This is the third in a series of posts that highlight our elected officials and candidates, focusing on what drove them to public service and their experience on the campaign trail. Hopefully, their stories will inspire YOU to make a difference and help turn South Carolina Blue!
We recently spoke with Democratic Congressional Candidate, Mary Geren, who is looking to unseat Republican incumbent Jeff Duncan in November and represent South Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District in Washington, DC.
Mary has been an active member of the Anderson County Democratic Party, an activist for social causes in her community, and a dedicated educator at Clemson University and Tri-County Technical College. We wanted you to understand her motivation to run for public office and learn what it’s like to put yourself out there to be a servant of the people.
When did you first become involved in politics?
I’ve been involved since about 2007. I had volunteered in the campaigns for Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama. Locally, I helped with Jane Dyer’s campaign both times she ran for Congress. It’s been something I’ve felt a calling toward for some time. I also co-chair the Anderson chapter of SC Democrats Care.
What prompted you to take the leap from volunteer to candidate?
My first election was actually in 2012. I ran for a DNC delegate spot to nominate and eventually re-elect President Barack Obama. And, I won! I encourage folks who are interested in running for higher office to serve as delegates at the local, state, and/or national level. Doing so will give them an idea of what it is like to run an actual campaign.
In 2016, I ran for the SC State House here in District 9, and that was an interesting race! I ran against Ann Thayer, who is a very nice lady, and I had even taught her son. She had just disappointed me so much on the Confederate Flag issue. She was one of the few who voted to leave it flying on the State House grounds after the church shooting in Charleston.
In fact, it was Jaime Harrison who specifically asked me to run.
The fact that you had Jamie Harrison’s ear is impressive. How did you go about making connections and getting that type of support to run for office?
I gained connections through campaigning and volunteering, serving as a delegate at the state party convention and the DNC in 2012, working with the College Democrats at Tri-County Technical College- – taking them to conventions, etc. That’s what I encourage people to do; develop relationships and start networking. It’s not going to happen overnight. It took a decade’s worth of volunteering before I accepted the challenge to run for State House.
That doesn’t mean people have to wait 10 years before they should decide to run either. There’s never a perfect time!
Ann Thayer had run unopposed in the previous two elections. Jaime told me, “Mary, if they never have competition, then they’ll just keep doing what they’ve always done.” And so we did that, and it was a really positive experience. For a first-time candidate, introducing myself publicly to the district for the first time, I got 32% of the vote, actually more than Hillary did in that district, and I was able to build the foundation that positioned me to run for Congress two years later.
But ultimately, that race had one nice lady running against another. While we significantly differed on policy, most people didn’t dig that far. I knew in 2018 that I would run again but not against Ann Thayer. I needed the contrast that Jeff Duncan has given me.
That’s a big step to go from pursuing a State House Representative position to vying for a seat in the US Congress. What prompted you to make that leap?
This race has been in my mind for a long time, way before I ran for State House. I knew that after the 2016 SC House election, I wasn’t done. I was just getting started.
My daughter, Madilyn (now in 6th grade), was really interested in that last Presidential election, and she would even talk about being President one day. But she doesn’t talk about that anymore – it was just so nasty, which turned her off to politics.
Madilyn is such a motivation for me to run. I don’t want her to think that just because a certain person is in the White House, she can’t dream anymore – whether it is to be President or whatever it is she wants to do. I went with her to the Women’s March in DC and showed her that we weren’t giving up. It was so reinvigorating to be in DC marching with hundreds of thousands, and many more all over the world!
But I’d say the main motivation was Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as Education Secretary, which prompted me to run more than Trump’s election. Public education is what I am most passionate about, and when she was confirmed, I truly believed then that they wanted to dismantle the Education Department and public education as we know it. Over a year later, I still believe that to be true.
I watched how her confirmation unfolded, and women I knew: teachers, mothers – even those I knew had voted for Donald Trump – were appalled. I saw that as an opportunity to stand up for public education, and I believe those who feel likewise will support me.
I also talked with my good friend, Terrence Culbreath (Mayor of Johnston, SC), and he said, “Mary, this is your time.”
How does your family deal with you running for a high-profile position? Are they equally passionate about politics as you?
My family is supportive. They go to some of my events. In fact, they had a great time at the Christmas parade here (in Anderson). Madilyn was passing out candy, and Shawn (my husband) was waving at the crowd, even though he’s not nearly as outspoken or extroverted as I am.
Shawn is an Independent, and he doesn’t like labels. I respect that perspective. That’s something a lot of Millennials don’t like either, and I believe we’re moving toward a more independent-minded direction in the U.S. Labels sometimes cause people to judge us – they think we’re just all one thing or all another. That simple isn’t true; most of us are somewhere in between one extreme or another.
There are 11 counties in the 3rd Congressional District, and there are a lot of places I need to go and people to meet and listen to. Many of my events are on weeknights, and Madilyn can’t go with me to everything (and she certainly doesn’t want to hear her mom speak over and over again), so Shawn helps to keep things going at home.
Shawn and I have a true partnership. We’ve been married for almost 20 years, yet my thing doesn’t have to be his thing and vice versa. We can be there and support one another in a variety of ways.
You have brought together a young, passionate team to help manage your campaign. How did this come about?
I have to give kudos to Phil, Jillian, and Jill. They are such an AMAZING team. I couldn’t do this without them.
When I ran for State House in 2016, I didn’t have any paid staff. I was pretty much filling every role – planning, fundraising, finance. However, I had some phenomenal volunteers who made phone calls and knocked on doors. But during that process, I made connections and built relationships.
My campaign manager, Phil Dudley, is a graduate of the Clyburn Fellowship program. I had gotten to know him during the State House campaign, and he was very passionate about finding a strong candidate to run against Duncan.
I met our current Finance Director, Jillian Hollingsworth, at an Anderson County Women’s meeting in January 2017. Although she had spent the last 15 years in Charleston, she and her family moved back to the Upstate in December of 2016. She attended my campaign kickoff event and just wanted to get involved, which led her to the position she holds today. Jill Thompson, originally from Charleston, is our Community Outreach Director, who, like many, decided she had to get involved and no longer sit on the sidelines. Too much is at stake.
All three of them have grown so much and have brought such energy and enthusiasm to our team. Both Jill and Jillian are young moms who have given up so much time to help me and the causes I fight for. We would be lost without them.
Candidates need to find people they trust, and I trust my team with my life. To run a successful and competitive campaign, as I learned though the Emily’s List training program, candidates need a team that doesn’t have to necessarily be related to them. A support network can be neighbors, friends, and people who are also passionate about making a positive change in this world.
We don’t always agree – it’s not apple pie all the time. But my team and I are on the same page for the most important issues. I truly believe God brought us together for this cause.
Some people may want to serve in public office but are worried about the “nastiness” that can be found while campaigning. Have you experienced any of that?
I certainly haven’t experienced it from the candidates themselves. I remember attending a Clemson football game recently, and while I was walking to our tailgate spot, I heard “Mary Geren!” It was Jeff Duncan and his wife. When we see each other, we are cordial. We do have a lot in common outside of politics; we’re parents, we’re Clemson fans, and we’re South Carolinians.
I have been warned it will get to a nasty point, however, maybe not directly from the opposing candidate, but from their surrogates.
The nastiest thing we experienced was stealing of signs, car magnets, etc. But I did have the NRA post my cell phone number all over social media because I didn’t fill out their (pointless) candidate survey. I found out about it because somebody called me asking why the NRA was saying I didn’t support the 2nd Amendment.
[Author’s note: this interview was conducted prior to the recent controversy surrounding the NRA and their response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the subsequent March for Our Lives events that transfixed our nation.]
For the Congressional campaign, we’re prepared for it – but the nastiness hasn’t happened yet.
My advice would be that you need thick skin. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “Develop a skin as thick as a rhinoceros hide!” You can’t respond to every petty thing. We try to be judicious in what we comment on, what we respond to.
For example, I called, actually begged, for Jeff Duncan to make some sort of statement about the Roy Moore allegations, which he failed to do. However, he was immediately there to call out Rep. John Conyers. It’s this hypocrisy that people are frustrated with.
I don’t have ill feelings toward my opponent. It’s just a frustration more than anything that I’m not being represented, you’re not being represented, and working people in the 3rd District are not being represented.
You can learn more about Mary’s story, her campaign platform, and ways you can volunteer at marygeren.com