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What It’s Like Being a Latina Running for Congress in 2018
An anonymous candidate on spending her days smiling as her opponents insult her heritage and mortify her mother
It’s no secret that not enough women, particularly women of color, run for office, but I wasn’t sure exactly why until I quit my job to become part of the surge of female candidates on the ballot for the first time in November. With little more than a month to go, I now know there’s an obstacle course just for us (in addition to the many hoops every candidate must clear).
There’s the Mexican Catholic mom guilt about missing time with my children, and then there’s the mom guilt, from my own loving mother, who can’t wait for me to return to private life (even before the votes are tallied). There’s being a female candidate who’s repeatedly criticized for my husband’s career. There’s being a proud Latina and choosing to run a positive campaign while ignoring ugly, racist flyers and messages so I can serve my district on the border. And then there’s the money (quitting my job to raise it — and cringing every single time I have to call friends to ask for another donation). My middle-class family lives check to check. This is the biggest gamble of our lives.
But here’s what they also don’t tell you: It’s worth it. I may die a little inside when I cold-call a donor, but I come alive when I knock on doors. You always hear about the rush of handshake politics in relation to men like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. But I thrive when sitting at the kitchen table of the elderly woman who trusts me with her deepest fears and hands me homemade bread on the way out the door. I know I’m doing something right when my college-age son accompanies me house to house, often going off without me to stump on my behalf. In fact, my kids are usually the ones who cheer me up when the negative ads feel like too much. I’m not abandoning them. I’m showing them how to lead. And they’ve embraced this race and this moment in our lives.
I never would have known any of this, of course, had I not decided to run. But I’m sharing my journey because I hope others will see the extra burdens put upon female candidates, especially women of color. And yet, clear-eyed and with more of us in office to mentor those coming after us, they’ll know it’s worth it.
Let’s Talk About Mom Guilt
I have two kids, both of whom are away at college. I miss them dreadfully, and I wish I could spend more time talking, gossiping, catching up. But even when they are home on break, I often feel like a bad mother because I don’t have the luxury of time. I know that all working mothers feel this, but being a candidate means I am perpetually absent. If I’m not at a fundraiser or a “meet and greet” or a charity event or a community meeting (you get the idea!), then I’m knocking on doors. And when I am home, I’m on the phone, answering media calls, strategizing with the team, or returning emails. And when I’m not doing any of that, at the end of the day I’m so tired that I want to just crawl under the covers and drift off.
The fact that my kids are both young adults is the only thing that makes this more bearable and less grueling. I can’t imagine being a mother of small children and trying to do all this. And I’m lucky I have a husband willing to pick up the slack on everything I have to let go—the grocery shopping, the cats, the garden, and so much else that plays second fiddle to a campaign.
The guilt — especially for a Mexican Catholic woman — is intense.
The lack of time weighs just as heavily when I can’t immediately call my mother back after she’s tried reaching me. She is the woman who helped shape my values and who instilled in me not just a powerful sense of self, but also that powerful sense of guilt. When I do finally call her back, usually days later, there’s no denying the disappointed tone when she asks why it’s taken so long for me to return her call. I feel instantly transported to my youth. “Sorry, Mom!”
My husband and mother are sitting in the front row, watching silently as I get blamed for everything under the sun.
Unlike my husband and children, who were excited about my run for office, my mother didn’t want me to be a candidate. Once the shock of the fact that I’d have to quit my job and be without an income for a year and a half passed, my husband and children were all in. Their reassurance and confidence in me gave me tremendous inspiration. They were certain I’d win, they told me, and they knew I’d make a big difference, especially now during such a dark period in our country’s history.
My mom, on the other hand, was not too happy about it. She sees politics as an ugly business where opponents sling as much mud as possible at one another, where families are casualties, and where — once you are elected — the glare of public scrutiny and the efforts of enemies to cause harm can be intense. And she’s right. Who would want that for her child?
When They Go After Me
My opponents became especially vicious toward the end of the primary, attacking not just my record but also my family. During one debate in which my husband and mother are sitting in the front row, I get blamed for everything under the sun. (I served in local government for more than a decade, so I have a record.)
One of my male opponents asked me why I thought being the first Latina was important. And he doesn’t say it in a “wow, this is really cool for our community” kind of way. What he means is “how dare you even bring it up because you are simply trying to set yourself apart and being a Latina doesn’t matter anyway!”
When things can’t feel any yuckier, my opponents begin to attack my husband. I have to sit as stone-faced as possible, retaining as much as my composure as possible.
And then when things can’t feel any yuckier, my opponents begin to attack my husband and his profession as an immigration judge, implying his impartial legal decisions somehow contradict my political positions. I have to sit stone-faced, retaining as much of my composure as possible while listening to these sexist arguments. I’ve learned to take the attacks against me and not get at all riled by them, but when my family is attacked, I want to fight back, but I don’t want to become the “angry and hysterical” female in the race.
I’m grateful my son and daughter (both of whom attended other forums while home on break) were not at this one. But they read the newspaper online, they always keep up with the campaign on social media, and they have seen the attacks. There’s no hiding anything from children who are young adults. But they’re pretty incredible. Not a lot riles them up, and frequently they are the ones to tell me, “Mom, don’t worry. Don’t let it bother you. Keep your chin up. Everything’s going to be okay.”
All About Money, All the Time
I’ve never raised anything close to the (at least) $1 million required to run a competitive congressional campaign. I grew up in a working-class household, and my husband, children, and I make up a solidly middle-class family. We live paycheck to paycheck, with our kids’ college tuition bills (along with our own old student loan debt), a mortgage payment, car payments, and a mom whom I help a little bit every now and then. I can’t write a big check to my campaign and self-fund a mailer or a commercial. I just don’t have that kind of money. And I don’t have family members I can turn to for the coveted “double maximum” contribution of $5,400 per person. I would be too embarrassed to even ask!
In the early weeks following the announcement, my calendar showed the same color: a swath of pink, a big block of time that looks deceptively freeing. Blocked time in my prior professional life was a signal to my staff not to book meetings because I would be using that time for errands or much-needed personal time. But in this life — my new life as a congressional candidate — it means something different, something menacing, something that makes my stomach hurt just a little when the block is labeled “call time.”
Call time is campaign-speak for the soul-crushing task of sitting in front of a computer, usually with someone (in my case, a “call time manager”) next to me, feeding me phone numbers to dial after giving me a name, donation history, background, etc. Each phone number could be for a friend, family member, resident of the community, but more often than not, I’m calling a complete stranger.
After the ugliest of days… the antidote is as simple as can be: knocking on doors.
I get repeatedly (albeit gently) reminded by my team that we have to out-raise our opponents in this fierce competition that is the money race. Because, fair or not, the perception is that the campaign with the most resources is the campaign best positioned to win. And my team reminds me that because we are running a positive, not negative campaign, it will take more money to get our message out. And we have bills to pay, bills for signs, door hangers, mailers. We haven’t even started raising money for the commercials yet. Ay dios!
Then, when it feels like it can’t get any worse, when I’ve suffered the last of the awfulness, when my phone feels like it’s so hot it’s about to explode and my ear feels like it’s about to fall off, I get my next list of calls to make: close friends. These are the friends who have already contributed to the campaign. These are the friends who have block walked, worn the campaign T-shirt to the grocery store, gotten into Facebook arguments with their friends about the race. These are the friends our staff has said we need to circle back with for another round.
Am I done yet?
Okay, back to call time.
Just Like Bill Clinton…
After the ugliest of days, whether it be an awful debate, or a mailer that is so dishonest it’s absurd, or a TV commercial that uses the most distorted look on my face (and the worst hair) possible, the antidote is as simple as can be: knocking on doors.
On the best of days, my son takes the odd-numbered side of the street as I take the even.
After a few knocks on doors where no one is home, I will meet a voter like the woman who recognizes me instantly and says in Spanish, “Come inside!” We sit on her couch, and she has zero interest in talking politics. Instead, she shows me photos of her children. Her heart is swelling with pride as she talks about how she and her husband put each one of her five kids through college.
With a congressional seat, I can’t help but think it will be even more trying.
I can’t help but think of my own children as we sit and talk. Both of my kids are the center of my universe, as are hers, and having been in politics for a long time (not just my 10-plus years in local government, but my 20 years of volunteering on campaigns) means that my kids have been through it all with me.
And I think of the sacrifices we have made as a family — the time I’ve had to spend traveling, the evenings with neighborhood associations, the weekends knocking on doors, my attendance at town halls, business meetings. While it’s no different in some respects from the sacrifices that a family with two working parents makes, the lack of privacy, being in the public eye, and the intense scrutiny can be very trying at times. And with a congressional seat, I can’t help but think it will be even more trying.
After half an hour, I tell her I need to move on to the next house so I can chat with other voters.
She tells me to wait, runs into the kitchen, and comes back with a banana bread she had just baked.
“Take it,” she says. “We love you and we’re voting for you. You need to eat.”
I hug her and thank her.
The visit with her reminds me of why I’m doing this. The beautiful hopes and dreams of my community; the deep belief that we take care of each other — all of us; the connection to our history, our children, our parents. This is why I’m doing this.
On to the next house.