Who Should Run for Office?

“Want to run for office, Dorothy? We’re coming to Richmond!”

Class photo, courtesy of Emily’s List (Yours truly in the green blouse in the back!)

That was the seductive subject line in an email I received last month from Emily’s List and their Run to Win campaign.

According to their web site, Run to Win “is a national recruitment and training program focused on helping pro-choice, Democratic women around the country run for office—and win.”

Their site goes on to tout the group’s track record, having, since its founding in 1985, “trained nearly 10,000 women to run and helped elect 116 women to the House, 23 to the Senate, 12 governors, and over 800 to state and local office” and also noting that “forty percent of the candidates EMILY’s List has helped elect to Congress have been women of color, and more young women than ever are stepping up to run.”

So, do I want to run for office? I have considered it in the past, albeit in a random-thought, this-politician-is-so-stupid-I-could-do-that-job kind of way while I’m yelling at some idiocy or injustice on CNN.

Even though I didn’t have an office in mind, I clicked the link and signed up for an August 11th workshop in Richmond, VA. Two hours of I-95 bad traffic later (somebody ought to do something about this traffic!), I arrived (slightly late!) at the workshop.

About 35 women were in attendance, of different ethnicities and ages, and levels of involvement in politics. Some were already in office, some were working for candidates currently running for office, and some, like me, had that random thought in the back of our heads: “Hey, I could do this!”

“Why are you here? Why do you want to run? What is your personal story?”

These questions were asked at various points throughout the day by workshop trainer, Simone L. Ward, President and CEO of SLW Strategies, a strategic political, executive coaching, training and leadership development firm.

Ward, who has served in a leadership role for three U.S. Senate candidates, including Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, shared her own personal story of early entree into activism. She was motivated to action by her high school administrators’ inaction after Ward discovered the “N” word spray painted on a wall at her school. Ward organized a sit-in.

So, why was I there? What was my personal story? Was I motivated by the friend who has been challenging me to run for something, even in the face of his own defeat after two runs at trying to get on a small-town council locked by family members?

Was it the sorority sister who ran to unseat a long-time incumbent on a county supervisors’ board that no longer demographically represents the people it serves? I volunteered for her campaign and was heartbroken that she came within 300 votes of winning.

But those were their stories. What was mine?

I didn’t have any dramatic event, like Ward, or actual experience with running for office like my friends, but I did have this memory:

My mother dragging my siblings and I to rallies and protests and voter registration drives when we were very young children in Charleston, S.C. Was she trying to teach us civic responsibility at an early age? Sounds lofty, but the more practical reason was that she didn’t have a babysitter! My dad worked shifts and my grandmother, fearful that her only child would be killed in a rally gone wrong, refused to watch us in the hopes that her daughter would just stay home.

But there we were, hot and hungry and tired, small bodies surrounded by what seemed like a million legs; the ground littered with fliers and posters; angry voices booming from microphones on a stage we could not see.

This was a memory I would not recall until years and years later, after I had dragged my own daughter along to a voter registration drive I had organized during the first run at the presidency by Barack Obama. Hey! I’m carrying on the tradition, I thought with pride at this memory of my mother. True, but also like my mother, I, too, didn’t have a babysitter that day!

Would the memory of that day be lost in time for my daughter, or would it bubble to the surface years later? Would she only remember the heat, sitting bored in a folding chair in front of the Wal-Mart while her mother registered voters for what would become the nation’s first Black president? Or would it spur her on to her own activism?

My daughter turned 18 this year, and I made sure she registered to vote. And I ask all her friends who stop by the house if they are registered, too. If I were to run for an office, it would be for people like my daughter and her friends – a youthful group of various interests, ethnicities and orientations. I’d fight to ensure a bright and bountiful  future for them all.

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