From Annapolis to Congress? These Three Women Know Tough Missions

Elaine Luria said that she would rather focus her campaign for Congress in Virginia on policy disagreements than President Trump’s behavior.

NORFOLK, Va. — Elaine Luria commanded an assault ship with a crew of 400 that patrolled the Persian Gulf for hostile Iranian vessels. Amy McGrath was the first female Marine to fly in an F-18 fighter jet in combat, dropping bombs over Afghanistan and Iraq. Mikie Sherrill was certified as a Navy helicopter pilot only after passing an underwater crash simulation in which she was blindfolded, turned upside down, and forced to find the sole exit door.

Their military journeys began at the United States Naval Academy, where Ms. Luria and Ms. McGrath were plebes together when Ms. Sherrill was a senior.

Now they are on a mission that no female Annapolis graduate has accomplished: to win seats in Congress.

A powerful wave of political activism is animating women in the era of President Trump, stoked by women’s marches and the movement to expose sexual misconduct. More than 390 women are running for Congress, a record number, and they are overwhelmingly Democrats.

But the three Naval Academy graduates, all Democrats themselves, are offering something that breaks through — the kind of military credentials and academy service that have propelled men to office since the founding of the country. And they are running in swing districts where military service is likely to resonate and where Democrats must win to wrest control of the House from Republicans.

“It’s incredibly important that I decided to serve my country before deciding to run for office,” said Ms. Sherrill, whose path to the House became easier on Monday when her Republican opponent, Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced his retirement. “That shows where my center is.”

Strategists in both parties say that women — as candidates, activists and voters — are more likely to shape the outcome of the midterm elections than any other part of the electorate.

Republicans have their own female veterans running for House seats: Aja Smith in inland Southern California and Lynne Blankenbeker in New Hampshire. Representative Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona and an Air Force Academy graduate and decorated fighter pilot, is running for the Senate.

But Democrats have the trickier task — flipping enough seats in often gerrymandered Republican districts to take the House. Ms. Luria is running in the Tidewater Region of Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base and the headquarters of the Christian Broadcasting Network. If she wins her primary race, she is likely to face Representative Scott Taylor, a freshman Republican with his own military credential, as a Navy SEAL.

The district where Ms. McGrath is running in Kentucky sprawls across 19 rural and urban counties that include Lexington. But her contest, even with her compelling background, might be the toughest of the three. Many Democrats in Washington prefer her primary opponent, Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, who is better known and can fund much of the race with his own money.

Ms. McGrath has gained a measure of celebrity with an initial campaign video highlighting her military experience and her criticism of Mr. Trump. It has attracted more than one million page views and, more important, generated more than $1 million in campaign contributions.

The New Jersey district that Ms. Sherrill is running in went for Mr. Trump by less than a percentage point, then voted for the new Democratic governor, Phil Murphy.

All three women lean heavily on their military backgrounds to promote their campaigns, with photosin uniform dominating their websites. But they also share the challenges of any first-time candidate: raising money, building an organization and avoiding rookie mistakes.

Seated at a table in the Norfolk business she started while still on active duty, Mermaid Factory, where customers paint molds of mermaids, Ms. Luria noted how important ties to the Navy were in her district, which includes the state’s largest city, Virginia Beach. She served for 20 years before retiring last June, and decided only a few months later to run for Congress.

Ms. Luria said that she felt the pull to run for office after Mr. Trump’s election, and that her husband quit his job to help take over household duties so she could focus on campaigning.

She grew up in Birmingham, Ala., where her family owned a scrap metal business. She was drawn to two seemingly contradictory passions — art and engineering — which she thought she could pursue at the Naval Academy.

“I went to Annapolis and was really just brainwashed,” she said. “The midshipmen seemed like they knew everything in the world. I wanted to be just like them.”

Unlike many at the academy, she was not particularly athletic. But she had earned a black belt in taekwondo, passed all the required endurance tests and flourished in the classroom. She also mastered the required manner of eating for plebes, squaring her bites and taking no more than three chews before swallowing.

She decided on surface warfare and rose to become a commander.

“A ship is like a city at sea,” she said. “The junior sailor cleaning the head is as important as the officer on the radar scope.”

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said, she felt compelled to stay in the Navy. She had a letter of resignation stuck in her desk, but never submitted it.

Women in public opinion polls have been more critical of Mr. Trump than men, and they have used elections to cast a vote against him, most notably in recent races in Virginia. But Ms. Luria said that she would rather focus on policy disagreements than the president’s behavior.

All three women said they were drawn to the idea of public office from their first days at the academy, when they had to memorize a mission statement that said they would dedicate themselves to both citizenship and leadership. The Navy exposed them to Americans, and immigrants, from all walks of life, they said, and that has helped as they campaign in their diverse districts.

While Ms. Luria has institutional party support, Ms. McGrath does not. Boisterous, outgoing and quick with an opinion, Ms. McGrath was highly critical of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for encouraging Mr. Gray to enter the race.

“Not only did they not embrace me, they were not even neutral,” Ms. McGrath said. “All I wanted them to do was to just stay out of it.”

But she has a history of not shying from a fight. Her older brother, Matt, pushed her to compete with boys in every sport, including football.

As an 11-year-old, she became enthralled with fighter pilots after watching a documentary on the History Channel and asked her mother how she could become one. Her mother told her the law prohibited it. The young girl asked how laws could be changed.

She persisted, writing Jim Bunning, her representative in Congress at the time, to ask why women were not allowed to be fighter pilots. Mr. Bunning, who died last May, replied that women were not prohibited because they were considered “inferior,” but rather “were perceived as a precious commodity of the country that deserved protection.”

“Here I was beating all the boys, and I just did not understand because my name was Amy and not Andy that I couldn’t be a jet pilot,” Ms. McGrath said.

So she wrote to the members of the congressional armed services committees, and only Patricia Schroeder, then a Democratic congresswoman from Colorado, supported her position.

Then came the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, and Democrats eventually pushed through the kind of change that Ms. McGrath had been seeking.

“That was my first understanding of the difference between Democrats and Republicans,” she said. “I knew all the Democrats were willing to give me an opportunity to compete, and the Republicans said no.”

She applied to the Naval Academy because she thought that was where the best pilots trained. Ms. McGrath said she loved the atmosphere from the first day — the tougher the better. Soon after graduation, she was flying an F-18.

“The F-18 is the most intense job in the world,” she said. “Imagine playing a soccer game and doing math problems and doing a talk radio show at the same time. It completely physically and mentally absorbs everything that you have.”

She flew missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then did a tour at the Pentagon and as a fellow in Congress. She turned down a possible promotion to have the second of her three children, and earned a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins. After that, she taught at the Naval Academy, and a guest speaker one day was Ben Chandler, a former Congressman from her home state of Kentucky. He gave her his card and asked her to call if she ever needed anything.

Forty-eight hours after Mr. Trump’s election, Ms. McGrath was rummaging through a drawer to find Mr. Chandler’s card. She quickly wrote him an emotional email.

“I never really thought I’d ever write you to ask you for some guidance but this week has left me numb,” she wrote. “I’m so taken back by who our nation elected president and what he stands for that I feel as if I must do something. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the service of this country, three combat tours, and literally years of my life living in tents overseas. I love this country, but I’ve never been more ashamed and embarrassed to be an American as I was waking up on Weds morning.”

She wanted to run for Congress. Mr. Chandler put her in touch with his former campaign manager, and she was off.

“I am deeply disappointed in the president,” she said. “His character, almost everything he has done in his life and stood for in his life is against everything that I have tried to stand for and do.”

If Ms. McGrath is to win her primary race, it appears likely that she will have to do it as an insurgent.

Ms. Sherrill does not have that burden. With the strong backing of her party, she is favored to win her primary and her chances for winning the seat increase with Mr. Frelinghuysen’s retirement announcement. She does not speak of Mr. Trump with the sharp edges of Ms. McGrath, focusing her criticism instead on the new tax law and the president’s effort to weaken the Affordable Care Act.

Her district is a suburban-exurban blend of mainly prosperous New Jersey suburbs. But like many suburban women, she said she was simply “fed up” with the president’s agenda. “I talked to friends and thought if we broke through our own glass ceilings, we would progress, yet we now see again and again we simply haven’t made the gains we thought we made. My children’s future is in peril.”

In addition to her Navy service, Ms. Sherrill was a federal prosecutor, and fretted that it now felt like “our institutions of democracy are under attack.”

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