The congressional district she aims to represent is larger than the state of Rhode Island; she’s never been elected to public office and she has barely two months to pull off a successful campaign in the field of four other candidates.
But obstacles have never stopped Martha McSally who was the first American woman to fly in combat.
Last Thursday McSally, who grew up in Warwick, announced she is a Republican candidate in a special election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District vacated by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It was a move that traveled like high voltage on the city’s political circuit.
Ken Wild, manager of Congressman Jim Langevin’s Rhode Island office, sent out emails linking readers to the story carried by the Arizona Daily Star, along with a quiz asking what McSally’s claim to fame is: The choices were first female fighter pilot; Warwick native; her suit against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2001; or that she was Langevin’s guest to the President’s state of the nation address in 2001.
All of those accomplishments, with exception of her Warwick roots and being Langevin’s guest, were cited by Sam Stone as to why he signed up as communication director for the campaign that, even now, is less than a week old.
“She has taken off like the fighter pilot she is,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. Stone is one of two full time staff members. There are about another 12 more, he said, working on the campaign.
Stone, who calls himself a political consultant, said there was no inkling McSally was going to throw her hat into the ring. She called and he met with her.
“I have never seen anything like it…she has the potential of being a 20-year star,” he said.
Stone says McSally stands out in the field of GOP candidates that include a state senator, local sports broadcaster and Jesse Kelly who came close to beating Giffords in 2010. The challenge is to maintain the momentum and get her known in what Stone described as a “plus 6 district”, meaning Republicans outnumber Democrats by 6 percent by the April 17 primary. The special election is June 12.
Whether she wins or not, McSally has chosen to run in the general election, possibly meaning another primary contest before November. In the general election she would be running in a different district, resulting from the redistricting of the state and the addition of a ninth congressional district. According to Stone, voter registration in the new district, assuming it withstands legal challenges, slightly favors the Democrats.
Langevin, who got to know McSally when she challenged the military policy requiring servicewomen to wear the body-covering abaya while traveling off-base in Saudi Arabia, was surprised by her decision to run for office. But he finds the decision in character.
“She’s incredibly talented. She will succeed in whatever she takes on. She is a formidable candidate.”
Langevin said McSally contacted his office when she brought the 2001 lawsuit against the Department of Defense against the requirement to wear the abaya. The Supreme Court ruled in her favor. At the time she was the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the Air Force. The suit put her in the media spotlight [her story was featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes”] and Langevin, working with Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, supported legislation to change the law. Former Indiana Congressman John Hostettler played a key role in changing the law.
“I got to know her quite well,” Langevin said. “She’s not afraid of taking on a cause when she believes in it. She stood up to the brass.”
“I wish she were running as a Democrat, of course,” he added.
Perhaps it is not surprising that McSally should choose the path of public service. Her father, the late Bernard McSally was an attorney who was elected to and chaired the Warwick School Committee, died when Martha was 12.
Martha graduated from St. Mary Academy – Bay View and the United States Air Force Academy in 1988. She has a master’s degree from John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Her flying career started as an instructor pilot in 1993. In 1995 she was deployed to Kuwait where she flew combat patrols over Iraq. In 2000 she was assigned to the Joint Task Force Southwest Asia in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She took command of the 354th Fighter Squadron in 2004 that was deployed to Afghanistan under operation Enduring Freedom. During her military career, she was selected for the Legislative Fellowship Program, working as national security advisor to Senator Jon Kyl on Capitol Hill for a year. She has lived in Tucson where she has a house for about ten years between assignments elsewhere. She also owns 18 acres closer to the border with Mexico and has made the infiltration of criminal elements and drugs from that country a platform of her campaign.
After retiring from active duty in May 2010, McSally taught national and international security issues at the National Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.
From Germany she followed what was happening in her home state. When Giffords announced she would step down from her congressional seat to concentrate on her recovery from head injuries sustained in the attempted assassination last January, McSally took a flight home.
In an interview Saturday, she said she always thought she wanted to pursue elective service when the time was right. She returned not knowing what to expect or whether this was the time.
“I talked about it. I prayed about it,” she said.
“I felt very convicted, this is what I needed to do…I was called to step out…I needed to move out now,” she said.
She didn’t have much time. She left everything including her car, furniture and dog in Germany.
“I didn’t even have a business suit,” she said. Since then, she has resigned from her professorship, rallied a team, launched a drive to raise $50,000 and made arrangements for the dog to join her. The dog was expected to arrive in Los Angeles yesterday.
McSally says she knows how to lead people and has the moral courage to do the right thing. She cites her experience at the national and international levels as qualifying her for the job.
Top issues, she says, is the mounting national debt, which we need to address now, and jobs.
“I am running for Congress because it’s time to stop talking about our problems, and get down to fixing them. It’s time to focus on solutions, rather than blame, special interests, and partisan gain,” she writes on her website: McSallyforcongress.com.
McSally says her father and her mother, Eleanor, who was left to bring up five children and was a Warwick teacher, are her role models. She said her father “has shaped who I am. Everyday is a gift.”
Since her announcement on Thursday, McSally said she has received calls of support and financial donations from friends across the country.
“I need all the support I can get,” she says.
As for the odds, McSally says, “I plan to win in both [the special and general elections].”
Her message to Arizona voters is:
“I dedicated my entire life to defend and promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I’ve defended those rights while commanding in war and in peace… I offer leadership shaped by global experience, a pioneering spirit in search of new opportunity, and moral courage. I won’t always do what’s popular. But, I will fight for what’s right.”