Q & A with Sr. Mary Peter Diaz

Sr. Mary Peter Diaz (center, in red with dark blue blanket) leads a prayer rally in support of Medicaid expansion in Alaska on May 14. (Ron Nicholl Photography)

To hear Rachel Maddow tell it, Daughter of Charity Sr. Mary Peter Diaz single-handedly took on the billionaire Koch brothers and publicly defeated the conservative activists who spend millions of dollars supporting their candidates and causes.

Diaz, not surprisingly, sees it a little differently.

While the essential facts of the July 20 broadcast are true, Diaz points out that she was just one voice among hundreds in a statewide effort to expand Medicaid coverage to 40,000 Alaskans with no health insurance. The Koch brothers and their Americans For Prosperity political action committee funded a fake grass-roots campaign against the expansion, Maddow said, but Anchorage Faith & Action/Congregations Together, known as AFACT, had the people — and Gov. Bill Walker — on their side. AFACT is a coalition of 16 churches and ministries, including the Catholic Hispanic Ministry that Diaz runs.

How did you get involved in this?

AFACT had someone speak at various congregations explaining the Medicaid expansion, but our former governor [Sean Parnell] was totally against it. With our new governor, it was part of his campaign, so we just needed to build support. We did various activities to inform the public. Most of what we did was education. We had a rally with over 400 people. For Alaska [with a population of 735,132], that's a big deal.

The perception from the Rachel Maddow report is that this was a small, grass-roots effort against a group with all the money in the world. Is that what it felt like?

The perception is right in a way. Our group looked into it and said, This is not right. There is a moral issue here: We cannot allow people to not have insurance. And little by little, with lots of education and talking to people, we made a difference.

We do have some people who were not for this, even in our group, but the majority were. I wouldn't say we went out and campaigned, because we really don't have the money to campaign, but we do have people. We are a Christian organization — we have to help out our brothers and sisters.

David and Charles Koch spend billions of dollars supporting causes dear to them, such as preventing climate-change legislation or fighting universal health care. Were you afraid?

No, because we knew we were right, and we have God as our leader. Who's going to go against him? Jesus said, "Help one another, love one another" — this is part of helping one another. When we went to the capital in Juneau, [Koch activists] had had breakfast with legislators the day before and gave them all kinds of things. Then we came, and all we could do was talk. But they did listen to us. I met the speaker of the House — it was quite enlightening for me. It made me feel like I'm really part of this process, too.

What was so enlightening about the visit?

One of the legislators was saying he had not heard any of his constituents mention they wanted the Medicaid expansion. He didn't think it was important because no one had ever said anything. So we worked on that.

I work with the Hispanic community, and I know people without insurance. One problem is that many of them don't work during the winter months because there is no work then, and if they don't have a job, they don't have insurance. They're willing to work, but they can't find jobs.

What's it like to defeat the Koch brothers?

That didn't even enter into my mind. We weren't working against them; we were working for this. It wasn't like that at all.

But we were really excited about winning. It's going to make a lot of difference. I know one man who hadn't been to a doctor for 18 years because he didn't have the means to pay. Now he can go. It's going to help the people.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]