Taking Action: From Sewage Problems to the Statehouse: My Life as an Elected Official

Taking Action

From Sewage Problems to the Statehouse: My Life as an Elected Official

Mary L. Behrens

“All politics is local.”

—Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives

I have practiced as a family nurse practitioner, pediatric clinical specialist, and nurse educator. Running for political office was not one of my career goals. However, my father was a good role model; he served on our local school board for 12 years. I attended college in the 1960s during a period of student activism and protests; that experience influenced me also. But it was a problem in my town that sparked my work in politics.

Sewage Changed My Life

My leap into the political arena came because of a call from an upset friend who lived on property along the river that ran through our community. She told me there was raw sewage on her lawn that was washing up from the river. She had called the health department. They told her to call the state Department of Environmental Quality. That state department referred her to the health department. Out of frustration, she called me.

Seeing is Believing

I drove to my friend’s neighborhood and saw the raw sewage on people’s lawns. My friend told me that it appeared like clockwork when everyone flushed their toilets and used their dishwashers in the morning and evening. I decided to take action. I contacted local daycare centers and learned that they had noticed an increase in diarrhea in the children. I then called the two local TV stations and three radio stations. I informed them of a serious problem on the river, and I gave them the time and location of a press conference I was planning.

At the press conference, I stated that I was a nurse and was concerned about the sewage being a serious health threat to citizens in our town. I discussed the increased diarrhea in children reported by local daycare centers. The news media representatives who attended my press conference could see the raw sewage and captured images with their cameras. The train was moving down the track! The city, the health department, and the state Department of Environmental Quality had to deal with the calls from the press and the citizens. Our local city government and the state had to provide funds to connect this housing development to city water and sewer in order to stop the pollution.

My Campaigns

As I took action on the sewage problem, I attended several city council meetings. When I observed the city council in action, I thought to myself, “I can do this and bring a perspective to the council as a nurse, mother, and concerned citizen.” At the next election, I ran for city council in my ward along with 13 other candidates. I won, and since then, I have held three elected offices: city councilor and mayor, chair of the county commission, and representative in the state legislature.

I recognized the importance of being involved in my professional associations. I have served as president of the Wyoming Nurses Association, and as second vice president and first vice president of the American Nurses Association. Currently, I serve on the American Nurses Association (ANA) Congress on Nursing Practice and Economics and as chair of the ANA Political Action Committee.

The Value of Political Activity in Your Community

At the local level, you have the opportunity to help address problems that affect people’s lives. For example, a citizen came to a city council meeting one evening and said he wanted passing lanes on a street in the community. He had a persuasive personality and a reputation for getting what he wanted. His initial presentation was very convincing to other council members. But I lived in this neighborhood and was concerned about the safety implications of this proposal. Part of this street abutted a park where children played. Parents parked along the street to watch or pick up their children. If passing lanes were established in this area, speeds would increase, and the potential risk of a serious accident would rise. I asked every councilperson to visit the area, particularly in the late afternoon. All of the members voted against establishing passing lanes on the street.

An Opportunity to Learn the Ropes

The local community is an excellent starting place if you want to run for higher office. You can gain experience, confidence, name recognition, and respect. I had the chance to testify before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. about the high natural gas prices we were paying in our community. Because I was the only mayor to testify (the others providing testimony were senators, representatives, or governors), I was quoted and praised for bringing a refreshing perspective to the Commission.


As mayor, I worked with citizens, state legislators, and our state’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. Richard B. (Dick) Cheney was our only representative in Congress when I served as mayor of Casper, Wyoming. I formed an important connection with him because of my service. This type of connection was an important part of my network when I decided to run for the state legislature and international nursing endeavor.

Some of my work bridged both local and state-level work. I had joined the “Seatbelt Coalition” in Wyoming before running for the legislature. The coalition’s mission was to educate Wyoming citizens about the need for seatbelt legislation and develop a model law for the Wyoming legislature to enact. As a freshman legislator, I co-sponsored the first seatbelt legislation aimed at reducing fatalities on Wyoming highways. I also sponsored several pieces of legislation to help assist communities with high natural gas prices. My experience on the city council prepared me to hit the ground running with issues like this when I arrived at the Wyoming state house.

Leadership in the International Community

I had traveled five times to do humanitarian work in Vietnam and had attended International Council of Nursing conferences. I was concerned about the nursing shortage—not just in the U.S. but in the developing world. In 2006, I sent a one-page note to then–Vice President Cheney discussing how I might contribute to the World Health Assembly that meets annually in Geneva, Switzerland. I did not specify a year but rather how my experiences at the ANA and in Vietnam could add to the discussion for a future appointment.

I was invited to meet with the vice president but had health issues that caused me to cancel (I couldn’t believe I had to do that!). I was so disappointed to have missed out on this opportunity but was surprised a few weeks later when I answered the phone.

Someone said, “This is the White House.” I grabbed my chair. My mind raced—“am I dreaming this?” The vice president had recommended that I be part of the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly—in 3 weeks. I notified the ANA and planned to work with Barbara Blakeney, then–ANA president, who would be attending also.

Soon I was involved in phone calls with staff on logistics and schedule. Before I knew it, I arrived in Geneva for the first meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt. I told staff I wanted to testify on behalf of the international nursing shortage (Figure 93-1).

Stay updated, free articles. Join our Telegram channel

Mar 18, 2017 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Taking Action: From Sewage Problems to the Statehouse: My Life as an Elected Official

Full access? Get Clinical Tree

Get Clinical Tree app for offline access