An interview with Senator Megan Hunt

Senator Megan Hunt in Nebraska
Photographer: Ariel Panowicz

Photograph: Ariel Panowicz
Foreword and interview by Helen Anna

I’ve just painted my nails five different colours and posted the results to Instagram. My phone pings with a photo reply: it’s from Senator Megan Hunt in Nebraska, and she’s got the same colours on her fingers.

While it makes me giggle that we bonded over rainbow gel nails, it also hints at why Megan Hunt is a different breed of politician. Elected into office at age 32, she’s the first woman to ever serve her district, as well as Nebraska’s first openly LGBTQ+ candidate to win a seat in the State Legislature. In this interview, Senator Megan Hunt discusses her inspiring path to the Capitol and what life’s been like since.

Megan, did you always want to get into politics? 

“I’ve always been a very politically engaged person. As a child, I loved reading the news, talking about current events, and writing letters to the editor about troubling things going on in my community and around the world. One of my first jobs was working as a newspaper reporter, and I think I was drawn in that direction because I love the fast pace of information, the deep dives, and the pressure of writing for a deadline. It also gave me an outlet for expression through writing. After that, I went on to work as an entrepreneur in the design and fashion space as a wedding designer, creating dresses and bouquets for hundreds of brides each year.

After being in the wedding industry for years, I began sharing my experiences as a small business owner and designer by contributing to books and doing speaking gigs around the country. As I was transitioning away from the business of helping people get married, I opened Omaha’s first co-working space, CAMP, which ran for a few years. I went on to co-found Hello Holiday, an e-commerce startup supporting independent fashion designers, and Majorette, a flash sale site for affordable and sustainable clothing. I cannot resist the temptation of passion and excitement for a cause, which led to my work as the founder of Safe Space Nebraska, a 501(c)3 dedicated to fighting the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault. 

I never wanted to work in politics. I never saw myself doing that. In hindsight, though, political leadership has always been part of what I do.

Part of the reason I wanted to work at the newspaper was to understand how policy and local government shaped the lived experiences of everyday people. Part of the reason I wanted to become a business owner was to be in control of the way we used our platform, bringing awareness and support to organizations working on issues that can be controversial in my community, like immigration, reproductive justice, and worker’s rights. Part of the reason I wanted to get involved in the nonprofit sector was to address the overwhelming problem of harassment and assault at bars in my city. My team and I recognized that to solve this problem, we had to change cultural assumptions about harassment and consent at the local level, in ways that our local government was failing to do.

Part of the reason I decided to run for office was because I became frustrated that too few people in government are proposing policies that can actually improve the lives of everyday people in the state that I love.

The opportunity for public service through elective office opened for me in 2015, when my local public school district was considering a new comprehensive sex education curriculum to educate students about sexual health, consent, and healthy relationships. Omaha’s sex ed curriculum hadn’t changed since 1971, which is horrible, but our efforts to bring about change were met with heavy and sometimes violent opposition. I became deeply involved in this effort because I want kids to receive education informed by the best possible science and research, and that wasn’t happening at that time. I became involved because I am an assault survivor, and I believe that if my peers and I had received this education, we would have grown up in a safer world.

I also became involved because I am a mother, and I want our children to grow up supported in their own identities, and be able to thrive without shame or judgment as they navigate relationships. My county had some of the highest rates of STDs and STIs in the nation, and I knew that an updated sex ed curriculum was a simple and inexpensive way to change those deplorable and dangerous statistics. 

Long story short, our efforts worked. Our school district updated the curriculum. Our STD/STI rates are declining. And the opposition to the program has pretty much disappeared. When we had this win with the sex education update, I started to see my potential differently.

All of these experiences in entrepreneurship and activism took place outside of government. It wasn’t until 2015, with the Omaha Public School Board and the new comprehensive sex education curriculum, that my eyes were opened to what we can achieve when everyday private citizens take the initiative to get involved in local government.

I realized you did not have to be a genius to run for office! It’s not like it’s Jefferson and Lincoln down there at the Capitol building. The weight of that realization was significant for me. 

I was elected in 2018 at age 32 to represent Omaha’s District 8 in the Nebraska Legislature. I am the first out LGBTQ person in the Nebraska Legislature, and the first woman to hold this seat. I am also a single mother of a nine-year-old girl who frequently accompanies me at the Capitol. I knocked 22,000 doors of Democrats, Republicans, and everyone in between to get those votes. I won by a landslide and increased our voter turnout rate to 64% in a non-presidential year. So I am very proud of what my team and I were able to accomplish. In the grand scheme of things, I know the time I spend in the Nebraska Legislature will be relatively short, but I intend to make it count. 

What were some of the challenges you faced in getting into the Legislature, and how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges as a candidate was staying mentally strong and overcoming the massive amount of doubt, insecurity, and self-criticism I had. When you’re running for office, you’re surrounded by people all the time—knocking doors, doing town halls, working with volunteers—but it can also be very lonely and isolating because you have to be so outwardly strong and confident all the time. It was a challenge for me to maintain my close circle of trusted friends and advisors because I was so busy, but it was also the time I needed them most because I was so emotionally and mentally vulnerable. 

I don’t know if it’s because of our increasingly divided political climate, because I was an unconventional candidate, or because of the personal nastiness that has been exemplified at the top levels of U.S. government, but I was prepared for the election to be very emotionally tough, and it was. This is part of the double-bind women candidates find themselves in—having to be more emotionally available to the people they serve, while perhaps needing to come off as more unflappable and tough than their male counterparts.

Now that I am elected, it continues to be challenging to me to always be “on” when I’m in public. Every day there are meetings, canvassing voters, interviews, events and speeches, the work of lawmaking, and on top of that I have my regular job, my daughter to take care of, and friendships to maintain. Frequently, after a long day of work, I’ll be at dinner with my daughter, getting drinks with a friend, or walking in the grocery store and I’ll be approached by someone and asked a serious policy question.

It’s taken some practice to not be thrown and to always be ready to have a professional conversation. So there is this constant self-awareness and constant readiness to engage with someone and take the position of “Lawmaker,” when of course all of our identities are much more complex than that. Because it can be a challenge to be in that headspace all the time, I stay home a little more than I used to in order to preserve my energy and be more present for my daughter and loved ones. I think drawing that healthy boundary has helped me in my work as well as my personal life.

Why is it important to have diversity and representation in a government?

Legislative bodies at all levels of government—whether that’s at the state, local, or federal level—work better when they reflect the identities and experiences  of the people they serve. Our Legislature is overrepresented by straight white Christian men over 50. Although many of these men make a good effort to grow in compassion for others, we know that there is no substitute for personal experience when it comes to understanding the challenges of a population. 

I actually think that Nebraska’s body of elected officials skews a little bit more conservative than the population of our state as a whole. Polling shows that most people in my state support reproductive rights and abortion, immigration, and raising the minimum wage. But we haven’t elected people who are willing to bring that policy to fruition. So I would not only challenge my colleagues who are elected: I would also challenge more people, different people, to run for office.

Government will not get better until candidates get better. I would like to have Jewish colleagues, Muslim colleagues, more Black colleagues, more LGBTQ+ colleagues, colleagues of different abilities, colleagues of different national origins.

Mentoring, speaking up about our intersections of difference, welcoming those who want to throw their hat in the ring, and yes, fundraising, is part of what we can do to help get there.

At Etta, we’re big on the idea that everyone should have at least one mentor (if not more!). Has mentorship played a part in your journey?  

The first person I met with about running for office was Senator Sara Howard back in 2015. She answered all the questions I had about what day-to-day life as a legislator was really like, and she introduced me to several other people who were elected officials, who had run for office, or who had worked on campaigns in the past. Now in the Unicameral, Senator Howard continues to mentor me about rules, procedures, strategies, and I feel so lucky to benefit from her experience and generosity. It’s not lost on me that this mentorship is also putting me in a better position to help and support those who come next. My relationship with her has been very important. 

When I think about the people throughout my career who have connected me with my mentors and my heroes and my role models through email and coffee introductions, who have brought my name up when they heard conferences were looking for speakers, who mentioned me when books were looking for contributors, who thought of me when there were press connections to be made, I count so many more men than women. These are smart, dear men, who recognized my value in a system that doesn’t necessarily reward them for doing so.

I can’t downplay the reality that so few women in power have been available to me throughout the course of my professional growth.

That could be due to many factors: We can think about the limitations we have due to population, of the systemic oppression of women throughout history, with public and professional life stereotypically regarded as the domain of men. The success I have had in my career also can’t be considered without acknowledging how my own race, class, and heteronormative privilege has played and will continue to play a significant role in the opportunities that are available to me. But as a female leader in business and in politics, I have seen how much gender identity can impact our access to power. 

So many women are too competitive with each other! I’ve heard the metaphor that we make the mistake of seeing success as a pie, with only a few slices to go around.

It took me a long time to dismantle that misconception for myself, and I now work consciously to make sure that whenever I make it through a door, I don’t let it close behind me. I hold it open for the people coming after me. If you try to hoard success, you lose it. It will come to you if you share it.

Who inspires you?

This is always a tough question for me because what inspires me changes all the time. That’s probably true for most people! I admire people who know how to like themselves, people who know how to accept the good with the bad, people who are intellectually curious, and those who don’t wait for permission to pursue whatever they are compelled to create and achieve.

I’m a subscriber to the advice to never meet your idols, to not put anyone on too high of a pedestal.

I gather most of my inspiration from my friends. My city has a vibrant young community of creative entrepreneurs, and I love watching my friends have success with their passion projects. The work ethic and creativity of my peers in business is what inspires me most.

I also love to read. I have picked up a lot of memoirs and personal essays over the past year, which offer a way to feel like a personal friend of these inspirational historical figures. Art collector Rosamond Bernier, newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, and philosopher Michel de Montaigne have been the most recent highlights for me—for now, these are the idols who inspire me, who shape the way I view the world, whose voices are in my head when I make decisions. And I can’t wait to pick up another book and see who’s next. 

What’s next? (Megan Hunt 2024?)

Haha, this is a corny answer, but I seriously just want to be really really good at my job. The Nebraska Legislature is the only nonpartisan one-house legislature in the United States, and I want to spend the limited time I have there understanding the system so I can make a difference for the people who put me there. I think young people and progressives in red states have been overlooked by mainstream political thought leaders, and that Nebraska in particular has been overlooked as a very interesting laboratory for leadership.

With our unique unicameral Legislature, our small body of 49 state senators, and our non-partisan makeup, young progressives like me have the potential to emerge early as change makers, while in many other states doing the same work could require years of moving up the ladder of party leadership. Furthermore, the genuine friendships I have made with my colleagues of all ages, beliefs, and backgrounds bring opportunities to move my legislative priorities forward and better understand how I can improve the bills brought by my colleagues. 

One of my highest values is engaging with individuals and groups of people from all different backgrounds to help me better understand what impacts them, and then applying what I learn to build better policy.

I think ideological isolation, and people giving up on their communities and abandoning their less fortunate neighbors, leads to our entire country becoming more divided by socioeconomic, racial, and political differences.

We see this happening in Nebraska and all over the country. And the people who suffer are the ones who are least privileged in our communities—who don’t have money or means to leave, to go to safer places, and who face a more difficult and hostile struggle to advocate for themselves.

I love public service and I want to work in this sector for a long time. And I know that with hard work, I will have the potential to help others in meaningful ways. We’ll see what opportunities await.”

Connect with Senator Megan Hunt on Instagram and Twitter

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