This is a reprinted excerpt from Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules — Restore The System, published by WhyNotBooks.
As a kid, Melissa Bean was loaded with energy and loved to read. She attended public schools and her parents expected and rewarded a strong work ethic. Her father, a Marine Raider in World War II, returned to work at various canning companies before starting his own engineering and manufacturing firm. Although government was a subject rarely discussed in her home, Bean had an early interest in the economic debates of the seventies. But a business career was her goal.
After graduation, she enrolled at a local community college to pursue an associate’s degree in business, which her mother assured her could be transferred to a four-college. And she immediately started working: “I took a part-time job while I was taking full-time classes, and it happened to be at a computer company that was one of the Inc. 500 fastest growing companies, Data Access Systems, Inc. This was right when the computer industry was really taking off. There was tremendous opportunity in the company, and they wanted me to come on full time. When I told them that I hadn’t finished school, they said, ‘We have tuition reimbursement, you can go at night and we’ll pay for it.’ It took much longer to get the degree, but it worked out for me because I kept getting great opportunities in sales and management. I was hiring all these people with four-year degrees — and I still hadn’t even finished my own bachelor’s degree! But, I had enough work experience and industry knowledge, at that point, to be running the branch.” Her success led to her being recruited to other management roles at high tech firms.
Bean kept working, kept learning, and kept growing. After completing her associate’s degree at Oakton Community College, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in political science at Chicago’s Roosevelt University at night. By this time, Bean had gotten married and was raising two young daughters. Both parents worked, and soon she started thinking more about family balance: “I think we both have always been really ambitious about our careers. But once you have kids, they are your top priority. So I would say that one of the reasons I started my own business, after a vice president of sales job at a national company, was because I wasn’t having the quality of life and the availability for my kids that I wanted at that point in my life.”
Years later, as her children grew up, Melissa Bean felt she had reached a turning point. “I had a choice to make: did I really want to scale this business up, or did I want to license my product, keep my work flexibility, and instead of devoting it all to my kids who needed me less, I could make myself available for other things I cared about.” She chose the latter.
For years, prompted by Bean’s political views, which she readily shared with friends and colleagues, people were often telling her she should run for office. But Bean remembers saying, “I would never do that. You’d have to be a little crazy to do that. Less money, more scrutiny, who needs that? I just wasn’t interested.”
As a parent of young children, however, her concerns led her to have even firmer convictions about the role of government in protecting the resources and opportunities American children count on. Bean had come to care more about the issues affecting her community — and her family. “It was sort of this gradual thing. I began to observe an erosion of the things we value most in this country — a shrinking middle class, which to me is the engine of our economy, and opportunity for all. Lack of commitment to educational excellence. And attacks on separation of church and state. It didn’t just seem extreme, it seemed like we were regressing. And that made me fearful for the future of the country, and for my kids and grandkids. Those were the things that made me say, ‘We all have to care about this. We’ve got to get involved. We’ve got to pay attention.’
“I was also very concerned about the environment. Air quality. Water quality. EPA regulations that had been on the books since I was a kid were suddenly being messed with. That frightened me for everybody, my kids included. I felt like if the moms don’t get involved and start stomping our feet and waving our hands and saying, ‘This isn’t okay,’ then who will?”
A self-described centrist, she became more actively involved in politics. As she was helping other candidates, people began urging her to run as a moderate Democrat in Illinois’s Eighth Congressional District. Bean initially resisted, even as a part of her felt incredibly frustrated by what she was watching. But once the seed was planted, encouragement from friends, strangers, and her husband got her to seriously consider it. A meeting with senior U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) finally convinced her: “When I sat with him, I expected him to say, ‘It’s really great for you to consider, but you don’t have a shot.’ Instead, he encouraged me. He said, ‘I think you have the right profile, the right attitude. I think you represent your district, and I think if you’re willing to work hard at it, you definitely should do it.’ And I was absolutely shocked. And he said, ‘But be prepared. It took President Lincoln three times to get elected to Congress, it took me three times to get elected, and it could take you that long.’ Well, it took me two attempts.”
In 2004, Melissa Bean was elected to the U.S. Congress. She had unseated the longest-serving Republican in the House at the time, thirty-five-year veteran Phil Crane. In the six years she represented the conservative-leaning Eighth District, Bean was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition (“created in 1995 to represent the common-sense middle of the Democratic Party”) and the New Democrat Coalition (“pro-growth, fiscally responsible wing of the Democratic Party”). Bean’s participation in both coalitions and her voting record in the House earned her a reputation as a genuine moderate.7
In 2010, Bean lost her third re-election bid by the razor-thin margin of 290 votes. But she doesn’t have a single regret: “I thought being in Congress was the best job in the world. It was crazy hours. You were away from your family. It was a huge sacrifice. I’ve always been a type-A workaholic. In my sales background, the more you worked, the better you did. You see the results. But Congress took it to an exponentially higher level — I didn’t know I could get into that gear. But it fuels you, and it’s exciting. It’s ambitious. It’s the best thing I ever did. It’s a great honor, yet it’s extremely humbling. If you are a problem solver by nature, Congress lets you tackle any issue that needs to be addressed. I loved it. I would recommend this experience to anybody who is willing to work really hard in the short term for potential long-term benefit to the country.”
If Melissa Bean’s story sounds a bit unremarkable in some ways, that’s because it is. We have had more than twelve thousand Americans serve in Congress since 1789, and so many of them, like Bean, never had a clue early on that they would wind up walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Former schoolteachers, NFL football players, car dealers, tax attorneys, veterans, farmers, novelists, veterinarians, actors, nurses, parents — there is no uniform resume required to apply for the job. Thousands of U.S. citizens representing different regions, professions, ethnic backgrounds, and political philosophies have stepped up to the plate. Americans’ continuing desire to serve our country in public office rests at the very heart of our democracy.
Based on her own years in office, Melissa Bean is confident when she says that anyone can run and serve in the U.S. Congress — if they have the passion and the willingness to work for it. But setting aside running for office, she also says that as Americans, the very least we can do is tune in. Pay attention. Create the change we want.