Pam Keith didn’t even take a beat when Refinery29 asked if she thought carefully about whether she wanted to run for office again so soon after losing her 2016 U.S. Senate bid. In fact, she didn’t even let this reporter finish the question.
“I don’t have long conversations with myself,” she said bluntly. “I’m going to be honest with you. My recommendation to women is to always tell yourself yes, because there’s a lot of people out there who are going to tell you no.”
What’s more impressive is that Keith got back on the mat so quickly considering she lost the primary as a first-time candidate and the challenges she faced — spending about $ 250,000 in her campaign while her opponents had millions, the lack of institutional support, being the only woman in the race — would scare anyone away. But if there’s something the former U.S. Navy officer and NextEra Energy attorney made clear through her conversation it’s that she won’t let others decide her destiny. That it’s up to herself.
“That’s not my story,” she said.
The story of how she became a candidate, instead, started off very differently. The daughter of a U.S. diplomat, Keith was born in Turkey and from there spent the rest of her young life bouncing around between Morocco, Syria, Brazil, and several U.S. cities including Oakland, CA and Lexington, KY. Afterwards, she attended undergrad and graduate school at U.C. Davis, and then law school at Boston College. In 1995, she joined the U.S. Navy and served for four years as a JAG Officer. When her time in the Navy ended, she returned to the U.S. to work as a lawyer — until she started to feel what she calls “a sense of disquiet.”
“I was starting to feel like I needed to do more in terms of giving back, in terms of service,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was really living up to the way I had envisioned myself.”
After watching Sen. Marco Rubio’s response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union, she said she thought: ” This guy. How did he become a U.S. senator? It occurred to me that the reason he is a U.S. senator is because he tried to become one.”
Last year I withstood the cold to join thousands of women in DC who showed up to have their voices heard. This year, I’ll join thousands more who will show up & speak out again. Never doubt that showing up makes a difference. #WomensMarch2018 #Resist pic.twitter.com/Uk0o8cyq6O
— Pam Keith (@PamKeithFL) January 20, 2018
Keith felt inclined to run for office, but she tabled the notion until she heard Rubio was running for president and in Florida, he would need to vacate his seat before doing so. She decided she would run for the vacancy, becoming the first Black woman to run for Senate in the state. In the end, she lost the Democratic primary to Patrick Murphy and after Rubio lost the presidential one, he went on to defeat Murphy in the general election.
“I was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she said. “But at the end, I was far more successful than most people thought I could be.”
Which leads us to 2017, when Keith decided to run for a seat representing Florida’s 18th District. Her current platform falls on the progressive side, though she argues against the use of that term to describe ideas since it’s so up for interpretation. Some of her key positions include offering better care for veterans, reforming the immigration and criminal justice systems, strengthening the education system, investing in clean and renewable energy, and helping close the income gap.
And her Senate bid, though it was unsuccessful, gave her the confidence to move forward with her second campaign. Keith said that thanks to that experience she found her voice and now her team is stronger and wiser.
“The challenge for every woman who is out there doing her thing is that somebody is going to tell her her thing ain’t right.”
But her previous race also showed her the dark side of politics, a game that she said is heavily skewed in favor of wealth. Keith didn’t shy away from criticizing Republicans — and Democrats! — who prioritize candidates with certain connections, typically white men. (“I’m a lifelong Democrat, but I’m also a lifelong truth-teller,” she explained.) And she said that, when it comes to institutional support, women of color tend to face more obstacles because they are seen as less viable candidates.
“The game for women of color in particular, in any endeavor, is how to endure in the face of somebody telling you that your flavor, your swagger, your magic, your style, your passion, your ideas are not welcome, that they’re too much, that they’re too bold, that they don’t conform,” she said. “The challenge for every woman who is out there doing her thing is that somebody is going to tell her her thing ain’t right.”
With obvious frustration in her voice, Keith said that it’s time to dismantle the old systems that block candidates like her from joining into the old politics boys’ club. And one of the main reasons why is that it’s necessary to have more diverse lawmakers in office — specifically women and people of color — to help create effective, compassionate policy that will help every American.
But running for office can be a daunting task for some, so Keith once again emphasized the importance of women taking risks.
“Men tell themselves yes all the time. And they’re not worried about whether there are voices out there that will tell them no,” she said. “You have to give yourself permission to take risks, to believe in yourself when nobody else does. Believe in yourself when everyone else does! Don’t ever listen to the chorus that tells you you’re not ready.”
2018 will see an unprecedented number of female candidates in ballots across the country. More than 500 women are currently running for the House, Senate, or governorships — and that’s without taking into account the number of candidates vying for local and statewide seats. Refinery29 is committed to spotlight female candidates, but particularly women of color, who have risen up to the challenge to say: “It’s our turn.”
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