‘Adapt and overcome’: A veteran Blue Star mom hits the ‘virtual’ campaign trail

Life in the military prepared Jackie Gordon to run, but there’s never been an election like this

Jackie Gordon, the Democratic candidate in New York’s 2nd District, reads to a group of elementary school children before the coronavirus upended campaigning.   (Courtesy Jackie Gordon for Congress)
Jackie Gordon, the Democratic candidate in New York’s 2nd District, reads to a group of elementary school children before the coronavirus upended campaigning. (Courtesy Jackie Gordon for Congress)
Posted May 8, 2020 at 3:06pm

Jackie Gordon didn’t want to say goodbye to her family. Her daughter, Kerrianne, was just 22 months old and it was Christmas Eve. But as an Army reservist, she was called overseas to serve during Operation Desert Storm and would soon have to leave for a U.S. military base in Germany.

It was “heart-wrenching,” she recalls. “I cried for 46 days.”

Of course, there was no Skype or Zoom in 1990, and cellphone users racked up extra charges just for traveling one county over. The first month, phone bills were close to $1,000, says Gordon. “AT&T made a killing.”

Gordon, a Democrat from Long Island who is running to replace retiring Republican Peter King in New York’s 2nd District, has grown used to celebrating special occasions from afar. During a 29-year reserve career, she deployed to Germany, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though she’s retired from the Army Reserve, this Mother’s Day will be no different for Gordon and her grown children, but not because of war. The coronavirus pandemic has made traveling to see loved ones nearly impossible for lots of families. And Gordon has another obstacle. This time, it’s Kerrianne who’s stationed in Germany, as an officer in the Air Force. Meanwhile, her son, who lives a few towns over, won’t be able to visit either.

“We’re planning to get together on Zoom, the three of us for Mother’s Day,” she says. While the pandemic situation is “surreal,” being separated “is not anything that we haven’t done before. You know, my children and I are really used to being apart.”

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Women with military or national security experience helped Democrats wrest control of the House in 2018, thanks to newcomers such as Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who flipped Republican seats. Gordon hopes to join their ranks.

Democrats are excited about her prospects, as the party tries to pick off suburban women disaffected with President Donald Trump. After lining up key endorsements, Gordon is trying to keep that early buzz going while stay-at-home orders make it hard to campaign.

“I would love to be able to be out meeting with constituents and meeting with groups, and getting to know the wider part of the district,” she says. “I’m doing it virtually, but it’s just simply not the same as in person.”

“We know at some time down the road that we’re gonna be together again,” Gordon says. (Courtesy Jackie Gordon for Congress)

She had cleared her agenda for this. Gordon left her job as Babylon town councilwoman in January and retired from her career as a high school guidance counselor around the same time. She planned to focus on the race, and that hasn’t changed, but she’s traded door-knocking for teaching virtual yoga.

“I make sure I do some kind of physical activity every day,” she says. “A schedule helps me. I try to get to bed at a set hour and get between seven to eight hours sleep every night. It’s really important. And I try not to get too tied up in the TV. I try not to put it on.”

Sticking to a routine is one sign of Gordon’s military background. Another is the support she’s earned. Groups such as Vote Vets, Giffords PAC and Emily’s List have endorsed her. She made the cut for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program for top recruits. She even got Hollywood comedian (and Senate minority leader relative) Amy Schumer to host a fundraiser. And she got the stamp of approval from fellow veterans, including Sherrill and Reps. Elaine Luria of Virginia and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania.

When those three won in 2018, it was a big deal for military women. Just eight female veterans have ever served in Congress. Now Democrats are looking to add more, and that’s upending the usual scripts on the campaign trail. If anyone asks if they’re tough enough, these women can simply point to photos of themselves in uniform. More surprising, they can also use the cover to tell increasingly personal stories about how they survived in a male-dominated field.

“There are people in Washington who … don’t want to see women who look like me challenging the old boy’s club,” goes a campaign ad from Gordon, an immigrant from Jamaica who came to the U.S. as a kid. Her path to victory in November is uncertain in a swing district Trump carried by 9 points in 2016, though Democrats perked up when King had the closest reelection of his House career two years later and then last fall announced his retirement after 14 terms. A win for Gordon would mean another first for Congress — she’d be the first black female veteran to serve.

Gordon is optimistic. “In the Army, we have a saying: ‘adapt and overcome,’” she tweeted in late April, as the pandemic kept people quarantined at home in her district.

“We know at some time down the road that we’re gonna be together again,” she says.