By Coshandra Dillard
In a recent Souls to the Polls event, Shirley McKellar, a U.S. Congress candidate, chatted with people in the community as early voting got underway. She’d been crisscrossing Texas’ 1st Congressional District–which comprises 10 East Texas counties, and portions of two counties.
This is the third campaign in which McKellar has gotten out to meet with the public in her goal to become the district’s next representative.
It’s been a battle since she first threw her hat into the race on the Democratic ticket against incumbant U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, in 2012, where she received only 26.9 percent of the votes. In the 2014 mid-term election, Gohmert, garnered nearly 76 percent of the vote. This year, she’s also facing a third candidate, Libertarian Phil Gray.
McKellar believes she has a better chance this election, as she’s grown her campaign and has received more support.
“People need to get to know who you are and what you stand for,” she said. “This time around I’ve gotten media coverage. People are reaching out to me.”
A win for McKellar would be history-making since the district overwhelmingly votes for Republican candidates. It would also mean growing representation for people of color and women in Congress.
Women, particularly black women, are underrepresented in Congress. They comprise 51.8 percent of the population, but only 19 percent hold an office in Congress. There are 20 black women in the House and there are no black female senators.
“I take all of that into consideration,” McKellar said. “I’m so motivated. I analyze everything.”
McKellar hopes to be a part of a changing demographic in Congress.
“We’re nowhere close to where we supposed to be,” she said.
McKellar, a retired army nurse, was inspired to run for office after seeking care following an injury while serving in the Army Nurse Corps in Iraq.
McKellar was treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio over a year, and had three surgeries.
When seeking continued care, she had a roadblock.
“They told me it was going to be 18 months before I could ge tin the VA system,” she said.
She wrote to then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson for help and it worked. She was able to get health care in a more timely manner. She also noticed other veterans were being sent home with little help in finding resources or the medical care they needed.
“I found out later that I had a lot of friends and colleagues who had the same issues,” she said.
She spent the next several years reaching out to others, making sure they were getting appropriate health care.
She said a group of black East Texas Republicans noticed her efforts and encouraged her to run for Congress.
“I started analyzing that and I thought about it a lot,” she said. “If I want to affect change, that change is me.”
McKellar said her military and education experience gives her a perspective that would serve the district well.
During her first run for office, she was also pursuing a degree in political science from The University of Texas at Tyler.
In addition to veterans’ affairs, she wants to address high education costs for college students and to block efforts to privatize social security.
McKellar has a lot to say about her opponent, believing he hasn’t represented the district well.
“It’s important to have the right person in Washington, D.C. representing us in East Texas. We haven’t had anybody to fight for lost jobs in East Texas,” she said, noting the loss of Kelly Springfield, Carrier, and some Trane jobs.
“Tyler (jobs) are education and medical,” she said. “We should be a well-rounded city.”
She added, “(Gohmert) doesn’t know what his job is. He’s in Washington spending time vilifying the president. I say he is the original Donald Trump … He has no respect for the office of the president of the United States. We cannot have people in office who are just place holders–that are going along to get along.”
McKellar supports Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She said Clinton’s road to the White House is marred by sexism.
“I believe this country is not ready for a woman in office ,” McKellar said. “When Hillary Clinton was not running for anything she was embraced in the Senate. The minute she started to run for president it changed. If you go back and look at all she’s done in her career, she could walk on water as long as she wasn’t running for president.”
McKellar is hopeful that African Americans will vote in mass as they did in 2008 and 2012.
“Black people are waking up,” she said. “Donald Trump did that. Look at the whole picture. You’re doing yourself a disservice by not voting. We’re standing on the backs of our ancestors. Some of them died to have the right to vote.”
McKellar believes there is not enough interest among black people in local politics–from city and county offices to state lawmakers. For those who aren’t interested in running office, she suggests community building.
A start, she said, is to get involved with children to ensure they have a good foundation, whether at PTA or school board meetings.
“Get involved in what’s going on in your community,” she said. “One elected official cannot do it. It takes all of us do that.”