I have a confession to make: I am not a lifelong Democrat. I did not wear a “Tiny Democrat” onesie while my dad marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My mom did not take me to CR groups. Admittedly, I think it would have been pretty fascinating to be that kid…but I wasn’t.
Instead, I grew up in a conservative, Midwestern Catholic family, and I was instilled with a deep commitment to the ideas of family, faith, and freedom. My dad was the first generation in his family to go to college, and my mom was a homemaker who welcomed us home from school and made dinner every night. My faith shaped my commitment to treat others as I would want to be treated, and to be of service to those who are oppressed and in most need. My grandfathers served in WWII, and my uncles served in Vietnam and Korea, so I developed great respect for the service and sacrifice so many generations have made for my American freedoms.
Naturally, when I was 18 and had the chance to register to vote in my first election, I chose the Party that professed a commitment to family values, God, and service to one’s country. I joined the College Club for that Party and actively participated, as I believed it was my duty to be civically engaged. I was tired of hearing how young people didn’t care, and I felt morally obligated to help people understand why voting was so important, particularly in that election.
As a Political Science and Gender Studies double-major, however, I received quite an education. I learned much more about my Party – that they did not stand by their stated commitment to education, to our aging population, or to our Christian mission to “help the least among us.” I learned that they were, in fact, the most likely Party to advocate against the interests of low- and middle-income Americans; that they were selective in the families they valued; and that they were quite interested in preventing the advancement and equality of women in society. I learned that I was wrong about my Party – utterly and completely wrong.
So I changed my registration and became a Democrat. I felt an even greater responsibility to work hard and make sure people did not make the same mistake I had once made. I vowed that I would continue to work for all the values I had always held – protecting our environment, our working class, our seniors and ALL of our families; ensuring access to quality education and affordable health care; empowering women, gender minorities, and our youth.
For some people, however, this isn’t enough. Recently, I ran in an election where my Democratic opponents suggested that my former Party affiliation spoke louder than my years of activism and accomplishment on a variety of progressive issues. I was expecting the attack; after all, when one runs for public office one has to assume that opponents will eagerly dredge up the past. But I found remarkable how many registered Democrats – and even some leaders within the Party – placed more value on my political indiscretion as an 18-year-old college freshman than on the decade-long promotion of progressive ideals that followed it.
These same attacks are being made against California Secretary of State Debra Bowen in her race for Congress, and against other non-lifelong Democrats like us, who work hard every day to advance the values of our Party. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton experienced a Democratic conversion in college: she was President of the College Republicans at Wellesley, and yet we do not place asterisks next to her accomplishments as First Lady, Senator, or Secretary of State because she registered with another Party decades ago. While we certainly value those who have made a lifetime commitment to the Party, the successful leadership of non-lifelong Democrats demonstrates that we are a Party committed to progress and that we believe change truly is possible.
When we effectively advocate for our issues, and we help people understand why they need to support Democratic values, we must welcome the converted as much as those baptized by the Party at birth. The Democratic Party is best served when we support people who are willing to do the work and fight for progressive values, regardless of when they joined. We cannot brand new Democrats with a political scarlet letter, thus engaging in the destructive politics of our opponents. We must set the example that political party conversion to becoming a Democrat is to be celebrated, much like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Today, I take ownership of my Party affiliation and the values I represent as a member of it. As a Democrat, I value that we are “a big tent,” welcoming to a diverse group of people who care about including and empowering those who have been disenfranchised. And I will work hard to make that tent as big as possible, so we can include all those who want to call the Democratic Party their home.