27 Jun

A Look Behind the Scenes…

“There is a young woman out there who is smart, hard-working and motivated to run for public office. She doesn’t have a lot of money or connections to politics. She has no idea where to start. You need to tell her your story.” – A good friend

I’ve been hesitant to use this blog to tell my story because I’m intent on making this listening tour about the people I meet and the stories they let me share. However, I received an email this morning that convinced me to share how I got here. It was from an official in my party, encouraging me to quit and go home. “There isn’t anything wrong with canceling your tour early,” he assured me. It rolled off my back, but it reminded me how many women hear these words every day. “Don’t aim too high,” “don’t disrupt the status quo” and “you don’t know what’s best for you – I do” are refrains we hear continuously throughout our lives. A small percentage of us fight through it, but too many of us let those words sink in and drown out our own inner voices.

These 80 days (and I do intend to complete all 80 days) wouldn’t be possible without the dozens of people who generously shared their time, advice and experiences with me over the past few months. It’s my obligation – and privilege – to share how I got here in the hopes it will help someone else start down an unorthodox path to leadership in public service. So here is my path to politics…

It was nearing midnight on November 8, 2016 and all the election party guests had departed. I sat on the couch. My mind was spinning. What did this mean for women? For my friends with preexisting conditions? For the chances of ever fixing our broken policy systems? I remembered thinking I should probably go to bed soon, tomorrow was a work day. Then I remembered where I worked. The FBI. The U.S. Intelligence Community. What did this mean for the integrity of my position? How could I continue enforcing a system of broken laws, when there was no chance our legislature would ever come together to fix them? I turned to my boyfriend. “What are we going to do?” I asked through tears.

“You’re going to do what you’ve always said you would do someday. You’re going to run for Congress,” Jason said.

I’ve dreamt of policy work since I was eight years old. My Barbies hosted legislative hearings before a panel of Cabbage Patch dolls. I’d argue with my parents and then daydream Madeleine Albright was my real mom. I lived in small town. I didn’t know a single politician. We didn’t have C-SPAN or cable news. Washington D.C. was this mythical place where people did cool stuff like broker peace deals and create jobs. I didn’t see the messiness or the fighting, I just saw the chance to make a difference in people’s lives.

Congress was the last thing on my mind on election night though. Congress was a place you go when you’re older and politically-connected, with enough money to buy a small island. You don’t run for Congress when you still say a little prayer before logging into your bank account. You don’t walk away from a decade-long career that pays the mortgage. You don’t abandon employer-based health insurance. And with all those student loans? No way.

As the months wore on, I couldn’t get Jason’s words out of my head though. They came to me as I watched the President brag about the election results in front of a wall of stars commemorating my fallen fellow Intelligence Officers. And again, as I watched the House vote to take away health insurance for 22 million Americans. And again, as I as I watched a group of only men decide the future of women’s reproductive rights. And again, as I went to work and responded to requests for intelligence reports, tailored to support a travel ban that would create more terrorists than it would stop. You’re going to run for Congress. The words grew louder each day.

So I allowed myself to think about it. Google became my best friend. I searched “how to run for office,” “how to write a press release” and “how to tell your family you’re doing something they’ll find completely insane.” I found trainings, most free and online. I negotiated with my student loan provider. I signed up for MinnesotaCare. I had 10,000 coffees with anyone who would talk to me about their path to politics. I took a class on how to build a website. I chartered a route through my 28,000 square mile district that would take me to every county seat this summer. I replaced the worn-down tires on the bike. I ordered business cards to hand out to anyone who would talk to me.

Most importantly, I asked for help. I gathered my smartest policy-loving friends, most from the Humphrey School where I incurred those lovely student loans. We sat in my living room and talked about the changes we wanted to see in our government, in our policy and in our communities. I asked for their advice, their support and access to their networks. We looked up politicians, activists and community leaders to call. We wrote everything down on giant white sticky notes and plastered them all over the floor. Sitting in the same room where I’d cried on election night, we resolved to fight for our future.

So if you’re wondering if you have what you need to run for office someday, I’ll tell you what I have. I have supportive friends and family. I have enough savings to put food in my belly and gas in my tank for 80 days. I have a preexisting condition, but I also have access to affordable health insurance through the state of Minnesota. I have a notebook in my bag filled with stories of people I meet and the reasons I want to fight for them. I have ten years’ experience fighting entrenched federal bureaucracy and seeing what broken policy does to our communities. I have the desire to shake some politicians and tell them to go work in a detention center for undocumented immigrants, like I did for six years. Then maybe they’d want to come back to the table and negotiate comprehensive immigration reform. I have a willingness to listen and learn from people in my district, and start a discussion on how our gridlocked policy system has affected their lives.

I don’t have access to a secret donor network or the ear of Nancy Pelosi (are you reading this Nancy? Call me!). I don’t have a long family lineage of politicians. I don’t have years of campaign experience or widespread name recognition (it’s pronounced Fy-FER). According to my inbox this morning, I don’t even have the support of my district chair. So, in short, I don’t have anything special. If I can do this, you can do this. Furthermore, we need you to do this. Washington D.C. is only a mythical, far-off land if it’s populated with out-of-touch politicians who think they know better than the rest of us. Listen to those around you. Fill a notebook with the reasons you want to fight for them. Then go out and fight!

And please contact me – I’ll help you in every way I can.

19 Aug

The Reality and Rhetoric of National Security

With less than 20 days left of the tour, I find myself reflecting on a question I’ve received several times the past two months. “The world of politics is so messy right now – do you ever just want to go back to the FBI?” It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

I left the Bureau a few months ago after spending the better part of a decade working in national security. Since the age of 24, I’ve spent my days with human traffickers, gang members and known suspected terrorists. I’ve interviewed women so traumatized by their journey across the border they’d rather go to jail than talk about it. I’ve sat across from men who’d sooner kill me than answer my questions. There’s no doubt about it, I’ve encountered many people who wish to do this country harm throughout my career.

I left my job because there are forces at work in our country more harmful to our national security than what I’ve seen the past ten years. Misogyny, racism, homophobia, greed, corruption and inflammatory rhetoric have always threatened our democracy; however, I trusted the legislative branch would work to keep them at bay. Rooted in the executive branch, I focused on the threat in front of me, believing our elected officials would do the same. Instead, they crafted policy designed to exploit people’s fear of the issues I faced daily. They turned their backs on refugees. They cut funding to programs designed to curb domestic terrorism. They governed in sound bites, crafting laws based on rhetoric and not reality.

The reality is our nation isn’t secure when working parents are forced to choose between paying a medical bill and a heating bill. Our nation isn’t secure when war can be declared in a tweet. The public isn’t safe when our neighbors are afraid to call the police. Our country isn’t safe when even one person who fought for it is living on the streets. The most important thing the federal government can do to protect the nation is facilitate equitable access to food, housing, healthcare, and education. Our best defense is a level playing field.

My former colleagues will continue working around the clock to stop those who wish to do us harm. I left the FBI because we need experienced professionals at the table who will start a conversation about the systemic forces that represent the gravest threat to our nation. So next time someone asks if I’d rather go back to my job protecting our national security, I’ll tell them that’s what I plan to do.

26 Jul

A Mid-point Message

Today marks the halfway point of “Around the 8th in 80 days,” my summer-long listening tour in MN CD08. I’ve put nearly 4,000 miles on the bike, been to 14 counties and had countless conversations. I wanted to share with you a little of what I’ve learned, but I’d first like to share how I decided to approach these 80 days.

I intentionally began this foray into politics without a detailed platform. Our communities have long been sold solutions by people who never took time to understand the problem. I’ve spent my career carrying out such policies, ones built on rhetoric, not reality. When we hit the peak of rhetoric-driven politics this past election, I saw no other option than to leave the FBI to forge an alternate path forward. Barred from political activity by the nature of my work since 2008, I didn’t know where to begin, but I knew how to start – by listening, not campaigning. So I’ve spent the past 40 days asking you to meet with me, to invest your time in someone with no quick fixes and no experience in politics. Given that inspirational proposal, I should have spent these past 40 days sitting in coffee shops alone.

But you showed up. Tired after a long day of work, you picked up the kids and came to talk to me. You told me about the challenges of finding daycare, work, and healthcare. You organized listening sessions at your home with friends and neighbors. You met me in the morning, before going to your job as an elected official, to explain a system that doesn’t make sense sometimes, even to you. Delegates and committee members, you told me of your experience trying to improve an opaque process that leaves behind a majority of the population. You, the grassroots activists, showed me how organizing outside the system can make it better. While I offered no elaborate plan to fix our broken government, you all showed up to help me build one.

Many of you were tired, frustrated and skeptical, but you came and invested anyway. After swearing you were done with politics, you scribbled your number on a napkin and told me to call anytime. After insisting it was impossible to overcome outside spending in elections, you pressed crumpled dollar bills into my hand as we parted. You vented about a political system that has left so many behind, but you patiently helped me navigate the written and unwritten rules of the game. You invested in me even though this is a long shot. Maybe you invested because it is, and you know long shots are sometimes our only chance at leveling the playing field.

It would be nice to think you showed up because I persuaded you with some brilliant pitch, but I know better. You showed up because you still believe. You believe our government can be better than this. You believe in creating a world where those with no power can build it with the help of others, for the benefit of others. You believe in shedding a little light in dark times. You came because you know I can’t do it alone. You showed up to help me get one step closer to building a more just system for everyone.

On this 40th day of the tour, I’m asking you to invest in me again. Please consider a pledge of financial support through my donation page, so we can turn our conversations and plans into a reality. Thank you for your guidance, your trust and your time these past 40 days. I look forward to what the next 40 days will bring!

22 Jul

The Politics of Coming Home

“[W]e often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.” – J.D. Vance, “Why I’m Moving Home”

In nearly every county I’ve traveled to this summer, people bring up the issue of depopulation. Residents wonder where all the young people have gone and how to bring them back or attract new families. I’ve focused many of my conversations on people in their mid-20’s to mid-30’s who have recently returned to rural areas to live. Most of them relay stories of aging parents, lower land prices and the transfer of family businesses as reasons for moving back, especially in farming towns. Some came back as they begin to start families of their own, wanting to give their children the same upbringing they had, close to grandparents and large backyards.

The reality is that more young people are staying away than returning though, which has led to an increased effort to study “return migration” as an economic development strategy. Return migration is the act of leaving one’s hometown to access a variety of educational and professional opportunities and then moving back. The economic growth spurred by return migration is certainly one way to help reverse the issues caused by depopulation. Furthermore, experts have found that returnees specifically feel compelled to support their communities with the skills and knowledge they developed in other areas.

This effort is occurring in the eighth district too. The Economic Development Authority in Koochiching County is compiling a database of people who grew up in the area and might consider returning as part of their “Your Ticket Home” campaign. Koochiching has lost a quarter of their population in the last 35 years and they’re not alone. Through 2050, more than half of MN counties are projected to lose population while the seven county metro area is projected to grow by about 27 percent. Success stories can be found in rural areas though, like that of RaeAnn Conat who returned to International Falls to start Swanky Sweet Pea. In 2013, MPR chronicled her efforts and more in their series “Fighting for an American Countryside” sponsored in part by the Bush Foundation. The project looked at the challenges facing rural areas (primarily depopulation) and the individuals stepping forward to overcome them.

What the news stories and studies don’t often convey is the clash of ideas that occurs along with return migration. People come back armed with new plans, new perspectives, and new partners (welcome to Isanti Jason!). We expect a seamless transition, in our minds we’re just coming home after all. It isn’t always that easy though. Many people want the economic benefits of return migration without the inevitable cultural and political shift. I’ve experienced the friction up close, especially in the realities of small town political life. I lived in Minneapolis for work and grad school, where I was often the lone rural voice in policy debates with friends and classmates. I moved back to Isanti in February, where I now find myself the lone Millennial voice in liberal groups trying to determine their future in an increasingly conservative area. As rural areas seek to welcome back or welcome new residents, we must acknowledge and embrace this cross-pollination of perspectives, even if it leads to uncomfortable conversations about how to move our communities forward. In a time when we’re continuously sorting ourselves by political affiliation, the melee of ideas created by rural returnees may not just hold the key to our survival, but could also provide a blueprint for uniting our divided country.


11 Jul

The Politics of Youth

“Youth is a disease from which we all recover” – Dorothy Fuldheim

I’ve been on the road now for 26 days, which translates to roughly 2,000 miles, ten counties and dozens of conversations. The eighth district is 63% rural and home to the oldest population in the state with a median age of 42. I go to county fairs and coffee shops, talking with people I’ve arranged meetings with or just chatting up the person in front of me in line. I talk to Democrats, Republicans, Independents and recently, a WWII vet introduced me to his label of choice – mugwump. Everywhere I go, I try to get a sense of the community, what worries them and what gives them hope.

The past 26 days have shown me that  people don’t talk much about hope, especially if you’re a liberal in a rural area. A sense of despondency permeates every conversation. However, there is one area that everyone agrees on – hope lies in the next generation. Every day across our district, people of all ages tell me that young people are the future and their only hope for improving the world around them. Their grandchildren give them hope. That nice neighbor kid who’s studying to be a doctor gives them hope. Sometimes, even that 33 year-old gal exploring a run for Congress on her motorcycle gives them hope.

We talk for a few minutes or a few hours. We swap ideas to curb the power of money in politics, ensure equal access to quality healthcare and protect our environment for future generations. Slowly, the dullness of despair recedes from their eyes and their words come tumbling out. They talk excitedly about the future. Without realizing it, they were brought back to a time when they too carried the conviction that a tank of gas and a plan was all it took to change the world.

That feeling doesn’t last though. At some point, the conversation slows as they remember the challenges of the past and the obstacles ahead. They remind me of it too, asking how I’ll ever achieve my goal with little money and no political ties. They speak wistfully of change, but then begrudgingly admit they’re likely to stay the course. Our desire for change is strong, but our capacity to follow through on it is not. I guess that’s why incumbents are re-elected 95% of them time, even when Congress has a 19% approval rating.

I don’t know what the future holds or if the obstacles ahead will prove insurmountable. I have one favor to ask though. Next time you tell a young person that they’re our future, ask yourself what you’ve done recently to help support that future. Have you donated to a youth-driven organization? Have you helped arrange an internship for a young person at your company? Did you stop and buy a glass of lemonade from those miniature entrepreneurs down the block?

My stepdad has a funny habit. Whenever he’s talking to a young couple with a toddler or baby, he presses some cash into their hands before they part. He tells them it’s for their children’s college fund. He doesn’t know if those dollars will ultimately end up in a tuition check, but he knows young people are our greatest hope. So to him, it’s worth the risk. Maybe it’s an odd approach, but at least he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

05 Jul

The Automation of Politics

I often strike up conversations with people before knowing their experience with politics. When I explain why I’m on the road for 80 days, I brace myself for the frequent response of “ugh, I don’t like politics.” So I was taken aback by a woman in Eveleth yesterday. “I love politics!” she exclaimed. “My favorite thing is when they call and ask for your opinion, you press one for agree or two for disagree…” she gushed on. “Have you ever spoken to a candidate or politician in person?” I asked her. She smiled shyly. “No, I’m sure they’re too busy to talk to me.”

Her response bothered me. How have we created a system in which the highlight of her political experience is an automated phone call? It bothered me because it’s symptomatic of a narrative I’ve heard often these last three weeks. The people I meet with don’t complain about their lack of access to their representatives, but I see it in their interactions with me. Many apologize for arranging a one-on-one meeting by saying “I’m sure you’re too busy to meet with just me.” Others thank me profusely for spending a whopping five minutes listening to them. The reality is, my “political career” is 20 days old. I spend most days in coffee shops, staring at the door, hoping the next person to walk through it will be there to talk to me. How do we dissolve the perception that candidates and elected officials are too busy to be bothered by the people they serve?

I sat on the curb talking with the woman for about 30 minutes as the parade rolled by. We waved at politicians holding signs or shaking hands, and I was reminded that this is the extent of most people’s engagement with their legislators. I understand the math – there’s one U.S. House representative for approximately 700,000 constituents. There isn’t time to have prolonged interactions with everyone. So we’ve come to embrace the tools readily available to us – social media, automated calls and parades. These are cost and time-effective ways to reach a broad audience quickly, but at what expense?

I gave the woman my card and headed down the street. I saw her again later with her son. She’d been clutching my card for hours, showing it to everyone she spoke to, her son told me. It was warm out and the ink had rubbed off onto her palm. I gave her son a fresh card with a promise to follow up with them next time I came through town.

I wanted to feel good about this conversation, to be happy that someone felt heard, but I didn’t. I only felt sad about the widening gulf between the people and their government. I don’t have a concrete plan for breaking down the barriers between representatives and the people they serve, but I know we can do better than this. We must do better than this.

For the time being I’m comforted by the knowledge that, at least for the next 60 days, my bike will take me to the places in people’s lives that phone calls and parades don’t reach.

01 Jul

Women Mean Business

“What I learn from talking to so many women around the world: If you can empower them with the right things, the right tools, they can lift up their family. And that ultimately lifts up their community and their society.” – Melinda Gates

I grew up around generations of female entrepreneurs (except we never called them that, just “boss”). My great-grandma Grace Ceryance owned Range Catering in Virginia for many years before her daughter, my grandma Sharon DeLeo, opened Shari’s Kitchen and Carousel Antiques in Two Harbors. My mom started Training Connections in Two Harbors when I was eight years old. They opened these businesses long before the days of “Lean In” or “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.” For the women in my family, starting a business from scratch wasn’t a choice they agonized over by reading books, taking classes or even studying businesses. They simply saw a need in their community and addressed it.

I’ve spoken with women entrepreneurs throughout our district these past few days. Their paths are different, but their reasons for doing it are much the same. They identified a need in their community and sought to address it with their own unique talents. Micki Agar of the Mocha Moose in Two Harbors told me about her decision to open the coffee and gift shop with her mom in 2013. The Mocha Moose sits on a stretch of highway between Duluth and Two Harbors called the old highway, or the scenic highway. Micki and Penny saw the community needed a space to gather along the beautiful shores of Lake Superior. They grow the vegetables used in their sandwich bar and their next step is to build a greenhouse. They serve local beer and coffee from Duluth Coffee Company. Not only are they providing a space for the community to gather, but they’re promoting other local businesses at the same time.

My grandma, Sharon DeLeo, (pictured above pulling potica in her home) related similar reasons for opening Shari’s Kitchen. Her shop, Carousel Antiques, had been open on 7th Ave in Two Harbors for four years. People wanted to browse, eat and rest before heading to Duluth or up the shore to Grand Marais. She envisioned a place where people could enjoy a home-cooked meal like those her mother had served in Virginia for so many years. She opened Shari’s Kitchen adjacent to Carousel Antiques in 1990. My mom, Jackie Moen, opened her businesses after years of working with the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency. She helped displaced workers find new careers and noticed a gap between their skill set and the skills sought by many employers. Training Connections was borne out of this observation. Training Connections helps employees develop the talent needed in today’s environment and helps employers better communicate the skills they require as well. She recently celebrated 25 years in business.

I’ve seen up close how women-owned businesses contribute uniquely to society. When we empower women with the tools needed for success, they often build businesses that support those around them. They look beyond their bottom line to identify the needs of the communities they live in. They lift up their families, neighbors and other small businesses around them. It’s up to all of us to ensure we return the favor.

22 Jun

Redefining Rural

Fred and Missy have been living in Sandstone, MN for the last 15 years. Missy is active with the Sandstone Arts in the Park initiative, as well as the East Central Indivisible group. Fred was on the Sandstone City Council and is well-known for his musical talents throughout the area. When I tell them I’m seeking to understand the culture and interests of their community, Missy laughs. “We might not be the best people to ask,” she says. “We’re pretty liberal.”

As I’ve met with residents of Isanti, Chisago, Morrison and Pine Counties these past seven days, a common narrative has emerged. It’s the idea that while we love the rural areas we call home, these areas don’t belong to us. We meaning “the other” – the environmentalists, the liberals, the gays, the Resistance leaders.  When I met with a Lindstrom resident, for example, we scurried out to an unoccupied part of the coffee shop after she whispered “let’s talk out here – it’s really conservative in this area.” A Pine County resident told me he proudly voted for Hillary, but wouldn’t dare put a sign in his yard. In Isanti County, I befriended a woman who owned a bar with her same-sex partner of many years. “We don’t advertise our relationship,” she told me. “But I still get nervous when a rowdy group of Trump supporters come in late at night.”

So why are we silencing our voices in our own hometowns? It could certainly be attributed to the fact that Trump carried these four counties by an average of 37 points last November. Media’s obsession with the urban-rural divide continues to paint a pretty homogeneous picture of rural areas as aging, Caucasian, and conservative. While there’s little doubt that rural America is growing increasingly red, what about the seven million eligible voters  across the country who didn’t turn out last year? Where do they lie on the ideological spectrum and why don’t they make their voices heard? Fred’s answer is simple: “Many people don’t feel either party cares about them. Politicians are focused on one thing – reelection” (Fred lives in Pine County where 60% of eligible voters turned out last November).

The “others” I’ve met over the past week have been quiet, but they haven’t quit. In fact, they’ve grown stronger in their pursuit to connect with their neighbors. Missy helped organize a Message Framing Workshop this Sunday for progressives to communicate in ways that resonate more broadly. In Morrison County, Jim is continually coming up with new ideas to bridge the ideological gap. I’ve only spoken with a few dozen people so far, but if this past week is any indication, liberal ideas in rural areas are not dead. If 2016 was the year that conservative rural America rebelled, then 2017 will be the year that liberal rural America rebuilds.

19 Jun

Kick-off Party Pictures!

A few days late, but I wanted to share some photos from the kick-off party last Thursday! THANK YOU to everyone who helped make the tour possible and the party a success! I’m blessed to be surrounded and supported by people who understand the importance of listening and bringing politics back to the people. A special thank you to my team (George, Kassi, Derick, Jason, Jen), as well as Shari and Alana of Captain’s Lakeside Grill for hosting us!

17 Jun

NOT the Divided States of America

“I fought for the United States of America, not the Divided States of America”

So began my first conversation with Jim Storlie of Little Falls, MN. We were seated in Zoomski’s Coffee Shop after the Little Falls Dam Festival parade. Jim was wearing a t-shirt with a fishing lure and a flag on it, and his head was adorned with a bandanna advertising the Veterans Crisis Line. He spoke with passion about the issues that affected veterans like him – disability payments, taxes and the Veterans Choice Program. An active member of the Morrison County DFL, Jim told me about the three issues that dominated politics here: gun rights, abortion and veterans issues. Instead of shying away from these emotionally-charged issues, Jim dove right in with several ideas on how to build a bridge between the opposing sides.

He told me about his idea for a program called “Adoption, Choice, and Education” (ACE) that would help make the adoption process more affordable and less bureaucratic. It would also aim to educate the public on a variety of birth control options without the stigma-bearing name of other high-profile reproductive rights programs. He spoke of the need for a centrist party that he dubbed “Mindful Americans for Democracy” (MAD). MAD would bring together the best ideas of both sides and be a space for respectful dialogue. Jim and I spoke until the coffee shop shut down and his passion for unifying the country stayed with me through the rainy ride back home.

Next time you turn on the TV or radio and hear a political pundit insisting bipartisanship is dead, please think of Jim. Remember that for every person seeking to divide us, there are more people working hard to unite us. People who have fought for our country and continue to do so every day. They come armed with creative ideas and a deep desire to serve our country. If we turn off our TVs, shut down the computer and focus on the passion and energy in your own communities, I know we can build a better future together.


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