Over the past year, as I watched streams of women declare first-time candidacy, I felt inspired and hopeful, as well as apprehensive. On the one hand, I thought, It’s about time. And our time certainly is right now — we know that, at every level of elective office, there are more women running than ever before. People are fired up and civically engaged in unprecedented ways, and women deserve to lead.
On the other hand, as someone who’s had firsthand experience working on the ground for various political campaigns, including historic races for female candidates, I worried about the practical implications of some of the messages coming from newer organizations. While recruiting folks to run for the first time, some seemed to suggest: “Drop everything, and just do it!” I wondered if this was realistic, how we set up first-time candidates for success, and how we ensure they are meaningfully engaged with the communities they would serve. I wanted to know how candidates can best be prepared to endure the campaign trail, to address the significant impact that running for office can have on personal finances and family obligations, and how these challenges particularly impact women.
I also found myself more and more interested to explore the paths of the women who’ve come before us, the seasoned veterans who have paved the way for so many more women to just run. One such leader is California state senator Holly Mitchell. Before running for office, Senator Mitchell had a career in the public sector: she was a legislative aide and later spent seven years as the CEO of a nonprofit, Crystal Stairs, which focuses on improving the lives of families through quality early-childhood care and education.
When you talk about going deep and thoughtfully interacting with communities and issues, Senator Mitchell sets herself apart as both expert and advocate. As a state senator, she has been described by colleagues as “a moral compass and social conscience of the entire Senate.” But she’s also known to be a budget wonk who understands not just balancing dollars and cents but, more important, the significant impact that funding cuts can have on nonprofits like Crystal Stairs. In fact, it was the experience of receiving budget cuts while her organization relied on state money that Senator Mitchell credits with influencing her run for office.
What follows is a conversation with Senator Mitchell about her path to the state legislature, lessons learned along the way, and how we should be thinking about expanding opportunities in politics for black women in particular.
Meena Harris: I want to know about your path to public service and how you were inspired to run for office. Did you always want to serve, or was it an interest that developed over time?
Holly Mitchell: I studied political science as an undergrad. I was in leadership in the Black Student Union on my high school and college campuses and naturally fell into those roles. My parents were both public servants. I worked on a couple of campaigns when I was really young. My parents had a friend who ran for Congress, and my mother took me along when she went to the campaign headquarters. I would be in the corner stuffing envelopes — that’s what you did in those days.
Fast-forward, I go through the Coral Foundation Fellowship and get an opportunity to work for State Senator Diane Watson in her district office. She was phenomenal in that she allowed me to identify the policy issues that I was interested in, which really has followed me throughout my career.