What if by losing an election, you can have the same impact as winning an election? Or maybe even have a greater impact from losing? Would you risk those odds and run for office? I am an openly transgender woman who just ran for Wisconsin State Assembly this past election cycle in West Allis and New Berlin, the western suburbs of Milwaukee. I am honored to be the second transgender woman to run for assembly in Wisconsin’s history. I am honored to have the title and be an active leader in the community! Upon announcing my candidacy, I gave up my private life and put my whole life out on the line for 10 months starting back in January 2020. The prep work and inspiration for my campaign really began about four years ago.
In 2016, I hosted my podcast show which centered topics around LGBTQ politics. I always had an interest in politics going back to my college days. I really started getting involved when 2014 Democractic Party nominee Mary Burke ran for Governor of Wisconsin. I was fascinated with how inspiring many Democratic politicians are. I featured former State Representative JoCasta Zamarippa as a guest on this particular episode, talking about the state of LGBTQ politics in the Assembly. After the show, JoCasta said, “You know, there has never been a transgender woman elected to the State Assembly. I would love to see you as the first.” This inspired me to think, “Could this be possible?” If I put the work into preparing myself to run for office, could I follow in the footsteps of Danica Roem and become the first ever elected Representative transgender woman to the State Assembly in Wisconsin? I was always taught to dream big!
Tragedy turns into opportunity
In March of 2019, I turned 40 years old. Three months later on Father’s Day, a house I rented in West Allis caught fire, and I lost everything I owned. This was a devastating time in my life. Everything I worked for in 40 years of my life was gone. I had a few clothes left and my car. The next day, while staying at my friend’s house temporarily, I collapsed on her floor. I remember saying, “Call 911, I can’t breathe,” and I fell into a coma. I woke up three days later at St. Luke’s hospital on the south side of Milwaukee. I was told I nearly died due to a staph infection in my lungs.
A few weeks after I got out, I received the hospital bill. Shockingly, it was $80,000 to save my life. If I didn’t have insurance, I would likely be going to the courthouse to file for bankruptcy. A voice came to my head and repeatedly said, “Get better. Get stronger. 2020 is going to be your year. Run for office.” I said to myself, “Okay, 2020 is going to be my year, and I will work on accomplishing what I need to to run for State Assembly next year.” I worked on living a healthier lifestyle and lost 62 pounds. I eventually gave up drinking soda.
Kicking off a campaign
In January 2020, I filed the paperwork to run for office in Wisconsin. I thought, what am I doing? Do I have a chance as an out transgender woman running against a four-term incumbent Republican in a tough, gerrymandered district? Wisconsin is known as being one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. My focus turned to hiring strong people around me for my team. If you want to be successful, surround yourself with people who are successful. Right before announcing my candidacy, I brought onboard my campaign manager. I opened my campaign account with $100 of my money and worked out of my bedroom office. A week later, after several late nights of setting up emails, the website, and our social media pages, I formally announced my candidacy and was off and running! My campaign focus centered on what was called the four pillars of health care: Expanding Badgercare, expanding mental health care access, legalizing medical marijuana, and lowering prescription drug costs. I also focused on education and infrastructure.
Many people in the political world believed I didn’t have a chance. Most thought I was 15 points down. Some even stated I would need to raise $50,000 to have a snowball’s chance of beating my opponent. Assembly campaigns on average raise $25,000–40,000 during any election cycle. I started off strong, attacking my opponent on his record. I worked my full time job as a rideshare driver from 5:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and worked on the campaign until I was too tired, usually around 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. I wanted to prove that I was a worthy and viable candidate, necessary for attention in a district which could be flipped. Having a strong campaign plan would be key. I worked hard on gaining name recognition. I reached out to organizations in the area for endorsement questionnaires.
Campaigning in a pandemic
Two months passed, and the state was now in a lockdown due to the Covid-19 crisis. Back in January, no one predicted this would transpire. We had to proceed with all digital campaigning. Throwing out the original campaign plan, we learned a lot of new technology. Technology like Zoom and holding virtual meetings and events became the norm. My team tried new creative ideas while knowing we could fail with those ideas. Working hard, we found what worked for us.
April 15 began the period of nomination signatures. In order to officially be on the ballot for Assembly in Wisconsin, you have to obtain 200 valid signatures of voters in your district and turn in no more than 400 by May 31. Still in a lockdown mode, we worked with a few organizations helping us keep our constituents safe during this period by mailing out nomination signature packets. We mailed out a total of more than 700 of these packets. Between my team, myself, and our volunteers, we made more than 600 follow-up phone calls. On Mother’s Day weekend, I remember I was sitting on just 37 signatures trying to figure out how we were going to do this. This was a point in the campaign where I felt like giving up. My constituents deserved a choice in this election and, combined with my inner strength, I worked hard the next few weeks. After turning in 292 signatures, we got 284 accepted, which felt like a big victory.
On August 11, the statewide partisan primary election was held. Considering there were no Democratic challengers, I would automatically win the election and advance to the general election in November. Amazingly, I received 3,894 votes and my opponent received 4,033 votes. A difference of 139 votes. Primary elections generally have low turnout. I was informed the next day I had become the first transgender woman to win a election on any level in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties! I was proud of my accomplishments and this led to a feature story with Spectrum News Wisconsin. I had earned more than 20 endorsements from political organizations and endorsements from many elected leaders from across the state. Donations were picking up and the campaign was gaining momentum. The national LGBTQ media was begining to pay attention to the race, and interview requests were coming in on a regular basis. I was becoming a household name among the LGBTQ community and Democrats in the state following my campaign wondering if I was going to be able to make history in November. People who loved me and people who hated me were following me. Many conversations was taking place about me being transgender.
Now as a high-profile candidate in Wisconsin, in September, an internal poll was conducted in my district. To my delight, I was within six points and within one point in the Democrat vs Republican category on September 22. This brought more attention to my race including national attention. I was named by two different LGBTQ online magazines as an LGBTQ candidate to watch nationally. In them, an online LGBTQ magazine, I was ranked as one of the top eight candidates to follow. Advocate, another popular LGBTQ national publication named me as well. This was truly an honor to have, as according to the Victory Fund, about 850 out LGBTQ candidates ran for office in 2020. Finally, we were gaining the attention the campaign deserved. In the poll, it stated, “I had a really good chance of winning this election with a robust communication effort.” This boosted my confidence. I was beginning to raise money as if a money faucet was left on, raising shy of $25,000 in September.
With the local and national media attention, and many political experts across the state claiming it was likely going to be a close race, I felt more pressure. Online political ads were now running. The state Democratic party ran an ad on Facebook in the local area that drew a lot of attention—both positive and negative. I was being attacked for being transgender on my looks with nearly 500 comments on one of the threads. A majority of them were hate comments. I learned quickly not to pay attention to those comments. Eventually, a website and Facebook page were created solely to attack me. I knew I had to stay focused on crossing the finish line. Being self-employed, I was able to take off all of October and a majority of November before the election to focus on my campaign working 90–95% of the time out of my bedroom office.
Weeks before the election, signs were popping up as excitement was building toward the general election on November 3. A lot of the buzz was around the presidential race. At times, the campaign team had to respond to situations quickly when my opponent would say things like, “There is nothing the government can do to stop the spread of Covid,” in interviews as the chair of the assembly committee on health. He was knocking on doors. I was making calls all day and appearing on panel events. Many days I was working up to 1:00 a.m. leading up to the election.
Election night can be described as the wildest emotional roller coaster ride anyone would ever attempt to go on. I was getting 3–4 hours of sleep a night leading up to election day. I was exhausted, but still worked all the way to 8:00 p.m. when the polls closed. There were reports of long lines with long wait times estimated to be two hours to vote at City Hall in West Allis. I knew I was likely not going to see my results until late at night. When the polls closed, it was like a sigh of relief. “I did it!” I said to myself. “I ran for office, and it’s up to the voters now.” My team and I gathered around the TV to watch the presidential results coming in, and we checked the results of my race. At about 4:30 a.m., I was asleep on the couch, and my campaign manager woke me to inform me I had lost. I looked up the results, and I gained the trust of 14,134 people and lost to my opponent by 2,999 votes, bringing me within the 3,000 vote margin. Closer than any Democrat has ever come to beating him.
Feeling devastated and tired, I officially conceded my race with a press release at 9:00 a.m. I was so grateful for the amount of support I had gained. When I posted on all of my social media accounts conceding, the love and support poured in. Many people, including elected officials, called me and congratulated me on running a great race. After a good night’s rest, I only began to realize the impact of my campaign. I had followers from all over Wisconsin and across the country. I had international followers from three different foreign countries. By election day, I officially had 2,875 donors totalling over $321,000. Wow, I started my campaign with $100 of my own money, and in just 10 months my funds grew to being worth nearly 1/3 of a million dollars. This is a testament to hard work and believing that anything is possible. Anyone can step up and run for office. It doesn’t matter who you are. Representation matters, and diverse voices are important to have in leadership roles. I promised in my concession messages that I will run again. Many people are begging me to run again. We will see what the future has in store.
Believe in yourself always, no matter who you are. Reach for the sky, and always work to better yourself every day. Persistence—nothing can stop it! These are the ingredients to the force which drives me.