Behind the campaign: Presidential elections, local politics & breaking the glass ceiling

Roughly two years ago, while getting a crash course in D.C. politics, I had the great fortune of running into Kristin Turner.
Claudia M. Watts

Roughly two years ago, while getting a crash course in D.C. politics, I had the great fortune of running into Kristin Turner. I was standing in the vestibule of Truxton Inn, welcoming visitors to a “meet and greet” when she walked through the doors of its dreary saloon motif with the brightest of smiles. As the featured candidate began to outline his platform, I noticed his disconnect with the audience. They were listening, but they weren’t exactly receiving his message.

Out of nowhere, a clear voice spoke up from the crowd. She too sensed the confusion and before I could realize what was happening, she’d simplified his platform into digestible points, bringing the audience back to attention. Who was this warm spirit and agile mind? I’d spend the next two years finding out, building a friendship that ultimately allowed me to ask for this interview.

Since finishing her law degree at Harvard University, Kristin’s professional path has been unconventional. Moving between roles based on personal ideals and desired growth instead of external expectation. She has taught Spanish at St. John’s College High School, worked for a legal tech nonprofit and most recently, served as lead for national ballot access and voter protection on the Warren for President campaign.

I spoke with Kristin, fresh off the trail, to learn about her experience working for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (E.W.), the future of women in politics, and her take on our political climate, locally and nationally.

Local politics Washington DC

CW: How would you describe your understanding of politics before signing on to work with E.W. and how would you describe it after? What was your most valuable take away?

KT: Before joining the Warren campaign, I think I understood politics to be a long debate over our social well-being: people having different feelings about how exactly it looks and what steps we should take to achieve it. I considered myself to be your run-of-the-mill, civically engaged citizen — I read and watched the news daily and kept up with the chatter coming from different pundits and writers in mainstream media. After the campaign? **sigh** I mean, I still see politics as a debate over our social well-being — and, one that is more necessary than ever. And, I think I was extremely fortunate to experience a campaign and “politics” through the lens of a candidate who has a very strong sense of self and personal ethos. Sometimes, to the extent that she was penalized for it. But, I think working on a campaign like that gave me a really unique opportunity to see politics both for what it is -and- for what it could be. What I mean by that is — working on E.W.’s campaign helped me to see that no matter how thorough, competent, and clear she was, there were still people who would listen more to what others had to say about her versus what she specifically said herself. In light of that, the most valuable takeaway is almost cliche to say — know who you are, be who you are, because someone will find a way to dislike you, regardless.

CW: Were you optimistic about winning, or was it more about the learning experience?

KT: Um, as an undying optimist, I’d have to say both. But, I mostly signed on for the learning experience because that’s just usually how I try to build out and navigate my professional life. And, once I got there? Wow. I learned so, so much.

CW: How so?

KT: I feel like you have to be a weird blend of an optimist and a realist to do that kind of work. You know? Because it’s a space where —not just the possibility— but the likelihood is that you won’t succeed. Everyone knows that going in and still signs their name on the dotted line despite. That’s the beauty in it to me though: holding space for the idea of better, even if most people call it doubtful or naive.

To work on a campaign — whether electoral or issue-based — you have to be enough of an optimist to blow up your life, move, be away from your family, and work brutally long hours with no weekends — all because you think that there’s an opportunity for more. Yet, on the other hand, you have to be enough of a realist to be able to honestly say that it might not work out and you’re still fine committing to the cause, regardless. That’s just what it is. And, though I know that there are some people who work in politics for the glory of winning, I think there are many people who do the work [who] are just trying to move the ball forward. I have endless respect for those people and I’m so lucky I was able to be surrounded by so many of them on the campaign.

Local politics Washington DC

CW: We understand the overarching implications of why we haven’t seen a woman as president, but what do you think it will take to break through this glass ceiling? Is there a certain “type” of woman you believe has a better chance of winning over another?

KT: No, there’s absolutely no “type” of woman that I see as having a better chance of winning over another. I think it’s more so about getting people to actually vote for who they think is the best person for the job versus who they think their neighbor is likely or unlikely to vote for. At this point, “electability” (a word that I really hope dies soon) is more about people’s own biases and less about the candidate who is actually running. America has a history of drinking it’s own revisionist kool-aid about “what is,” “what isn’t,” “what has happened” and “what will happen” and that tendency has repeatedly led to some pretty horrifying results. Especially with regard to politics, if we can’t look at 2016, the effect of the Trump administration over the past three years, the strained 2020 primary cycle, and the disastrous and lethal handling of this COVID crisis and say “maybe we should try something different” then I’m not sure what it will take to break the glass ceiling. But continuing to make the same self-sabotaging decisions after seeing grim outcomes is asinine to me. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

Anyway, I think the lesson here for women is to definitely stop contorting themselves into the small boxes and paradigms that people want to put us in. Those small boxes led us here and– the reality is — a lot of our elected “leaders” have proven to actually be followers. So, at this point? We’d be best served by unapologetically putting forth our new voices and fresh visions. It’s time to change the game. All you have to do is stop taking questions.

CW: Given your exposure to politics at such a high level, let’s talk about apathy, the role it’s played in creating our current climate and the importance of the upcoming elections both locally and nationally — especially considering the economic implications and realizations of Covid-19?

KT: Wow. Yeah, I think that’s a pretty fair diagnosis. Apathy is probably the root of most of the problems we’re currently dealing with. I can certainly understand a lot of the frustrations and feelings of apathy that are being expressed by voters. Especially those who feel that their votes have historically been taken for granted or that their communities have been pandered to in an effort to obtain their votes but then forgotten and disrespected in the off years. Establishment politics have had somewhat of a lethargic approach to tackling big issues: universal healthcare, wealth inequality and inequity, criminal justice reform, climate change, etc. And all of these issues are existential. They literally hold people’s lives in the balance and oftentimes, like we’re seeing now on a pretty devastatingly large scale, cost lives unnecessarily.

Voter apathy, to me, is a direct result of feeling like no matter how overt the assaults are on our communities (whether that’s as Black/Latinx, poor and working poor, lgbtq+, women voters etc) and how much people cry out for help, that those cries won’t be heard in favor of honoring weird and outdated political pastimes. The more that politicians remain apathetic and drag their feet about meeting the moment in confronting these challenges, the more voters lose sight of the understanding that government is a mechanism designed to work for the people.

Especially after experiencing something like COVID, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t take all of these lessons to heart to make sure that nobody is left behind in the future and that we take the necessary steps to care for one another when it matters most– whether that’s proper healthcare, PPE, payroll protections, rent and mortgage relief etc. We have to start thinking differently about what our priorities are and how to ensure that we protect certain qualities of life no matter what.

CW: Returning to D.C. in the height of an election season, what has been your most striking observation? What are your thoughts on having so many millennial-aged candidates across races?

KT: Oddly, I think my most striking observation is that there’s not actually a ton to observe. (eek!) Even though, yes, we’re in the height of an election season, Covid-19 has really upended the traditional ways that campaigns operate. Any and all campaigns rely on direct voter contact and engagement. Covid-19 has essentially stripped campaigns — and society— of the ability to directly connect with people. We’re not allowed to knock on doors, shake hands, or gather in groups. Though it’s been great to see so many campaigns quickly pivot into online forums, there’s no denying that it’s not an ideal substitute — especially given that we’re in the crucial final months of a cycle and how obviously high the stakes are across the board. When it comes to some of the candidates, I’m so here for millennials running! I think it’s way overdue and much needed. It takes a lot to be in public service and in leadership. It can be really thankless. With the stakes this high and the needs of many being so complex and intersectional, we need new perspectives to interpret across all of these different audiences and to think outside the box when it comes to our most pressing challenges. So, if you see a young candidate, please engage with them! Look into their platforms, ask them questions, share their content, or volunteer (!!) because every little bit counts and campaigns don’t work without the people. It’s as simple as that.

CW: Who are your top 3 Democratic vice presidential predictions and why?

KT: Ha! I’m going to keep my predictions to myself — as I’m not sure they do all too much. I just hope that whoever the Biden team ultimately picks is conscientious about the challenges the country and the party faced prior to Trump and is serious about being honest and innovative about how to solve them.

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