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Becoming a Candidate Too Soon

Trump year 1

What have you done in the last year to respond to the upheavals in American politics?  This is an installment in a series of short essays that reflect on the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

I ran for office two years too soon.

When I was in high school, my fantasy was to be a U.S. Senator. I became a historian instead and got involved in local politics in Indiana, where we moved in 1999. Indiana went blue in 2008, and despite the rise of the Tea Party and some absurd gerrymandering here, some local races remained competitive. So when my Republican state representative announced his retirement in January 2016 and the local Democratic party urged me to run, I said yes. The sitting governor had rendered himself toxic by ramming the Religious Freedom Restoration Act through in 2015, and the Republican supermajority in the legislature had relentlessly attacked public schools since they took control of both houses in 2011. I thought civil rights and education would be surefire issues.

And so they should have been. But the forces that undermined Hillary Clinton rolled all the way down the ballot in Indiana. Before the Comey letter dropped, I was ahead by 8 points. I ended up losing by five. It was a crushing loss by itself, and coupled with the Orange One’s ascendance, I honestly wondered what really mattered. Being smart and knowledgeable and an expert — all of those things seemed to disqualify me, and in the wake of the election, I had a hard time mustering enthusiasm for my career. 2016 seemed to negate history, to mark a huge step backwards in our progress towards a just, more equal society.

After the election, I spent many hours knitting. Knitting is a proven therapy for depression and grief. But it wasn’t a complete cure.

I spent Inauguration Day in states of alternating fury and depression.

January 21 was the beginning of the way back out of the depths. Five friends and I organized our county’s Women’s March, which we staged at the courthouse in downtown Lafayette. The Facebook event had 235 rsvps. The crowd numbered about 1,500. I was stunned — and inspired. We kept organizing. In February, we held a Congressional Town Hall without our congressman, who declined to appear. We did a Health Care Open House in March; in April, we Marched for Science with 2,000 people. Nearly that many turned out in August to show solidarity for Charlottesville and mourn Heather Heyer.

Those events were a vivid show of the power of numbers, of collective action. They affirmed my faith in our ability to demonstrate our values, to stand up for what we believe in. They stand in stark contrast to the problems of voter suppression and voter apathy, however, and though I won’t be running in 2018, I know I have a role to play, an important one, in holding public officials accountable and communicating essential information to voters.

And I made it to Indianapolis in another way: one of my knitted shawls earned a blue ribbon at the Indiana State Fair.

Victoria Saker Woeste is a research professor at the American Bar Foundation, Chicago, Illinois.

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Victoria Saker Woeste

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