A friend’s suicide was the final push Kerin needed to accept an appeal to run for office—in midlife. She did and won the election!
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born Kerin J. Sturino in Chicagoland, into a devout Roman Catholic family. I was the seventh of ten children. My mother dropped out of high school at the age of 15, married my father who was 21, and they started immediately having children. My father joined the Navy after graduating high school and then became a factory worker in a suburb of Chicago where the Italian side of his family lived.
When I was eight, my father left us to start another family with another woman he had been seeing on the side. My mother and her ten children ended up in dire straits; we used government assistance to survive, and my siblings and I were also required to get jobs, handing over our pay to our mothers so she could pay the bills. I began babysitting and delivering newspapers. My mother got her GED, enrolled in community college, and became a nurse. She did shift work, so I didn’t see her often except when she was sleeping. My eldest sister ended up being the surrogate mother at the tender age of 15.
In the meantime, Chicago was in the midst of race wars and my neighborhood underwent “white flight” overnight; we were the only white family in our Chicago suburb of Bellwood for several years. When I was 14, my affluent grandmother who lived in Washington, DC, offered to buy my mother a house if she moved closer to her. My mother took the five children remaining at home and moved us to rural Delaware, where her sister lived. I was excited about the move because I had always been curious about other places and I thrived on change, but this was a tough transition for some of my siblings. It also separated us from our older siblings who stayed in Chicago, which was hard. Although we were quite involved in our Catholic community when we lived in Chicago, my mother didn’t find a thriving Catholic church near our new home. It was the first indication to me that the world wasn’t all catholic.
I attended the University of Delaware through government grants and worked to pay my living expenses. I met my husband Mike there and we married before I had completed my degree in French Education. We moved to South Carolina so he could attend graduate school and, after completion of his Master’s degree, he was able to secure further doctoral studies in Paris, France. We moved there for two years, where our first child was born. We moved back to South Carolina for one year, where my husband wrote his dissertation and our second child was born. When she was four months old, we headed to Bonn, Germany for two years, where my husband worked on his Post-Doc. These two years in Germany was the only time I didn’t work outside the home. Next, my husband was offered a job with a French National Laboratory and they sent us to Syracuse, NY for a collaboration with the university there. We decided to stay in Syracuse, where my husband found a job outside his field but where he has been working for the last 20 years. Our third and fourth children were born in Syracuse and we settled in a suburb called DeWitt.
Having moved to France upon completion of my college degree, I wasn’t able to work as a French teacher. I did, however, start teaching English to French people. When we returned to the US, I took a training class in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), which was very helpful—you don’t know your own language until you try to teach it! When my children were small, their Montessori school asked me if I would be interested in creating a French program for them. I was not trained to teach young children, so this was an interesting challenge. I worked there for 9 years and created a very popular French program; many parents asked me to continue offering French lessons to young children even after leaving the school, so I started my own educational company, and learned a lot about business. I ran my business for four years before handing it over to a Belgian teacher, who has continued it to this day.
Working at the Montessori school allowed me to network and meet many powerful people in the community and this resulted in my teaching English as a Second Language to businesspeople. This job is done via telephone: I call my clients, professionals in multi-national companies or organizations, for 30-minute lessons. I discovered how much I like staying home—it was revelatory! For the first time in my life, I truly enjoyed every aspect of my job and found that overwhelming stress doesn’t have to be part of my daily life. Unfortunately, financial needs dictated that I also work a second job, so I started teaching immersion programs at the English Language Institute at Syracuse University during summers. There, I helped mostly Japanese accountants improve their Business English skills.
When did I start to think about making a change in midlife?
There were two events that propelled me forward. Life was finally coming to a peaceful place after a couple of tumultuous years navigating marital problems and a child at risk. I was feeling rather beaten down from all the stress and drama.
One day, I was with my youngest daughter at a cheerleading competition in Hershey, PA. After the competition, we decided to go to the amusement park despite the fact that none of us are very fond of them. I asked my daughter if she’d like to go on the mini rollercoaster and when she hesitated, I said I’d do it with her. We agreed to sit in the first car but as soon as I strapped in, she changed her mind. Next thing I know, I was on my way, alone. I was deathly afraid of speed and especially roller coasters; I only went to encourage my daughter to be brave. As the roller coaster swept me away, I had to control my panic. Some people find this type of activity exhilarating, whereas people like me find it terrorizing. I spent the long six minutes on this ride reminding myself that I am strong and can handle it.
This experience was incredibly significant to me moving ahead. I realized how much I had withdrawn into my own hole of comfort and how I avoided taking risks because of fear—fear I now realized was not insurmountable. That winter, I decided that I was going to learn how to downhill ski, something I had convinced myself I hated because it was terrifying. I worked on learning to ski until I was no longer afraid, and I took this attitude moving forward.
The second event came when one day I got a visit from the father of my son’s best friend. He had come to pick up my son but said he wanted to speak to me. He had read a letter to the editor that I had sent to the newspaper and was impressed. He urged me to join the Democratic Committee of our town, which I didn’t know existed. I was always interested in world and national events and would often send my opinions to the newspaper and, DeWitt being a small community, they almost always printed it. As my youngest was now old enough to manage much without me, I decided to try it out. I had a very steep learning curve as I knew close to nothing about local politics. I was put on a committee to find candidates to run for office but it wasn’t long before the committee was looking at me.
My aha moment came after a friend of mine committed suicide. At the funeral, we were all in shock and I just kept thinking about how unpredictable life is. When I stepped out to the parking lot, I noticed a message on my cell phone. It was from the Chair of our Democratic Committee who had been asking me to run for Town Board. I’d been telling her I wasn’t ready or equipped. Her voicemail was her final appeal for me to reconsider. After the funeral, I decided, why not? So, in 2013, at the age of 49, I threw my hat in the race, learned a lot about campaigning, and won the election.
What is your next act?
I am a politician. After my surprising win to Town Board Councilor for DeWitt, NY, I felt the weight of responsibility to help my community and took my position very seriously. I am a problem-solver by nature and dove in to work on things that had been left to linger or that we could improve. This included: Leading a team to update the Town’s Comprehensive Plan, an important document that determines how a town will develop; making sure our Police Commission was diversified; creating a plan for sidewalks after getting input from a series of public meetings. I put some processes in place to assure transparency and invited the public to give me their ideas and thoughts by events called ‘Coffee with a Councilor’. After two years at Town Hall, I was asked to enter a County race. Since I found my successes so satisfying and empowering, I thought that I could do even more good on a larger scale, so I ran for County Clerk. A county-wide race is much more significant and daunting, so I didn’t win but it was an important experience.
Through my involvement in politics, I have been fortunate to meet many important people such as our New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, and I was honored to speak on stage with the likes of NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hokul, State Assembly member Pamela Hunter, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, and Congressional Candidate Colleen Deacon. Recently, I found I had been listed in the newspaper as a name being floated to run for State Senate.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Honestly, after the incredible problems our family endured with my one troubled child, I found I could handle just about anything. I had also had so many situations in my life where I was thrown in and asked to perform with no previous experience that this was not so daunting. In fact, I found it to be an incredible (albeit scary) challenge so I spoke to everyone I knew who was in politics and tried to find any and all documents which would help me understand how local government works. I volunteered to attend the annual Towns Conference where I was able to talk to elected officials from other towns to see how they do things.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband couldn’t have been more supportive, but my children stayed far away from my political career. They were proud of their mom but didn’t want anything to do with it, which was sad for me. Some of siblings sent me money for my campaign but most of them were uninterested. My father passed away when I was 18 and my mother, who is not very ambulatory and lives in Chicagoland, sent some money and words of encouragement. Some friends were very supportive but, after the tumultuous times of my marriage, many of my “friends” had disappeared. In reality, I was raised to not expect any support.
What challenges did you experience?
For the first two years, I was the only female Town Board member in DeWitt, which in itself wasn’t an issue. I learned how to deal with the mansplaining, being talked over, and having my ideas shot down only for them to be resurrected as another man’s brilliant idea. However, my strong personality, my direct questions, not having grown up in Syracuse, my willingness to speak to everyone including members of the opposing party, and my lack of interest in sports was threatening; I was quickly shut out of being in the loop. Open communication is a real challenge! I am ideologically similar to my colleagues; however, our personalities force us to butt heads often.
What did you learn about yourself through these experiences?
I have learned how annoying and threatening I am to certain people. I have learned how very brave I am, even when I really don’t want to be. I have learned how dedicated I am to my ideology, even when I consider myself pragmatic. I have learned that I have no idea how to relax, a skill I hope to achieve someday!
Looking back, what would you have done differently?
If you had asked me a couple years ago, I probably would have said that I should have worked harder to not piss people off. But now as I look back, I doubt I could have been different enough to avoid the head butting that I have had. In my life, I have always tried to do what I think is right and, although that has made my life rather difficult at times, I wouldn’t do it differently if I had to do it over again.
What advice would you share with other women seeking a change in midlife?
Some of the best things in my life were a result of hitting rock bottom. My child who had so much trouble has become a phoenix who rose from the ashes, as I have. Sometimes, when there is trouble, it needs to hit the limit before you can move up and out. My child is doing amazingly well and my marriage is stronger than ever. Sometimes things happen for a reason—one you can’t see at the time.
I would encourage my sisters to get out of their usual routine, try things, and have new experiences. You can’t learn about yourself if you sit home and only speak to the same people. And you can’t move forward in the right direction until you really understand who you are. And we are all very different at this age than we were at 20-something—more courageous and sometimes more guarded. My favorite quote is “Know thyself.” It’s the best way to know what’s next for you.
What about advice and resources for women who may be interested in entering politics?
There has never been a better time! The amazing thing I found to be successful in politics is to show up for as many meetings, conferences, committees, public hearings, etc. as you can. You don’t need to speak or anything. It’s amazing how just showing up helps you get known. Support is key for anyone wanting to go into politics and that is built by becoming familiar to people.
Do what your heart tells you! For example, I was passionate about raising the minimum wage so I attended rallies and demonstrations. This resulted in my winning the “Friend of Labor Award 2016” from the Greater Syracuse Labor Council. I wasn’t going for recognition or any award—I did it because it was important—but it was a great honor and important recognition for my political career moving forward.
Pull in a coalition of other women. There are many political support organizations that offer help and guidance. Getting involved in those groups also positions you for receiving donations. I am part of Eleanor’s Legacy (an organization to enlist more women to run for office), Local Progress (for progressive elected officials), Uplift Syracuse (a political action group to get more progressive leaders in office). Eleanor’s Legacy offers candidate training and we have a local group that offers non-partisan campaign training. I would urge any women interested in politics to seek out these trainings in their area. Unfortunately, my colleagues on the local level were not very knowledgeable, so I had to find out much of it myself.
Two books that were very interesting and inspirational:
Off the Sidelines: Speak Up, Be Fearless, and Change Your World by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead by former Governor Madeleine Kunin
Some resources for women in politics:
What’s next for you?
I just won my first re-election and the term is for four years. I plan on working hard for my community, working on my activism, and county-wide issues, and lending a hand to my party when needed. In this business, things change quickly and various opportunities come up that you don’t necessarily anticipate. For example, I was just appointed Chair of our Police Commission in January, an appointment I wasn’t expecting. And our area senator just announced that he will be running for governor, leaving his Senate seat up for grabs. Many people are asking me to run for that seat.