Witches in government
We are the deep state
Earlier this year I considered taking a role in local government, but decided against it after consulting with several people. My impostor syndrome got the better of me (although the idea of coming in as an otherwise-competent newbie was appealing). It sounded endlessly frustrating. I would invite criticism, and I have very thin skin. Ultimately my kid was going through a tough time and I decided, You know what this situation at home does not need is a mom who voluntarily took on a lot of distracting, high-stakes stress and bullshit.
As this happened I was in touch with a witch reader and learned she works for the city of San Francisco, so I asked her if I could interview her about her work. After that I spoke with a few other witches and women I know who work staff or elected jobs in local government about their roles.
These are just chats with a handful of people and not an exhaustive look at various offices, in different parts of the country, or experiences of an extremely diverse array of women, but nobody said I can’t return to this topic in the future.
There is no great takeaway. The government would be better if more witchy moms were involved. Meetings would be so much shorter, for one. But that’s not the reality, and doing this kind of work can take a ton of time, involve ridiculous people, interfere with your personal life, be a financial/childcare hit, and so on. But! It can also involve legitimately helping people on an everyday level and on a bigger level, being the person who stands up and gets in the way of voters who want to turn back the clock in many ways.
From a member of the board of education of a public schools system in a small Midwestern city:
My campaign was not that rough. COVID meant that Democrats for the most part chose not to canvass door to door and I would have fucking hated that. I started off being very shy about asking for money but a college friend who has been in Democratic politics since leaving college in 1994 said, “You need to get over that. You need to ask everybody you've ever met in your life to support your campaign. Most of these people are going to want to support your campaign. I'll give you a list of people you’ve never met who will support your campaign.” I raised probably about $3,000 which, for where I live, is a very large sum of money. I sent out mailers, I was able to buy a bunch of Facebook ads which I think were very helpful. I used a lot of them for things like “Here’s how you vote by mail.” Absentee ballots were a new thing here. I used a lot of ads to explain the process of voting and reminding people of dates and stuff. Those helped me reach a lot of people that I don’t know and weren't on the mailing list I got from the party.
COVID blew up the school board. They used to be poky little meetings that took 15 minutes with one person in the audience. What I did not see coming was the critical race theory wars or attacks on queer kids. That’s ramped up in the last year. I did not anticipate Steve Bannon telling his followers to make school boards their next battleground.
I have only gotten communication that is vaguely threatening from one person. He’s sent the same “I’m coming for you” email but coming for me because he hates trans kids and I’m vocal about support for trans kids. I got called a nasty ass bitch.
In my state, every district has to have a sex education advisory board. The purpose of the board is to choose a curriculum that meets state standards. That’s the only thing the sex education advisory board has to do. They send it to the school board. If the school board says “Yes,” that’s the curriculum. I am a nonvoting member of the advisory board. I’m the school board liaison.
In my city there has been a steady drumbeat of parents who are arguing that any conversation about sexuality or gender at all is sex education and mostly what they mean by “sexuality” or gender is not heterosexual and not cisgender. We have our first trans teacher ever that we have hired and things are not going well for him and it’s heartbreaking. One person has argued with me in a private meeting that she’s very concerned about teachers making “declarations of sexual attraction to genitalia” in the classroom. I said, “What? You're telling me teachers are standing up in the classroom and saying ‘I like vaginas?’” She’s like, “Well, in essence, if students know that their teacher is a lesbian, they know what kind of genitalia she likes.” I said, “If a cis/het male teacher says ‘My wife and I went to dinner last night,’ is he saying, ‘I like vaginas?” Her response was, “I can tell you're getting very upset.”
If an English teacher says, at the beginning of the year, “What name do you prefer to be called? What are your pronouns?” there are parents who are arguing that’s sex ed. They’re also mad about if a teacher assigns a story with gay characters, that’s sex ed. We ultimately got a sex education expert at our local university and we said, “Here is a list of things we want to know is sex ed or not,” she basically said, more nicely, “You people are nuts.”
With critical race theory and other stuff, there are people who seem to think that kids don’t know anything that an adult doesn’t pour directly into their head. These are the same people who want a la carte options. One woman suggested we give parents a checklist. They can opt out: “I don’t want my kids to be learning about sex, gender, SEL. I don’t want my kids learning about diversity and equity.” The hardest thing for me is not to say, “You know what you're talking about? Homeschool.”
There are also other parents who basically ask, “Who chooses these horrible pornographic books that will make our kids gay?” They’re framing it as if English teachers go to Amazon and start looking around for which books are gonna turn kids into Black trans Marxists. I was like, “Let’s have the professional studies chair come and tell us at a school board meeting in exhaustive detail how the curriculum is designed and reviewed.” The people who are pissed off, they’re not necessarily satisfied by that but they’re going to have to find a new rhetorical tack. Everyone else got some information about how it works about how professional and thoughtful and caring teachers are when they’re putting this stuff together.
I wouldn’t be able to do this if I couldn’t call my favorite board member and just bitch and bitch and bitch.
I’ve been talking to the local Democratic party to run for various positions here. It's never easy but it’s especially hard. Women in particular are afraid to run. One woman I contacted was like, “I have to think about this. I’ve had stalkers before and I don’t want stalkers again.” It pisses me off that to that extent, the conservative project is working. At the ground level there are true believers but at the top there are people who just want to make progressives and liberals afraid. It makes me angry that they are succeeding in that.
Stephanie Mendoza, City Clerk, Evanston, IL
The position of City Clerk encompasses everything I love--outreach and the government. You get to interact with people and connect them to the government. It makes sense for my personality. I like to sit down, listen to people, come up with ideas and maybe meet people halfway and even if I can’t accommodate someone, explain to them why I can’t. I don’t like to do that from a place where everyone can hear me.
It is a full time job, or what seems like three jobs. I was doing consulting when I was running, but I had to stop that. As a mother, that makes it extremely hard. When you run for office you need to ask yourself, what is the time commitment, the responsibility, can I do this and watch my kids and do other work and be involved? When you're in office there's a lot of things you have to let go of.
If you can get elected, it’s either you doing the work or it’s someone else doing the work. Are you reading the packets or someone else doing it for you? The reality is, once you're there, you can make choices. It’s either to be involved and to be serious about the commitment you made or to do the job halfway or not even halfway. I think for women, it’s difficult for us to do that, to hand it over to someone. Right now I'm in the office alone. I’m waiting to hire two employees. I could easily say, I’m closing down the office and I’m not going to do anything until I hired two people. That’s not the person I am. I’m staffing the office, printing the birth certificates, typing the minutes. At 11 PM last night I was reviewing executive session minutes.
You have to decide early on that you want to run. It has to be meticulously thought out and planned over time. I knew I was running for months. Months had passed by the time I started to collect signatures. My petitions were ready to go, I had consulted with an attorney, I had consulted with everyone I know. You really have to think about the impact, not only to you but to your family, the people who depend on you. If I were a single mom with no husband and no family here, I couldn't do this job. You have to have a strong support system.
I had to stop breastfeeding my daughter earlier than I would have because of this job. Realistically speaking, our meetings were ending so late on Monday that we just had to start finding alternatives for her to find that soothing time. One of my first messages to a staff member was when I was up on the dais, that first day, I said, “This is the first time that I’m away from my children this late at night and I'm not putting them to sleep.” Internally, the struggle that I was having as a mother was very real.
I think people don’t know how to navigate the government. They need someone who is willing to explain to them the process of anything they have to do. For example, someone comes in and says, “I’m trying to get a job, but I have this ticket that I got 50 years ago but I don't what it says. This is the one barrier I have to accomplish my goals.” You can just file a FOIA request--it’s so simple but people don’t know that's what they can do. If someone wants to register to vote or do a minor correction on a government record, to get a passport, an ID, to go to college, they can do it there. We can help you understand how to do it at the state level. I tell people the clerk's office is a position where you have to be willing to look cool on the dais but you also have to be willing to use a cash register, to get dirty in the attic getting a record. You have to be willing to be there and help individuals, be the greatest customer service anyone ever got, but maybe one day you’ll substitute for the clerk on the dais, you’re being filmed and it’ll be on Youtube and your family will be like “Wow, you’re on TV!”
The actual running for office was one of the hardest experiences of my life, and I almost died while having a kid. You can have people who don’t even know who you and they’ll still say you're the most horrible, hypocritical, awful person who walked the earth. I’m a person with world experiences with a family, someone who’s just trying to do great things, not only for my family but for others, and not take my life for granted. There are people who will make every assumption about you, put things on social media about you. They will try to make you into the person that they know you aren’t and that's really hard. I had someone comment to me about something negatively to me while my children were there. They’re like “Mom, so someone in the world believes you’re this super horrible person. That person doesn’t know you.” It’s hard for them not to take it personally.
We assume anyone who’s running for office comes in with all the experience in the world, but our mayor has never been mayor, our clerk has never been clerk. Everyone has a different path to public service. The path shouldn’t be dictated by what other people’s opinions are. It should be your willingness to learn, understand and do the work, and your ability to be honest with yourself.
Alicia Peterson, Mineral Revenue Specialist, Office of Natural Resources Revenue, Department of the Interior
We’re in charge of making sure oil and gas companies pay royalties when they drill. If they’re pulling up oil, coal, natural gas, or minerals on federal or American Indian lands, we review their accounting to make sure that they’re paying the correct amount of royalties. For a lot of tribes, that’s their only income. We're making sure they get the money they’re due.
Then it’s the science. We look over their gas plant statements, what percent of their product they have, what’s their quality, how does the pipeline work, where does it go? The accounting with the science of how your gas is made.
I graduated from college in 2009 with a biology degree. Then, I joined the Navy. I did that for a few years. When I got out, I wanted to get a federal job. I worked with a recruiter at the VA and said, “I want to help veterans just like me.” It was the end of the Obama administration. She said, that’s super cool but Trump was just elected and people are scrambling to hire in other agencies, and to go on with whoever who will and you will switch and go to VA later. The Interior said they’d train me because I had a degree and I had veterans preference.
On Twitter, everyone thinks there’s a deep state. On the flip side, people think there’s a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. There’s no evil deep state. There’s a lot of good stuff the government has. You have to dig and get to it. We get all sorts of emails from other agencies and are exposed to things I would have never otherwise known about. I didn’t know that as a veteran I could get into any national park I wanted. If I hadn’t seen the random monthly email from the secretary of the department of the interior, that wouldn’t have been advertised to me otherwise.
The department is a fantastic place to work. My sister works at the VA and I have friends at the USDA. They all tell me horror stories of awful micro management and horrible difficulties with their schedules. I can’t beat the benefits. It provides our health insurance, we get 12 weeks parental leave. I get sick leave and regular leave. Because I was able to buy my military time back, I was able to apply for six years toward my retirement, which gave me even more leave. Once I’ve been there 15 years, in 5 years, I get a day off every pay period.
What I’ve really appreciated is even though there are co-workers going back into the office, the interior has been supportive about me continuing to stay home, which is great as a working mom. I start my day, I log into my computer, I can do an hour before I wake up my son and get him ready for daycare. I take him to school and I come back and work and I can be present with him and still have the flexibility to get my work done. I can’t speak for other agencies—I hope they're as supportive as mine is.
A school board member in suburban Milwaukee:
We had a board meeting back in August when we were deciding to require masks based on different metrics. We knew that meeting would be contentious and we had a police presence there just in case. The usual suspects were there yelling and screaming. I wasn’t prepared for when we left the meeting and I went to walk out the building and the police officer saying to me, “I’m going to have to take you to your car.”
Since that time I have not felt directly threatened in that way but part of that is not engaging. There’s a group in our community that likes to make anonymous email accounts. You'll get an email from LocalChildAbusers.Com and it’s “You're a child abuser, take masks off these kids, you're ruining their lives.” Is that threatening? No. I can’t let it threaten me. At our last meeting, there was a gentleman who go up and started by saying “I’m not following your rules for community comment. I'm a child of god, and only god makes the rules” and he started quoting some Bible stuff. “I’ll talk until I'm done,” some seemingly threatening language about lawsuits. I wasn't threatened by him, I was annoyed by him. Other people after felt very nervous; they were worried he might pull out a gun. These people are trying to be scary —I don't think they’re being very effective.
I didn’t realize I’d had to campaign for my position. There was never a primary before. Last year we had seven people running for six spots which meant we had to have a primary. I had never run a campaign. I was making it up as I went. It took a lot more time and energy than I thought it would. I would be more focused in my campaign if I could do it again. I wouldn't let it consume all day every day of my entire life and just be more targeted with looking at voter data, finding out who votes and reaching out to those people vs. trying to reach the whole city. I would accept more help. A lot of people were like “Let me know if I can do anything.” Now I know, I need you to make these 12 phone calls, or bring flyers to this particular neighborhood.
I make fun of the people who send me threatening things. My phone dinged with an email when we were driving home from church on Sunday and I looked at it and it was an anonymous email, “MITPRofessional.Com'' and it was all “We are going to have a lawsuit and we have this doctor from MIT who’s going to tell you blah blah blah,'' at the end of it, the last line of it was, something like “You are just all around horrible people and on the wrong side of history. You have lost the respect of parents and students.” I read that out loud to my husband and kids and had to laugh. I said, “What’s worse, being an all around horrible person or a child abuser?” which I got a few days ago. Just making a joke out of it—that’s from a long history of ignoring my parents and siblings and their taunting.
My kids were really supportive of me running this office and they have told me, on more than one occasion, they’re really proud of me. With teens it’s hard to get that feedback and they could be rolling their eyes, “Oh mom’s on the school board; the teachers will hate me.” I want them to see that you’ll always have people who don’t agree with you and you have to rise above and remember the work you’re doing. I serve the whole community, not just those who yell the loudest.
Even if you’re not going to be elected, don’t be afraid to get involved. I was just involved because I was a parent with a concern and I stuck around because it was interesting to learn how the district worked and when this vacancy came up I was like, “I can probably do this.” You don’t have to be an elected official to make a difference in your community.
Ashley, Commission Liaison, San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department
When I went to grad school I got my masters in environmental planning. For my thesis, I worked on a project in my neighborhood and I had to engage my local officials in the process. I got to know our supervisors and ended up volunteering for their offices and that’s what led me on the path of working in politics. I have worked at the state level, for our board of supervisors at the county level, for the mayor and now I’m working for a city commission.
The role I'm in now requires institutional knowledge but it’s also very administrative, which does fit well with being a mom. I don’t have to go to as many community meetings or do after hours/weekend things. I bring items the parks commission wants approved before them. I have to make sure the public is notified these are coming before the commission. I have to help the public provide input, whether it’s through comments, email, a letter—I have to help the public access their commissioners. Ultimately I am the person responsible for ensuring that it's an accessible process for members of the public. Parks are really important.
I worked on some pretty exciting legislation here after I had my first child, about lactation in the workplace, making sure that all city employees, then all employees, have clean and safe places to pump. I’d get tons of questions from people about that, like, “There’s a room at the office and they use it for meetings and they say we can pump in there but there are always meetings scheduled in there, how do I contact HR and not be seen as a problem?” I get questions ranging from potholes to women in the workforce policy issues.
I think people see these big societal issues and that seems really overwhelming but when your local parks department is renovating your local playground and they have a meeting, it does matter if you show up. You can be that person who says we need structures for bigger kids here, not just the tots. It's simpler than some people think.
I don't think the government is plotting against you, because sometimes I can’t even get people to respond to emails. There are no intricate government conspiracies going on anywhere. You have access to your representatives. Don’t just sign a petition. Write an email and tell your story. When you have an issue with the department of motor vehicles and you can’t get someone in the employment development to pick up, whenever you want to say our government sucks, call your local assembly person or senator. “I can’t get anyone to respond to me at the DMV about this issue or my dad’s disability is running out and we can’t get anyone to call us back.” Your state representatives can help you with those things and your city reps can help you at the county level. If you get an absurdly high water bill, call your representative to say “No one from the water department is getting back to me.” You’d be surprised at how much access you really have.
If all you can do is sign up for your city council person’s newsletter and read it, that’s enough. Most people don’t even know who their council person is. Sign up for that, follow them on Facebook, know what’s going in your neighborhood because the vocal minority often will be the ones showing up at community meetings.
One of the things I wanted to work on is making sure elected officials had access to parental leave. Women have been breastfeeding at parliament meetings which is badass but not necessary. There should be a process to create a temporary appointment. Why would someone of childbearing age who wants kids go run for office if they want to have a baby?
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