Editor’s Note: This interview is part of our Running Women project following 15 compelling women candidates in 2018.
If you want to understand the surge of women candidates in the U.S. this year, get to know Democrat Chrissy Houlahan.
The engineer, military veteran, business leader and mother of two daughters leapt into politics after the election of President Donald Trump — first, organizing a bus to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and, then, launching a campaign to unseat her Pennsylvania district’s incumbent Republican congressman.
Houlahan is one of more than 30,000 women who since Trump’s election have spontaneously reached out to Emily’s List to register their interest in running for office. The organization, a fundraising powerhouse for Democratic women candidates, quickly got behind her. Last week, so did former Vice President Joe Biden.
We spoke with Houlahan about why she’s running for Congress, how her military and business experience shape her candidacy, and the role that Emily’s List is playing in her effort to break an 18-man grip on Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. Excerpts from our conversation, below, have been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to run for Congress this year? Was there a specific moment that cemented your decision?
On the evening preceding the election of 2016, I really felt for the first time in my adulthood that we’re headed in the wrong direction.
I was raised in a household of third-generation military and raised to respect democracy and the democratic process. But this particular election cycle felt different for me — in some ways very threatening to me. One of my children is a member of the LGBT community. She was pretty similarly undone by the results of the election and really concerned about not just her community, but also other communities that would probably be in danger.
This was a real wake-up call and a call to action. I started thinking about what is it that I can do to act, and began organizing a bus of people to go down to Washington, D.C., to march.
I realized that I really did have a lot of the real-world experience that would serve us well in government — and that maybe now was the time for somebody like me to come off the sidelines and join the political process.
What are the driving issues for you? What’s your “why” for running?
The issues that [the people in the community] are most concerned about right now are what I consider to be basic human needs. They are, first and foremost, concerned about their health — healthcare for them and for their families. They are worried about jobs, good jobs, jobs with security, jobs with a living wage.
And one of the reasons why I’m running for national office, is cyber- and biosecurity. I think, in some ways, we are here because of cybersecurity issues.
Are you referring to Russia’s effort to hack the 2016 elections?
To some degree, yes, but not wholly. It has just as much to do with the security of our banks, and the security of our infrastructure and personal information. Right now, I think that’s a blind spot of ours.
I worked in the military as an engineer and, after my graduate degree, for a brief amount of time on infrastructure issues — basically, what would happen to our infrastructure if there were hacks or attacks of one form or another. So I’m aware of those exposures that we have.
How did your experience in the military and being from a military family shape you?
I was very much formed by my military heritage. My dad was military, so was my grandfather. It’s all about taking care of you and yours and your family, and not leaving anyone behind. I think that’s consistent with a liberal or progressive message.
You also have a lot of experience in the business world. How does that affect your outlook and approach?
I spent the vast majority of my career in the for-profit sector and growing businesses. I really do understand what it takes to build and grow companies right here in our community.
Over the course of the 15 or 20 years that I’ve been building and growing companies, I’ve really focused on those values: making sure that everyone has healthcare, everyone has vacations, everyone certainly has a living wage.
You mentioned campaign finance. What role is Emily’s List playing for you, and how have they assisted you?
I applied to Emily’s List. I sent an email about this time last year and attached my resume and said I’d be interested in talking to somebody about running for office. That was pretty naïve of me — my guess is that almost all of those things just go off into the ether, and nobody sees them. But somebody saw it, and somebody called me back and asked if I would come in and visit. So I did.
Since that day, they’ve been enormously helpful. It goes beyond helping connect you with like-minded donors. They helped me find my campaign manager, who helps me think about my finance plan. They help me with information-system decisions and those kinds of things that helped me get my legs.
How important is the movement to get women into office?
We have 18 congressmen, and that makes us the largest delegation in the nation to not have any women. So, yeah, absolutely I’d like to see more women in Congress on behalf of Pennsylvania, first and foremost.
But, I don’t spend every moment thinking about my chromosomes; I spend most moments thinking about what I hope to bring to the table.
You’re running against an incumbent, which is typically considered tough. Is he vulnerable? What’s your strategy?
I’m not big into tilting at windmills. I definitely believe that Representative [Ryan] Costello is vulnerable for a number of reasons. One is that our district actually voted for Hillary, but we have a Republican incumbent. That’s pretty uncommon. In addition, he’s only in his second term, so he’s, relatively speaking, junior.
And I also think, frankly, he’s not terribly representative of our people. The people in our community are what I would call “purple” people. They are not red, they are not blue, but sort of center. And he voted about 94 percent of the time with President Trump and Paul Ryan.