Prizm News / October 1, 2018 / By Jaron Terry
Betsy Rader with son Karl, husband Dave, son Greg and son-in-law Jake, and daughter Libby. (Photo for Prizm courtesy of the Rader campaign)

Meet the Northeast Ohio candidate who will take her experience as a healthcare attorney and mom of two gay sons to Washington.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked writer and PFLAG Columbus President Jaron Terry to have a chat with Betsy Rader, also a mom with gay sons, about what’s at stake in her congressional race and around the country on Nov. 6.)

By Jaron Terry

There’s nothing I enjoy more than talking with other moms who love and affirm their LGBTQ+ kids. That’s why I was thrilled when Bob Vitale asked me to talk with Betsy Rader. He said she and I have a lot in common.

Betsy Rader

What I found in my chat with her is that we’re both moms whose sons are members of the LGBTQ+ community. And although I stick up for LGBTQ+ folks in my role as president of PFLAG Columbus, she is taking it to a whole new level of advocacy.

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Betsy Rader is running for the U.S. Congress in the Nov. 6. She’s the Democratic candidate challenging incumbent Republican David Joyce in Ohio’s 14th District, where she has lived and worked as an attorney for more than two decades. The 14th Congressional District sits in the far northeast corner of Ohio, stretching from the eastern suburbs of Cleveland to the northern suburbs of Akron to Ashtabula and Conneaut near the Pennsylvania line.

When did you first begin thinking about running for office?

I starting seriously thinking about it in February or March of 2017.  I heard that the Trump administration would be supporting arguments in a Texas case that Title VII protections under the Civil Rights Act should not apply to sexual orientation or gender identity. Then in April, I heard on the radio one morning they would be making arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case that businesses should be allowed to discriminate.

I came downstairs and said to my husband that I have to do this, I would regret it if I could have been the one vote in Congress to decide whether or not the Equality Act is passed; I could never live with myself if I didn’t run.

[According to the Human Rights Campaign, the Equality Act will provide consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs and jury service.]

Husbands are great resources. Mine is at every PFLAG meeting, and we march together in Pride. Was your husband on board right away or did you have to convince him?

My husband is my biggest campaigner! He immediately said, “Let’s go,” and we told our boys—who are both very open about being gay—the same day. Our sons, one of whom is married, are OK with my talking about them. In fact, in my stump speeches, I tell how, while making my decision about running, I reflected back on our family vacation to Washington, D.C., a couple of years earlier. We—including our 23-year-old daughter—had made a stop in front of the Supreme Court building to commemorate the 2015 marriage equality decision.

I remember how I was so overcome with emotion the day of the ruling because I felt that the decision meant my kids were safer. I had always worried that someone might try to hurt them. I knew my boys had been bullied at school, and it breaks a mom’s heart worrying that it could have been worse.

I felt that by the court acknowledging they have the same right to marry as anyone else, to adopt children and have a family like anyone, that I didn’t have to worry as much.

I know exactly what you mean. My husband and I were overjoyed at the Obergefell decision, too. And, my worst fear has always been for my son’s safety. I’ve never been more afraid than the night of the election.

Betsy Rader at Cleveland Pride on June 2. “I was so overcome with emotion the day of the (Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage-equality) ruling because I felt that the decision meant my kids were safer,” she says. (Prizm photo by Bob Vitale)

Exactly. When the Obergefell decision came through I felt it was a whole new era—a new time in human history when people would not be treated differently. The night of the election I stayed up all night. Our kids all called and our sons asked this meant for them. I said it might now matter where you live in this country, because everyone does not have the same rights everywhere. In Ohio our sons don’t have the same protections as people in some other states.

When Trump was elected, many of us were hoping his campaign had been just an act. I really didn’t think he cared about gay people but we now know he’ll do anything for political gain. Look at the kids in cages on our borders—whatever serves Republicans’ political ends.

My own opponent, Dave Joyce, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, voted in July to allow faith-based, taxpayer-funded adoption and other child-welfare agencies to discriminate against prospective LGBTQ parents who want to adopt. He says he’s a moderate, but his record is conservative.

He’s a top target for Emily’s List because he’s trying to defund Planned Parenthood.

[Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic women, has endorsed Rader as a “powerful advocate for expanding Americans’ access to quality, affordable health care.”]

That makes me so mad! Especially when people try to hide discrimination behind faith.

The First Amendment protects freedom of religion but does not allow people to discriminate. It allows people to exercise their own religion but not impose it on others. My sons and I were talking about this just the other night. How I was always very active in Sunday school choirs and youth groups, and our family was very careful in choosing our church.

I wish I had been as—dare I say “discriminating”—in church choices, but that’s for another day. Tell me about what in your life has prepared you to be a member of Congress?

I’m an attorney. I was born in Coshocton, where my father was a game warden. After we moved to Newark, my parents were divorced, and my mother struggled to make ends meet while raising my three siblings and me. With scholarships and part-time jobs, I graduated from The Ohio State University and earned a law degree from Yale.

I worked at a big law firm involved in litigation, complex anti-trust cases, commodities fraud and represented the government in the failed savings and loans cases where people had been defrauded.

When my two oldest—the boys—were 4 and 2 years old, I needed to quit flying all over the country and stayed home for a year. I liked my work but was in love with my kids. My husband works for Columbia Records and he traveled a lot, too. Then I was recruited to work part-time as an in-house attorney and did that for 15 years before taking a job running a child advocacy agency for kids who had been abused. I mainly represented troubled teens.

I also spent some time in healthcare, including working for the Cleveland Clinic and Medicare and Medicaid Services, where I helped implement the Affordable Care Act.

When I started my own law firm, I represented people in employment discrimination. Having my own business gave me more flexibility, and I started to get involved with grassroots groups that were protesting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. That’s when I got to know Dave Joyce, who ran on a platform of repealing Obamacare.

Many people were really scared about losing access to health care, and Dave Joyce was one of the people I was trying to meet with to determine how he would vote, but that didn’t happen.

Born in Coshocton? So was I! And when my son was 3 years old, I started a public relations business so I could have time with him. Bob really did know we had a few things in common. It seems to me that your career is perfectly matched to your campaign platform. Can you elaborate on that?

You’re right. My experience does align with my priorities.

I am focused on affordable health care, including increasing access, lowering the cost of prescription drugs and keeping protections for pre-existing conditions. We have got to reverse course on the significant premium increases people have seen this fall.

And we’ve got to get the corruption of money and politics out of the picture. The reason our government is not negotiating lower prescription drug prices is because of the pharmaceutical lobby. The amount of money being pumped into campaigns spells out why we don’t have common sense in prescription-drug pricing.

I also care about high-quality education and training; Ohio’s economy and jobs; our environment and energy future that includes protecting public resources; and standing up for seniors, which entails keeping our promises to maintain Social Security benefits, strengthening and protecting Medicare, and fighting against age discrimination in the workplace.

Campaign finance reform is also a big concern. We must get the money out of politics to create a level playing field. Politicians cannot talk only to wealthy donors and corporations that have an interest in how they might vote on legislation. They must talk with real people about real issues.

And as we’ve discussed at length, I care passionately about equal and fair treatment for all. I think it’s pretty clear that I believe equality is at the very core of American values, and that’s what the American Dream is about. Everybody must have a clear shot and deserves to not be discriminated against, especially on something that is out of one’s control, such as race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

[Rader is endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, Feminist Majority, Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, Moms Demand Action Gun Sense Candidate, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Ohio Federation of Teachers, OAPSE—AFSCME, Farmers Union, CWA, Sierra Club and former National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling.]

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin helped fire up Rader campaign volunteers in August when he visited Northeast Ohio for Cleveland’s annual HRC dinner. HRC has endorsed Rader for Congress.

I don’t know how anyone could argue against any of these positions. How are you getting the word out to reach the voters?

It’s a two-pronged approach. First, the grassroots effort is key in communicating with voters. I said my husband is my biggest campaigner; so are our kids. He goes door-to-door nearly every night to talk to voters and has a barn full of signs ready to put out. We go to fairs, parades, football games and all that to meet people where they are.

Both sons are working remotely on the campaign and one will fly home for a month to help. Our daughter has been invaluable. She graduated in May and moved home to help campaign full-time through November.

And the volunteers are just fantastic. They have knocked on thousands of doors to get out the message and get out the vote. They give up their precious Saturdays, and I’m so grateful to each of them.

When we received endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign and they sent 45 or 50 volunteers to bolster our canvassing efforts, it was an incredible moment. Most organizations that back a candidate, like the HRC, have to think there’s a chance of flipping a seat. So getting that endorsement was great.

And the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] has also recently identified me as someone with potential to flip the 14th Congressional District seat.

Second is being available to voters through town hall meetings, television and other public appearances, being on podcasts and interviewed for publications. Because I don’t take any corporate PAC money, people can’t say I’m in the pockets of lobby groups. My opponent is in hiding and, because he takes corporate PAC money, he’s counting on TV advertising with the familiar-name incumbent advantage. But that’s not enough this year.

Any last words?

Hope. I want people to not give up hope and know that we can get this country back on the right track. Not only can we do it, but we must do it.

That’s why my message is bipartisan. The idea of equality for all means everybody. Some will tell you that Republicans have to be in office if we want a robust stock market, but that’s mythology. If you look at the actual numbers, it’s been better when Democrats were in office.

We need the voters to send a clear, decisive message that what’s been going on over the last two years does not reflect the values of this country. People need to vote and donate and volunteer.

It’s my hope that nobody wakes up after the election and wishes they had voted. Let’s wake up now!

Jaron Terry (she, her, hers) is a freelance writer and public relations professional who volunteers to advance LGBTQ+ causes and serves as president of PFLAG Columbus.