From Waitress to State Representative

Rhode Island's Moira Walsh thinks of herself not as a politician but “a waitress who happened to get pissed off enough to take a crack at it.”

Moira Walsh (Rebecca Clarke )

The 2016 election rewarded candidates who could easily bat away accusations of being members of the establishment, and this held all the way down the ballot: In Rhode Island, voters decided not to re-elect six of the 18 incumbent state lawmakers facing primary challenges in September, including Thomas Palangio, who had served as a state representative for seven non-consecutive terms. His replacement, Moira Walsh, is a 26-year-old former labor organizer who worked as a waitress in the decade leading up to her campaign. In January, she will begin her term as a state representative from Providence’s third district.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Walsh about how her job as a waitress prepared her for politics, America’s seeming lack of trust in its legislators, and running a campaign for the first time.  The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity, and was conducted prior to last week’s presidential election.

Adrienne Green: How did you decide to run for the seat of state representative?

Moira Walsh: I'm a waitress, and have been for going on 10 years. I literally went across the street, to the restaurant across the street from my high school, and I got a job there in what I thought was going to be a very transitory period of my life, and it has ended up being my main form of income. A couple of years ago, a coworker of mine tricked me into coming to an industry night for the Restaurant Opportunity Center. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by these really amazing union organizers who were explaining to me that while it might not feel like it, I did in fact have rights as a worker and could stand up for them if I so decided.

I started working to try and organize people within the restaurant industry, and then we started lobbying up the statehouse, which was infuriating. We would go down there every single day and say, "Hey, I'm really poor, and this is really hard," and just hear this resounding, "We know, and we don't care." It took six full months of badgering them everyday—"Hi, can we have a dollar? Can we have a dollar?"—until they finally gave it to us, I'm sure not because they knew we needed it, but more because they wanted to get us out of their hair. That was the point when I realized that there has got to be a better way.

If you go to your boss and your legislator and ask for a raise and they say no, where do you go from there? That was the point at which I decided that if these people weren't going to represent me, or even pretend to care that we were struggling, then they couldn't really call themselves my representative, could they? That was when I started the process of running because I was tired of being told that they would tend to me later.

Green: What were some of the experiences that you had in the restaurant industry that made you feel like you needed to fight for higher wages?

Walsh: One of the problems with having your base wage not be your full wage is that you are relying on the kindness of strangers, because tipping is not legally required. It puts you in this diminished capacity, because if one of these kindhearted strangers who is going to be paying your rent decides that he wants to make a comment on the quality of your butt, or how your pants look, or slap you with a menu on the butt—all of these are things that have happened to me on numerous occasions—I have to then make the decision on whether I’m going to stand up for myself and say, "Hi, that is sexual harassment and you can't do that," and run the risk of him not tipping me, because I need that money to pay my rent. When you put people in a place where their income is dependent on how much of a doormat they are willing to be, you really set people up for failure.

Walsh: From the start, I’ve said that my incumbent was going to outspend me, but he wasn't going to outwork me. We managed to win just by knocking on doors. Before I ran, I very much did not think that regular people could do this kind of thing. I thought it was for the lawyers, the business owners, and the people whose dads were state representatives who could pass it on to them.

It wasn't until I was a grown woman that I realized that those were elected positions. I don’t know if it had to do with what is going on on a national level, but as I mentioned, I come from an industry that is rampant with sexism. I was truly appalled by the way that people—legislators, union organizers, and voters—would talk to me because I am a young woman.

Green: Many people aren’t aware of what their representatives in the statehouse do on a daily basis. You begin your term in January. What will that entail?

Walsh: My job is a little bit different from most representatives’ jobs, and that is just because I took a bigger bite than a lot of people did. I decided that I wasn't just going to work on legislation, because there has been so much neglect in my neighborhood for so many years that I wanted to make sure that people felt that they had a sense of community. While my policies and legislation don't start until January, we are already doing monthly community meetings to check in, see what people need, what their priorities are, and remind them that they now have a representative who will take their calls and be here when they need it. My district is one of the lowest-income in the state, and a lot people have financial issues. As a representative, I can't do anything about that, but as a neighbor I absolutely can. We are organizing a lot of neighborhood fundraisers for people in the community. We have got a disabled couple who need some house repairs done, and they can't afford it, so we are doing a fundraiser for them.

A lot of the issues that we have in my neighborhood were not necessarily because people were fighting against [the policies], it was more that people weren't fighting for them. The Medicaid cuts and education cuts really took a huge toll on my neighborhood. Had we had a representative who was willing to stick his neck out and say, "Hey, this isn't okay. This is going to disproportionately affect the poorest among us,” we might not be where we are at.

Walsh: [Politics is] definitely a boy's club, and it's very insulated. I didn't receive a lot of help because people were afraid to upset the status quo. I think that that is the problem with career politicians. [I think] you only need career limits for people who are shitty politicians. I hate to say it, but term limits are for people who are just sitting there for years and years, and not accomplishing things.

Hillary Clinton just got the short end of the stick this year, because Bernie Sanders’s whole narrative was about being anti-establishment and he did it really well. It doesn't matter whether or not she is effective; she is establishment, so it's horrible. I personally have never been afraid of any candidate as much as I am of Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders and Trump are both anti-establishment in very different ways, but they are both appealing to that frustration in people.

Our local paper came out with a survey that said that some large percentage of Rhode Islanders have no faith in their legislators. Why would you keep voting for [the same] politicians? I see both sides of it. I think there is a difference between career politicians who are there because they aspire to be career politicians, and career politicians who are there because they know that they have a lot of work left to do.

Green: You mentioned Americans’ lack of faith in its legislators. How does it affect your job if there are people who don’t believe your position has the power to impact their lives?

Walsh: I keep making the joke that all of my predecessors have set the bar pretty low. I think my constituents are going to be really excited to turn over a new leaf. We’ve had people going to jail as legislators. I will be really proud if I can prove to my community that I am going to try really hard to give our city a better reputation.

I don't consider myself a politician. I am just a waitress who happened to get pissed off enough to take a crack at it. Take one look at my Facebook and you will know that I never had any intentions of having a career in politics, but I don't necessarily care if I am the best of the politicians. My family has lived in this community for a really long time; my dad owned a small business in the heart of my district for about 25 years. When I was going around door to door, everybody remembered my dad. I honestly believe that if at the end of all of this, people in my neighborhood talk about me half as nicely as they talk about my father, I will consider it a great success.

Green: How is your work is tied into your identity?

Walsh: Have you ever seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, where the kid knows all the answers to the questions [on a quiz show] just by random stuff that has gone on his life? I felt very much like that on the campaign trail. I felt like I had accidentally acquired all of these skills through waitressing that were setting me up for success in terms of the political world: being able to take some really awful comments with a smile on my face, remembering people's names at the drop of a hat, walking six to 10 miles in a shift. I have no doubt in my mind that I would not have developed those skills of my own free will. It was only the industry that allowed me to hone those talents. I have a job where I get paid to be nice to people. The nicer I am, the more I get paid. That is a pretty sweet job to have.

I'm not going to be one of those people who takes the job for granted. The representatives before me started out as good people, and ended up behind bars. As far as how this new job defines me as a person, I absolutely wouldn't have run or cared about the plight of waitresses if I weren't one.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a government agency director, a court officer, and a postmaster.