Shelly Hettleman is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. A Baltimore County resident, she represents the 11th district. She tells JW magazine why it’s so important for women to use their voices by voting, calling their representatives, and sharing their experiences. Part of our #VoteLikeAGirl series, the following has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why do you vote like a girl?
A: I just feel it’s the most important way that I can exercise my right as a citizen. Each and every vote counts. I have colleagues who won by fewer than 40 votes. They would not be in office if a couple people had said, “I feel like sleeping in this morning and I’m just going to go to work and not go to the polling place.”
I think as a citizen, as a Jew, as a Jewish woman, it’s my responsibility to participate in the political process. Thousands and thousands of people have protested, been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, gone to prison, and died because they saw the importance of exercising their fundamental right as Americans to vote. I take that seriously and feel privileged to have been born in this country and have citizenship by virtue of the fact that I was born here.
Q: We know that only a fraction of eligible voters actually get out and cast their ballots. Do you find that troubling?
A: I do find it troubling, and in fact some of the legislation that I work on right now is to make it easier for people to register to vote. We see in state after state, unfortunately, efforts to limit people’s ability to vote. As we open up access we also have to make sure that people go out and actually vote that day. We can have them registered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will get to the polls.
That’s why I will be on the phone and I will knock on the doors this election cycle to make sure that people know what the issues are and know about the candidates. And, when I’m up in two years for reelection, I'll make sure they have a chance to meet me and to know what I stand for. If they have trouble getting to the polls, I’ll help them get there.
Q: Do you think letters and phone calls make a difference?
A: I can say unequivocally they make a difference. I know as an elected official, I read my mail. I know, having worked for other elected officials, that they read mail or at least have their staff tell them what their constituents are saying about issues. Same thing with phone calls. People pay attention to their constituents. [Beyond that] voting is the easiest and most fundamental way for us to let our government know how we feel about things, whether we think that they’re going in the right direction or the wrong direction. Holding them accountable and having a voice in saying who gets to fill those seats is what voting is all about.
Q: As a woman in politics, do you feel any additional sense of responsibility that perhaps your male peers don’t?
A: I think so. A colleague of mine serves on the appropriations committee and we often sit across the room from each other. There are a number of times we will have hearings with testimony and there will be all-male panels. We’ll shoot each other texts saying, “Ugh! Again!” The lack of diversity that at times we have in decision-making arenas is incredible.
It’s important to have people of color involved in the decision-making process and to hear from diverse communities. It’s also important to have women at the table sharing their experiences, which are different from men’s experiences, and for women to be in the position of policymakers to make decisions and advance policy that will help women.
Q: How does your faith and identity as a Jewish woman affect your work in the political sphere?
A: It’s an essential part of who I am. I think I bring a different perspective at times to a policy debate. I can share with my colleagues how a particular issue may affect the Jewish community. I am fortunate to have a large segment of the Jewish community [in the Baltimore area] as part of my district. I hear from folks all the time. There are issues that are perhaps unique and distinct to the Jewish community that I can grasp in a different way than my non-Jewish colleagues. They can be empathetic and understanding, but as someone who has grown up in the Jewish community, practices Judaism, and raised children in the Jewish community, I think I can understand things differently.
There are some issues that I might think about in a different way because I’m Jewish. As somebody whose grandparents were allowed to come to this country escaping the Holocaust, I see parallels to what is happening right now with Syrian refugees. I feel that, as a policy maker, immigration is an issue that I can relate to in a different way from others who don’t have that similar sort of family experience.
Q: Especially during presidential campaigns it’s easy to forget that local and state races are important too. Why should people make a point of voting in those races too?
A: We’re the people who actually make the laws that affect policies people deal with day in and day out. That means the money to fill the potholes in roads and to provide the seats for children in the public schools. It means money for the police that protect them, their children and their friends and neighbors. It’s taxpayer money, people’s hard-earned money. As an elected official I take that responsibility very seriously. Someone who is voting for me expresses confidence in me that I can represent them and – to put it really bluntly – be thoughtful in how I spend their money.
If people have problems, part of my job is to make sure the government is doing what it can to address them. I take the job of crafting legislation very seriously, to make sure that it helps people and doesn’t harm them. So it’s really important for people to be involved, for elected officials to hear from them, and for parents to show their children the importance of this responsibility.