Capri Cafaro, former Democratic member of the Ohio Senate and current Executive in Residence at American University
Ever wonder what it would be like to go beyond your comfort zone and run for office at 26 years old? Or what it would be like, as a young woman, to be elected Minority Leader of your state’s Senate? Or, maybe you’re like me and just want to discover how Capri Cafaro has managed to succeed in politics while remaining down to earth and never compromising on her femininity.
We are always curious to hear the stories of women taking risks to follow their dreams and passions. With our “Career Spotlight” series, we take a glance into the lives of dynamic and pioneering women who are impacting the world positively, in many extraordinary ways.
At 10 years old, Capri Cafaro was campaigning for (the senior) Bush. At 15 years old, she was on her way to Stanford, where she majored in American studies. By the time she was 19, she was studying for her Master’s at Georgetown University while interning on the Hill. Running for office at 26, against an incumbent who was 30 years her elder, was therefore pretty standard practice in Capri’s guide book.
Capri represented the 32nd District in the Ohio Senate from 2007 to 2016. She served as the Ohio Senate Minority Leader from 2009 to 2012, and played a prominent role in the Medicaid expansion efforts in the State. She was also the sponsor of the law establishing the protocol to clear the rape kit backlog. She is now an Executive in Residence at American University and political commentator on various news channels and newspapers.
For someone who has achieved so much so young, Capri is incredibly down to earth and authentic –she manages a Facebook blog dedicated to pie recipes, and readily admits that she runs on Redbull and Metallica when I ask if she has a “daily habit that contributed to her success”.
Can you tell me about your journey into politics?
My interest in politics started at an early age –when I was 8 or 9 years old. I come from a steel community in northeast Ohio that is known for the challenges of economic decline. I was born just a few months after the steel mills abruptly closed in an event called “black Monday”. I grew up in a community with 18% unemployment, where everyone felt left behind by the government.
However, I was lucky to have an inspiration in my grandfather, who was a World War II veteran. He encouraged me to be strong and to focus on finding solutions to every challenge I face. I remember being nose deep in an encyclopaedia on the Battle of the Bulge for a school assignment, when he came up to me and said: “put that away, I was there for that battle” –it was quite a humbling experience.
My grandfather’s diagnosis and struggle with Alzheimer’s was one of the triggering events that pushed me from thoughts to action. I started volunteering on campaigns and working on healthcare with the community, especially the elderly, for instance conducting eligibility assistance research for healthcare. I always had a heart for public service but the combination of these events turned by childhood and adolescent interest into an inspiration to take it to the next step.
What is your main strength that has enabled you to succeed in politics?
A combination of relentless work ethic and persistence, perseverance. Growing up in a community of ‘underdogs’ turned me into a fighter. This is ingrained in me. I ran for office because I really believed that I could help people, and my focus didn’t deviate once.
What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced and how did you overcome it?
My first campaign was challenging: I was 26, I threw caution in the wind, and decided that the worst that could happen would be that I lose the primary. I ended up actually winning it, although not the general election –I was running against an incumbent who had been there for 10 years, and was 30 years my senior.
That process was incredibly difficult, as I faced a number of stereotypes based on my gender and my young age. People either believed it was a vanity project, that I wanted to run for office to see my name on a sign and be on a commercial, or that I was cold, calculating, and so ambitious that I wouldn’t stop at anything. Being blond at the time also did not help – I think I lost at least 5 points because of that. People actually wrote me letters about my roots.
Similarly, when I was running in 2004, a union asked me if I intended to have kids in the next 4 years, because if I did they didn’t want to take the risk of challenging an incumbent by giving me their endorsement. I told them: “I’m sure you wouldn’t ask him that question”.
I feel like we have moved forward a lot in the last 13 years. A lot of political rules have been broken, and in some sense being a young woman who’s never held elected office may actually be an advantage in 2017. We’re also seeing an interesting dynamic where women are not waiting until after they have kids to run for office –some are pregnant in office, have children while in office –these precedents are changing norms for women. There’s still progress to be made of course, and the challenges that I faced are still very present today –being judged on our appearances, our clothes, questioning and distorting our motivations. Too often we are judged by the external rather than the internal.
Unfortunately, as women, we have to show that we can do everything better. You have to exceed expectations to be able to meet them. This is true of women in all career fields.
What is a daily habit you have that has been key to your success?
I’m always thankful, I say my blessings every evening. Gratitude is very important. But I’m not going to lie: I run on Red bull and Metallica, and I play the drums as a stress reliever.
In an interview, you mentioned “As a male, it’s easy to just put on a suit. But with a woman, it’s either you’re too well made-up or you’re trying too hard to not look made-up. It’s impossible to win.”
What is your advice to young women who are struggling to find this impossible balance?
Don’t worry about it. Be yourself. That’s the one thing I learned. Being anything but, people see through it and ultimately it’s not productive for you and not productive for others either.
Power and femininity tend to be considered as incompatible. However, you seem to have successfully combined the two, for instance managing a pie blog on Facebook and sending pies to your republican co-sponsors after bills were signed.
How have you managed to proudly retain your identity as a woman while not losing your credibility as a leader?
I’ve always seen it as a false choice. The bottom line is I do my job. I was incredibly focused and result-oriented and I didn’t change who I was as a person. I love baking and cooking. I also love listening to metal and playing the drums.
You shouldn’t have to fit in one box. As long as you do your job, and can navigate the waters professionally and intellectually you will be able to earn people’s respect, irrespective of the dresses or make up your wear.
What do women bring to positions of power?
Women bring less ego and more pragmatism. They can see the bigger picture as they are able to empathize with all sides of the issue rather than seeing the implications for just one group.
I have an anecdote which I think is exemplary: I was minority leader in the middle of the financial crisis in 2009. We had a significant budget shortfall and a high unemployment rate. We had drained the rainy day fund and needed to find a way to plug this loophole. Both the Governor and Speaker of the House were Democrats at the time, but the Leader of the Senate was Republican, which made my role as Minority Leader quite relevant. I presented a potential solution and everyone thought it was a good idea, but when I asked the House representative if he could call the Leader of the Senate he said “nope they gotta call me”. I had conversations with every single one of these guys and every time I was told “no they gotta call me first”. I couldn’t believe it: we were missing our constitutional deadline (we’re mandated to have a balanced budget in Ohio), and we were going to be losing a few millions dollars a day.
Similarly a few months later we ran into another challenge, and most of the conversations on how to resolve it were focused on the political implications of the issue –of course retaining our seats is part of the job, but schools would have been closed 3 days a week if we hadn’t acted, because the education budget would have been affected. Kids in high risk neighbourhoods were going to be out of school 3 days a week. That’s bad for humans and that’s bad politics.
We have to keep our eyes on the political function of our jobs but the priority needs to be people and usually when you put people first it all falls into place. Women tend to be better at this than men.
What advice do you have for young women aspiring to launch their careers in politics?
Think deeply about why you want to run. You need to bring a passion for service and change, and you need to go in with your eyes open about the challenges you will face, the sacrifices you will have to make, the long hours…
I never wanted to be a career politician –my goal was to apply my policy skills in the healthcare sector. I think it is important to have representatives in office that have that practical experience, who didn’t necessarily go to law school, and who therefore come in with a very different perspective as a result. I put this philosophy in action while in office: I did my second master’s degree while I was Minority Leader in the Senate, in social work. I was essentially working 3 full time jobs, but I’m so glad I did it as it helped me stay close to the people I was representing. As an elected official I saw my work through the lens of a social worker. This is key because a large part of our mission as civil servants is to seek social justice. I think many women come into office after having experience with other jobs, which brings a lot of added value. Being a nurse today doesn’t mean you can’t be a Congresswoman tomorrow.
Additionally, statistics show that women have to be asked to run as opposed to seeking it out. Don’t wait for somebody to ask. Take the initiative on your own. Don’t be afraid to fail. I had the totally opposite experience. Nobody wanted me to run. I lost two elections before I was elected. You’ll get through them and you’ll be stronger so don’t be dissuaded by the potential of public loss and criticism on a very large scale. That’s why you have to be really committed to the change you want to bring about.
You found your passion in politics early on.
What would be your advice to millennial women who feel pressured to “find their passion” but are struggling to find their path?
Life isn’t just about checking boxes. Millennial women are so fixated on checking all the boxes: going to Soul Cycle at 6am, working a 10-hour day, going to a happy hour, cooking a healthy dinner, while changing the world all at the same time.
You do have to make your own luck. You make your own luck by working hard, by investing the time, by engaging with people -especially if you are in public service. But don’t let yourself be fooled by gendered expectations that make you feel like you need to reach unattainable perfection in everything you do.
Don’t be afraid to look outside of the gendered box either. There is a soft subject – hard subject divide, according to which women can’t work in public utilities, transportation, tax issues. I was Ranking Member for transportation for 7 of my 10 years in office. We had a woman Chair of Public utilities and a woman Chair of Transportation. I served on Ways and Means as well. If your passion is energy policy or tax policy or transport infrastructure, don’t be dissuaded by stereotypes.
You have been a strong promoter of bipartisanship throughout your career.
What two or three actions could Americans undertake daily to help restore a spirit of bipartisanship across the nation?
Seek out different viewpoints. Switch over from MSNBC to Fox. Read other newspapers. Read international news. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. There’s so much access to information these days and yet we choose do look only within echo chambers that are reflective of our own values. We judge people in 140 characters. We write incendiary comments on Facebook rather than thinking through the issues and going into actual conversations with an open mind. Ask people rather than judging them: Why did you vote for Trump? Why are you a Democrat? Take the time to have these uncomfortable conversations and you might learn a thing or two.
Americans –and citizens in many other developed countries- are increasingly disillusioned with politics.
How could faith in politics be restored, encourage political engagement at the grassroots level?
Being authentic is very important. Many people see politicians are self-serving, self-centred. You can break down that stereotype by talking with people, sitting with them and showing them your heart. While I was in office I was constantly calling constituents. Each of my constituents heard from me directly at least once. I can’t tell you how many times people told me “I can’t believe you called, I never expected you to call”. The fact that the simple act of a public servant calling a constituent shocked them says everything you need to know.
Additionally, don’t try to be cute about how you answer things. If you don’t know, say it. People will respect you more for your honesty than if you give them a scripted answer.
What is your favourite radio show?
I have two:
Steele & Ungar: Michael Steele, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Rick Ungar, a long-time Democrat, bring both sides of the aisle together to have actual conversations about the issues of the day.
Main street meets the beltway by Salena Zito: she brings the voices of the so-called “fly-over country” to the coast and to opinion makers. It really broadens your horizons.
You should also read local newspapers. If you really want to see what daily life is like in ‘real’ America, read their daily newspapers.
What is your life motto?
“Never give up”.