They Ran to Soccer and Band Practice. Now These Moms Are Running for Office.

June 5, 2018

Glamour: They Ran to Soccer and Band Practice. Now These Moms Are Running for Office.

By: Mattie Kahn

We meet 12 months into her gubernatorial bid, but Gwen Graham has not tired of the political rigmarole.

Graham proffers a firm handshake. She peppers me with questions and listens with such attention to the answers that I feel like she’s prepared to be quizzed. In a deep blue pantsuit, with her warm attitude, she exudes the same calm command that the best CEOs and leaders (and moms) do. And like the most successful of the women who assume those positions (hip to the realities of what it means to be female in public), Gwen Graham is prepared to tick off her (extensive) credentials.

A prominent gubernatorial candidate in Florida, Graham was born in the state she seeks to represent. She has lent her talents to three progressive presidential candidates and worked in her local school district. In 2014 she ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives and won it, becoming one of the few Democrats nationwide to beat an incumbent Republican that November.

But it’s her tenure on the cutthroat PTA that she seems most proud of when we sit down earlier this month. “I was the president!” she tells me. She leans forward and whispers, like she has a secret. “Some people think that’s the hardest job I’ve ever had.”

For over a decade Graham was a PTA mom, a band mom, a school pick-up and let-me-look-at-that-homework mom. Until she had her first child—up to the minute, in fact, given that she went into labor at her desk—she’d worked at Andrews Kurth, a law firm in Washington, D.C. But with an hours-old infant in her arms, she decided to become a full-time parent. It was a “position,” as she puts it, that she held while she raised two more children.

When Graham did return to the workforce, it wasn’t law that drew her back; it was politics. In 2003, with her children grown, she became an adviser on her father’s presidential bid. (She is the daughter of former Florida governor Bob Graham.) When he dropped out of that race, she volunteered her services to candidates Howard Dean and eventual nominee John Kerry. After a stint with her school district in Tallahassee, Graham decided to run for office with her own name on the ticket, much to the bewilderment of most people she knew. It was 2014, one of the grimmest election seasons for new Democrats nationwide.

“I’m a mom, first and foremost,” Graham insists. But the time she spent at home wasn’t a complete break with her career. As she tells it, it was a kind of leadership boot camp. She’d become an expert dealmaker, a person both able to stand on principle and prepared to compromise. She knew how to balance interests that sometimes competed for attention and resources. She’d come to feel like she’d mastered one of the secret skills motherhood—the ability to be in several places at once.

“It was an asset,” she concludes. And in 2014 the constituents who elected her seemed to feel the same. Her success meant, perhaps, that the public didn’t need to “see past” a woman’s choice to become a stay-at-home mom. It was motherhood as a bona fide for public service, and Graham isn’t alone in her intention to tout it.

All across the United States, mothers of small children, some of whom work from home or not at all, have decided to run for office to noticeable effect, despite studies that show that some voters don’t believe women with children can balance their public and personal responsibilities. (On the heels of the 2016 presidential race, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation released a report in which researchers found that voters still express deep concerns over how women candidates with small children would fare in elected positions.) The task ahead of them is formidable: reenter the workforce in a position that doesn’t offer flexible hours or any kind of a structure that lets staff work from home—instead, these women will be on the trail, as candidates for public office.

But whatever the odds, these moms want in. “Maybe there’s a little bit of an initial obstacle to overcome,” allows Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILYs List. But mothers who run for office, she continues, have a unique perspective to share in political races. Motherhood can be a boon to female candidates because it gives them an authoritative voice on all the issues that matter most this election season: health care, education, the opioid crisis, student loans.

These are women who’ve taken their kids to hospitals, lost children to violence and addiction, served in the armed forces or supported spouses who did. From the women who compelled us not to drink and drive, to the ones who want to overhaul gun laws, mothers command moral attention. And “relatable,” that exhausted but still essential buzzword in politics, is a descriptor mothers earn with relative ease, Schriock explains. “These women have the lived experiences that families and communities in their districts and states care about. You just can’t overlook that.”

For Kristina Lodovisi, a candidate for the Michigan State Senate and a combat veteran, her children—three and one, along with a 10-year-old stepdaughter—are central to her pitch to voters. When she meets with people in her district, she explains how it was her armed forces experience that prepared her for motherhood, and her time at home with her children that drove her into this race. In Afghanistan, she tells them, she learned to wake up in the middle of the night, to make decisions fast, to prioritize. With little children, she realized what it means to be a role model and, moreover, what it means to be an advocate.

Hers are transferable skills, and she didn’t have to hone them in the traditional political machine. “It helps, I think, to come at this from a different perspective,” Lodovisi adds when I reach her over the phone. “A lot of these career politicians, other moms don’t feel aligned with them.” When she looks around her district, she sees women like her, who want a better education for their children, more resources, fewer potholes. It’s a simple calculus, familiar to listeners of bedtime stories nationwide: “It’s up to moms to save the world.”

From the women who compelled us not to drink and drive, to the ones who want to overhaul gun laws, mothers command moral attention.

Lindsy Judd didn’t have quite so grand a scale in mind when she started to take her kids out for walks in Reno, Nevada, where she is now vying to be county commissioner. She just wanted somewhere to sit. In an effort to clean up downtown Reno, the city had just passed new laws to fend off loiterers and trash accumulation. As a result, when Judd needed a rest, there were “zero benches, not one.” She decided to look into it, and the more she learned about the ordinances that had been approved, the angrier she became. A city, she explains, should be built with real people in mind. She started to feel like her representatives didn’t have a keen sense of what women like her needed. Or for that matter, what their children needed. A progressive, she started to drop into local Democratic Party confabs, but was disappointed to find that no one else had children with them. Her kids are one and three; they’re loud. More than once, Judd remembers, volunteers would shush them in the halls.

“It’s hard,” Judd admits. “You don’t want to be a disturbance, but at the same time, shouldn’t Democrats want people in their twenties and thirties in the room?” The more time Judd spent with local officials, the more she’d have to call her own mother to have her pick up the kids. There was nowhere for them to sit. The room was too hot or crowded. People wanted them to quiet. She wasn’t offended, exactly. Just bemused. How could the people she voted for be so out of touch with middle-class families? No wonder so few of them seemed concerned about the crisis in access to child care. The issue didn’t even touch them. She mulled it over: What if she ran? “I realized I wanted to be a representative for people who felt like they couldn’t participate, like there was nowhere for them in the room.”

Both Lodovisi and Judd have attended VoteRunLead summits, all-day events that train women to run for office. The last time VoteRunLead held a national session, 41 percent of attendees were moms. The sessions impressed upon Judd in particular that if she wanted to win, she’d need to be honest about the challenges of full-time motherhood. It’s true, Judd concludes, that she has to endure different and more personal queries than her opponents. She’s noticed that people are more skeptical. They want her to prove that she’s up to the responsibilities of this office. But Judd isn’t fazed: “It means I research a lot more to compensate. I tend to pull out more facts and statistics. I like to surprise them with just how much I know.”

But the hurdles that full-time moms have to clear in elections aren’t just political. As Lodovisi knows, the simple coordination (not to mention the financial responsibilities) of child care becomes a serious impediment. A recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision could ease at least that burden.

Earlier this month the commission ruled that a congressional candidate in New York could use campaign funds to cover the cost of child care for her two children. Over two dozen members of Congress and Hillary Clinton had written letters to support the petition, in which Liuba Grechen Shirley contended to the FEC that her child-care-related expenses were the direct consequence of her bid for elected office. After the FEC approved her bid, she said she wanted to see the decision drive more mothers, especially those who are responsible for the care of small children, to run for office. Our government, she said, is “desperately” in need of women “who understand firsthand what it's like to balance a checkbook while raising children.”

Gwen Graham’s children are older, but scores of her supporters are still in the throes of new motherhood. A few months back, a woman came over to meet her at an event in Fort Lauderdale. She wanted to tell Graham that she was and remains a Republican, but that she intended to vote for Graham in the gubernatorial race. (To reach it, Graham will first have to win a competitive primary contest in late August.) The woman, a stay-at-home mom herself, was tired of the current political deadlock and repelled by the message it sent her kids—that to get ahead, they should shut down people who don’t agree with them. She told Graham she saw her vote as a teachable moment, “that in this next election, we will elect people who are committed, who want to break through this negative environment.” Graham, who declares she has “a genetic predisposition for optimism” and boasted of her daughter's impressive position in the school band (drum major, thank you very much), promised the woman she shared her aims.