“The things I’ve had to navigate as a human being — the personalities, the systematic harassment — all of those things, for four straight years, have led me to this moment,” Hagan, 29, said in a recent phone interview from Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District, where she is running as a Democrat to challenge a 15-year Republican incumbent.
What’s that adage about poking a bear? Do it more than once and she will swallow her fury and file papers to run for elected office. Something like that?
Surely many of the people running for office this year are inspired by a duty to serve and a zeal to uphold American ideals. But also: a lot of them are livid.
Rachel Crooks, one of the 19 women who have accused President Donald Trump of sexual harassment, is running for a seat in the Ohio House. “I think my voice should have been heard then,” Crooks told Cosmopolitan magazine. “And I’ll still fight for it to be heard now.”
When Amy McGrath was 12, her congressman told her she couldn’t fly combat missions. Naturally, she grew up to do just that and is running for Congress in Kentucky. In 2013, Tippi McCullough married her longtime partner, Barb, and was forced to resign from her teaching job because she’s gay. Now she’s campaigning for the Arkansas House of Representatives.
And, of course, there are the legions of women running for office across the country in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss, Donald Trump’s election, the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement.
When it comes to the forces that motivate potential politicians, anger is apparently second only to ambition.
“Candidate emergence is really driven by the candidate — people tend to be self-starters,” says Doug Roscoe, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “Some of them are just ambitious, for sure. But certainly there is some reason why [other ] people decide to take this job. It’s not the money. I bet for most people you can find something that sparked them into wanting to run.”
This is often the case on the local level, he says. A citizen doesn’t like what’s happening with zoning ordinances or teacher contracts, so they run for city council or school board. But sometimes the exasperation bubbles up to higher office.
As an example, Roscoe points to 1992, dubbed “The Year of the Woman” because five women were elected to the U.S. Senate. The year before there were only two female senators.
To what does Roscoe attribute that surge? The Senate hearings considering Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In 1991 the nation listened to Anita Hill’s account of sexual harassment — and then watched as the Senate voted to put Thomas on the Supreme Court.
Roscoe suspects a feeling of outrage similar to the one some women felt in the early ’90s is fueling countless campaigns this year.
“There’s probably a sense of, ‘What can I do about this?’ That’s the thing that gets people to run,” he says. “You post on Facebook again and again and then you think, ‘What difference is this actually making? I’ve posted my 12th meme and all my liberal friends liked it. What good is that doing?’ People want to do something; they don’t want to just complain about it.”
That was the case for Carolyn McCarthy, who ran for Congress 22 years ago to fight for tighter gun control after her husband was killed and son was injured by a gunman firing aboard a commuter train in Long Island. (And perhaps the horrific school shootings that have occurred in the early weeks of 2018 will be the tragedies that birth a new band of lawmakers intent on curbing gun violence.)
For Hagan, the former Miss America, the release of emails defaming her was not the trauma, it was the vindication. “When it all came out in December it was very validating,” she says. Exchanges between pageant executives confirmed Hagan’s claims that they had tried to sabotage her coaching business. “It just felt good for people to know that I wasn’t lying.”
And in the midst of the firestorm that ultimately brought an overhaul of the Miss America Organization, Hagan elevated her voice. In one video on social media, Hagan challenged board members who were reluctant to step down. “They thought they could weather this storm,” she said into the camera. “I am the storm.”
“I was watching this woman live — on Facebook Live, on Twitter — and what she was saying was so relevant to everything we were talking about,” says Lindsay Hanner, one of the Democratic activists who helped persuade Hagan to run and now serves as her campaign manager. “I couldn’t think of a single other person whose voice was that strong and so relevant to the women that I loved and wanted to protect.”
In truth, Hagan didn’t need much persuading. In the fall of 2016, she’d moved from New York City back to her home town, near Auburn, Ala., to start a career in television broadcasting. When Hanner and the other party officials contacted her in January, she assumed they wanted her to endorse a candidate.
“My response was, ‘ME?’ ” Hagan recalls. But quickly, her answer changed to yes. “I’ve been really vocal about women’s issues, the job market, criminal justice, race relations. I’ve done a lot of advocacy. This was an opportunity to say, ‘No — now I want a seat at the table.’ ”
So Hagan quit her job and declared her candidacy. If she wins the June primary, it will be an uphill battle against the longtime incumbent, Republican Mike D. Rogers. But she thinks her experience with the Miss America Organization has given her a thick skin and a chance to show voters what she’s about. “They’ve seen me move away from something corrupt and change it into something better,” she says.
And so Hagan is glad for her anger — and for both the urgency and agency it has wrought.
“There were days I felt very unhappy and thought, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ And this is why. All of this led me to be here in this moment — in this time in our political climate, in this time for women,” she says. “It was pretty hurtful over the last couple years, but I wouldn’t trade it because this is where I’m supposed to be.”