When Patrice Billings retired as a police helicopter pilot nearly a decade ago, her former chief sent her a lovely note thanking her for her service and for representing the department with high standards.
Recently, she called him with an unlikely request. Billings is running as a Democrat for a state Senate seat in Missouri’s deep-red St. Charles County. She knows her former chief is a conservative, but she took a risk and called him to make her case.
“You know I’m a Republican,” he told her. But he listened to what the first-time candidate had to say.
Billings, who has lived in her district for 33 years, says it was easier to come out as gay than as a Democrat in this largely conservative community. After the last election, she decided she couldn’t stand by the sidelines any longer. She saw the state legislature failing to properly fund schools or address crises like the opioid epidemic.
“If not me, who? If not now, when?” she asked herself the familiar questions.
She’s part of a record number of women candidates running in an unexpected place -- a county where Trump won by a little more than 26 points. In this area, Republicans have run unopposed for many seats for years. That’s starting to change with these nine women, eight of whom are running for office for the first time. They are part of a national “pink wave:” Women make up 23 percent of non-incumbents running for congressional seats in 2018, compared to 16 percent in the previous two cycles. Nearly 80 percent of these women have been Democrats. Of the Democratic nominees for the U.S. House of Representatives so far, more than 40 percent are women, according to an NBC News analysis, compared with less than 10 percent of the Republican nominees.
Several of the St. Charles County candidates were recruited by Cheryl Hibbeler, whose family has deep roots in the area and who has previously held political office. She saw that a seat on the St. Charles County Council was not being contested, and decided to join the group of candidates.
“I wanted to be part of this team, and be brave with them,” she said. They come from diverse backgrounds -- they include a prosecutor, an educator, a business owner -- but they were all convinced that running for office was part of the solution to address the problems they saw.
Christine Hedges, who is also running for the county council, said she started going to marches and meetings after the last election and came to a realization: “Nothing was going to change unless we elect people to office who are going to change things.”
She said she didn’t even know there were other Democrats in St. Charles County.
“I thought I was the only one,” she said.
Jill Aul, who is president of the Ethical Society Mid Rivers, understands the feeling of being what she calls “a blueberry in a tomato soup.”
“It’s very isolating,” she said. It may not feel safe to reveal your political beliefs until you are sure of who you are talking to -- although this last election has brought Democrats out of the woodwork, according to Morton Todd, chairman of the St. Charles Democratic Central Committee.
Aul said she is amazed by the bravery of the women campaigning against the odds, often at a tremendous fundraising disadvantage.
“I’m just overwhelmed with joy and hope,” she said. “Of course, I want them all to win, but just the fact that they are running is thrilling and exciting and hopeful.”
Some of the candidates, like Katy Geppert, running for U.S. Congress in Missouri’s 3rd district, recognize the David-and-Goliath nature of their fight. She works full-time in a STEM field, has a 2-year-old daughter and found out she was pregnant after she decided to run. She and her husband discussed what it would mean for her to be campaigning during her pregnancy and with a newborn.
“We just decided we can do it,” she said. “We can figure it out. The consequences of inaction were so much greater than getting involved.” When she is out visiting farmers markets and attending school board meetings, other women will whisper to ask her if she’s running as a Democrat. Several have quietly said they are glad to have an option.
Lorna Frahm, who is running for county executive, pointed out that the entire council is white Republican men older than 50, while more than half of the county is female.
“My candidacy is already a win for democracy,” she said.
Billings, who had called to ask her former boss for his support, asked him if he would consider voting for someone who had integrity and the character and values he wanted in a candidate -- even if she didn’t share his party affiliation.
He ended up making a donation to her campaign.