What I Learned Running for Congress

Running for Congress is a unique experience that I often find difficult to describe. The feeling of knowing that everything you say and everyone you meet can destroy your dreams as you juggle dozens of events a day is a challenge mentally and physically. We worked so hard and did all the right things but there came a point when I realized my campaign for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District was not going to have a path forward.

Despite my unflagging optimism throughout the campaign, I felt defeated when I withdrew. It was much easier playing Monday Night Quarterback in the weeks that followed my withdrawal. Every misstep, missed opportunity, or joke that might have landed flat came flooding into my mind. Then came the public comments on social media. Being a failed candidate opened me to a public critique of my character, drive, and values.  It was extremely difficult to realize my run was over and even harder to deal with the constant reminders that I lost. The hardest thing to get out of your head is the thought, “what if I stayed in?” Yet, as I watch campaigns across the country that clearly have no pathway forward I am reminded that I made the correct decision. 

The underlying cause of candidates not having a chance to win is often because they did not launch their campaign for the right reasons or in the right way. Knowing that I consciously chose to take a road not so often traveled serves as a unique badge of honor. I believe that stepping up to serve, whether it is in a city, county, district, state, or national office requires great respect for the office and for the constituents you seek to represent. I frequently wonder what motivates individuals who run campaigns that cause division, point fingers, place self over the country, or think it is simply their turn for office because the establishment told them it was. When a candidate runs for office, they should have a clear vision of why they are doing it, what the goals are they’re setting out to accomplish. If a candidate cannot explain his or her “why,” they frankly have no business running for office.

For me, it helped tremendously that my spirit of service comes from deeply held values that led me to define my vision. This was something I was called to do. Everything seemed to just fall into place as if it was a sign from above to run when I did. Despite my strong conviction that I had to follow that vision, I realized that I didn’t know where to start a campaign. So, rather than just going on Twitter or sitting home frustrated, yelling at my television, I did my homework and learned that the Cobb County GOP was soon having their mass convention. I attended and was immediately welcomed. Following that one meeting, I walked out feeling energized and empowered, especially by a fellow New York City Latina. Pamela’s passion for the 2020 election cycle was contagious. She ensured I was invited to all the key events and made countless introductions on my behalf to many key people in Georgia politics. Though I hadn’t shared with her my interest in actually jumping into the race, Pamela asked me to run. When I told my husband he was all in for Nicole Rodden for Congress. My campaign had begun.

I was fortunate to have a loyal group of family and friends who called me out whenever I lost sight of my “why”.  I kept my focus squarely on representing the constituents of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. I knew what I wanted to be known for; I desired to make change not for myself, but for the betterment of the people of the district. That was my “why” and I owned it.

In the weeks that followed, I had meetings with public servants who have extensive political experience both in the United States and internationally. These experts ran me through the wringer to see if I had what it takes. Each successive meeting confirmed that my background and experience made me a viable candidate, but would the Republican party buy it? In other words, we determined that I had the right reason to run, but was I running the right way?

As it turned out, there was already an establishment candidate in the race, Karen Handel. Karen has been running for every office Georgia has for over 13 years now but she held office for just 4 of those years. The establishment GOP saw her name recognition and the money that followed and backed her completely. Had they forgotten her loss when she ran for Governor, for U.S. Senate, and her losing the GA-06 seat to a Democrat in 2018? I was told it wasn’t my time yet to run, that it was Karen’s turn to run.

I had a positive message shared by other hard-working, common-sense Americans and was the mold-breaking candidate that shattered the notions that if you’re a young person, a woman, or a minority, then you must be a Democrat. I spoke from a place of experience, having worked overseas, traveling to over 25 different countries. Through first-hand observation, I gained an understanding of which types of governments work and which don’t. It was clear that I wanted to work across the aisle on issues we should hold in common, like immigration reform and combatting human trafficking, which was appreciated and viewed as a rarity in the increasingly polarized political environment in the U.S.

After knocking on thousands of doors in the district to share my story and talk about my platform I was reassured that my convictions were shared by the people I was working so hard to represent. The conversations I had with voters on their doorstep often ended with a thank you, a handshake, a pledge of support, and even a hug. I was being cheered on, prayed for, and introduced to the neighbors, which I found to be the purest form of endorsement. There was a sense of unity and community that, despite the constant barrage of commercials claiming that “we are all in this together” which came during the start of this pandemic, seemed to be fast disappearing in the modern era of politics. I was my genuine self and that is what Georgians in the 6th district wanted and needed. Frankly, that is why they supported Lucy McBath in 2018, she seemed genuine, while Karen seemed distant.

Despite all of this, my campaign was doomed from the start. I had no idea that I was supposed to wait in line for my turn and I still reject that notion. After I dropped out, I was asked about running for other seats, but could not bring myself to do it at that time. I believe that once I dropped out of my race for the 6th, it was my duty to step aside and support the candidates who I see bringing a constructive and unifying message, who support my message, calling for a balanced budget, constraining the growth of government, and upholding constitutional values.

I am eternally grateful for the GA-06 residents, my fellow U.S. Merchant Marine Academy alumni, the Emory crew, and everyone else who helped my campaign. I hope they know that I never wanted to let them down and, based on my conversations following my race, I know we made a positive impact in Georgia politics.

Politicians new to the arena are facing enormous challenges to their campaigns that are unique to this time, politics in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every area of our daily lives has been affected and everyone is looking to politicians to provide solutions. The pandemic with the many critical problems it presents has pushed the 2020 election cycle into our daily conversations in an unprecedented manner. Despite the fact more voters seem to care about the elections, it’s harder than ever for candidates for office to connect with prospective voters. Candidates who come up short somehow making those essential personal connections and who fail to come across as genuine and caring will not succeed.

Suspending my congressional race was the hardest decision I have made in my life, but I am stronger having gone through the experience. The same fighting spirit that brought me to serve now calls me to have my voice heard.  Being a founding member of Pardon Our Politics is part of my next step, as is being a fellow for the Club for Growth and an opportunity leader for th Empower America Project. My hope going forward is to not just accept the status quo but to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The fight goes on.

Democrats began their fight to produce a progressive tsunami unseating House incumbents with fresh faces in 2018, continuing the effort in 2020.  When the GOP did this 2010 it won back the House, then the Senate in 2014, and then finally the White House in 2016.  It is time for Republican voters to question candidates and determine who has a real “why” then work hard to bring those with common sense and a sincere desire to serve into office. It is time we speak up and stand up when party leaders decide to back a candidate simply because it is “their turn” to run.