Gloria Steinem, Ashley Judd, Connie Shultz, Michel Martin and me. All in one room together.
It was Oct. 12, 2012. It is a day I will most certainly never forget, especially if Ashley Judd challenges Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) for the seat he presently occupies in the U.S. Senate and then wins.
Richard Sugarman, founding president of The Connecticut Forum, welcomed me to the “Constitution State” that morning in preparation for my participation in a live, unscripted conversation billed as “The State of Women: Exploring Rights, Roles, Politics & Power.”
The Connecticut Forum is a one-of-a kind non-profit organization whose mission is “to encourage the free and active exchange of ideas in [f]orums that inform, challenge, entertain, inspire and build bridges among all people and organizations in our community…” If you are unfamiliar with The Connecticut Forum, think of a bionic, life-altering version of Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”
On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, the five of us were at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts discussing the state of women at home and abroad. Amid the national debate about trans-vaginal probes, Planned Parenthood, Sandra Fluke and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, birth control and the Catholic Church, re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and whether there was a war being waged on American women by Republicans or President Obama’s economic policies, it was a fascinating discussion.
Little did any of us know that just a few months later, Judd would become a target of Republican ire as Democrats and Republicans alike question whether she will challenge McConnell in his 2014 Senate re-election bid. As Annie Groer observed earlier this week, “The election is not until November 2014, but the ‘will she/won’t she run?’ buzz has caught the attention of everyone from failed GOP kingmaker Karl Rove — whose American Crossroads super PAC has already launched an Internet attack ad slamming Judd as an ‘Obama-following radical Hollywood liberal’ who lives in Tennessee, not Kentucky — to members of the political chattering class who view a Judd campaign as among the most interesting, not to mention expensive match-ups in the next cycle.”
That cold day in October (cold by my standards), I found Judd to be warm, kind, and charming. She was in no way a prima donna or whatever one thinks of when you hear the words “celebrity” or “Hollywood.” She was articulate and passionate. And, in my observation, she was friendly to everyone she met. Whether a high school student, hotel clerk, Gloria Steinem, or the driver of the bus we rode around in, she was compassionate, considerate, and interested in whatever you had to say. All of these character traits matter to voters, even in a state that voted for tea party enthusiast Rand Paul.
During the course of the October forum, I learned that Judd graduated from the University of Kentucky with a major in French and a minor in gender studies. She earned a master’s degree from Harvard. She is a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats. Before Oct. 12, she had never heard of, let alone read E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.” While I was more than happy to discuss James’ trilogy which I did read (and will, hence, never run for political office), Judd discussed what she learned having just read Martha Nussbaum’s “Not for Profit: Why Democracies Need the Humanities.”
Judd cares passionately about women and children. She cares about issues related to gender stereotypes, women in the workplace, the wage gap, reproductive rights, and the scourge of domestic violence. She believes that as a society, we need flex time, maternity leave and paternity leave and she believes that “babies need both parents.”
On the heels of the 2012 elections, no one should underestimate the power of women voters and activists in Kentucky and nationwide should Judd mount a senatorial bid.
Women looking at a potential race will be mindful of the fact that no woman has ever been elected to represent Kentuckians in the U.S. Senate. Additionally, women interested in the possibility of Judd running will be mindful of the fact that all six of Kentucky’s congressional seats are held by men and that Kentucky has only elected two women to the U.S. House of Representatives in its history, once in 1927 and again in 1997, 70 years later. Moreover, they will be mindful that in Kentucky, the wage gap (the difference between men’s and women’s wages) is evident at all education levels and all occupations with, “77 cents to every dollar paid to a man working full time, year round.”
If Judd runs, one can only imagine that she will campaign on these and many of the other issues that affect the lives of all Kentuckians, especially women and children.
Much has been made about whether conservative Kentucky voters would take to Judd, given a 2006 statement she made about why she doesn’t have children, stating “It’s unconscionable to breed, with the number of children who are starving to death in impoverished countries.” I can’t help but note that Ayn Rand, the darling of many Republicans and conservatives, was not only childless, her writings imply that she had malevolent feelings about children and family. It’s hard to imagine Rand speaking lovingly about a “bonus niece” or family as Judd has. Her love of family and advocacy for equal opportunities for women and girls worldwide may mean more to voters than her detractors give her credit for.
Judd has survived the gender politics of Hollywood. Surely, if she chooses to run against Mitch McConnell, she can navigate her way through the political high jinks and gender politics the McConnell re-election campaign machine might throw her way. She could very well be a very formidable opponent.