A New Kind of Candidate
In addition to the lack of representation in politics, women face unique challenges when they run for office. In this episode, we hear from Celina Milner about her journey campaigning as a Latina single mom, the trials and tribulations she faced on the campaign trail, and the triumphs gained even when she lost.
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ANDREA: You're listening to More Than Half. I'm Andrea Smardon. In this podcast, we break down stigmas, start conversations, and listen to the women of Utah.
CELINA: There were things that were happening at the legislature. There were things ... decisions being made in our community that did not represent me as a mother, as a woman of color, as a Latina, as a single mom. And I thought if we're not at the table, we're on the menu.
ANDREA: In today's episode, we hear from Celina Milner about her journey running for office as a single mom, something not many have tried in Utah.
ANDREA: Women make up just a quarter of the state legislature, and there are currently no Utah women serving in Congress. Celina ran for the Utah House of representatives in 2012, and for the Senate in 2016. Even though she was new to campaigning, something felt familiar about the process.
CELINA: If you declare in March, you could go through all the way through general election in November, that's a bit of a nine-month window. And there's various phases. And for me, I was like, "Wait a minute, this feels like a pregnancy." The first trimester, you declare for office and you're scared. You're like, "What did I just do?" And you're like, "Here it goes." You know what I mean? Here it begins, and everybody starts giving you tons of advice.
ANDREA: After that initial preparation phase, you move into what she calls the "baby shower phase" where you hold fundraisers, barbecues, and parades.
CELINA: It's almost like stuff hasn't gotten real just yet. It's still very fun, but it's still kind of fluff.
ANDREA: Then in that last trimester, it gets real.
CELINA: It's usually August. It is hot. It is uncomfortable. You are knocking on doors. You are dialing for dollars. It really just becomes a blur, and the only thing you want is for it to end. You just want it to end.
ANDREA: Celina was born and raised in West Jordan, Utah.
CELINA: And I knew there was a world beyond Utah they weren't telling me about. I felt like Utah was a bubble.
ANDREA: Growing up, she had ambitions to get out of Utah and experience the world. She graduated high school at 17, and went to an all-women’s college in upstate New York.
CELINA: Here I thought I was a hot beep and was quickly schooled.
ANDREA: She worked in New York City and Washington DC, then she returned to Utah to raise her two children. Celina always planned on running for office, but she didn't see any young mothers involved in Utah politics at the time. Especially single mothers like herself.
CELINA: Young men have political ambitions at 18, 19, 20. Run for office or in office early 30s, and so begins their political career. If you look in the past and if you look at history, there have been women that have run for office, but it's at a different stage in life. It's at a different stage. And it's usually after childbearing. After raising kids.
ANDREA: As a single mom, Celina thought she'd begin her political career later in life. But in 2012, she started to notice changes in her district that concerned her. She was worried that people like herself wouldn't be represented in the legislature. When Celina was approached by her political party to be a candidate for the House of Representatives, she went for it.
CELINA: And so I had to jump in because I thought, "If not me, who? Who's going to step in and do this?"
CELINA: When you're a new candidate, you're just wide-eyed, optimist, naive, fairly green. You can study everything in the world. Because I thought, "I've studied all of this. I've got this." Until you jump in, and do it, and feel and see the process, there is nothing like campaign 101. Like running a race. That's how you learn it ... on the ground.
CELINA: When you run a race, you either win or you lose. You have to be prepared to accept both of them.
ANDREA: After a long campaign, Celina ended up losing her 2012 race.
CELINA: Then you lose, and you're licking your wounds, you're licking your ego a little bit, and you're like, "What happened? What was all of that?" Because I love politics, and I've helped out on so many campaigns, and I love this process. Why was it such a grueling and demanding process?
CELINA: There definitely is a very different kind of loss and grief period that you go through as women where we could cocoon up. Why did I do that? What was going on while the phone is still ringing, and everybody's asking you to do it again?
ANDREA: During that first campaign, Celina's children were 10 and 12 years old.
CELINA: I thought because I was a single mom and we do everything with my kids anyway, I just thought, "Well, they'll just come along on the campaign trail."
CELINA: But you have to take them into consideration. You really have to take them into consideration more so than men have to, which I think is interesting.
ANDREA: She tried running again in 2014. This time, her children were a little older and she felt like she had a better understanding of the process. But while working late one night, she got a call from her son.
CELINA: He was bawling. I'm like, "What is going on?" And he's like, "Trying to do my homework, and you're never here."
ANDREA: Celina was working full-time, running a campaign, and taking care of her kids. She had what she called mom guilt.
CELINA: It was difficult on my kids. Then the mom guilt comes in and you're like, "What did I just put my children through? Was this from my own political ego?" You kind of start evaluating everything.
CELINA: That was a huge sign for me where I was like ... it might have been the right time for me. It might've been the right time for my campaign. It was not the appropriate time for my children.
ANDREA: She made the hard decision to withdraw from her 2014 race.
ANDREA: In Celina's experience, the reality of running for office is different for men and women.
CELINA: When men run for office, they run for office but they have this entire support system. Usually it's their wife, a spouse that is supportive that is taking care of the children. And so they have that lane that's narrowed where it's like, "I'm just running for office right now." That is not the luxury that I have seen any woman run for office is afforded. We are still working full-time, mothering full-time. Parenting, teaching, doing this, volunteer. We are still doing everything that we were before and running for office at the same time. That's where it just becomes kind of an overwhelming process.
ANDREA: Celina found that personal questions often became a topic of conversation in her political races.
CELINA: And they're like, "Well, who are your children? What do they do? Who is your partner? Who is your spouse? What is your status? What do you think your children are going to do when you're at city council meetings all night?"
ANDREA: It was not something she saw happen to her male colleagues.
CELINA: How do those personal questions get mixed up into politics? I think that's the one thing that always kind of bothers me where I'm like, "This is who I am professionally. This is who I am politically." I think when women run for office, it's like, no, the personal is political. The personal is first and foremost. We have to know about that first, then maybe who you are politically, then maybe who you are professionally, and then get to lead out professionally. Men get to lead out: "Here's my political affiliation." Their personal is never brought into that public space.
ANDREA: During Celina's 2012 race, her campaign staff was all male.
CELINA: They were great. They were seasoned. But they also were trying to like put me into that box, put me into that black suit. And I'm like, "All of this can't fit into a black suit." You know what I mean?
ANDREA: She wanted to use photos of herself on the campaign material, but she got pushed back.
CELINA: I fought, and fought, and fought where I was like, "I just need you to do this." They were like, "No, we've never done that before. It's never been done like that before. You can't do it that way."
ANDREA: When she ran for Senate in 2016, she did it her way. This time around, she put photos of herself and used bright colors in her campaign material. She also hired a young woman to be her campaign manager. But most importantly, she centered the race around her life as a mother.
CELINA: Instead of me as the candidate running around, going out all over the place to all of these meetings, everybody came to my home. Because I needed to be there. I still needed to be a mom. I still needed to be full-time, very present with my family, and I liked that campaign better.
ANDREA: Celina didn't win the 2016 race, but still sees both her campaigns as a success. In fact after her first loss, she got a call from politician Ben McAdams.
CELINA: He said, "I saw how you handled yourself." And I'm like, "How did I handle myself? It was all kind of a blur for me."
ANDREA: She ended up joining his administration when he served as mayor of Salt Lake County.
CELINA: And that's why I do encourage girls, and women, and mothers at all ages and stages to run for office. I said, "Win or lose, you don't even realize who's watching and what it may set you up for later."
ANDREA: She thinks women bring a unique perspective to politics.
CELINA: I love right now the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
ANDREA: She's talking about Jacinda Ardern.
CELINA: She has her baby in tow. She's being empathetic. She's being kind. She's being compassionate. She is leading with everything that she is holistically, and not apologizing for it at all. I think we need more of that. We absolutely need more of that. There can be a different narrative, a new narrative around what it means to be a leader.
ANDREA: Celina believes that many women don't get into politics because they feel like they aren't qualified.
CELINA: We are more than qualified for any of them up there. I seriously ... Because I think girls are like, "Oh, I don't know enough about this. I don't know about this." And I'm like, "Listen to them. Here's some clips. Let me send it to you really quick. You are much more knowledgeable in your lived and life experience that is so valuable right now that we need in that public sphere of public service."
ANDREA: She advises women running for office to be authentic, and surround themselves with women who support them.
CELINA: Be yourself and don't let anybody tell you differently. Seek out female political consultants, female campaign managers. We need more young women in all areas of running for office. That's also in the support roles and the leadership roles.
ANDREA: Today, more and more women are running for office at younger ages.
CELINA: Hopefully we can continue that trend, and there can be that 18 year old Latina who wants to run for school board, who wants to run for city council. I mean, I keep telling them all the time. I'm like, "You only have to be 18." I'm like, "Just do it. Just run." The world is crying out for female leadership right now. Authentic female leadership in its true unfiltered form where it's just like, "This is what we can bring to the table."
ANDREA: 2019 saw a record high number of women serving in the legislature. Of the 75 members of the Utah House of Representatives, 20 are women. Of the 29 members of the Utah Senate, six are women. It's not equal, but it's a step closer.
ANDREA: More Than Half podcast is brought to you by PBS Utah. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate and review. Research interviews and production conducted by Ashley Swansong and Alicia Rice. Music by Blue Dot Sessions. Audio mixing by Will Montoya. Join us next week as we talk about Woke Words, a program that offers a safe creative space for women and non-binary artists of color in Utah.
MADEIKA: To be honest, I didn't really have any role models when I was younger just because I couldn't really ... I literally physically could not see myself in anyone in the media or in the literature.
ANDREA: I'm Andrea Smardon, and I hope you'll join us next time on More Than Half.