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For Martha McKenna, All Politics Is Personal

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

“For people to put their name on the ballot is a brave and courageous thing to do. I can show respect for that willingness by working my heart out,” McKenna explained in an interview at Busboys and Poets on Fifth Street Northwest, just south of the townhouse that functions as office space for her consulting firm with former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee operative Jen Pihlaja.

Martha’s List

Even though McKenna’s work is D.C.-based, she stays connected to Baltimore. In college, she spent a summer volunteering on Mary Pat Clarke’s city council race and started connecting with the city’s politicos.  

After graduating from Bucknell University in 1995, she went home to work for state Sen. Delores Kelley in a Congressional special election. Kelley lost in the Democratic primary to now-Rep. Elijah Cummings, but McKenna just wasn’t satisfied.

At a subsequent research training at the Democratic National Committee, McKenna met Amanda Fuchs Miller and questioned why EMILY’s List didn’t get involved for Kelley. That was just the beginning of almost a decade of work with the group and its mission to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, holding titles from researcher to political tracker to campaign services director. Sometimes she just “went wherever they told me to go,” according to McKenna.

“She just loved our candidates,” EMILY’s List founder Ellen Malcolm said. But that care sometimes led to disappointment. “She was so unhappy when she lost,” Malcom added. “Sometimes she shed a tear, but she came out the other side and was ready to get back to work.”

After Jordan’s loss in Kentucky, McKenna tried to get Democrat Louise Lucas elected in a Virginia Congressional special election, but she lost that 2001 race to Republican Randy Forbes. The next year McKenna worked for Michigan Rep. Lynn Rivers when she lost in the redistricting-forced Democratic primary against Rep. John Dingell.

McKenna returned to Maryland in 2002 to run the fall coordinated campaign for the state party, when then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) lost the gubernatorial race in dramatic fashion. The cycle wasn’t a total loss because she had her first date with her now-husband at Castlebay Irish Pub in Annapolis the day after the election.

Back to Baltimore

In hindsight, McKenna smiles about her early streak because she views it all as part of a lifelong learning process. Along with her experience on the campaign trail, she’s earned graduate degrees from Rutgers University and Johns Hopkins along the way.

After McKenna finally experienced success during the 2006 midterm elections, assisting women in the Democratic takeover of the Senate, she got the call back to Baltimore.  

City Council President/interim Mayor Sheila Dixon (D) wanted to run for a full term and needed someone to manager her race.

“Martha didn’t have the best record,” Dixon said in a phone interview. “But we hit it off.”

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