“I think we’re at a time in our country when we have to govern for the people and not for the party,” said Dee Thornton, one of a record-breaking slew of women running for Congress in 2018.
Thornton, a Democrat hoping to flip Indiana’s historically Republican fifth district, said this belief is the result of a lifetime of learning to work with and understand people whose views differ from her own.
“I am a Democrat who has lived in a community for 26 years that is very much Republican. I’ve gone to the polls and not seen a single Democratic candidate to vote for. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t vote,” she explained. “It means I had to think about policy and legislation that is good for all.”
According to her, her campaign is run in much the same fashion — something she believes is key to winning an election many say is already set in favor of Republican incumbent Susan Brooks.
“I’m not focusing on Democrat issues or Republican issues, red issues or blue issues. I’m focusing on things that affect everyone,” she said. “When you focus on a whole and not the few, you can bring forth policy and legislation that is good for all. I think most people can see that.”
Growing up, Thornton lived in South Fulton, Tennessee, and was among the first African American elementary school students in the state to attend desegregated classes.
Her mother, a stay-at-home mom and teacher’s aide, and her father, a veteran and small businesses owner, taught her to look past what she now identifies as the “unjust and discriminatory climate” she was raised in to see a world where change could happen, particularly through political action.
“I remember sitting in the car while they worked to empower people to exercise their right to vote on Election day, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Thornton said, noting that her parents had advocated for the passage of the act that outlawed discriminatory voting practices in many southern states.
“Our experiences frame our thinking and if there are areas where we don’t have experience of knowledge we have to be open to listening and engaging with other people to understand their side,” she said.
“You can’t walk in everyone’s shoes, but you can certainly try to understand the shoes that they’re in,” the congressional hopeful said. “You stop thinking one-sided about the issues when you do that. You start looking for holistic solutions to problems.”
This belief that Americans must learn to walk in the shoes of others is part of the reason Thornton said she is proud to be among the largest ever number of women in United States history to run for Congress. For her, even if she is not elected, the thought of more diversity being present “at the table” is heartening.
“In light of a lot of the things going on in relation to civil rights and legislation that has been passed or reversed after being on the books for many years, it seems like we are in a climate where everything is being discussed all over again. All of the progress that we’ve made appears to be at risk,” she said.
“So, I think every woman running for office should be thinking about how they can use their positions to give a voice to those who are, many times, voiceless. This is our opportunity to speak up and speak out and if we get to the table and don’t use our voice, that’s a disservice to our constituents,” she continued.
She added: “You have to speak truth.”
When asked what advice she would give to female candidates running in future elections, Thornton said it was vital to connect with mentors, particularly other women, who have run for office previously.
“There are also lots of women who have run in the past who are open to being mentors. They share their thoughts and experiences very freely and are always willing to give advice,” she said.
“Then, if you’re elected, be willing to do the same for someone else. That’s desperately needed so women can get the help they need to set up their campaigns and get things rolling.”
This is the second installment of Madam Candidate, an IJR original series about women running for office in the 2018 midterms. Twice a month, the series will profile female candidates across the country with the hope of understanding what inspired an unprecedented number of women to put their names on the ballot this year. Check back for the next installment in the series on April 5, just ahead of the May 8 primary elections in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia.