In January, TIME magazine’s cover dubbed Shireen Ghorbani and nearly 50 other first-time female political candidates as “The Avengers.” But Ghorbani is less make-believe Marvel and more a marvel—a working mother, a longtime champion of women in her community, and the type of person who always has a pot of coffee on, a kitchen full of people, and seemingly 25 hours in a day to ask one more question of a new friend.
Still, with faith in Congress at subterranean levels, there’s more than a few questions looming for Ghorbani, who’s running for Congress in Utah’s historically red second district as a Democrat: Why this? Why now? And why you? Here she shares her decision to take on the job of “candidate,” what the experience has been like so far, and what to consider first if you think you’d like to run for office, too.
For years, one of the hardest things about getting women elected has been getting women to decide to run. What was that decision like for you?
The decision to run for office was something that came on rather suddenly. While I had thought of it as a distant possibility, the 2016 elections and personal circumstances fast-tracked the idea for me. In the months after the election, I began looking at local races, county and state level seats, and truthfully, found that I am pretty well represented at these levels. I only had to look one level up to the federal level to see that’s where critical decisions on the issue that I am most concerned about, affordability and access to healthcare, are occurring. And that’s how I decided to challenge the incumbent for the U.S. House of Representatives. By June of 2017, I knew that was the direction I was headed.
A record number of women—many of them first-time candidates like yourself—are running in 2018. Why now?
For every four men in the U.S. House of Representatives, we have only one woman Representative. When we have people with diverse backgrounds and experiences at the table, different kinds of decisions are made. I’ve lived without healthcare, I’ve personally experienced harassment in the workplace, I know well the burden of student loan debt, and, as a working mother, I’ve stressed over finding childcare. We know that healthy individuals in healthy communities make this country stronger, and systems that support that strength enhance our economic stability. I’m here to look out for families and people trying to get ahead in this great country, not simply serving the interests of whoever writes my campaign the largest check.
What’s been most surprising about the experience so far?
I got into this race because of my own story. What has surprised me and keeps me going are the deeply personal stories of heartbreak and triumph Utahns share with me nearly every day. Recently I spoke with a woman who lives here in Utah while her son dies of cancer in California. She spends as much time with him as she can, but the reason he doesn’t move here is because Utah rejected Medicaid expansion. It is devastating to hear about families being torn apart in these most difficult times, and it keeps me motivated to move forward to work for these families.
You’re running against a three-time incumbent Republican in a red state. What will it take to win this race? What messages are you finding resonate across party lines?
Here’s what we know: Access and affordability of healthcare, good strong jobs that help us meet the challenges of the times we are currently living in, and breathing clean air are not partisan issues. They are everyday issues facing everyday Americans. I know my neighbor is also concerned about the quality of education her child receives, and I have no idea which party she supports. Utahns up and down this district know the value of community, service and helping their neighbors. We need leaders in Washington, D.C. who reflect these same values. This is a winnable district. We know the votes are here. How we win is this: We win with people-powered donations. It takes resources to run a strong campaign, and we need volunteers as we plan to knock on thousands of doors. We need engaged voters. If young people turn out to vote, we win.
What is your day job? How has it and your previous professional experiences prepared you for politics?
In my day job, I am a professional problem solver. My official title is associate director of Organizational Development and Public Relations in the Planning, Design and Construction Department at the University of Utah. I bring together people from many different professional backgrounds to improve the work my department does from training, to enhancing customer service, to communications and outreach. To do my job well, I need to listen and work to bring people from different backgrounds together. I need to be responsive to requests for information. These are crucial skills for building cooperation and doing our work better—that’s a perspective I think Congress could benefit from.
You lost your mom to pancreatic cancer in 2016. How did that experience shape your opinions around healthcare, one of your primary campaign issues?
I was raised by a single working mom. She was a high school educator for many years often making no more than $27,000 a year. She worked hard and ultimately went on to get a master’s degree and Ph.D. in education. She managed to keep a house over our heads and put a little away in savings and when she got the diagnosis, we had to sit around our kitchen table and wonder if we would have to bankrupt everything she’d ever worked for to access care. We didn’t have to make that decision because she enrolled in Medicare, a system she had paid into her entire working life, and it worked for us to get her the care she needed. Our final conversations were not about fear of mounting costs—no American family should be driven into poverty to access medical care. Not one. This became incredibly important to me after losing my mom.
Politics is not a solitary effort. Who is on your team supporting you? Who are your mentors?
I have a small team led by my incredible campaign manager, Stephanie Dolmat, along with many volunteers. I have huge support from my husband who works on our digital strategy while taking the brunt of the household work and childcare (while teaching 9th grade English). I have been lucky to work with a number of strong leaders, many women, from my early days as a work study student at the Women’s Center at St. Cloud State University, to the community leaders I worked with as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, to those who mentored me through two graduate degrees, and local elected leaders who have been inspirational or offered guidance. It has been inspiring to see how many people are stepping up to get involved in this crucial moment of elections.
You’re a working mom, wife and active community volunteer. How are you managing campaigning on top of all this? What does a typical day/week look like?
I could not do this without my husband and my campaign manager who help support me. I’m a night owl, so I get up around 7:30 a.m., check in with the news, get my son to daycare, and head to work for the day. At around 5-ish my second job of campaigning begins as we make calls, attend Democratic party meetings, or attend small gatherings in people’s homes. Then back to the house, sometimes I get to read my son his nighttime stories, followed by strategy sessions, recording videos to get our message out there, writing thank you cards, and getting ready for the next day.
Your son just turned 3. What do you want to be able to tell him about this race when he’s older? What do you wish you could share with your mom?
I wish my mom were here to see when I made the cover of TIME. I know she would be so proud of me and I know she would be a huge help to the campaign. I want my son to know that I decided to run for office because I believe that we need strong moral leadership from individuals who are willing to collaborate to do what is right for this country now, not some distant day in the future. I am running for office because I believe deeply in a quote by one of my political inspirations, Paul Wellstone, who said, “We all do better when we all do better.” It is that simple.
What advice would you give to others considering running for the first time?
Make sure you are willing to raise money. Make certain that you have thick skin. And do it. Now. This isn’t an easy decision, it is a much needed one if we are going to put this country back on track.
I’d love to grab a beer with:
The song/album I have on repeat right now is:
My favorite quick weeknight meal to cook is:
Linguine with fried lemons
Dogs or cats?
Both! We have a dog.
Last book you read:
Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
[Editor’s Note: If you liked our interview with Shireen, be sure to check out our I Want Her Job: The Podcast interview with She Should Run Founder and CEO Erin Loos Cutraro.]
Make sure you are willing to raise money. Make certain that you have thick skin. And do it. Now.