actively talking about that, obviously, a lot of us ended up on security committees. Right. So that’s good. And I think, you know, the, the thing that I work hard at, is trying to help my peers who have no background understand that national security is not just like any other political issue that gets thrown into your plate. And that what you do in Congress has a signaling effect to both our allies and our adversaries. And so if you write a letter, saying that the US and Russia should sit down and negotiate over Ukraine, which these are the a lot of these folks who wrote that letter on the Democratic side, like if you said, Chamberlain, they wouldn’t know who that was. Right? They don’t understand. And when I went and talked to some of the people who signed that letter, and I said, How could you sign that letter, like, you know, at the Pentagon that we always say, like, you never talk about them without them, like, how could we negotiate and divide up Ukraine? And they said, Well, we had a bunch of activists in our communities who were really agitated about, you know, wanting peace and, and were really pressuring us. And they, they were thinking about the activists, not about the signal that would send to Putin and Zelinsky. It’s a completely different orientation. So we work with them a to get the letter withdrawn, but be to say, look, keep foreign policy out of your normal political basket, because it has bigger implications, not just to your district, but of course, globally.

Lauren Bedula 26:50
Well, on that note, I wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your incredible story. I think it’ll stimulate a lot of others to fall in your foot steps, which is exactly what we need. And you are so action oriented. So I know our listeners have lots of good ideas. We want to stimulate those with this podcast. So I’d encourage folks to send the congresswoman’s team any ideas you have about stronger collaboration in the sense and thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Thanks so much

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN 27:17
for having me.

Outro 27:19
You’ve been listening to building the base, a podcast from the business executives for national security. Join hundreds of senior leaders and executives dedicated to the mission of keeping our nation safe. Check out our projects we’re currently working with important upcoming events and the many ways you can get involved@www.bens.org

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