Virginia Democratic congressional candidate Eileen Bedell says the rigors of starting up and growing a business prepared her well for the arduous task of campaigning for office — and gave her a powerful reason to run.
Bedell is the owner of McNeil Law Group, a small Richmond-based firm she opened in 2009 that handles 80 to 100 contract litigation, estate dispute and family law cases a year. Some of her clients are also entrepreneurs, which has given her a front-row seat to the many roadblocks small firm owners face as they start up.
The bumps in the road that both she and her clients have navigated as entrepreneurs underlie the economic focus of her campaign: helping other small business owners succeed. She wants to assist constituents interested in business ownership in getting help starting up, and improve access to capital so their businesses can grow — policy prescriptions that are closely in line with those proposed by her party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
But before Bedell gets to work, she has to beat one-term Republican Rep. David Brat. (Neither she nor Brat faced opposition to become their party’s nominee in this race.) Going up against an incumbent is an uphill battle, but a court ruling handed down last year that led to redistricting in Virginia has, she says, turned her Republican-heavy district into more of an open playing field.
“At first, it made me as a voter, say: ‘Who’s gonna run?'” she recalls when news first broke. She spent last holiday season weighing whether to take on the challenge herself. And ever since she decided to run, she has been working hard to oust her opponent.
Her family — her husband, Colin, her 14-year-old daughter, Sadie, and her 1-year-old son, Elery, as well as other relatives — her employees and her friends have been strong supporters throughout. “I can’t do it alone. And as a woman, it’s hard for me to ask for help,” she says.
But working as a lawyer, “I’m reminded everyday that I’m a mouthpiece for lots of people who don’t have a voice,” she says. “It was a natural progression to speak for even more people.”
Advocacy Through Law
Bedell grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. She started school early and skipped the second grade; by the time she earned her undergraduate degree at Virginia Tech, she was just 20 years old.
In 1996, she earned a law degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary. Not long after, she married and moved to Richmond, finding employment there in a small satellite office of a larger law firm.
Bedell says she faced sexism and condescension early on in her career. Clerks and other court employees would confuse her for a cub reporter due to her youth, or refer to her simply as a “girl.” Her supervisor offered her respect and support, however, encouraging her as she took on cases ranging from worker’s compensation claims to custody battles on behalf of same-sex couples.
Under his wing, she continued to enjoy the opportunities she found to help others — that is, until a larger firm based in Norfolk, Va., bought her office as part of an expansion effort. With that came a significant shift in company culture and focus that placed pressure on employees to put in longer hours. As a working mother, Bedell struggled.
“This is a profession rooted in tradition, especially here in Richmond. There’s a sense of gravitas, and I get it,” she says, adding that “you also have to adapt” to meet employees’ needs.
While she was proud of the work she had done at the firm, Bedell needed more work/life balance. She gave her two weeks notice, then went out on her own. “It’s scary — it’s really scary,” she says of launching her venture.
But those experiences — both at her old firm, and while starting a new one — showed her what employees and entrepreneurs were struggling with every day. That knowledge would play a big part in her decision to run for Congress.
A New Way to Help Others
It was, in fact, a perfect storm of circumstances that conspired to take her into politics.
Last year, Bedell was coping with the daunting task of keeping her business running while also being an attentive mother to a newly born Elery, who arrived several weeks premature and spent months in the hospital. Meanwhile, her sister grappled with hospital bills after her insurance wouldn’t cover medical testing for her child.
It all “really came to a head” she says, in terms of “how these policies affect our day-to-day lives.”
Those personal concerns coincided with the redistricting in a way Bedell couldn’t ignore. She filed as a candidate early this year, and has been campaigning ever since, emphasizing her entrepreneur-friendly platform while addressing voters.
As a Congresswoman, Bedell says she would put together instructional materials for starting up a business and finding grant opportunities, and disseminate them widely. She says access to loans with reasonable interest rates for small business owners would be a key focus. And she argues that certain regulations put in place to provide consumer protections at big banks shouldn’t apply to smaller banks or credit unions.
Health insurance expansion is a goal as well. “The Affordable Care Act is, of course, a start, but should not be considered the end,” she says.
Connecting the Dots
Taking on a political campaign is rarely easy, but as an entrepreneur, Bedell is well versed in taking chances and being persistent in pursuit of a goal.
“I had risked going out on my own, and it came out alright. It’s easier to take a risk again — it’s also scary again, but I’m more confident this time,” she says. “All the things you learn when you start up, I’m bringing those experiences in as I’m running.”
She has a passion for fixing problems — and sees so many issues as interconnected. For example, she points out that infrastructure neglect can hurt a small business’ ability to get products to customers.
Ultimately, Bedell is dedicated to resolving such issues and helping other people however she can. “It’s good for women, and for any entrepreneur, to remember that … you have to keep trying.”