Episode 134: Running for Office

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…America’s midterm elections are coming up in a few weeks and plenty of women are running for political office for the first time. They’re stepping away from their regular jobs to campaign…

“A person of color and a Democrat has never won this seat – I don’t think anybody’s ever run for this seat.”

“Just because of my party affiliation people assume they know everything about me. But I am the next generation of Republicans, I’m not what we see right now.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

My first guest is part of a wave of black women running for office in a southern state known for its good ol’ boy network.

“My name is Suzanna Coleman and I am an attorney and I’m running for Alabama House District 15.”

Alabama played a big part in the US civil rights movement. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, the state capital. Then there were the Birmingham church bombings in the early ‘60s. Four young African-American girls were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in a backlash against civil rights.

Suzanna didn’t grow up in Alabama but it was her dad’s home state. Her parents spent their working lives in Ohio, and when they retired from Ohio to the warmth of Alabama, Suzanna went with them. She attended college there and she’s lived there ever since.

Suzanna’s district is about 28 miles from Birmingham. Suzanna describes it as pretty rural – or a combination of suburban and rural. She’s getting to know more and more people as she campaigns – something she says she enjoys partly because of what she used to do before she became a lawyer.  

“I’m also a licensed social worker, I did that for about 15 years before I started practicing.”

Suzanna just turned 46 as I was putting this show together. She’s been married for years – her husband is a truck driver.

“I have two kids.”

Her son is 21, her daughter is 15.

She says she never saw herself running for office…but like a lot of Democratic women who are running, she says the outcome of the 2016 election spurred her on. Alabama voted big for Donald Trump.

“It was difficult, but having kids you try to not take the negative, at least for me, trying to be a responsible parent is trying to see the brighter side of things. That was kind of hard to find. But I will say that I insisted, even on Facebook I said, we need to pray for this person. He’s in the position now…regardless of how it happened, this is what we have.”

Still, praying wasn’t enough. She was spending a lot of time on social media lamenting the Trump presidency when she realized…I’m not really doing anything here. I’m just talking. And social media was a swirl of negativity. She didn’t know what to tell her daughter in particular about the new president. He was already making blunt comments about immigrants, people with disabilities…the kinds of people who’d been Suzanna’s clients over the years.

“I didn’t know what much to say except we have to focus on our local community and do our part to make things better. Do our part to change things.”

That’s when she thought well…why not try to actually change things myself?

Suzanna would love to increase funding for the education system: Alabama comes near the bottom of the rankings when it comes to educational attainment. She says the infrastructure is in terrible shape in her area – ambulances and fire trucks have trouble getting to people because local roads can be so bad. She wants to improve healthcare, particularly mental healthcare.

She ran totally unchallenged in the primary earlier this year. No other Democrat was interested in running. Her opponent is a Republican 20 years older than her. He’s held the seat since 2010. She says the very fact that she is not the average candidate…has raised some interest and probably some gossip.

“’Cause you know, it’s historic, so a person or color and a Democrat has never won this seat, or run for this seat…so from that perspective you know that there has to be some backroom talk.”

She says she hasn’t heard anything nasty though. And she’s feeling increasingly confident about her campaign.  

“When I first started off I thought oh my gosh, what am I doing, what do I have to offer, but then I thought, I’m qualified, I have been able to go through some hurdles a lot of people haven’t, and why not me? So I could be at a disadvantage but I’m hopeful people are ready for change. They see what’s going on in our legislature, the people who have been indicted, the corruption, you know, everything that has happened…”

From a philandering governor who used state funds to try to cover up his affair, to a prominent politician jailed for corruption to the senate race last year where Republican candidate Roy Moore was accused of initiating sexual contact with minors years before. 

“…and I think that people may silently be ready for change. I’m not sure that outwardly they express that. we get the feeling – those of us democrats running – that people might be ready for new leadership…”

AM-T: “Well tell me, I want to ask a follow up question to that…but let me go back to  something you just mentioned which was going through some hurdles but it’s that that makes you qualified. What have you been through in life that you think helps set you up for this journey?

“Well, looking back there are a lot of things where I’m like, well, I had no idea I’d be doing this ten years ago. But that I can look back and say oh my gosh, well this is why this happened. My parents both passed away two years apart from eachother before we moved to Jefferson County…” 

Suzanna is an only child and she was very close to her parents, a mechanic and a food worker. Her father died when she was 29; her mother when she was 31. They used to offer emotional and practical help.

“…so just having to manage life without your biggest supporters has been enormously challenging. I went to grad school and had my son, my parents were very instrumental in making sure I got through my grad school program, because they watched him a lot while I was having to study. And I must be a glutton for punishment because there I go, I did the exact same thing through law school; I worked the entire time. I worked all four years, I was a therapist at a residential facility; I studied on weekends, I briefed cases…I had to study for the bar with a family. I think I’ve proven myself.”

Still, she is up against a longtime incumbent in a traditionally red state.

AM-T: “I mean how does it feel to be out there on the trail, knocking on doors, going up against this guy who’s been there for eight years? I mean how’s it going?”

“I think it’s going really well, we’ve had some positive feedback – it’s hot, it’s really hot!

When we spoke it was still high summer and temperatures in Alabama were in the mid-90s Fahrenheit. Suzanna and her team have tried to get out by 10a.m. for a few hours, and then again once the sun has started to go down.

“My volunteers have been great, and we just go door knock. I think the reception has been good, people are curious and people out here quite frankly are not used to people campaigning, so when you knock on their door they don’t answer, so I just hang a door hanger on their door, sorry we missed you. But everyone who opens the door, they’re shocked, they’re like are you the candidate? I’m hot and disgusting like everyone else. But it matters. I’ve had people come to the door and say you know I vote Republican and I can’t believe you came and asked for my vote personally and that really matters to me…I really want to connect with as many people as possible. I ask them to spread the word and to check me out. But I do ask for their support November 6th.”

As I said earlier, Suzanna is one of dozens of African-American women running for state or local office in Alabama this November – nearly every one of them is a Democrat. Hers is a majority white district in a conservative state…I couldn’t help wondering how much she thinks about her identity – or not – while she’s on the trail.  

“When I’m doing events, I mean I think in back of your mind you’re always cognizant of it, and that’s sad. So when I think that because I’m black, because I’m a woman I should feel uncomfortable…but I think that’s the barrier we’re trying to break, that’s what we’re trying to get past, that this is unusual. It shouldn’t be unusual.  I’ve been a registered voter since I was 18 years old. I live and work in the community, why is it unusual? I know each of us has our whole story and struggle with the whole identity thing, you know, you’re a black female, but we also know that we have to do this, just like with civil rights coming behind us… could be greater, is going to be greater and we know that. It’s not for me about being the black female candidate, it’s for me about being the most qualified candidate, the candidate who has a heart for people and I truly care about issues and I want to work with other people. Regardless of who’s in the legislature. I want to be able to work with them, I want to be able to accomplish things instead of wasting money or time.”

She says more and more, she thinks of herself as just the candidate…someone who can do this…

“…and I’ve had to grow into that. It doesn’t come easy every day, either. There are some days when I think oh my gosh, what am I doing, why am I doing this, these people are never going to accept me…to, yes, I can do this, look at what people have been able to accomplish before me. Why not me? And then all the while I’ve got these 15-year-old eyes looking at me wondering about how I’m going to react to the challenges every day. And she’s very wise my daughter is, she’s been with me most of the time and she’ll say, why did you even care about that person, or why did you even care about somebody saying this or that about you? You’re doing the right thing.”

Two thousand miles away in San Diego, California, Morgan Murtaugh is also running for office. She’s 26. She grew up in San Diego, and she’s running as a Republican. She’s campaigning for a seat that a Democratic congresswoman has held since Morgan was nine years old.

She says a lot of Californians are sick of what she describes as excessive spending and petty laws that interfere too much with people’s lives…

“It’s just a lot of bureaucracy and I think people are fed up of the government meticulously telling them what to do on every aspect of life. 

She’s taken a leave of absence from her job at One America News Network to run – it’s a conservative cable channel. When we spoke she’d just rushed from an event to visit her grandmother – she did the interview at her grandma’s house. And her grandmother was born and raised over the border…

“My grandparents immigrated to the US from Mexico 50 years ago, and because of that, I mean – I don’t look Latina, I am, I’m the whitest Mexican you’ll ever meet…well not the whitest, but I’m one of them. So I grew up with that culture, and my dad is a homicide detective for the sheriff’s department, he just retired recently. So I grew up with law enforcement background as well.”

Morgan went to Catholic school…then she attended a nearby community college…and while she was there she started working for the Navy. San Diego is a huge naval base.

“Basically I worked in the front office for a three-star admiral, I helped coordinate his events, I was the only civilian in that office – it was really eye-opening, I learned a lot about our navy in that position.”

Then she transferred to George Washington University in Washington DC…did a lot of internships on Capitol Hill…

“And that after that I worked on Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign, right out of college.”

Fiorina is one of her idols – Morgan would have loved to have seen her become president.  

She says her parents raised her to be open minded, to consider all sides of an issue, but as she got older she realized she was conservative in some areas, particularly about spending. Otherwise, she says…

“…especially as a millennial I grew up learning about the environment, and the impact we have on the environment, I grew up accepting everyone around me. My aunt is gay and married. So I grew up very socially accepting, but fiscally conservative.”

California is largely a blue state. And Morgan’s Democratic opponent on November 6th has been in her role for 17 years. She’s been re-elected time and again. But like Suzanna, Morgan thinks it may just take an energetic push from some new blood to change people’s minds. She’s local, she loves San Diego, she’s been active in politics since she was a teenager.

AM-T: “What’s the reception from your peers, and I’m really curious as a young woman if you get a different reception from men than from women?”

“My peers are very excited, millennials are excited to have a voice that understands them running for office. The biggest pushback I’m seeing is from older white men. Regardless of party that’s the general group that look at me and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, ‘are you even old enough to run for office?’ And to me you wouldn’t look at an old person and say you’re a little too old to still be running for office. So why would you look at someone who’s been qualified, who ran a race and made it past the primaries and look at them and say, are you even old enough to run for office?’”

AM-T: “I have to say, I know the incumbent has been there for a very long time, as you mention I mean, do you think you have what it takes to unseat such a longtime incumbent. I mean how hopeful are you?”

“I know it’s an uphill battle. But I’ve put my entire heart into this, I’ve been going door to door, I‘ve been taking to people, I’ve been going to concerts, farmers markets, I went to PRIDE, I’ve been out in the community constantly meeting people, constantly telling people who I am…and I’ve been getting a great response. And I know it’s an uphill battle and a long shot but I know it’s possible.”

When I last checked she had more than 52 thousand Twitter followers, and she’s not just getting out there in in the usual ways. She’s combined earning a bit of money to pay the bills with campaigning…she’s working for the food delivery service Postmates…

“I deliver people’s food and I say, by the way, I’m running to be your next congresswoman, here’s my card.”

Like Suzanna, says doesn’t focus on party when she meets people…

“I don’t ask people are you a Democrat or a Republican, I don’t ask people that and most people don’t ask that of me either. I go up to people, I tell them who I am, where I stand on issues that matter to them. I always ask people what their number one issue is and I tell them where I stand…I’d say less than 25% of people ask what my party affiliation is. But other than that no one asks, no one cares, it’s all about who you are as a person.”

But of course some issues really do divide people, and abortion is one of them. I assumed Morgan was anti-abortion…

“Yes. I believe that life begins at conception but then I also…it’s a very complicated issue. I also believe that if we put abortions under ground just like with any other thing, we’re putting a lot of people’s lives at risk as well…so there’s a fine balance, so even though I’m morally opposed to them and I believe it is murder, I also believe that we need to find a way to make sure that everyone is safe.”

She didn’t vote for Donald Trump in the last election – or Hillary Clinton. She cast her vote for a third party. She says she supports some of the presidents’ policies, like tax reform, but she doesn’t like the guy himself.

She says she’s running for two main reasons: one, she thinks the congresswoman she wants to replace is out of touch with a lot of San Diegans. But two, she wants more people in their twenties and thirties to run for office. Millennials will be the biggest voting block in the US before too long but there are very few young politicians.

Though you may have heard of one aspiring congresswoman…

“I mean she’s getting all this attention.”

Morgan is talking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She won an upset victory in the New York primaries over a much older, longtime congressman. Her district covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. She describes herself as a Democratic Socialist and she’s had a lot of press attention. She’s turning 29 this month.  

“Meanwhile I am the youngest person in the nation running for congress and if I win I’ll be the youngest woman ever elected to congress. But everyone wants to focus on New York. And the thing is, it’s a little frustrating to me, because of my party affiliation people assume everything about me. But I am the next generation of Republicans, I’m not what we see right now. I’m fiscally conservative but I’m socially liberal; I’m very environmentally friendly. We’re a new type of Republican and a lot of millennial Republicans are like this. My goal is to change people’s perspective on what it means and focus on issues like the economy and border security and national security and focus on what most people agree on…”

Instead of the social issues.

She doesn’t really have a plan B if she doesn’t win next month…

“I’ll see where life takes me next. But right now I’m focused on November.”

If she does, she will pack her bags and set out for DC again – this time as a congresswoman. Last time when she was there as a student she couldn’t afford a car, so she leased one through Uber and drove for them. She hopes she’ll have her own car if she makes it this time.

“That would be fun though, think about that, having a member of Congress picking you up in an Uber. Something I would do.”

Morgan Murtaugh.

Thanks to her and Suzanna Coleman for being my guests on this show. I’ll have photos of both candidates on the page for this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

And thanks to Andrew Yaeger for taping my interview with Suzanna Coleman, and Margot Wohl for taping the conversation with Morgan Murtaugh.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. If you have a comment you can post it via the website or email me or tweet me – I’d love to hear from you.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.