Welcome to “The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American experience”? It depends where you look.
Hansen is a 31-year-old mental health case manager living in Ferndale, Washington, with her husband and 3-year-old son. Robbins is a 35-year-old community organizer and advocate for the homeless who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her 9-year-old son. It’s unlikely that Hansen and Robbins would ever cross paths in real life, given that they live on opposite sides of the country in very different cities. But in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, they both decided to run for city council.
HuffPost spoke to Hansen and Robbins about what it’s like to run for elected office for the first time during such a contentious political moment, how being a woman impacted that experience, and why they think so many women are stepping up and taking risks right now. (Since we spoke to them, Robbins lost in her election’s primary, while Hansen is currently barreling toward a November general election.)
HuffPost: What is it like to live where you live in 2017?
Kate Hansen (Ferndale, Wash.): [Ferndale is] one of the fastest growing cities in Washington right now. It’s pretty small, but it’s rapidly getting bigger, and it’s also transitioning from being a conservative town to more of a 50-50 town. I looked at the numbers, and I think about five votes was the difference between Trump and Hillary in the presidential election. People are getting priced out of the more metropolitan city, Bellingham, and so a lot of families with young kids are moving there. And everyone’s pretty white. We definitely have [a] Latino population, but it’s not a lot of diversity.
Erica Robbins (Birmingham, Ala.): This is a much larger city than where I’m from. I started [my nonprofit] Be A Blessing Birmingham because I felt there needed to be a sense of community. I became a social justice activist and advocate for different marginalized communities and that is a big part of my life living here in Birmingham. With this being basically the birthplace of the civil rights movement, we’re really active. I have a lot of neighborhoods in my district that are hurting. You wouldn’t even believe that there was a billion dollars in economic growth in the downtown, because other places in my district can’t even get grass cut.
What pushed you to run for office?
Kate (Washington): I’ve always been involved with politics on the periphery. When I was in college I helped manage a campaign with the public affairs department at Planned Parenthood, and I just loved it. Ever since, I’ve done things like going door to door in the most recent primary for the Democratic candidates, and just being a leader at my caucus. I’ve always really cared about politics, and I think that this last election really spurred me to take action. I don’t feel as though right now we’re being well-represented on a national level, so I think we have to start taking control on a local level to make our communities the kind of places that we want them to be.
Erica (Alabama): I had been contemplating [running] since January. After Trump was elected ― I was already a very active activist, but that like went up tenfold after the election. I was one of the founders of Resist Birmingham, and we just decided that more women needed to get involved. At first I wanted to see if there was anyone I could actually put my support behind, and I didn’t find it.
When did you officially declare your candidacy?
Kate (Washington): The last day I could have. I think it was May 19th and I think I filed to run at about 4:10 p.m. The deadline was 4:30. It was something I had said during the primaries: “I’m going to run for city council. I’m just tired of complaining and sitting here. I’m just going to do something, I’m going to run.” It sat in the back of my mind until the last day.
Erica (Alabama): I declared on the absolutely last day to qualify ― July 5th at around 2:20 p.m., and it had to be by 5:00 p.m.
What are the hallmark issues of your campaign?
Kate (Washington): Well, social justice is the thing I care about the most. Being up in Ferndale, we’re a small population, so we don’t have a lot of services here, and everything is really centralized in the bigger city of Bellingham. Even just to take the bus to Bellingham to get to an appointment is going to take you an hour plus each way, and so to me, accessibility of social services is huge, especially for the under-represented people in Ferndale who have huge needs for health care and transportation and jobs and housing.
Erica (Alabama): My main thing is killing homelessness, because I feel that you can’t start at the top. You have to take care of the root, and if the roots of the tree aren’t properly nourished then the tree can’t grow. When people make money they spend it, so if we get those people back to work, that stimulates the economy. Mental health is [also a huge priority] for me, because though the reasons why people are on the street are varied, there a lot of people that have mental health issues that are not addressed. We need to stimulate our neighborhoods by allowing people in the neighborhoods to build them up. Gentrification is also a huge problem here in Birmingham. A lot of people are being moved out of neighborhoods that they have been in all their lives.
How has the actual process of running been?
Kate (Washington): The day that I [announced my run], the mayor came and introduced himself and was like, “Hey, I heard you’re running, and please come to these meetings and just, here are some people you should meet, just get involved.” That was good, just to kind of right away touch base with someone. Some of the things I’ve done, like going to the Emerge training, that was huge for me because I don’t have any experience in running for office. I’ve been fortunate enough to be endorsed by the Whatcom Democrats here and have their support in terms of helping to get my name out there, going to events; I was at the fair last weekend just tabling and talking to people.
I feel like [the response to me] has been really positive going door to door, everyone’s so polite. I locked my keys and my cell phone in my car the other day, and a kind person let me use their phone to call my husband to come get me. Yesterday someone said, “Democrat, Republican, who are you?” I said, “Well, you know it’s a non-partisan race, but I definitely lean Democrat,” and they whispered, “Oh, me too,” and then closed the door. I think there’s been those moments where it’s like people in Ferndale can be reserved about talking about politics, especially if you’re progressive because it has leaned more conservative over the years. But I can tell that people are excited to see a new face with a new perspective to bring.
Erica (Alabama): This is politics. This is Birmingham. I came in[to the race] late on purpose because I didn’t want anybody to know I was running. No time for opposition research, none of that. I just showed up and they were like, “Hey, well who is this girl?” So literally at the first debate they were scrambling. “Who is this girl? Why does she know what’s she’s talking about, and where did she come from?” I’ve actually been received quite well. In another city not as progressive as Birmingham it may have been a different story.
Have you faced any particular challenges?
Kate (Washington): I didn’t realize what a small town I live in. I spoke out about some of my points of view at a city council meeting, and the next day I get to work and someone’s contacted my work about what I had said at the meeting. It’s fascinating seeing how much [running for local office] puts you and your points of view in the spotlight, and how you’re just totally exposing yourself. You have to be ready to defend your points of view, and it’s something I think is challenging for women specifically, because maybe we think, “Who am I to think that I should be in this leadership role?” rather than, “I have something to offer here. I should be in office.”
That’s just been big for me, realizing that I do have something to offer. I have a different perspective coming from being a woman and working in social services that is valuable and it’s OK to say that I think I’d be good at this, and not wait for someone to ask me to run a million times before I do it.
Erica (Alabama): Fundraising. And my staff is completely volunteer. That’s one thing about not having big money is that I don’t have a paid staff.
Did the 2016 presidential election impact the way you thought about running for office, or about women in government in general?
Kate (Washington): I think that women have this idea that to be successful in politics that you need to emulate men. I got to a point where I felt like all we’re seeing in national politics are white men making decisions for everyone else. I’ve worked in social services representing vulnerable populations my whole life, so I realized that when women run and are in office, we tend to focus more on issues of justice and equality. I just saw so much more of a need for that than I had ever really seen before, and that made me think, “I’ve got to do this.”
Erica (Alabama): Not really. It didn’t make me want to run for office more, it just made me a more active activist. I would normally attend every rally that I could, but it has gotten to the point that I’m way more active. I’m fighting to make sure that [people in my district] keep their Medicare.
Has your gender impacted the way you’ve been received?
Kate (Washington): What I do appreciate about Ferndale is we have four women and three men on the council currently, and I’m running against a woman and the seat is being vacated by a woman. But the first conversation I had with an elected official, they asked me how many children I have, and when I said I have one, they said, “Well, you’re just getting started.” There’s been questions like that, or you being told I look too young to run for office that I don’t think that I would be asked if I was a man. But I also feel really, really empowered being a woman right now, because so many of us are just stepping up and saying, “We need more of us in office, like this is important for us to be equally represented and bring our unique qualities and characteristics that have value all on their own to the table.” It feels like there’s a movement and it feels really good.
Erica (Alabama): At first [I] thought being a divorced mother would affect [how I was perceived]. We are in the South. However, I’m in Birmingham, which is the bright blue dot in a red state. I’m just a people person in general, so if people take their time and listen to me they normally fall in love with me.
Why do you think it’s important to get more women into government?
Kate (Washington): We need our government to look like our population so that everyone’s issues are getting addressed. And I’m fully aware of the privilege I have as a white woman running in a conservative town. It’s important to note that we really need more women of color to run, considering the intersectional issues and the unique experiences that women of color go through that I certainly can’t speak for. So that’s another gap aside from just women that I’d really like to see more progress made on.
Erica (Alabama): If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always gotten ― and that’s mostly older white men who are stuck in their ways and don’t want to see change. Women tend to be more progressive than men just in general. So [having more women at the table] will help to change the political climate, and get the city, state, and on the national level heading in the right direction.
Has motherhood affected the way you see what’s at stake in terms of government processes and legislation creation?
Kate (Washington): Absolutely. On a local level, we don’t have a Parks and Rec Department, for example, so I think of things like that on a local level. It’s just like, “Wow, I want this to be like a great city to raise my son in, and for other families too.” On a bigger scale, it’s hugely important. I just think of climate change, and I want there to be a world for [my son] to live in. I want there to be a planet, and I think hearing things like Donald Trump pulling us out of the Paris Climate Accord, it’s like, “OK, we’re going to have to start taking charge on a local level and doing this ourselves.” There are decisions you can make on the local level that impact things like the environment and health care.
Frankly, I’m raising a white male, and I want him to be a really good feminist. I want him to see his mom being in leadership and advocating for all different kinds of people and women, and I want that to be the perspective that he grows up with.
Erica (Alabama): Oh yeah, it’s always in the back of my mind that things done today will affect [my son] tomorrow ― especially with the political climate and the climate of America right now in general. I have a black son. If we can make policies that affect change that make things easier for him to just live ― not to have anything special, but just to live a productive life ― then I am all for doing whatever it takes to ensure that happens.
In my particular race I’m the only person running that has a child in Birmingham city schools. So I have an extra vested interest in our schools and making sure that our children succeed. The Birmingham city school system is about 99 percent black. We had a $428 million budget that was just passed and only $1.8 million of that went to our schools. That’s unacceptable. Our city will continue to struggle unless we take a vested interest in our children. Our children are the future of Birmingham. So if we invest in our children now, Birmingham will be better later for it.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
CORRECTION: A previous version stated Hansen’s county as Walkham. It is Whatcom.