August 11, 2016
ELLE: 11 Women on the "Aha!" Moments That Made Them Run for Office
by Amanda Fitzsimmons
From a rancher-turned-Representative to the only openly lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city: 11 women enlighten us about their decision to throw their hats in the proverbial ring.
Mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah (D)
CV Highlights: Utah House of Representatives (1998–2011); only lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city currently in office; auto-insurance claims officer and private investigator.
"I knew at a young age I'd be doing something around civil rights. I didn't know what that would look like until, one day, I was watching the news and there was a story about how these kids were trying to start the first high school gay-straight alliance in the state, and the school board voted to ban all clubs in response. That was it for me. I was like, Oh my gosh, I'm an adult and I've done nothing to make life easier for these kids. So I got off the couch and helped a friend run for office—and a year later, I ran. First for City Council—I lost by less than 50 votes—then for state legislature. After serving for 13 years, I read a study about a direct prison pipeline in our public schools, and I decided, You know, I need to run for mayor."
Candidate for U.S. House of Representatives (D), Florida's Tenth District
CV Highlights: First female Orlando police chief, 2007–2011.
"After I announced my retirement from the Orlando Police Department, I got a call from Mayor Dyer, who'd appointed me as chief, saying that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wanted to talk to me about running for Congress. I thought that was the most unbelievable thing I'd ever heard! I actually laughed on the phone. After a couple of days, I reflected on my hesitation—here I was, a woman who'd spent 27 years in law enforcement, being very assertive, and I was battling with myself just because I'd be going to a place I hadn't gone before.
Here I am again running [she lost her first race], and it was a lot easier for me to make the decision this time. I know there's a lot of emphasis on law enforcement putting people in jail, but that's not what police really do all day. We help solve problems—I ran a 1,000-plus-person agency with a $123 million budget during tough financial years. That's not unlike issues we're facing in Congress."
Candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont (D); currently Vermont State House of Representatives
CV Highlights: Youngest state representative in Vermont history when elected in 2008 at 22.
"When I was in college and involved in social activism, a friend working on Bernie Sanders's Senate campaign asked if I'd give a speech at one of his rallies. I was pretty darn proud of myself. Then this rock-star senator from Illinois got up and talked about having a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. I have a father from India and a mother from Illinois. I thought, Wow, if there's a place for this guy in mainstream politics, maybe there's a place for me. In that moment, he turned to Bernie Sanders and said, 'Bernie, if you don't behave yourself, we're going to run Kesha for Senate instead of you.' That was obviously Barack Obama, and it was the first time anyone encouraged me to run for office."
ELLEN L. GOLDSTEIN
Office: Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Sheridan-Kalorama, District of Columbia
CV Highlights: White House domestic policy staff (1977–1981); General Electric executive.
"You can't get more granular than advisory neighborhood commissions. I campaigned for all of two days and spent $5 at Office Depot on pamphlets. I deal with issues that seem mundane—parking issues, torn-up sidewalks. But you can get things done at this level. At the same time, you have to get satisfaction on your own. Once, while I was away on vacation, I fixed a problem with parking signs. When I came back, I was waiting for everyone to say, 'Hey, thanks, great job!,' but no one did. As Truman said, 'If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.'"
Senator from Maine (R), 1997–present
CV Highlights: Cabinet member for former Maine governor John McKernan; Massachusetts deputy state treasurer; first female Republican nominee for Maine governor.
"For me, public service was a calling. Generations of Collinses have served in the Maine legislature, and my mother became the chair of any board she was appointed to.
When I was in high school, I got to meet Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who at that time was the only woman serving in the Senate. I remember being so impressed that she was my senator. She spent nearly two hours with me. She never talked about what it was like being the only woman in the Senate, because she rightly considered herself to be a senator, not a woman senator. I didn't know it at the time, but that may have been the first step in my journey to the Senate. Today I sit at her desk on the Senate floor."
CORA FAITH WALKER
Candidate for Missouri State House of Representatives (D), Seventy-Fourth District
CV Highlights: Master's in public health, Washington University; JD, St. Louis University; health policy consultant.
"My husband and I were living in St. Louis but moved to Ferguson after Michael Brown was shot. We're two young professionals, so we could have moved to one of those hip neighborhoods downtown, but we wanted to help turn this area around and be role models. As the saying goes, put your money where your mouth is.
There's a general disillusion with politics here. There aren't a lot of folks in the state legislature who look like me. The seat I'm running for is actually occupied by an African American female [Sharon Pace], who's going to be out of office at the end of this year, so that's a perspective we'd definitely have even less of if I hadn't run."
Senator from Minnesota (D), 2007–present
CV Highlights: Partner at Minnesota law firms; Hennepin County attorney; adviser to former vice president Walter Mondale.
"I always wanted to get elected, get involved. My dad was a newspaper columnist, so he was always taking on people's causes. My mom was a teacher who took care of second graders and kindergartners her whole life. My first office was secretary-treasurer in junior high.
Politicians always say, 'Oh, I [ran] because people asked me to.' I hate that because I think you have to decide you want to do it yourself. When the seat for Minnesota senator opened, I had an unrelated media interview set up, and they asked me, 'Are you going to run?' I said, 'Well, I'm considering it.' I hadn't even talked to my husband about it yet, and here it was all over the news. I guess the lesson is you have to seize the moment, you know?"
Senator from Missouri (D), 2007–present
CV Highlights: Trial lawyer; member of the Missouri House of Representatives; first female Jackson County prosecutor.
"I made up my mind when I was 13 or 14 that I was going to be the first woman governor of Missouri. I had a mother and father who were engaged in politics [Columbia city council and state insurance official, respectively]—when I was seven, I was told to say, 'Trick or treat, and vote for JFK.' I was never exposed to a point of view where politicians were laggards and slime buckets. What impacted me most was watching my mom express her opinions and seeing my dad love her for that. He'd say, 'Isn't she great?' A lot of fathers don't realize that girls really want approval from their fathers. But my dad was all on board, saying, 'You need to do speech and debate,' and 'It's okay if the boys don't like you now; they'll figure it out.' One of my nicknames was Motormouth McCaskill, and when I'd get upset, my dad would hold my hand and say, 'Hey, Claire, this is what happens to leaders: People want to get in their way.'
I pretty much made every decision in terms of my education and jobs with the goal [of becoming governor] in mind. Deciding where to go to law school, I thought, If I go to the University of Missouri, all of my classmates will be in Missouri, and I'll be able to call on them to help me run for office. I didn't have many friends who weren't aware of my ambitions. People knew I was, you know, in a hurry.
But when I ran for governor in 2004 and lost, I was surprised. I underestimated my opponent. When I could think clearly, I realized how much I'd learned. I never would have become Senator if I hadn't made that run. I hate when a cliché comes true—[but] when one door closes another opens."
Candidate for U.S. House of Representatives (D), New York's Twenty-Fourth District
CV Highlights: Press secretary for then Syracuse mayor Matt Driscoll, 2003–2009; regional communications director for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, 2009–2015.
"I'm running because of what happened before my career in politics: After I graduated from college, I was waiting tables. My job didn't come with health care or sick time, so when I became pregnant with my son Adrian [now 13] at 26, I was forced to rely on Medicaid; I had to quit my job a few days before he was born and go on food stamps and WIC. How many members of Congress can actually say they've had to use the programs they're voting on?"
U.S. Representative (R), South Dakota's At-Large District, 2011–present
CV Highlights: Rancher, farmer; South Dakota Outstanding Young Farmer 1997; State House of Representatives, 2007–2010.
"The first time I showed an interest in politics was when my dad was killed in an accident on our farm when I was 22. I ended up coming home from college and taking over our family business. About a month after he passed away, I got a letter from the IRS saying that we owed death taxes. I couldn't believe there was a law that said when a family has a tragedy, all of a sudden they owe thousands and thousands of dollars. It made it difficult for us to keep our ranch. I felt like we needed more everyday people [in government] to speak on behalf of families in these situations."
U.S. Representative (R), Florida's Twenty-Seventh District, 1989–present
CV Highlights: Elementary school teacher; Florida State Senate.
"I fled Cuba at age eight when Castro took over, so around the dining room table we'd talk about freedom, democracy, human rights. Before I was elected, there had not been a Cuban American in Congress. It wasn't the typical track for a Cuban American woman, but I thought it was an important voice to add in. Cuba helps me rise above petty differences of opinion, because I think, Well, at least we're living in a democracy where you can debate and vote.
My parents were very surprised when I told them I was running, but they came around: My dad was my campaign manager; my mom was manager of the volunteers."