It’s the day after the day after I completed a run for Congress, and I’m just beginning to sort through the extraordinary experience I’ve had.
I ran as a Democrat in North Carolina’s 13th District and I knew it would be an uphill battle; the district had been gerrymandered with surgical precision to stay Republican and to keep Rep. Ted Budd in office. I lost my election. Still, it was a journey well worth taking and I have no regrets.
Running for Congress wasn’t something I expected to do after two successful careers. But, frankly, the 2016 election left me deeply worried about the future of our country, and I wanted to be part of the correction I felt we desperately need. So after talking with my husband and grown kids, learning from experts what it would take to be a good candidate and deciding whether I had thick enough skin for what lay ahead, I jumped off the cliff.
What I Learned Running for Congress
Looking back, I discovered that running for office is exhilarating, exhausting, informative, inspiring, difficult and even fun. I also learned what my real strengths are and who my real friends are.
I was delighted to see that I had the power to inspire young people and to give hope to those who thought no one cared about them. I learned, too, how remarkably nasty politics can be and the corrupting impact of unlimited “dark money.” And I got a taste of what it’s like to be a celebrity.
Running for office let me use skills I’d developed as a lawyer, a leader of many major charitable organizations and a performer to tell my story and my values in a way that would allow people to get to know and (hopefully) like me in about seven minutes. I told that well-honed tale in unexpected places in North Carolina — from the Cheerwine Festival in Salisbury to the Barbecue Festival in Lexington — speaking to gatherings of farmers, union members, college students, health care providers, veterans, well-heeled business owners and a host of black churches where people were gracious and welcoming. I’ve never felt so supported by other people’s prayers and blessings.
What I discovered is that I loved it.
What I Loved About Campaigning
I loved meeting people in all those settings. I loved listening to them talk about their worries, their ideas and their personal stories. They let me into their worlds, and I deeply appreciated their openness. I loved to surprise them with humor and to create trust. I loved that they liked my TV ads and that they felt like they knew me because those ads allowed my personality to come through.
I loved being in parades and shaking hands with enthusiastic crowds who called out my name because they had seen me on TV. And when I asked whether they’d seen “the good me” in my ads or “the bad me” in those horrific lie-filled ads my opponent unashamedly ran nonstop, they laughed and said, “the good you.”
I also learned that I had a knack for hiring talented people and letting them do their jobs. I had the good fortune to hire a spectacular young woman as my campaign manager who at the ripe age of 29 understood politics, North Carolina and how to how to create and manage a great campaign team.
The Tough Job of Asking for Money
Part of my job as a candidate required me to raise money — a lot of money. I had raised millions for charitable organizations, but had never asked for money for myself. Fortunately, I quickly learned that people who knew me and my values were happy to invest, both before I won my primary and after. I learned that many others were just as worried about our nation’s fate as I was and wanted to help change the tide. They were willing to give again and again and read our endless email updates; they became part of our team.
Getting to know the young people on my staff was an unexpected joy of running for Congress. They wanted to get to know me, learn from me and share the journey because they believed in me.
I found this to be an awesome responsibility and a wonderful opportunity to act as a role model for smart, dedicated, optimistic young people who understood that they needed to be part of change.
Though for many it was their first job, this diverse group of young adults became a cohesive team — a family. They worked their hearts out, made their jobs fun and inspired me. I loved them. They made me feel like I was the leader of a magical summer camp whose mission was to change the world.
The Rough Moments of Running for Congress
It wasn’t all sunny days.
My opponent and allies ran TV ads that were outright lies designed to ruin my reputation and disparage a community foundation I had chaired. We were able to get one ad pulled off two stations and the charity threatened a lawsuit over the other, but the ads kept running night and day.
It was hard to take, and our campaign’s ability to fight back was limited. I had a solid defamation lawsuit, but the verdict would come too late.
Campaigns are also hard on families. My husband spent many nights home alone with the dog, and my kids had to adjust to the fact that I had taken on an all-consuming new responsibility.
Still, it was worth the sacrifice. I’ll always feel I did my part to stop the insanity in Washington.
We forced special interest groups to swoop in and spend more than $4 million to save my lackluster opponent; I like to think that was money they couldn’t spend against other Democrats and that maybe I helped others win by drawing fire on myself.
I even inspired my youngest daughter to leave a great job as a reporter and start her own media company focusing on women and politics.
Looking to the Future
When the election results became clear, I fervently encouraged my young staff and volunteers to continue this work.
We need good people to carry on the fight and to run for office — people who understand that what really makes America great is our desire to be a land of opportunity for all. What really makes us great is our history of setting high ideals and striving to meet them. We may stumble along the way, but we must continue to fight because we know change is possible and we know change is required.
We must make this country what it can be and what it should be.
I may not be able to continue my fight from the House, but I’ve got plenty of determination left in me and I know I’ll find a way to battle on until we win the war for our country’s future.
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