3 female candidates lean on each other as they run for 1st time in Alabama

Felicia Stewart, Alli Summerford and Jenn Gray each face a male candidate.

In the heart of Alabama, three women are running for office against male opponents who, in some cases, haven’t faced opposition in decades.

The three women -- Felicia Stewart, Jenn Gray and Alli Summerford – are all Democrats. Each is also a mom and first-time candidate who decided 2018 was the year to take action.

The women are each running to become a state representative and have formed a sisterhood in the process.

Stewart and Summerford are running in districts that nearly overlap in Birmingham. They had never met before launching their respective campaign bids.

"Nobody can truly understand the internal part of this piece better than the other candidates and specifically the other female candidates and especially those who are moms," said Stewart. "Alli [Summerford] has been a terrific source of encouragement and sounding board and strategy partner."

Summerford says Stewart, with whom she has held campaign events and discussed campaign strategy, is now "like family."

"She is a wonderful resource in terms of supporting one another on the good days and bad days," Summerford said of Stewart. "She and I would together be really able to get things done [in the state legislature]."

Stewart and Gray met as members of the first graduating class of Emerge Alabama, a group that helps Democratic women run for public office.

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Together with Summerford, Stewart and Gray, whose district also covers parts of Birmingham, have participated in women candidate events to get their message out.

"It's very encouraging to have a cohort that you can connect to and have as a sounding board," said Gray. "It’s about this coalition of women who are running and who really have each other’s backs, just pulling each other up."

"We need to all win," she added, of the women running in 2018. "It's not enough for me if one of us wins."

The number of women in Alabama running for Congress matches the highest number of women running going back to 2004, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). The number of women running for the state legislature exceeds the number of women running in CAWP's data going back to 2000.

"I think one of the benefits of the three women [Stewart, Summerford and Gray] running together is they were able to get a lot more name recognition and get more energy for their campaign early on," said Marissa Grayson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of political science at Samford University in Birmingham.

"One of the things I've noticed with all of them is it's not just about them," said Grayson, who has been following Stewart, Summerford and Gray's races. "They're not just focused on themselves, they're very much focused on the effects of their races on the state and the rules within the state, especially in a state where we've seen so much corruption."

"We have a good ol' boys club that has existed for such a long time," she added.

Here are the stories of how Stewart, Gray and Summerford each went from working mom to candidate.

'I remember a switch turning in my brain'

Jenn Gray, 46, is a native of Alabama who left the state to get her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry and then moved back to the Birmingham area about four years ago.

She got an up-close look at Alabama politics while advocating for a state bill to have insurance companies cover autism therapies. Gray's 10-year-old daughter is on the autism spectrum, she said.

"I remember a switch turning in my brain saying, ‘This is not okay. You cannot do this to our children,'" Gray said, adding that the opposition to the bill from corporations and lobbyists especially sparked her response. "I remember being in my bedroom, which was my de-facto office, and saying to myself, 'I’m running for office.'"

Gray went right to the top of local politics, putting her hat in the ring for her state representative seat.

"The typical path has been to run for school board or city council, but Emerge [Alabama] motivated me that if you want to run for representative, then that’s what you do," Gray said. "I’ve always run my life like this, that when you’ve found yourself saying, 'Someone needs to do something about this,' more than once, you’ve found the person -- and it’s you."

During her campaign, Gray won a petition to allow campaign donations to cover child care expenses, a first in the state.

She said other candidates now thank her on the campaign trail for pushing that change through.

"One of the judges on the [Alabama Ethics Commission] said, ‘If she has a child maybe she shouldn’t run,'" Gray recalled. "When you add people with different points of view and different life experiences, you’re going to get different results and that’s what we need."

When asked if she has faced discrimination as a women on the campaign trail, Gray responded, "I might have been made angry at some of the things I’ve encountered, but that just fuels me to go further."

'This was not part of my life plan'

Felicia Stewart, an Alabama native, paused her 20-year career in business and marketing to run to represent Mountain Brook, an area of Birmingham, in the state legislature.

"A democrat hasn’t run in District 46 in nearly 20 years," she said. "We know this would be a little bit of an uphill battle if we weren’t 100 percent in."

Stewart has refused to accept donations from PACs, large corporations or other special interests in her campaign, relying instead on small donations. She has stood out on the campaign trail with the slogan: "Hi, Felicia!"

"Alabama is number one in government corruption, and I believe it starts with the money in our politics," she said. "I’m passionate about working for the people of my district and my state, and my campaign finances align accordingly."

Stewart, 41, described being "fed up" at watching how the state government was run. From 2016 to 2017 in Alabama, the speaker of the House was convicted on felony charges, the governor resigned after nearly facing impeachment due to a sex scandal and the Republican U.S. Senate candidate and former state chief justice, Roy Moore, was accused of initiating sexual encounters with minor girls.

"This was not part of my life plan," said Stewart, noting she was motivated to run by what she called a "crisis of leadership in the state." "I didn’t want to do this for show so once we started looking at the data and demographics, we realized with a concerted, hardworking effort we could pull this off."

Stewart has been supported in her effort by her wife of more than 15 years, Christy, and their twin 7-year-old daughters, Helen and Harper.

"That's been one of the definite highlights of the process," she said. "I talk to my girls in clichés a lot and one thing I say is, 'When a Stewart girl sees something that needs to be done, she does it,' and this process has been an opportunity for me to live that."

Stewart pointed out she is running not because she's a woman but because, "I'm qualified candidate and I am determined."

That being said, Stewart recognizes the impact a November win could have for herself and others.

"The folks that I am collaborating with like Alli [Summerford] and Jenn [Gray], we are all running because we are passionate about the state and passionate about closing the gap," she said. "If enough of us get elected, this could create generational change for our state."

"As a native Alabamian that’s exciting for me," Stewart said.

‘No, mom, I think it’s really, really cool'

Frustration with the "quality of the dialogue and the national political conversation" after the 2016 election is what got Alli Summerford to consider a political run for the first time in her life.

Summerford, a 46-year-old single mother and small business owner, said she gave her 17-year-old son full veto power over her potential candidacy for a state house seat.

"He said, 'No, mom, I think it’s really, really cool,'" Summerford recalled. "It's been such a cool experience to have him help with the campaign."

Also on the campaign trail for Summerford, whose district is in Birmingham, is her 70-year-old mom, who canvases every day and cooks meals for Summerford and her son.

Her campaign manager is her best friend of 20 years, a woman with no political experience who volunteered to bring her business acumen to the campaign.

"She didn’t even hesitate when I told her I was thinking of running," Summerford said. "She said, 'Hell, yeah, do that. And I’m in.'"

Summerford said she has knocked on over 11,000 doors during her campaign against an incumbent who has not faced an opponent since the early 1990s.

"If it's the mom or wife who has opened the door, they'll say that it's really cool that a woman is running," Summerford said. "They’ll bring their daughters over and introduce me."

When voters ask Summerford how she can bring change as one candidate she tells them, "It’s not going to be fast and it’s not going to be easy, but all change has a starting point and that’s where we are. Unless people try, we don't get beyond the starting point."