Glamour: Mikie Sherrill Once Flew Helicopter Missions in the Navy—Now She’s Running for Congress
By Maggie Mallon
Mikie Sherrill spent nearly 10 years flying helicopter missions for the Navy. She served as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office and developed programs to help federal prisoners reenter their communities. She also coached her 11-year-old daughter's lacrosse team and witnessed firsthand how competitive suburban parents can be. But her latest pursuit may be the toughest yet: She's running for Congress in the 2018 midterm and taking on 22-year Republican incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen, a political powerhouse in his own right. But as Sherrill can attest, she's never been one to back down from a challenge.
It started when she was just 10 years old. Then a fifth-grader, Sherrill was determined to join the military one day and become a pilot like her World War II veteran grandfather. At her father's suggestion, she decided she’d enlist in the Navy. The fact that the Naval Academy, at the time, did not admit women was of no concern—they’d change the rules once it was time for her to go to college.
Sure enough, Sherrill enrolled in the Naval Academy at Annapolis and went on to serve in the Navy for nearly a decade. She then went to Georgetown Law and eventually joined the U.S. Attorney's office in New Jersey. For the past seven years, she, her husband, and their four children have been living in Montclair, New Jersey, a New York City suburb, where Sherrill not only coaches girls’ lacrosse but also manages her son's baseball team. After leaving the U.S. Attorney's office last spring, Sherrill planned to go into criminal justice reform.
Then the election happened—and Sherrill was compelled to take action.
"I fought for this country my whole adult life," Sherrill says over iced tea at a neighborhood coffee shop. "I have four kids. There wasn’t a point where I could consciously decide that I was not going to fight for the future of this country."
Truth be told, Sherrill’s congressional bid will most certainly be a fight. She’s facing a monolithic figure within the Republican establishment—one who not only descends from New Jersey political dynasty but currently helms the House Appropriations Committee (the very one that controls Congress's purse strings).
For those less familiar with New Jersey political families, the Frelinghuysens go back nearly three centuries, spanning four senators, two representatives, and one cabinet member. Schools, roads, a township—even an arboretum—all bear the Frelinghuysen name.
Rodney Frelinghuysen has sold himself as a moderate Republican, one who's fiscally conservative but more lax on social issues. He first won New Jersey’s Eleventh District in 1994 and hasn’t faced a serious challenger since.
Though Frelinghuysen took 58 percent of the vote in 2016, Donald Trump captured less than 50 percent of the district, barely eking out a win over Hillary Clinton. Frelinghuysen has gone further right since Trump took office, voting in line with Trump 97.6 percent of the time. And despite weekly gatherings outside his office, he has yet to host a single in-person town hall in 2017. Instead, he’s opted for tele-town-halls, which some have argued give politicians the opportunity to screen questions.
As Frelinghuysen continues to align with an unpopular president and refuse in-person meetings with constituents, he finds himself in a more vulnerable place with his voters—one that makes him prime for a surprise defeat.
"It's not going to be an easy race, and Mikie knows that," says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "But following 2016, what we have come to rely on as conventional wisdom may not work the same way. If there was a year where you could have a better chance taking on an incumbent, it could be 2018."
Sherrill officially launched her campaign in early May and quickly scored two major endorsements: One from the VoteVets.org, a political action committee dedicated to getting veterans in office, which was a major campaign spender in 2016; and another from Emily’s List, a PAC supporting pro-choice Democratic women running for office.
"More than anything, 2016 served as a wake-up call for people who had been politically involved but never thought about running before,” said Julie McClain Downey, the national director of campaign communications at Emily’s List. “Mikie's background is something that’s unique and exciting for the time that we’re in. She’s a veteran. She’s a former prosecutor. She’s taking on a sitting Republican incumbent and is ready to be a leader of her community."
Cementing Sherrill’s determination to be that leader was a WNYC report that broke just days after her campaign kicked off—one revealing that, in a fundraising letter to a local bank, Frelinghuysen had included a handwritten note targeting one of the bank’s employees for being part of a grassroots organization working to flip the district. (The woman later resigned from her job, citing “the pressure she received over her political involvement” as one of the reasons.) For Sherrill, hearing this news only strengthened her resolve.
"This was more than just a simple letter; it took forethought and planning,” Sherrill says. “It sends a message to his constituents that he doesn’t have their best interests at heart—that he doesn’t have their interests at heart at all."
Sherrill sees a similar message in Frelinghuysen’s position on health care. Despite opposing House Speaker Paul Ryan’s first attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Actl, Frelinghuysen voted “yes” on Ryan’s revived health care bill, one that even Trump chided for being too “mean.”
Though the ACA repeal failed in the Senate, the American public—and the residents of District 11—have not forgotten what almost was. The legislation would have jeopardized coverage for maternity care, mental health treatment, and preexisting conditions, among other things. But even if the Affordable Care Act remains in place, Sherrill realizes that it's not perfect. She plans to work across the aisle to improve the marketplace and ease the burden for small businesses that struggle to provide health care for their employees.
If there’s one area where Sherrill refuses to compromise, it’s protecting Planned Parenthood. According to Planned Parent Action Fund of New Jersey, 90,000 women, men, and teenagers rely on the organization for care, with the Morristown facility seeing 4,000 patients in 2016 alone. Though Frelinghuysen said as recently as this past February that he supports Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive freedom, his voting record seems to contradict his statements and he’s fallen in line with the GOP’s efforts to defund. (Frelinghuysen’s office did not respond to Glamour’s request for comment.)
"We have a congressperson who knows what his constituents support, and is something that he said he supported in the past, who once again caved to the administration,” Sherrill says. "He has not stood up against the bad agenda in Washington. Planned Parenthood is just another example of that."
Sherrill's campaign is not built solely on resisting Trump’s agenda. It's about protecting the middle class, creating new jobs in burgeoning industries like solar and wind, investing in infrastructure projects to help grow the economy of her entire home state, and recapturing that spirit of ingenuity she felt as a young girl.
"Growing up, I remember thinking anything was possible—and the history of my family kind of proves that," Sherrill says. "This is a country that built the best middle class in the world. This is a country that provided career opportunities so women like my mom could get a good job. This is a country that made a young girl believe she could be a helicopter pilot in the Navy."
“America is a country that's been built on innovation, drive, and a belief in the possibilities. We need to get back to that.”