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Elle: Will Sex Trafficking Survivors Finally Get the Advocate They Deserve?

August 10, 2016

Elle: Will Sex Trafficking Survivors Finally Get the Advocate They Deserve?

by Mattie Kahn

Catherine Cortez Masto had known Amy Ayoub "forever," since Ayoub reached out in late 2012 and said she wanted to meet. At the time, Masto was Nevada's attorney general and Ayoub was a well-respected political operative in the Silver State, the kind of advisor you wanted in your ear.

Masto and Ayoub settled on a breakfast date. And Ayoub prepared to share a secret she'd been keeping for almost four decades.

"She sat down across from me and she said, 'I'm going to tell you something...that almost nobody knows,'" Cortez Masto remembers. "[She said], 'I've always been afraid it was going to come out. I've hidden it my entire life, but I want to tell you, because I think now it's time for me to get involved.'" Ayoub explained that she'd been trafficked as a teen, sold for sex by a pimp who beat her when she tried to escape. She'd heard Cortez Masto advocate for laws that would better protect victims of the kind of violence she'd endured. "I would have never guessed—never," Cortez Masto says, sharing the the narrative over the phone in mid-July.

It's for women like Ayoub and the thousands more who never speak out that Cortez Masto is so committed to this work. It's for them that she's running for Senate. Cortez Masto is currently the Democratic candidate in Nevada, tapped by her party to fill the seat that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will vacate when he retires after five terms in office this fall. If elected, she will not only succeed in keeping a vulnerable state out of the hands of her conservative opponents, she'll also make history as the first ever Latina to serve in the Senate. But never mind that. Thrilled as she would be to mark that milestone, Cortez Masto would rather delve into the issues than be the face of them.

Cortez Masto was born and raised in Nevada, earning her degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. She moved out of state for law school and worked in D.C., but always intended to come back home. She was elected to state attorney general in 2006, a position she held for two terms. When she declared her intention to run for Senate, she touted the instincts she's sharpened in elected office: "I've spent my life and career fighting to protect the families of Nevada," she wrote in her official announcement. "I care about the people of our state and that's who I'll be standing up for in the Senate."

It just so happens that after weeks of back-and-forth tries to coordinate our schedules,Cortez Masto and I at last find some time to connect at the start of the Republican National Convention. Only a few hours into the circus, and I have to ask: Even if she wins what is turning into a very close race, how much good will Cortez Masto really be able to do in our nation's splintered capital?

"Policy gets a bad rap," Cortez Masto insists. But, she insists, it's also the best way to make "a preventative difference." To that end, she refuses to let the menace of congressional gridlock dissuade her. "I've always been a collaborator," she says. "For me, it's 'What's the issue I'm trying to solve? Who are the people we need to bring around the table to solve it?'"