Real As It Gets: Kristine Reeves On Going From Homeless To Running For Congress

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Kristine Reeves taking a selfie with visiting children at the Washington State Legislature (image: Kristine Reeves)

Looking at the statistics for people with her background, you might predict that Kristine Reeves would be unemployed, a high school dropout, an addict. Instead, she’s running for Congress.

Reeves, 39, had a tumultuous childhood that included stints in foster care, domestic violence and homelessness. Most at-risk children like her do not end up graduating from college, serving in the Washington House of Representatives, married with two kids and outfundraising her competitors in the crowded field for Congress. She’s fighting to succeed retiring Denny Heck in Washington’s 10thCongressional District, which runs from just south of Tacoma down south of Olympia. 

“People believed in me,” says Reeves. “I was told consistently growing up that I don’t matter. It created a lot of self-esteem trauma in my life, and anyone who says they got to where I am in life without help is blowing smoke. I would not be here today if it had not been for my public school teachers, had it not been for my foster parents, had it not been for my social worker.”

The traumas she experienced and how she triumphed over them helped spur Reeves to run for office, and they inform key issues she promises to pursue if elected. “When I think about policies, I think about me growing up and is it going to get that little girl fed… I want my government to watch out for kids like me who didn’t have people watching out for them.”

When we spoke over Zoom, I found Reeves surprisingly open about the details of her childhood. Surprisingly, because the conventional political playbook used to dictate that candidates for public office avoid oversharing. They wouldn’t admit if they inhaled (Bill Clinton) or had suffered from depression (Thomas Eagleton) or had affairs (Clinton again, Gary Hart and “Monkey Business.”) And heaven forbid they cry in public (Patricia Schroeder or Edmund Muskie). Candidates presented the public with a persona at times more crafted by political advisors than by reality. While male candidates trotted out their wives and children like stage props, women candidates often hesitated to do the same because they risked being slammed as neglectful mothers and wives.

One of the first candidates I remember breaking that mold was Washington Democrat Patty Murray when she ran for the U.S. Senate as a “mom in tennis shoes.” She showed how being a mom gave her an important and needed perspective on public policy. Thirty-one years later, authenticity has become a central campaign pillar for women candidates.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a record number of women elected to office after running as their authentic selves,” says Amanda Hunter, Research & Communications Director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “We know from our research that being what we call a 360 degree candidate, bringing the whole of their lived experience to the campaign trail, is effective for women candidates. Authenticity is important. When women talk about their life experience and how it will inform their decision making, it reinforces to voters that they are in touch with their lives.” 

Melissa Richmond, chief strategy officer for RunningStart, a national organization that trains young women to run for office, says they advise these future candidates “to have confidence in who they are…A real life is not about being perfect.” She tells them to embrace their personal stories and let audiences know how a particular issue affected them.

This is central to how Reeves is running her campaign. Her homepage states that she knows “what it’s like to be on the margins, to overcome adversity.” She talks about the economy and jobs, “as someone who was raised in poverty” and talks about education policy as someone with gratitude for the “teachers who saved me…cared enough to show me a path to success.“

Reeves is one of 19 people who filed for Heck’s seat. Five have raised significant amounts of money, but Reeves holds the fundraising edge over her nearest competitor, Marilyn Strickland, the former mayor of Tacoma. In Washington’s top-two primary system, the two Democrats could end up facing off in November if they are the top vote-getters in August. If either ends up winning the seat, she would be the first African-American to represent Washington state at the federal level. Strickland also would be the first Korean-American woman elected in Congressional history, and Reeves also would be the first Hispanic woman Democrat elected to Congress from the state. Bold PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has endorsed Reeves.

I searched to see if Reeves also would be the first former foster care child to serve in Congress or first to have experienced homelessness. I couldn’t find a definitive answer about former foster youth, but found that Candace Valenzuela running in Texas’s 24th Congressional District, experienced homelessness growing up and, like Reeves, is Afro-Latina.

Experts say overcoming the challenges faced by those like Reeves and Valenzuela can be daunting. Angelique Day, herself a former foster child and now an associate professor in the UW School of Social Work, says statistics show that foster youth are much less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to obtain stable employment and much more likely to engage in criminal activities, be incarcerated and experience homelessness.

“Those are a lot of negative things,” says Day. “I strongly believe a lot of those things happen when kids don’t have a support system who believes in them.”

For Day and Reeves, that support often meant teachers.  “School is a common theme among many foster care youths who have beaten the odds,” says Day, who researches these issues. “When you’re talking about minor children, there are two places where you have an identity: you have a school identity and a home identity. If your home identity is not working for you, a lot of the resilient ones look to school to provide that. The kids who find it in neither home or school are the kids who really struggle more.”

“For me, school was more than just the education,” agrees Reeves. “It was the one place that I always felt safe. It’s hard to articulate how teachers do that for you but consistently school was the one consistent space where I always felt valued, and I felt safe.”

Reeves talks openly about her traumatic childhood (image: Kristine Reeves)

Reeves grew up in Moses Lake, a predominantly white community where life had been difficult for her mother, the child of a white woman and African American man.  Her mother told her and her twin brother, Christopher, that their father was dead. Only as a teenager did Kristine learn that he was alive and he was a local Hispanic man.. She eventually established a relationship with him.

Reeves has researched her own childhood and has copies of her file from Child Protective Services. It’s a complex story and difficult to sum up. She shared some of it in a TedX Talk she gave in Tacoma in December 2018 and recounted it for me in two Zoom interviews. 

She says that her mother, raising twins by herself and later another son by a different man, struggled and fell into drug and alcohol addiction. Child Protective Services placed Kristine and her twin with separate foster families when they were still babies. The twins bounced around to several different families, intermittently being returned to their mother, until kindergarten when they were placed together in the home of Charlene and Lee Theisfeld. A devoutly Christian family, the Theisfelds provided Kristine with a stable home life for about four years. With them, she says she learned for the first time what it meant to be a kid. (She remains in touch with the couple, but avoids talking politics with them because they are solid Republicans.)

When her mother remarried, the children were returned to her. Reeves says her new stepdad became a positive influence in her life and encouraged her to succeed academically and think of college. But Reeves’ life was turned upside down again when that marriage ended and her mother slipped back into addiction. 

At 16, Reeves, working at McDonald’s while going to high school, became the family breadwinner. One night she returned home to find her brothers hungry and no food in the pantry although she had given her paycheck to her mother to buy groceries. 

When Reeves confronted her mother, “we got into a heated discussion and my mom proceeded to beat the shit out of me, and I got kicked out of my house.”

 She left with just the clothes on her back and spent that first night huddled in an irrigation ditch.

After that Reeves stayed with various friends until her high school guidance counselor, Nancy Reittinger, discovered what was going on and brought her home to live with her.

“She accepted me for who I was. She taught me how to drive a car. She scolded me like I was her own kid, she celebrated Christmas with me like I was her own kid,” Reeves says of Reittinger, who remains a friend. “She shared her life. It was way more than anybody could ask of an educator and yet she did it.”

With the help of scholarships and work study, Reeves went on to Washington State University. Her freshman year she fell into depression (also common statistically among former foster youth) and failed her first quarter. Her hall director reached out, connected her with campus counseling, and Reeves went on to graduate with a degree in political science. 

A campus job helping international students led to a career in public service including working on veterans’ issues for Sen. Murray and in the Washington Commerce Department. (Her brother Christopher is career Air Force).

In 2016, Reeves ran in the 30th Legislative District and flipped the seat Democrat, in that election’s closet race. She was reelected two years later with 64 percent of the vote.

She resigned last December to run for Heck’s seat on a platform that highlights the personal history she brings to many issues and that emphasizes the need to focus on more than one goal. She has faced criticism that she is not progressive enough, and one of her opponents, Beth Doglio, won the endorsement of the Washington State Progressive Caucus.

Reeves defends her progressive record and has been endorsed by Higher Heights for America, the Voter Protection Project and a number of unions including SEIU 925 and the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

“For me it’s very intersectional. It’s not any one policy that’s going to be a silver bullet. For me it was both food stamps and Head Start and foster care. It drives how I view public policy. It’s an ‘and both’ instead of an ‘either or’,” she says.

Reeves lives in Federal Way with her husband Camron, a pilot, and their 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. Like all candidates this cycle, she has pivoted to campaign remotely, spending hours on Zoom and phone banking. When she finds a few minutes to relax, she does calligraphy and pursues her passion for genealogy, started by a quest to find out more about her own origins. 

Her children sometimes jump on zooms with her, making funny faces while their mom makes her talking points. It’s the kind of work-life juggling a lot of families relate to these days. Reeves says her husband and kids understand why she is working so hard to go to Congress. The reason for running, she says, is straightforward:

 “It was me looking back at myself 25 years ago and asking who is going to stand up and fight for kids like me growing up today? Who is going to fight against a system that was not built for us, by us or with inclusion in mind? I tell people all I’ve got is my lived experience and a willingness to work hard.”

8 COMMENTS

  1. This is a wonderful story. I have been hoping that Denny Heck’s resignation would attract some similarly great candidates to that race. It sounds like Reeves is one.

  2. Great story. I love how you remind readers of the evolution of honesty about a candidate’s past and how what were once perceived as weaknesses don’t define them.

    • Thanks. Do you think male candidates also now benefit from being open and straightforward for about their pasts?

  3. Yes! I think everyone will benefit when all candidates are open about their pasts. It makes strategic sense because sooner or later, the truth comes out. And that tendency would certainly put a welcome dent in the opposition research business.
    For better or worse, voters seem to be less inclined these days to judge the candidates they like when it comes to their pasts. Consider our current President who remains popular with his base as he parades around dragging the tail of notorious facts about his nasty past behind him.
    The thing about Reeves is that none of the unpleasant things in her past are her fault. She was born into difficult circumstances and she worked hard to overcome them. She didn’t prey on anyone, she didn’t cheat and lie to get ahead, she wasn’t able glide upward on her privilege. She has nothing to be ashamed of; her story is an inspiration.

  4. It’s interesting to remember that this Congressional seat was created to oblige Denny Heck’s desire to be in Congress. The deal was to create a new Democratic seat (the 10th) and make a swing seat more Republican (the 8th). All the others mostly protected the incumbents. Things don’t stay stable, since a Democrat now occupies the 8th after Dave Reichert retired, and Heck ultimately grew tired of Congress, despite his admired record. Given the growth of population on the Wet Side of the state, the 8th is likely to grow more Democratic, shedding some of its Eastern Washington counties. And the 3rd (southwest Washington) is heading into Democratic territory. Moral: be a Democrat, be a woman, have some ethnic ancestors.

  5. If the population growth in the West side is tilting things more toward the Democrats, where are the Republicans moving?

    • I was unclear. The population growth on the Westside, far outstripping Eastern Washington, will mean redrawing of Congressional boundaries after the 2020 Census. That means the 8th CD, which straddles the Cascades, will lost much of its Eastern Washington portion. In turn, that makes the 8th safely Democratic, partly offset by the drift of Pierce County toward Republicans. Of course, the bipartisan Commission that will redraw the boundaries might get creative with the new boundaries. The main district in play will be the 3rd (based around Vancouver, WA), now held narrowly by a Republican.

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