From a top-tier EMILY’s List endorsement to being featured as a ‘kickass’ political candidate to watch by the online magazine Jezebel, Wisconsin Assemblywoman Kelda Helen Roys’ campaign for the open second district Congressional seat in Wisconsin (currently held by US Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin) has gained some significant national attention in recent months.
Describing herself as a “bold, energetic leader with a progressive vision,” Roys currently serves as the Democratic Caucus Chair in the WI Assembly and has been a fierce critic of Governor Scott Walker’s policies to eliminate collective bargaining rights for workers. I had the chance to speak with Representative Roys back in October, where we discussed her work in the Wisconsin Assembly, her Congressional campaign and the importance of getting young women off the sidelines.
How did she start her political journey? After graduating from the University of Wisconsin School of Law, Roys was given the opportunity to become the Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice in Wisconsin, spending four years “on the front lines against…anti-choice, anti-birth control politicians, trying to make the world a better place for women and their families.”
“I had never thought about running for office, other than like ‘ok well maybe I’ll be a rock star, or maybe I’ll be a teacher, or a professional soccer player’,” she says. “I had always thought myself as more of an advocate, someone who’s mission was to organize and engage people in this broader movement for equality. I never thought of myself as a politician.”
But with the retirement of Rep. Dave Travis in the Wisconsin Assembly in 2008, as well as a number of phone calls from friends encouraging her to run for the seat, she began to see politics as a possibility.
“[It] took me several months to decide whether I was ready to do it,” she remembers. “Because I was single at the time and I owned a house and had to support myself. To win this really competitive race was going to mean that I had to give it everything….campaigning full time [and leaving] a job that I really loved.” Jumping into the race with an aggressive canvassing strategy, Roys beat out five good male candidates for the Assembly seat.
At 33, Roys is currently Wisconsin’s youngest female lawmaker. For Roys, her relative youth has posed its challenges in her political work, from making her progressive ideas legislative realities in the Assembly to the tough nature of congressional campaign ahead of her.
“Congress has never been older and grayer than it is right now,” she says. “And I think that it has a lot of that has to do with the way we fund our campaigns. It takes more money than ever to run for office… [and] campaigns are almost entirely decided by who has more money.”
“So I think there are a lot of young people, but especially women who say, ‘I don’t have the financial security’ to do this or ‘I don’t have the network of wealthy people who can help me bolt into office’ or ‘I don’t wanna go through this horrible, kind of dehumanizing, process of campaigning for office’, because you really do put everything on the line.”
Staying true to her beliefs, Roys has refused to accept any corporate contributions to her campaign. But if history is any indicator, she can weather the challenge. Her road to the Wisconsin Legislature demonstrates a simple truth about the political process: never underestimate the power of a good candidate, a strong message, and enthusiastic grassroots campaigning. During her 2008 campaign, Roys knocked on an impressive total of 20,252 doors.
“People got to see me face to face, and they got to see that I was credible, that I was intelligent, that I was dedicated,” she recalls. “And they were able to say ‘Yes, I can see myself putting my faith in this young woman.’”
And this passion and energy show no signs of slowing down. While going full force on the campaign front, Roys has persisted in her advocacy for Wisconsin workers. Last December, her campaign called upon the Walker administration for transparency in their correspondence with lobbyists from an out-of-state mining corporation in regard to open-pit mining deregulation. After seven months of stonewalling, these documents were finally released to her campaign on the eve of the June 5th recall election. Roys has invited supporters to help review them.
Kelda’s advice for those interested getting off the sidelines and into politics? “Do it. It’s been the greatest privilege of my life. Your country needs you and your community needs you. We cannot move forward on the issues that are most critical to families unless we see leadership in this country that reflects our diversity. And diversity in every sense….we need everybody at the table.”
Inspired? In Wisconsin and want to show your support for Kelda Helen Roys? Visit her website for ways you can get involved with her campaign!
The Wisconsin Democratic Primary is on August 14.
Photo cred: (upper): badgerherald.com; (lower): KeldaforCongress.com