By Lori Saldaña /Part One of Four
As I listen to news reports on Hilary Clinton’s activities in Iowa, and the “Ready for Hillary” campaign theme that has spread for the past year, I think of my own motivations and considerations when I first discussed the possibility of becoming a candidate for State Assembly 12 years ago.
Ms. Clinton has discussed the impending birth of her grandchild as something that gives her pause. She is a veteran of decades of campaigns and elections, and understands what I did not in 2002: time with family often disappears, subsumed by the demands of a competitive election.
Her reflections on becoming a grandmother for the first time remind me of my own grandmother- Dorothy Brecht. In her 97 years of life she saw women earn the right to vote, men take to skies in planes for the first time, and then land on the moon. She wanted very much to see her granddaughter become the first in our family to hold elected office.
Both of these women remind me: Choosing to run for office is a daunting proposition, under the best of circumstances. Candidates traditionally assess the field and wonder “Who can I count on to support me and help me raise the money needed to win?” And equally importantly: “Who may oppose me and do their best to discourage me from running?”
But in December 2002, when I first considered whether or not to run for office in 2004, these questions, along with those about qualifications, experience and skills, were secondary to more personal concerns: specifically: “How will the campaign impact my family?”
A Daunting Proposition
I didn’t really consider the previous questions when I first decided to become a candidate for State Assembly, not because I was independently wealthy, over-confident, or believed that I had universal support. I was simply overwhelmed by family responsibilities, and I was literally fielding phone calls from supporters and advisers in between visits to two different hospitals.
In December 2002 both my mother and grandmother had been unexpectedly hospitalized, and both had required emergency surgery within days of one another. One was at Thornton Hospital at UCSD, the other at Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa.
Since they had previously been relatively healthy and their medical problems had happened so suddenly, I (mistakenly) believed, they would be just as quickly resolved before the “real” campaigning began.
A Dose of Reality
I was also, frankly, naive: I hadn’t been in a campaign as a candidate before. I had volunteered for many candidates, and contributed as best I could on a teacher’s salary.
But the “rough and tumble” of campaigning was new to me. I was unprepared for the cold calculations of the political world. Over the coming months, I would be deeply disappointed by the people who refused to support me- including many of those same elected officials I had supported through days of precinct walking, evenings of phone banking and campaign contributions, before I became a candidate myself.
Also new was the “insider trading” of candidate information. I had no idea how to reach out to the various entitites who were reviewing the field in state level races. The 76th Assembly District was one of the few open seats in California. District voter registration in 2002 was 45% Democrat, 35% Republican and 25% Decline to State.
In other words: it was a very competitive, open seat in a “purple” district. It would be a high profile race, attracting considerable money and attention.
Things didn’t start out well. Many of the pundits and companies doing research on this race never bothered to contact me directly to verify their facts before going to print with their descriptions. This was in large part because I was such an unknown, and they didn’t believe I would stay in the competition, let alone make it beyond the primary.
In one early review of likely candidates in the 76th I was described as a high school teacher who had been an educator since the 1960s- and I think they also got my name wrong.
A Non-Traditional Candidate
I believe being a Latina also had an impact on their evaluation of my chances. The 76th district was overwhelmingly white, and many “in the know” stated, both privately and publicly, that my gender, surname and skin color would be a disadvantage. Some suggested that I should consider moving into a “better” district, in south San Diego, to improve my chances.
Still, I idealistically believed I had a good chance, and reached out to organizations that supported “non-traditional,” Latino and women candidates. This didn’t work out either.
Emily’s List turned me down, and claimed they weren’t doing state races- though they eventually did provide help in the general. (I now believe that this contradictory claim was just their way of not having to choose between two women in the same primary.)
Then there was a well-meaning woman’s organization in Los Angeles whose wealthy members did everything except pat me on the head after I spoke to them at an exclusive private club, perched high atop the city’s skyline.
The meeting went like this: After acknowledging this was my first campaign, and that I was just learning how to raise funds, I discussed my academic and policy background and experience in the community:
- Chair of a nonprofit board, a Professor of Information Technology,
- Dean and Grant Manager for the community college district, and a
- Research Fellow on cross-border environmental policy at UCSD.
I mentioned I had recently submitted an article on international environmental policy to a refereed academic journal, and it had been accepted. I outlined the skills I had developed as an appointee of President Clinton, serving on a binational infrastructure development commission that reviewed billions of dollars in development funds earmarked for the US-Mexico border.
Their response: “You would make a very good candidate for school board.”
Next: Battle lines are drawn