Since I decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, the most common question I get from friends, family and even strangers is: “Why would you put yourself through that?”
I hear some version of that from people who love politics and people who hate it, people who think highly of our government and people who don’t, people who have significant wealth and people who struggle to make ends meet. And it always perplexes me. I keep thinking, "How could I not? How could you not?"
I didn’t want to miss my daughters’ surf competitions for long days on the campaign trail. I didn’t want to be subject to ridicule or violent threats. And I certainly didn’t want to spend one moment away from my husband before he deployed to Afghanistan. I know you don't want to miss out on the things that are important to you. But if people like us are scared off from serving our country, then haven’t we already abandoned the things that are important to us as Americans?
I fought against a well-funded Tea Party activist and author of Dreams from Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama to be the voice of nearly 700,000 Floridians in Washington even though I had every reason to sit this one out. I did it because, to me, the constant drum beat of how America is working for a few while too many others fall slowly behind is deafening.
Last election cycle, it was clear that there are two very different definitions of the American Dream. In Illinois, Mitt Romney tossed out a comment while describing his grandfather. He said that he worked hard, raised great kids and had a good wife but that, “He never quite made it.” I literally gasped.
My grandfather worked hard. He raised great kids and he had a good wife. He’s in heaven now with her and their son. I think of him every day. I think of the times I rode with him as he delivered mail in rural Missouri. I remember the stories he told of getting ‘milk fever’ while stationed in Ft. Hood. When I fish with my daughters, I feel him. I swell up with emotion when I remember the devotion he showed my grandma during her final days even though she didn’t remember him or their 65 years together.
I suppose, by some people’s definition, my grandfather “never quite made it” because by the time he died all that he had earned by working hard was spent on caring for his ailing wife. But to me, he was the beacon of success; I take great comfort in knowing that he heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We are living in a tipping point moment as we face the fact that our children’s American Dream may be less vibrant than ours. Our generations’ greatest question to answer turns out to be the most basic: Does the exceptionalism of America still stand on the shoulders of average and normal Americans?
Gen X-ers, Gen Y-ers and millennials will be the generations who gets to answer that question. In fact, there maybe no greater moment in human history to be living, and certainly there has never been a more meaningful time to be an American.
We didn’t create the American Dream; our founding fathers did. We didn’t spill our blood on American soil to create a more perfect union; our great-great-granddaddies did that. We didn’t watch draught and greed turn America into a dust bowl only to demand better of our country and our corporations; our great granddads did that. And we didn’t answer the worlds’ plea for help in World War II; our grandpas did.
It was our great grandmothers who demanded the right to vote for their daughters. It was our grandmothers who demanded that their daughters have a fighting chance at living the American Dream in homes free of abuse, work free of harassment and with a government free of discrimination. It was our mothers who faced dogs and fire hoses so that every American could be educated, respected and equal.
We have been left a legacy that has made America the envy of the world. We now face the tipping point. Are we going to improve upon the America that has been handed down to us or are we going to undo every advance we have made? This answer will decide how history views our generation.
Even with the constant drum beat of judgment and regression, I still hear the American spirit. I hear it as loudly as I did on the day I graduated from Navy boot camp, when I first truly realized what it meant to be a part of something greater. I hear it thumping as loudly as the hopes beating in the hearts of the children I work with everyday who still believe they can be anything. I hear it as confidently as the whisper between Soldiers in a foxhole who know they will always be there for each other.
I ran because I see a tipping point quickly approaching. You should run because you want to tip the scales toward your definition of the American Dream. Run. Run for the school board, city council, county commission, or mosquito control. (Yes, that's a real thing in Florida.) Just run. Run because you want to answer the most pressing question of our time: Will we pass the American Dream onto our children, or will we tell them stories of it as some distant memory?