[Note: The Story Exchange will be writing about women candidates running for office in 2022 throughout the year.]
When pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020, Kaegan Mays-Williams was thrust into an all-too familiar situation – that of a mom trying to balance a full workload and a full house.
To break up the days, she took her then-2-year-old daughter on strolls through her neighborhood. But those walks only served as added doses of reality, as she often found herself passing by lengthy food-assistance lines.
Most of us can relate so far. But most of us aren’t policy writers who aim to influence legislation, as Mays-Williams is. At Everytown for Gun Safety, the advocacy group financed in large part by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Mays-Williams serves as policy counsel – and she realized she could use her legislative know-how to benefit her neighbors. “My own community was suffering,” she recalls – and she wanted to help.
So she did what an increasing number of women have decided to do: run for office. She’s vying for a seat in New York’s State Senate representing its 21st District, the broad swath in the center of New York City’s Brooklyn borough where she’s lived for 10 years.
When she launched her campaign in July 2021, she found that her neighbors – many of them burnt-out caregivers like herself – “were really excited about having someone in office that they knew, advocating on behalf of parents.” Indeed, parents of small children – women in particular – have been underrepresented in governing bodies for decades. “Being in the room, talking about the bill-drafting language with that perspective, makes me a unique and important candidate for this district,” she says.
It’s not the only unique viewpoint she’d have to offer, if elected. Should Mays-Williams advance beyond the state’s Democratic primary in June and ultimately take it all, “this would be the first time in a generation that we’ve had a woman represent this district,” which is 54 percent women. She would also be the first-ever Black, gay woman elected to the New York State Senate.
But this isn’t about shattering glass ceilings – for her, it’s about bringing her lived experience to the table. “We’ve had someone who could empathize with some of the experiences we have,” she notes, “but I don’t think there’s anything like representation.”
Being the Change
Mays-Williams was raised by a single mother who moved to Washington, D.C. from Trinidad in search of opportunity. Her early life wasn’t without struggles – she recalls living in cramped apartments, and a lot of hard work just to put food on the table.
But she says the women of her family found ways to assist others, in spite of that. “I come from a long lineage of women who have chosen careers and positions to help people,” she says, citing her mother’s work in physical therapy, and the teachers and attorneys that comprise the rest of her female family members.
“It’s who our family has always been,” she adds – and who she strives to be. She began her own path to public service by earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from Temple University in 2004, and her law degree from American University in 2009.
Then, she moved north to work for the New York City District Attorney’s Office – a fraught decision, she admits. “There are a lot of people who have questioned, in a system where Black people are overrepresented as both victims and perpetrators, what the role is of another Black person in that system,” Mays-Williams says.
That said, “there’s a part of me that’s a pragmatist – the system does exist, so where can I be the most helpful?” She wanted to try to fix some of its problems from the inside, and would spend the next decade pursuing that aim. The majority of her time there was spent prosecuting violent crimes, though she also went after cases of public corruption and financial fraud – including con artist Anna Delvey of “Inventing Anna” fame.
Yet the judicial system ultimately proved too limiting for Mays-Williams, and she found herself wanting to effect change on the policy end of America’s problems. So she moved on to Everytown for Gun Safety, helping legislators in 19 states and Washington, D.C. enact gun-control policies.
Needed in the Room
To run for office, Mays-Williams underwent training from Emily’s List, Victory Fund, New American Leaders and Moms Demand Action, and learned to campaign “as a woman, as a Black woman, as a gay woman, as a first-generation person.”
Those experiences and facets of her identity, she says, give her fresh insight into the problems that need to be solved — and long-term ways to solve them. “What if we weren’t constantly working in a panic, in a system not meant to prioritize people that are traditionally marginalized?” she asks. “To not just be reactive, but to proactively think about the larger picture?”
For her, lasting solutions can’t center around the idea of returning to pre-pandemic normalcy. That world wasn’t good enough, Mays-Williams says – as she observed firsthand. Childcare was never affordable, and childcare workers were never paid enough. Small-scale entrepreneurs always struggled to keep up with commercial landlords raising rents, and encroaching chain businesses. Gun violence and hate crimes ravaged the city and state then, too.
“We need to do more to support” vulnerable populations, she says. “The pandemic just highlighted how we didn’t before.”
While it’s tough to prioritize any one issue in trying to move forward, Mays-Williams does place the concerns of parents, small business owners and small landlords in the foreground of her campaign. Food insecurity and gun violence prevention are also big parts of her platform.
She’s already met the 1,000-signature requirement for securing a spot on the ballot in New York’s June 28 Democratic primary — tripled that, in fact, to guard against potential challenges to her candidacy. She’ll be going up against combative incumbent Kevin Parker, who has held the seat since 2002, and David Alexis, a business owner endorsed by the New York City Democratic Socialists, among other organizations.
Mays-Williams has scored numerous endorsements of her own, including ones from Run for Something, Brooklyn Young Democrats and the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. Still, she views herself as something of an underdog in this race, especially considering Parker’s long-time occupation of the role. Her campaign flyers have also been forcibly taken down by competitors, she recently alleged via her Instagram account.
But she presses on, pounding the pavement to meet would-be constituents face-to-face while hosting events like Drag Bingo fundraisers as June slowly but surely approaches. It’s all part of her effort to ensure that women and members of the LGBTQ community have one of their own in the room.
She adds, “We’re creating different conversations through different lenses [by being] at the table.”