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Power to the Polls

The Engineer Running for Congress to 'Bring Humanity Back to Our Government'

“I never wanted to do this, but it needs to be done, and people need to be doing whatever they can," says Chrissy Houlahan.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

In honor of the Women’s March and their “Power to the Polls” initiative, we're highlighting progressive women and nonbinary candidates on the 2018 ballot. You can read more of their stories here.

In advance of her 50th birthday, Chrissy Houlahan and her husband made it a goal to run one race in every state—an invigorating way to see more of the country. According to her rules, each race had to be at least five miles but no more than a half-marathon, include a numbered bib, and offer a T-shirt so Houlahan could turn the souvenirs into a commemorative quilt.

The Pennsylvania couple started in Alaska in August 2016, and intended to run their final race in Hawaii. Then, about 20 races into their endeavor, the 2016 presidential election happened.

“I really felt that we had collectively gotten something wrong that election evening, and the week following really affirmed that,” Houlahan says. Her oldest daughter, who’d come from out of state to vote with the family, wouldn’t go back to her adult life because she worried what a Trump administration would mean for her, a member of the LGBTQ community, and others, Houlahan recalls. Similarly, her father, a Holocaust survivor and naval officer, raised concerns that people would be forced into hiding once again.

“Those kinds of things were part of the realization that I needed to do something,” says Houlahan, a veteran and businesswoman with a background in engineering and education.

Putting the half-marathons on the back burner, she decided to run a different kind of race. In April, Houlahan launched a bid to represent Pennsylvania House District 6, where she’s lived for more than 20 years. If she becomes the Democratic nominee in the May 15 primary, she’ll run against incumbent Republican Ryan Costello (who won in 2016 with 57 percent of votes) in November.

Houlahan’s run for office is particularly important because currently no women represent Pennsylvania in Congress. The last woman elected from the state was Allyson Schwartz, who left in 2015 after serving five terms. (There have been no women ever elected to represent Pennsylvania in the US Senate.)

By all accounts, Houlahan is more than qualified for the job—so much so that, as Ozy’s Daniel Malloy writes, “national Democrats are salivating over her first-time candidacy.” In addition to being Stanford and MIT-educated, Houlahan served in the US Air Force; worked as the chief operating officer of a successful basketball apparel company; was the founding COO of a nonprofit focused on promoting socially responsible businesses; joined Teach For America as a high school chemistry teacher; and led another nonprofit working to improve early childhood literacy.

"The biggest thing … is hopefully just bringing humanity back to our government.”

“I believe it’s time for people like me to take our real world experience, for lack of a better word, to Washington,” Houlahan says, “because I think our country is really in danger of losing a lot of the progress that we’ve made. A lot of our values are also in peril as well.”

Her biggest contribution, she says, would hopefully be helping leaders collaborate on important issues like health care and public education. “I think right now we are just literally screaming at each other from the left and the right, and the discourse is just so destructive. There would be so many discrete things I would like to have impact on, but the biggest thing … is hopefully just bringing humanity back to our government.”

Despite her extensive resume, Houlahan maintains she never wanted to run for public office. Up until Trump’s election, she’d always felt like she’d done her part, first in the Air Force and then as a civilian, she says. Concerned about the direction the country was headed under Trump, Houlahan joined thousands of participants at last year’s Women’s March on Washington. She and her mom organized a bus for others to attend as well.

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Out of the 53 people who accompanied her to that march, Houlahan says she only knew nine personally. But by the end of the all-day excursion, she realized just “how connected we all are as people.” While everyone on her bus had their own reasons for marching, she says, they were all important reasons—many of which she, too, felt passionate about. That’s when she knew what she had to do.

“I really do think I’m being called off the sidelines in a really important time in our nation’s history,” Houlahan says. “I never wanted to do this, but it needs to be done, and people need to be doing whatever they can. They need to be licking envelopes or making phone calls or tweeting or marching—they need to be doing all of the things we need to do to be heard.”