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My Wife Belongs in the House

from Reader's Digest, November, 2000
by Fergus M. Bordewich

She set her sights on Capitol Hill ... and gave us the ride of our lives.

"I've go to talk to you!" Jean shouted, bursting into my office. I spun around, fearing that something terrible had happened. But my wife was grinning. "I'm going to run for Congress!"

Jean then told me the news: Our Congressman, out of the blue, had just announced he wasn't seeking re-election. His seat was up for grabs - and she wanted it.

My mind raced. Jean ... my wife ... the mother of our eight-year-old daughter ... a member of Congress? But then I thought, well, why not? She was on the town board in Red Hook, our rural New York community. She'd once been an aide to a U.S. Senator in Washington, and, before Chloe was born, had made her mark as a business executive. Sure this would be the boldest thing she'd ever done, but who was any more qualified? "Okay," I hear myself saying. "I'm on board."

The truth is, I had no idea what we were in for on that spring day in 1998. Not that it mattered - for nothing could have prepared me for the roller-coaster ride ahead.

A few weeks later, Jean strode into the offices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in Washington, and made her pitch for funding. "You're a great candidate," said a young staffer, barely in his 30s. Jean started to smile. "But you can't win. The numbers are against you." Registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats almost two-to-one in our district.

Still, they told her to go ahead and hire a campaign consultant - for credibility.

When our guru, Ken Christensen, arrived on the train from Washington, he looked disconcertingly like an undertaker: lean, tense and sweating heavily in a black suit.

He was all business. "You need an office," Christensen snapped. "give me the keys to your car." Four hours later he had rented space on Red Hook's main street, and was unpacking telephones, fax machines and files from a pile of suitcases.

"How much money have you got?" Christensen asked. Jean had raised about $20,000. She told him how much we had in the bank. "Spend it," he told her.

Jean gulped.

"You've got to raise at least $500,000," Christensen explained, "and $100,000 of that in the next two weeks. If not, you're finished."

And so, day after day, Jean sat in a windowless cubicle nicknamed the Boiler Room, telephoning family, college roommates, friends of mine from high school. The calls were often painfully embarrassing. After chatting amiably with one relative, Jean swallowed and asked for a contribution.

"Why, Jean, don't you know I'm a Republican?" she replied coolly.

"I thought, just for me," Jean said in a small voice.

Nope. Jean shrank inwardly - but kept dialing.

Two weeks after Christensen arrived, my wife emerged from the Boiler Room. "We've done it!" Jean shouted. She'd managed to raise about $106,000.

DCCC party officials were impressed, but even a poll that showed Jean neck and neck with her opponent didn't convince them that she stood a chance. The committee would do little to help her.

I was appalled by their response. Jean's reaction? "I guess I'm really on my own now." She spoke the words softly, but there was a hard glint in her eyes.

My wife now got three hours' sleep on a good night, but bounded out of bed with the energy of someone half her 46 years. She munched barbecued ribs with the American Legion. She marched in the Fourth of July parade in the city of Hudson. Jean even attended a county fair where she was coaxed into a cow-washing contest. The crowd roared as she sponged down a cow covered with mud and manure. "This lets you politicians know what you're in for," a farmer said, chuckling.

On another sunny afternoon, Jean, our daughter, Chloe, and I strode back and forth across our front lawn wearing glassy smiles - the happy American family - while a commercial camera crew filmed the scene for Jean's TV ads.

"Look like a wife and mother who just happens to be running for office," the director ordered.

"I'd rather talk about the pollution in the Hudson River," Jean groused

"Smile harder!" the director yelled.

My main job through all this was to see that Chloe's life was disrupted as little as possible. I made sure she got to school, had play dates and was fed as well as my limited repertoire allowed (we ate pasta for weeks). After her classes, Chloe and I would go through town putting up "Bordewich for Congress" signs, adding to the thousands that eventually dotted the district.

As the campaign wore on, we saw Jean even less. Often she'd climb into bed at 3 or 4 a.m. and start talking animatedly about the health care system or milk price supports. "Aren't you listening?" she'd ask as I snapped awake.

"Of course, dear," I mumbled. "Every word."

By midautumn, the campaign was in financial trouble. Jean's opponent, with the generous support he received from the national Republican leadership, would eventually raise almost $900,000 and blanket the district with TV and radio commercials.

But we got a welcome shot in the arm when the area's newspapers almost unanimously endorsed Jean. And with this support came a last-minute surge in contributions.

"You're going to win, aren't you, Mom?" Chloe asked, the day before the election, her eyes wide.

"Yes, I am," Jean replied, feeling in her heart that it had to be true.

It wasn't. Jean would do better than most Democrats previously had, winning 42 percent of the vote. But it wasn't nearly enough.

I was disappointed - and never more sad than when, on election night, I noticed Chloe was struggling to hold back he tears. I watched as Jean knelt and the two hugged.

Was the grueling campaign worth it? Absolutely. And for this reason above all: Just a few months later, Chloe was sitting in her fourth-grade class when her teacher handed out questionnaires. There near the top of the sheet of paper, was the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Chloe didn't hesitate. She wrote, "Politician."