Betsy Markey represented the 4th Congressional District of Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2009-2011, but she’d been focused on a life of public service long before then and has continued to find new ways to apply her skills to improve the lives of the people in Colorado. Ms. Markey chatted with us recently about her pathway to elected office and how she didn’t let a tough reelection losskeep her from continuing to serve her community.
Ms. Markey, thank you so much for taking time to talking with us today. You pursued your undergraduate degree in political science. You’ve worked on the Hill, for the Treasury, the U.S. Customs Service, the State Department, and the Small Business Administration, and served in Congress yourself. Did you always know you wanted a career in public service?
Yes, actually! When I was in high school, I thought that’s what I wanted to pursue: something in public service. Even then, I loved public policy and had always dreamed of a job in the federal government. It was really wonderful tothen transition to the legislative side, both as a staff member in the House and Senate and then a Member of Congress myself.
At what stage in your career did you decide to run for office?
I left the field of government after the birth of my second child and went into private industry, starting a company with my husband. That basically took me out of the public policy sphere for close to 15 years. It was wonderful to do that, but I knew that at some point, when my kids starting getting a little older, that I’d want to go back to that.
I started becoming more involved in politics at the local level, before eventually working for then-U.S. Senator Ken Salazar in 2004. I have to really give him credit, as well as other people that I worked with, for encouraging me to run for office myself. I hear that from a lot of women who don’t necessarily just wake up one day thinking “I’m going to run for public office!” Sometimes, it takes someone saying “I think you’d be good at this.”
I was encouraged to run in 2006. I wasn’t quite ready then, but I was ready to run for office in 2008.
So between 2006 and 2008, what changed that made you feel ready to run for office?
At first, I was doubting myself. What kind of experience do I have that makes me think I could run for Congress? But I met with a lot of people who’d remind me, “Betsy, you’ve worked for several federal agencies, you’ve worked in the House and the Senate as a staff member, you’ve run two businesses. What do you mean you don’t think you’re qualified to run?” Even the woman who was then the President of the State Senate here in Colorado told me “Of course you’re qualified, you should do it.”
I started thinking about it and decided “Yes, I could do it!” I knew the district I’d be representing in Congress very well and I thought to myself, “I know the people, I know the businesses, I know the agricultural communities, I think I would do a good job representing them in Congress.”
You mentioned your experience in the business sector, having co-founded a software firm and also owned your own small business. Was there any overlap in the skills you needed as a business woman vs. a candidate or Congresswoman?
Absolutely! Building a campaign is like building a small business. You have to have a plan, you need to raise the funds to get started, you have to hire staff, etc. When starting a campaign, you have to have a business plan, so I definitely think that background helped. It also helped when looking at policies and thinking about the budgeting ramifications.
In 2010, you lost a tough reelection fight, but went on to become an Assistant Secretary with the Department of Homeland Security. Today, you’re a Region Administrator in the Small Business Administration. After your loss, how did you make the decision to stay in public service?
I had a wonderful two years in Congress, and I think we accomplished a number of great things in that time, but I knew I wasn’t finished. Because I had previous experience with both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, I was particularly interested in working for either of those agencies. Also, at the time, both agencies were being headed by strong women (then-Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano, respectively). I’ve always liked working for and with other women.
Eventually, I left the Department of Homeland Security to move back home to Colorado. I missed my home and my family here. Then, I decided to run for Colorado State Treasurer. We had never had a woman Treasurer in Colorado! I lost that race, but then an opening came up in the Small Business Administration. It meant I could stay in Colorado and the SBA was also led by a wonderful, strong woman leader (then-Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet).
As a business owner myself, and as someone about to launch a new business, I particularly enjoyed this position. I’ve always enjoyed entrepreneurship and here I was, able to promote the great services of the SBA to other entrepreneurs in the western United States.
Do you think you might run for office again in the future?
No, I don’t think so, but I am still very interested in helping other women run for office. I’ve done a fair bit of mentoring, and I’ve helped women candidates in Colorado with fundraising and message development. That’s what I’m really interested in, helping the next generation of women leaders get elected.
What was the best advice you received as a woman running for office?
Be persistent. It gets difficult at times and it can be a long process, so you need to stay confident that you can do it!
Also, there are a lot of resources out there, particularly for women candidates. Seek them out, as well as women to mentor you or that you can bounce ideas off of.
Lastly, make sure you take care of yourself. It can be overwhelming and stressful so make sure you take good care of yourself along the way.
Our Executive Director mentioned that you often talk about the importance of kindness and respect when running for or serving in office. Why do you think that’s so important?
Remember that you’re going into public service to help people. Never lose sight of that. It’s not all so you can pat yourself on the back; it’s so you can make a difference in your community, in your state, and in your country. Remember how important it is to be kind to people, even when they’re not always aligned with your views. We have to continue to respect one another’s differences.
While I was in Congress, there was a group of Democrats and Republicans who would get together and talk about the reasons they got into politics in the first place. When you understand where someone is coming from, it’s helpful to be more understanding and respectful of their views.
Anything else you’d say to women across the country thinking about running for office some day?
I truly believe women bring a different perspective to running and governing and those perspectives are necessary. Women are 50% of the population, we should be 50% of elected office holders. Having all those varying perspectives at the table will be a good thing. So, if you have any interest in running at all, just do it! There are other people out there who want to see you succeed.