Activist Turned Political Candidate

By Shelby Rowe Moyer | Photography By Joel Rivlin

There comes a time in many of our lives when something lights a spark in us, manifesting into how we perceive the world or the kind of career we decide to pursue.

That moment for Heather Driscoll — who ran this past August for a seat in the 76th Assembly District (but ultimately lost to Francesca Hong) and was the Madison legislative lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — was becoming the opinion writer for her college newspaper at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Driscoll was earning her degree in psychology, and hadn’t thought much about politics. In the process of digging for opinion stories, she started reading about environmental issues, like the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases. During these formative years, she also became chair of the university’s public interest research group, and a desire for a social justice career was forged.

Post-college, she joined the Peace Corps and facilitated environmental education and worked at a nonprofit in Romania that protected land and created national parks. From the early 2000s on, Driscoll worked in the social justice sphere in San Francisco; Washington D.C.; and, now, Madison. For the most part, Driscoll was a figure behind the scenes, helping businesses lessen their environmental impact, volunteering for political campaigns locally and nationally, and lobbying at the state capitol.

However, after the 2016 presidential election, Driscoll felt the urge to run for office herself.

“When [Donald] Trump won, it really shook me,” she says. “Especially as a sexual assault survivor. It was so clear how much damage he had done to women, and so it was kind of shattering for me. More so that so many people were supporting him and voting for him is what really hurt me.”

“For so long,” she continues, “I felt like all the leaders had things under control and that there were people who were smarter that were figuring things out. What I realized is that how we got to where we are is the failure of leadership from so many different people.”

Not long after Trump made his victory speech, Driscoll got a text from a friend about Emerge Wisconsin, and it set in motion her path as a potential politician. Emerge Wisconsin is a democratic organization that educates women about the aspects of building and running a campaign. Driscoll was accepted and spent six months learning campaign ethics, door knocking, fundraising, networking and more.

In 2018, she ran for Dane County Board Supervisor and lost. She decided to run for this year’s state assembly race, with the hopes of making a broader impact on the issues she’s built her platform around, including environmental sustainability, gun violence, gender and racial equity, and sexual assault prevention — all of which she’s worked on in the past.

After her loss in the primary this past August, Driscoll sent a message out to her supporters thanking them and reiterating the need for “real action” for “multiple crises” the country is facing, from COVID-19 and climate change to gun violence and racism.

For Driscoll, even though winning a political seat is obviously the goal of the race, her overarching mission is to affect change, and she certainly hasn’t slowed down. She’s making calls for state assembly candidates, helping to register voters, collecting absentee ballots as a poll worker — the list goes on. Of course, racial equity, gun violence and sustainability continue to be constants in her community work.

“I’ll continue pushing forward and showing up for meetings, knocking doors, writing letters — those are all things I can do whether I’m elected or not,” she says. “The more people are involved in the community, the better our world will be. Everyone has something to offer.”

SO, YOU WANT TO RUN FOR OFFICE?

Here’s what Driscoll has learned.

PLUG IN

There are so many ways to get involved in your community, Driscoll says. “I got on the neighborhood association board, and I created an environmental committee and started some projects, like Leaf Free Streets by working with the city and county. I also got some money through the neighborhood association to get air monitors, because there was concern about the air quality in the neighborhood … being so close to a factory.” So, plug in and find out what the needs are in your community.

STAY INFORMED

Try to schedule coffee dates with anyone who’s engaged in local political organizations, so you can get a sense for who may be running for office and learn early on if their values align with yours.

VOLUNTEER FOR LOCAL CAMPAIGNS

Helping someone else with their campaign will teach you the ins and outs of running for office. If you have a specific skillset you’d like to offer, mention that upfront to see if there’s a need in that area. If you’re more introverted, there are plenty of roles that don’t involve interfacing with voters.

MOST VALUABLE LESSON LEARNED FROM EMERGE WISCONSIN

Door knocking and connecting with voters. “I’ve heard people say your door is the hardest door to get through,” she laughs. “But once you get out there, it’s not as intimidating as you might think, especially for local office. Many don’t know there’s an election coming up, and you’re the first person to let them know about it.”

BUILDING A CAMPAIGN TEAM

When recruiting friends, family and others who want to help you with your campaign, it’s helpful to have people who are willing to be flexible, Driscoll says. Find people who are really committed and want to learn.

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