“All serious daring starts from within.”
—Harriet Beecher Stowe
My dream had always been to be a wife, mother, and nurse. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision a career in politics. Having graduated from a hospital-based diploma program, I was content to raise my family and work as a staff nurse in Charleston, West Virginia. As I became more experienced in my career, I began to be increasingly frustrated by the lack of power that nurses have in health care decisions. My colleagues and I saw the problems on a daily basis but felt powerless to make needed changes. Living and working in the capital city, we constantly heard about the activities of the West Virginia legislature. The legislative meeting schedules were printed daily in the local newspapers.
After one particularly discouraging day, some of the nurses on my unit suggested that we sit in on a Health Committee meeting at the House of Delegates. Working full time and raising our families didn’t leave much time for outside activities, but one day after work we decided to go and listen for ourselves. In the 1980s, nurses still wore white uniforms. Because we hadn’t had time to change, we were immediately recognized as nurses. To our amazement, no one serving on the Health Committee had any health care experience. In a moment of levity, I commented to my friends that if these guys could get elected, I probably could, too. At least I would understand what they were discussing. We all laughed because, of course, I had no intention of ever running for office.
My offhand comments, intended to be funny, were taken quite seriously by two of my colleagues. They decided that one of them would be my campaign manager and the other my public relations chairperson. I still had no intention of actually running but agreed to go with them to a workshop entitled “How to Get Women and Minorities Elected to Office,” which was sponsored by the National Organization for Women. After attending the workshop and reading the book that they provided, I was more convinced than ever that my running for office was a futile cause. I promptly forgot about my threat.
My friends, however, didn’t forget and began to spread the word. Before I knew it, I was being contacted by other nurses who wanted to help with my campaign for the House of Delegates. To pay the filing fee, they had collected $33 by asking 33 nurses for a dollar each. I called a meeting at my house, and 15 nurses showed up, excited and ready to go. All of us realized that the power that we wanted and needed was in the political arena. Suddenly, I found myself on a roller coaster, and I couldn’t get off.
In my House of Delegates district at this time there were 12 vacant seats. The 12 top vote getters from the Democratic Party ran against the 12 from the Republican Party in the general election. Our first challenge was to make it through the primary. Thirty-four other candidates were running, many of whom were seasoned politicians. Our first big obstacle was money, or the lack of it. None of my backers had money, and I certainly had no personal wealth. We began by collecting small donations of $15 to $25 from individual nurses. The nurses that donated were charged to collect from other nurses. The campaign manual suggested going after endorsements from groups and organizations. I received support from the West Virginia Nurses Association and the West Virginia Association of School Nurses, which were small but very politically active; the teachers’ associations; the Hospital Association; and the Medical Association. The last two groups endorsed me because I was a nurse but never expected me to win and dropped their support after my first election. They never quite understood that my first loyalty was, and still is, with nurses and their patients rather than with doctors and hospital administrators.
My campaign “staff” consisted of volunteer nurses who took pictures, researched key issues, designed brochures and flyers, and formed phone banks. We found out that if you aren’t one of the “good ole boys,” you get very little help or advice from the party. There was no money to buy mailing lists, so we had to be creative. For 2 months, we went to the Voter’s Registration Office every night after work, looked at every voter’s card in the targeted precincts of my district, and got the names and addresses of the voters who had voted in the last three elections. From these, we developed mailing and walking lists.
The guide instructed us to do three mail-outs. We had the money to do one. There was only one way to get our literature out. The volunteer nurses formed teams and walked from house to house, knocking on doors and leaving brochures. To our delight, we discovered that everybody loves nurses and enjoys talking to them. Two weeks later, I covered those same precincts to introduce myself.
Through all of these efforts, I became known as the “nurse” candidate. This helped to pull me out of the pack of 35 candidates. To get free publicity, we stood on street corners and along the highways, often in uniform, holding signs with slogans like “Elect a Nurse” and “Every House and Senate needs a Nurse.” By now, my volunteer nurses and their friends were so excited and encouraged that my biggest fear was letting them down, so I never stopped. Although I tried not to think about it, deep down I still didn’t think we stood a chance of winning.
The night of the primary election, I didn’t plan a party because I couldn’t face the nurses if I lost. My close friends, who had worked so hard, sat with me as the first returns came in. In disbelief, we listened as my name began to be mentioned in the top 12. At the end of the evening, I was not only one of the 12 winners but had come in third. The nurses had won a big one! Suddenly reality set in. We looked at each other and exclaimed, “We have to do this all over again for the general election,” which was less than 6 months away.
After a month’s rest, we did it all over again, and once again were victorious in the general election. When the elation faded, I realized that I didn’t have a clue what to do next. The campaign manual had instructed me how to win but didn’t say anything about how to be a good legislator. I quickly discovered that my past training had prepared me well. As a nurse, I had been playing politics throughout my hospital career.
With name recognition and a positive voting record, I have continued to win elections. We still struggle to raise money, and I still depend heavily on the dedicated nurses and other friends who volunteer to help me. The grassroots campaign is still an effective way to win, although, with the growing importance of the media, candidates must raise more money than ever. Those of us without large corporate donations have to rely on small donations from a lot of people. Fortunately, over the years we have broadened our base to include social workers, teachers, labor unions, and others who fight for the “little guys.” The nurses, however, are always my mainstay.
During each campaign, I have, in addition to the volunteers, a few nurses who stay close to me. They are always there to provide support when I get discouraged and give me strength when I want to quit. As the battles get tough, they keep me focused on our real objective—making life better for the people of West Virginia.
I am currently serving my seventeenth year in the West Virginia House of Delegates. The elections still aren’t easy, but, with 16 years of name recognition and a record that I am proud of, the money flows a little more smoothly and the races are becoming manageable. Through lots of hard work and a positive change in House leadership, I am now vice chairperson of the Health and Human Resources Committee that once had no health professionals as members. As health care becomes a primary issue for the state, I am frequently consulted by other legislators, committee chairs, and even the governor. Through legislation, I created a Behavioral Health Commission that is working to improve mental health care statewide, and I serve on the Commission. I have been able to take a major role in health care reform for the state and have championed several bills that have had direct, positive impact for nurses and their clients, such as the prohibition of mandatory overtime for nurses and funding for additional school nurses to care for our children.
Since I was first elected, my office has been a refuge for nurses and other health care workers who come to the Capitol to be heard. Now, however, my visitors include those representing hospitals, business, labor, and industry. I never tire of finding new ways to serve the people of West Virginia. I am known throughout the legislature as the “nurse in the House,” and I wear that label with pride. Maybe someday soon I will be known as “one of a number of nurses in the legislature.” When that day comes, I will know that I have truly accomplished my dream.
For a list of related websites, please refer to your Evolve Resources at http://evolve.elsevier.com/Mason/policypolitics/