Few things will discourage you from taking a chance more than public failure. In my case, the antidote to pulling away and the catalyst to leaning in was the encouragement, enthusiasm and invaluable assistance of women.
In 1990 I was serving on the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo County and enjoying my work. The bounce in my step had returned since my defeat in the 1988 Congressional race and I was finding satisfaction in ground level public service. Maintaining high quality health care for those in need and preserving the coastlands were high priorities. I took pride in my reputation as an expert on these issues and as someone who “made the trains run on time.”
That’s why the local political news was so unsettling that year. The state legislature was redrawing the congressional district lines as they did every decade and a new district in our area would be more competitive.
Friends and colleagues encouraged me to think about running again. Despite improved prospects for a Democrat, not much about pursuing another election appealed to me. My unsuccessful campaign for Congress had been grueling and expensive.
“Leave Congress to someone else,” I told myself. But the world has a way of pressing in, which was particularly true in 1990 and 1991.
Our government was letting women down. The National Institutes of Health were conducting clinical health trials on white men to extrapolate data and draw conclusions about women’s health. Reports of breast cancer were on the rise and there was more talk of cancer “clusters.”
And then there was Anita Hill. For many of us, that picture of a Congresswoman running up the steps of the Capitol to demand that she be allowed to testify is emblematic of the times. Women on city councils and my colleagues in county government would pass me notes at meetings or grab me on the way out and whisper, “You have to do this.” Women up and down the Peninsula pledged their support. Women Members of Congress called to say they couldn’t change things on their own; they needed reinforcements. And they pledged to raise money and campaign with me.
Slowly, I warmed to the idea of running again. Before long, the potential benefits of all that I could accomplish in congress outweighed the possible drawbacks of another loss. As it turned out, deciding to run again was much tougher than the race itself. That’s not something you can ever know looking forward, but staring in the rearview mirror today at a decision made over 20 years ago, I know it was the confidence, generosity and hard work of women that made the difference.