Simone Ward got her start in politics because of a school bathroom. She was attending an all-girls Catholic high school in Kansas City, Missouri, when someone spray-painted the N-word on the wall of the lavatory. After students notified the school administration, the hate speech was removed. But Ward and others felt it was "not OK we weren't talking about it" and planned a sit-in to elevate the conversation. Several dozen students gathered on the central quad at lunchtime; some hoisted signs; some wore handmade T-shirts; several members of the media were there.
(Chet Susslin)Initially, Ward worried about how her parents would take the news of her involvement. (The action came with the risk of expulsion, and her mother was working two jobs to help put her through school.) But she was relieved to find them nothing but supportive. They even offered to join the protest. "It is that moment where I really realized the power of organizing and the power of community," she recalls.
Last month, Ward, 37, became the first African-American national political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a job that entails developing a strategy to defend 10 Democratic Senate seats and win back the majority in the 2016 election cycle. When I visit her at DSCC headquarters, she won't talk about specific races or what an uncontested presidential primary could mean for her party. ("We need to focus on building strong candidates," she says. "Not on a nomination that has yet to be determined.") On questions about family and upbringing, however, she's extremely candid.
"None of my family is political," she offers. "They think I'm crazy." Yet she also credits "the nontraditional, brazen, women in my family" for helping to "shape me and make me who I am." Ward is just back from celebrating her maternal great-grandmother's 100th birthday in California. Though her great-grandmother was not a formally educated woman, Ward says she instilled in her family a deep appreciation for "diversity of thought, diversity of people, and, frankly, how you treat people." Ward's mother, a United Methodist minister, played an even more influential role in shaping her professional orientation. "I came by it honestly," Ward tells me of her love of politics. "As a preacher's kid, especially in the black church, social justice is very much a part of the teachings of the church."
Ward landed her first political gig during her senior year at Oklahoma City University, when she spent a semester interning for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. In the years that followed, she worked for the Democratic National Committee, the White House, Mercer & Associates, EMILY's List, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and Planned Parenthood. In 2011, she returned to the DNC as acting national constituency director and director of women's outreach.
Bold-faced names in the Democratic Party are eager to praise her. "Little known fact," Howard Dean tells me in an email, "she was a track star"—in high school, she ran distance to stay in shape for soccer and basketball—"so you can expect her to run right over the opposition. We will regain the majority for sure in 2016!!!" EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock calls Ward "the real deal." Donna Brazile says, "She's the best." When I ask Brazile, whom Ward describes as "a mentor" from her DNC days, to elaborate, she does at length: "First, Simone knows how to be an insider as well as an outsider. For candidates looking for ways to reach new voters as well as motivate others, Simone has been there and understands how to get the job done. Simone has been at the table and knows how to make room for others to join."
Immediately before starting her new job at the DSCC, Ward served as campaign manager for West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant. Tennant lost, but they remain close. "Simone has the ability to see the big picture like few people I've known," Tennant says. "She understands how all the various moving pieces of a campaign fit together and is constantly strategizing not two or three, but 10 or 20 steps down the road."
Ward has a demanding schedule, and she has developed a number of coping mechanisms along the way. Chief among them is a collection of campaign veterans she calls her "D.C. family." It's a support model "complete with Sunday dinners and seeing each other through celebrations like new jobs and death and marriage and babies and all the things families do," she says. Another strategy is not taking campaign jobs two election cycles in a row. A third is that, after a draining cycle, she takes a long vacation. "If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of other people," she says.
It also helps that Ward has the courage of her convictions, having been inspired by her upbringing. "Women can do anything when they work hard," she tells me. "They are natural-born leaders, and knowing it gave me the courage to step into the role that I have now."