Women Who Run highlights female political candidates on both sides of the aisle who are poised to change the face of local, state, and federal government for the better.
Cindy Polo, the Democratic candidate running to represent Florida’s 103rd District in the state senate, is trying to bring back a “personal touch” to politics.
“When we speak to the press, speak to volunteers, I want it to be me they’re hearing from,” she says. “That personal touch is something I think politics has been missing. I don’t have paid staff, or a huge budget where I can have 20 people do things for me. I’m involved in all parts of the campaign.”
Over the past several months, Polo has gone from being a stay-at-home mom to an almost-three-year-old son to a candidate in a competitive race to flip her state senate seat. Polo filed to run the day after testifying before the state senate about a bill to arm Florida teachers, the week after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Watching Parkland unfold just miles from her home, and watching as a young mother, was critical to Polo’s decision to run for office. But she also thinks Parkland is one — certainly big — part of a broader movement, of everyday people wanting to be “part of that change and not just expecting someone else to do it for you.” And it doesn’t matter how many times you’re turned away by people in power at first: “Eventually, it’s not just one person knocking on that door, it’s 10 of us. And then it’s not 10, it’s 100 of us,” she says.
Polo is one of not just 100, but thousands of women across the country galvanized to run for office up and down the ballot this year. And she hopes these numbers are just a glimpse of the future.
“The press is labeling this the ‘Year of the Woman,’ and I think every year should be,” she says. “It shouldn’t end with whatever the results are in November. November 7, a whole new cycle begins, and we have to keep at it until we feel we have a voice and people are listening to us, until we get people who sound like us and look like us in office.”
B+C: What inspired you to run for office?
Polo: I like to say the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy is what got me off the couch, but it’s essentially everything since the general election, and my feeling that I didn’t do enough for the general election. I voted, but I feel that’s the bare minimum, and personally, I don’t feel we’re living in a time where the bare minimum cuts it. Everything was one thing after another, and then Parkland felt like that defining moment where, as a mom, I felt I needed to do much more.
After a brief encounter with the state senators here in Florida after the senate hearing, and seeing the inefficiency and politics being played out shortly after the tragedy, that started the momentum. I had an opportunity to speak in front of the senate, and had a two-minute speech discussing the bill they were debating. The main portion of it was putting guns in teachers’ hands, and during my speech I called out the NRA, and the reaction to my speech is what caused me to file to run shortly after. I realized we have a voice, and if we do our best to hold people accountable, part of that is stepping in where we see a gap.
At the time, the Republican in our district was running unopposed, and I just thought, with everything happening in our country, I couldn’t live with myself knowing he would just be given a public office without ever having to explain or defend his position to the community he represents. That was the last straw.
B+C: What does a day on the campaign trail look like for you?
Polo: There’s no two days that are alike. I have a soon-to-be three-year-old, and so I’ve made an attempt to make sure the day starts and ends with him, making sure that he’s settled, whether he’s taken care of with my parents or with me. I really need to have that time with him in the morning, because I don’t know what the rest of the day is going to look like.
Now toward the end, as we’ve had a steady flow of volunteers, and a steady flow of help, the day looks a little more structured. At least I know there may be an event in the evening, and during the day, it’s making calls to donors, returning emails, sometimes putting out a fire that may have started. But really, no two days are alike. You’re just running forward with your eye on the finish line, just trying to get through that day.
I attempt to finish the day with my son. That’s becoming more scarce, just because meetings can run late, or there’s a last-minute community event. You’re just kind of everywhere. On grassroots campaigns, it’s exhausting, but it’s just so cool to have your hand in everything. It’s my name, my personality, my family out there, and I take ownership.
B+C: What are the issues you’d focus on if elected?
Polo: There’s so many, and fortunately and unfortunately, there’s so many concerns our community has — many of which have been ignored by current elected officials. But I would say in District 103, specifically, we have broad issues like gun control and education, issues that are top of mind as we aren’t very far from Parkland.
There’s a lot of debate in Florida about education and traditional public schools vs. charter schools and the funding, and our public schools are seeing less and less funding. Not only seeing less funding for students, but the state is ranked 45 in the nation in teacher salaries.
And an issue specific to 103 is a mine-blasting issue, as the blasting levels as well as the frequency have increased. These manmade explosions are creating earthquakes in our district and damaging homes, so there’s cracks in walls and foundations, roofs are separating — it’s a very serious issue that elected officials currently representing the area have never spoken about. It’s been more of a citizens’ concern. None of our representatives are talking about it, and this issue is much bigger than any of them would claim.
B+C: What are some of the challenges, if any, that you’ve faced transitioning into campaign mode from being a stay-at-home mom?
Polo: I think some of the challenges I face aren’t necessarily unique to being a mom, as all candidates would agree there just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that comes up. For me specifically, other than time and just trying to balance being a mom, because I deal with that guilt of sort of being away, not being present for every single bedtime story, it’s also that even though I’m running as a Democrat with a progressive platform, our party itself is pretty traditional. So that said, the barriers to entry to the world of campaigning and the world of public office are pretty high. Especially for individuals who don’t come from that pedigree or money, financing a campaign is what keeps me up at night.
All of the help you need — administrative help, communication with constituents — it’s going to cost in some sort of way. So trying to fundraise while running a campaign completely by yourself without consultants, and trying to balance personal relationships, I think, is the most challenging. Calling to ask for money, you’re asking in your own name, for yourself, and that by far is the biggest challenge, especially for first-time candidates.
B+C: Did you feel a change in your community after the Parkland shooting? If so, how would you describe it?
Polo: There is a movement just overall, and Parkland is the most emotional part of this because of the consequences and product of what happened. But the movement is everything: not just one thing, not just gun control and school shootings and environmental concerns. It’s all of it.
The movement now is not just anger: It’s a push to be involved, to be part of that change and not just expecting someone else to do it for you. And I’m inspired because I see that everywhere, and I’m inspired because I think the Stoneman Douglas students led that, where being deeply affected by an issue, instead of pleading with someone else to resolve it, they went ahead and took action into their own hands.
I think that that spreads across demographics, age — it’s something we all need to be reminded of. If we don’t like and don’t accept the direction in which we’re moving, we can be an active participant in it. We don’t have to just wait for an election result; we can take to the streets, start organizations, join local groups. We can have an active part in changing things. I think students have reminded us of what our country really stands for, that you’re supposed to make your voice heard. If they ignore you the first time, you come back stronger, more united, louder, until it gets to the point that they can’t ignore you.
And with moms especially, we’re seeing so many things as women that we need to take an active role in. We can’t just expect other people to fix things for us, we have to be part of the system in order to change and disrupt it. We need to be part of it to call them out, and really shine a spotlight on all of these issues that affect us.
I know you asked about Parkland, and I think that just ties in to everything. That those students took their pain and anger and didn’t dwell in it, or sit and mope. They decided to take action. And I think that’s inspired everyone else younger or older to follow their example and lead.
B+C: What’s your advice for young women who may be inspired by you to get involved in politics or their communities for the first time?
Polo: My first piece of advice is, don’t overthink it, just do it. You’re going to figure it out. We don’t get into things just because we’re already experts at it; sometimes you have to learn along the way. And if you have a passion for it, you just need to do it, whether you’re running for office yourself or helping others run for office. But what I say is, just get up and do it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it right the first time around. I mess up 20 times a day and that’s being conservative. You dust yourself off, and the next day, you attempt to be better.
And speaking long-term, I’d say learn from other people who have run for office, whether they won or lost. There’s little nuggets of information that there’s no handbook for. But also, if there’s nothing that appeals to you right now, if there are organizations you don’t completely agree with, then create your own. You’d be surprised. Some of these organizations, as much exposure as they get, you’d think they have a huge member base, but some of them don’t. They use whatever assets they have to shine a spotlight on whatever issue it is they care about.
And of course, start building your network and list of allies you can trust. No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, this is not a simple world. I’ve only been in it for a few months, and it’s complicated. Things can feel like they’re at a stand-still. You need a tough-skin, and I don’t mean not to cry or change who you are, but you need to build up tolerance and patience and persistence. Sometimes the door doesn’t open for you, no matter how loudly you knock. It doesn’t mean you don’t come back the next day and keep knocking at it.
Overall, you need to be persistent, and find something to fight for, because there’s a long list. There’s not just one issue we’re facing, especially for young women nowadays. Find that one that speaks to you, that gets you worked up, and choose to do something about it. Because there is no action that’s too small. As long as you go forward with something, you’re making an impact, whether you see it immediately or not.
(Design by Yising Chou/B+C)