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Why a county councilwoman was sworn into office on a Dr. Seuss book

Kelli Dunaway is sworn in as a new St. Louis County councilwoman. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
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A newly elected single mother of two wanted her kids to walk away from her swearing-in with an empowering message. So instead of placing her hand on a Bible to take her oath of office as councilwoman for St. Louis County, Kelli Dunaway chose “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss.

Her 5-year-old son, Liam, and her 7-year-old daughter, Bella, held the book in their small hands as their smiling mother was sworn into office Aug. 13.

It was a choice with personal meaning. Dunaway said her single mom was a coal miner who would say if she believed in herself and worked hard, Dunaway could achieve anything.

“In my experience in life, that’s been true,” the graduate of UCLA School of Law said.

When Dunaway, a former Obama field organizer, became pregnant with her daughter in 2012, she was looking for books that offered the same inspiration as her mother’s advice. “Oh! The Places You’ll Go!” was the book.

The belief in one’s own ability, both from her mom and Dr. Seuss, pushed Dunaway to victory this year.

The Democrat captured nearly 60 percent of the vote to represent the 2nd District for the county. Her victory, along with another Democratic woman’s win, turned control of the council to the party. The governing body is seeing another first since 2010: majority women running it, according to St. Louis Public Radio.

With that green light and it being her daughter’s first day of second grade and her son’s first day of kindergarten, Dunaway said Dr. Seuss felt right.

“My kids are my only family in St. Louis, and I wanted them to feel part of this,” she said. “They’re making sacrifices to be part of public service, too, and [the book] has an empowering message.”

Dunaway said she’s seen a mixed bag of responses to her swearing in with a childhood classic, including those who are inspired by her making her own tradition to those who question whether she takes her role in office seriously.

“I understand it,” she said. “A lot of people believe that without God, there can be no morality, and I just don’t agree with that.”

On the other hand, she says the positive responses give her hope for the future.

You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose
— "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Suess

Politicians are not required to be sworn in using the Bible. Article VI of the Constitution says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

President John Quincy Adams took his oath on a volume of law in 1825, and Theodore Roosevelt didn’t use a Bible for his oath in 1901. More recently, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, used Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.

Dunaway didn’t grow up religious. She said she also felt like a Bible wouldn’t have been appropriate for her children who are half-Jewish.

She said the part where Seuss writes, “You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes,” has resonance with the public.

“You get to direct your own destiny. If that message can spread, it can change the world,” she said. “Although we do have to get past the people who think I’m a heathen.”

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