Former JWI Women to Watch, Kathy Manning and Susie Turnbull are among the hundreds of women who decided that 2018 was the right time to run for office.
By Sue Tomchin
Will this indeed be the “Year of the Woman”? That question won’t fully be answered until the midterm elections on Tuesday, November 6. But we can say unequivocally that this has been a watershed year in terms of the number of women who have entered races for political office. Since Election Day 2016, more than 36,000 women have signed up to run for office at all levels (source: Emily’s List).
After the June 5 primaries, with more than 25 primaries still to come, the number of women from both parties running was still substantial: 45 women for Senate seats; 363 in the House; 56 for governor; and 41 for lieutenant governor (source: Center for American Women in Politics).
Getting through the primaries is only one of the hurdles they face. Many are going against difficult-to-dislodge incumbents and, to make it even more challenging, a number are running in districts that solidly favor their opponents.
At JWI, we’re certainly not surprised that two of the women running—Kathy Manning, 60, of Greensboro, N.C., and Susie Turnbull, 65, of Bethesda, Md.—are former JWI Women to Watch honorees, Manning in 2011 and Turnbull in 2005. Women to Watch is JWI’s annual leadership awards program recognizing outstanding Jewish women and their achievements. Learn more about Women to Watch!
Manning is a dedicated community activist, attorney and national Jewish leader running for Congress in North Carolina. Turnbull is running for Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. Her lengthy résumé includes serving four years as chair of JWI’s Board of Trustees, serving as chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and holding multiple leadership positions at the Democratic National Committee.
I recently checked in with both women on the campaign trail and came away inspired by their enthusiasm.
“The biggest challenge is getting enough sleep,” Kathy Manning told me, laughing. “If you are doing it right, you are working on it 24/7.” The candidate for Congress in North Carolina’s 13th district has already scaled one hurdle. She won the Democratic primary on May 10 and has now received endorsements from such groups as Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America. She will face Ted Budd, a one-term incumbent Republican, in November, in a district that voted for President Trump in 2016.
Before Manning even announced her candidacy back in December, Budd had already purchased the domain name kathymanningforcongress.com, using it to deride her for ties to “far-left” Democrats including the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.
Despite this tactic, however, Manning said she is committed to running a positive campaign. “I’m trying to present a positive campaign and to talk about what I want to do, my vision for the future and the leadership skills I’ve developed.”
Manning’s leadership experience is extensive. Raised in Detroit, she graduated from Harvard University and the University of Michigan law school. Thirty years ago she moved with her husband to his hometown of Greensboro, N.C. She worked there as partner in a law firm for 16 years and established its immigration law practice. She later founded her own firm which gave her the flexibility to get involved in her community.
Over the years, Manning has worked with numerous community organizations and has advocated for such issues as job retraining, mortgage assistance, and food and healthcare for people who lost jobs in the recession in the 2000s, school readiness programs for low-income children, and economic development to bring jobs to her city.
Passionate about serving the Jewish community, she rose through the ranks of the local Jewish Federation and served as its board chair. She went on to serve on the national Federation board and then became the first woman to serve as the chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, one of the largest charitable organizations in the world.
“Our tradition teaches us that we have an obligation to make the world a better place and to seek justice,” Manning said of her passion for service. “I often think about the quote from Pirke Avot, that you are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it. That’s something from Judaism I carry with me.”
Like many other women running in 2018, Manning said that she began to think about a run for Congress after the last election. “I was particularly concerned that Congress and particularly my member of Congress seemed really out of touch with the problems that are facing the country and everyday problems that keep people up at night,” she said.
The latter was brought home to her when the youngest of her three children was diagnosed with a chronic illness when she was in college. “I am only 20 and have a preexisting condition,” her daughter lamented. “What am I going to do if they repeal the Affordable Care Act? What’s going to happen down the road if I can’t get health insurance?” At that moment, Manning said, “the health insurance debate became very real to me because it was impacting my family.”
Her daughter, at the time still under her parents’ insurance plan, received a prescription for a medication that would keep her condition under control. The insurance company, however, was reluctant to pay, saying that the prescription needed prior approval. Without insurance, the cost would have been out of reach. “This is a medication you see advertised on TV 10 times a day if not more,” Manning said, frustrated. She ended up spending two days on the phone with the insurance company until she at last won approval.
“I started to wonder what people do who can’t spend two days during a work week fighting for coverage or don’t know to keep on fighting and just give up and suffer,” she related. “So when I saw Congress last year working so hard to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I was just infuriated that they were spending so much time trying to take insurance away from people when they should have been spending the time and energy on figuring out how we can fix our health care system and make it more affordable. and bring down the outrageous cost of prescription drugs. It made me realize that Congress is totally out of step with the problems that people face every day.”
When Manning tells this story at campaign gatherings, people come forward with their own stories. “People line up to talk to me about what they pay for prescription drugs,” she said.
Manning relishes the opportunities campaigning has given her to connect with people. “At big events or small, or even when I’m stopping at stores or restaurants along the way, the opportunity to talk and meet with so many people has been fantastic. It’s been a great joy to meet so many people across the district and learn about their lives and the issues that make a difference for them and their families.”
“A good leader has to be a good listener,” she said. “You have to be willing to listen to what other people have to say and try to understand their perspective, the reasoning behind their positions. I feel I can learn from everybody.”
In this era of polarization Manning believes she possesses a strength that could be an asset in Congress. “One of the things I think I’ve been good at is bringing people together. I’ve worked with people of different backgrounds, different life experiences, and party affiliations.”
A devoted a cappella singer in high school and at Harvard, she understands that members of a group have to work together for the common good. “You have to listen to people and treat them with respect. You have to understand that you are not going to agree with people on everything. But you need to work to find areas where you have shared goals and then build consensus to find solutions.”
When I spoke with Susie Turnbull, she had just returned from a program at a Maryland high school commemorating the 17 students who had died at the shooting in Parkland, Florida. She had met with about 150 students on both sides of the gun control issue. “Having the opportunity to engage with them was really extremely special,” she said, her voice animated. She noted that because of her years of experience with JWI, she was able to explain to students how guns can become “a deadly factor in domestic violence incidents.”
Turnbull’s zest for politics and for connecting with people isn’t surprising. She’s been involved in community activism, civil rights and political organizing for more than four decades.
Elected to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 1992, she served as its deputy chair and then as vice chair and played a key role in the strategy that elected Barack Obama as president. She also headed the Maryland Democratic Party.
Though in the past she had considered a run for office, the sense of urgency growing out of the 2016 election, the January 2017 women’s march, and meeting a running mate whom she respected and meshed with finally convinced her to become a candidate. “After the women’s march, I met Ben Jealous, the youngest ever president and CEO of the NAACP, an inspiring leader who asked me to be his partner to do big things in Maryland for social change. For me this was a moment of, ‘If not now, when?’ I saw an opportunity to work with an inspiring leader to make a difference.”
She and Jealous face a crowded Maryland Democratic primary on June 26, but have received endorsements from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the transit workers union, and more than 30 other groups. Once they scale the primary hurdle, they’ll face a Republican incumbent.
“I am finding it incredibly fulfilling to have the opportunity to share my story and have been inspired by Ben and his family’s remarkable work over decades,” she said of their campaign. “We both are part of families that have lived the American dream, each generation fighting for civil and human rights, with an unwavering commitment to education and quality healthcare for all.”
Turnbull, the married mother of two adult sons, grew up in Cleveland in a neighborhood populated by many Holocaust survivors. Her father had emigrated in the 1920s, though family members were lost in World War II. She credits her interest in social justice to her involvement in USY, the youth group of the Conservative movement. “In the 9th grade I went to a USY convention and theme of the convention was “Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.” That interest blossomed into a degree in urban studies, an internship with the city council of Cincinnati, and working on the Senate campaign of Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio.
Turnbull knows from her own experiences that politics, as the maxim says, is often personal. “People are motivated by and passionate about the things that hit close to home, whether issues that affect them every day or a personal connection that someone makes with them,” she said.
In the 1990s when her mother was a resident in a nursing home, due to a physical disability, she was never screened for breast cancer, despite having a family history of the disease. By the time she was belatedly diagnosed and had surgery, she died in the recovery room. After Turnbull told a friend in politics about the experience, she was invited to meet with the governor to tell her story. “Within 30 seconds, he knew I was onto something and set up a commission to review the issue.” Asked to serve on that commission, she played an important role in developing new protocols for nursing facilities ensuring that patients in Maryland would receive appropriate screening.
“When that happened, it opened my eyes,” she told me. “I understood that if you bring people together, if you create coalitions, issues can be resolved by people with the courage and leadership ability to take them on.”
While this is her first candidacy, Turnbull has repeatedly worked to bring other women into politics. She headed the DNC’s women’s caucus and “took it literally from women in a tiny room to women in ballrooms across the country.” In 2009-10, she was the first woman in two decades to chair the Maryland Democratic Party, and two other women have since followed. She also helped to found Emerge Maryland, an organization to recruit and train women to run for office.
What would she tell a young woman who might be considering a career in politics? “Never forget that your voice is valuable,” she said. “It's so easy to sit back and think that your ideas and opinions aren't worth contributing. Don’t ever let anyone shout you down or ignore your opinions. Always keep going and keep expressing yourself no matter how many times you hit a roadblock. I've been a woman in the political world for over 40 years as an activist, an advisor, and now a candidate and I can confidently say that's there's never been a better time for women.”