I have never been a politician. I've always run other peoples' campaigns, or vaccinated the elderly, or looked for ways to treat substance abuse, or dragged groups of young leaders with me to Netroots Nation. I never seriously considered running for office myself.
I've been the only Anglo in the room now for two decades. And, until a few nights ago, I saw this primarily in terms of limitations.
Many people don't realize that when Anglos (or, in other parts of America, whites) choose to cross color lines, doors close, just as they close for people of color. Other Anglos begin to assume you hold your job because you are too unqualified to work anywhere else. And often, the people for whom you work direct their anger at you.
I have worked and lived here in Rio Arriba County for nineteen years. Right after my first baby was born I noticed that we had no playgrounds in town. I began organizing my neighbors to build a culturally relevant, age-appropriate tot lot out of recycled materials. One day, a young, new, reformer invited me to come to work for him, building playgrounds all over Rio Arriba County. Or health clinics. Or day cares. It was to have been a summer job.
Nineteen summers passed and I'm still building clinics and playgrounds and day cares. And Health Information Exchanges. And Care Coordination Models. And Affordable Housing. And treatment programs in the jail. I managed a political campaign here and there. And then I stumbled upon a brand new political strategy: vaccinating elderly people at senior centers to get out the vote. We increased immunization rates among seniors by 28,000% in a short time. Where everyone else saw voter participation drop between 2008 and 2012, it rose steeply in Rio Arriba. Voters came out in droves to support a local health care tax. And while they were at it, they voted for Democrats.
Our vaccination fairs became huge events. All of our local politicians showed up to greet their constituents. Here and there, political activists began asking me if I would consider running for chair or vice chair of the party.
I thought they were joking.
But they kept asking. They invited me to political meetings where, to my immense surprise, everybody seemed to want me to play a leadership role in the Party. "I don't know how to go out and get votes for myself," I told them. "But I'm a community organizer. I'm really interested in outreach. I'd like to recruit health care workers, and college students and faculty into the party. I'd love to get youth involved . Maybe we could team up with some small non-profits that need help and hold fundraisers. Fifty percent of the proceeds could go to them and fifty to the Party. Plus we could recruit new members at the events. And I'd like to organize listening booths at my health fairs. We can incorporate peoples' feedback into our local platform."
"Well, d'uh," someone said. "That's what we want you to do. We'll take care of the votes!" It seemed like a pretty good deal if I didn't have to go out and campaign for myself, so I said yes.
A few nights ago, we held our County Convention. The room was packed. When it came time for nominations a few caballeros from our most rural ward motioned for me to join them at the front of the room. "I nominate Lauren Reichelt for Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Rio Arriba!" shouted Henry Ochoa, a respected community elder. He was flanked by commissioners.
"I second the nomination and move we vote by acclamation!" shouted a man from Chimayó in the south.
"You have been nominated for the position of Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Rio Arriba," announced the state official overseeing the process. "Do you accept?"
"I do," I said.
"All in favor of the nomination please say 'Aye,'" he ordered.
A roomful of people shouted 'Aye.'
"Are there any objections?"
No one spoke. And that was that.
It already feels like my life has changed. I've been receiving calls all day long from people around the state who want me to support them in their bids for positions in the state party. An elderly man from a small town in the middle of nowhere called me with ideas for ways to help panhandlers find work. Even in a low level political position, the wheeling and dealing is muddy. I feel trepidation. I imagine it's pretty easy to step over the faint line that separates integrity from corruption.
But I'm also excited. There is so much opportunity. So far, I've been relying solely on health providers to staff fairs and events. Now I can bring in a much broader cross-section of the public. I can help grow a shared sense of purpose by asking Party members to support and help organize community events.
It strikes me that in Rio Arriba County, the Democratic Party is a powerful source of volunteerism. A few activists have gotten very good at approaching people who are usually left out of everything because they are destitute, or in trouble is some way, and asking them to belong. This is great because the first step in community-wide recovery is developing a sense of social attachment. But it's dangerous if belonging is the only reason to volunteer. Without a shared mission, a political party is little more than a street gang.
I see this as a tremendous opportunity to build political power by building a shared community vision.
I also feel exceptionally happy, as if I'd just gotten married. Politics are the soft and seamy underbelly of Rio Arriba. I feel deeply grateful that after two decades, the community is willing to share this part of their existence with me. True love is allowing your partner to see your weaknesses and to love that, too.
All the doors that were just opened to me were opened because of the trust my community has placed in me. It is important now to make decisions that will benefit and strengthen my entire community and not just me.