What it takes: How a Hill staffer runs for DC city council … during a pandemic … while raising a toddler

It’s not for the faint-hearted, Christina Henderson says

Senate staffer Christina Henderson poses for a portrait on the steps outside her house in Washington on Friday. She’s running for D.C. City Council in the upcoming election. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate staffer Christina Henderson poses for a portrait on the steps outside her house in Washington on Friday. She’s running for D.C. City Council in the upcoming election. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 24, 2020 at 6:30am

Christina Henderson’s colleagues in Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office were a bit taken aback when she told them of her plans to run for D.C. city council.

“They were like, ‘Really? You wanna run for political office?’”

Indeed she is, for an at-large seat on the 13-member council.

But can a policy staffer and self-described “nerd” adjust to the pragmatic politics of running for office? So far, Henderson says her background has been a distinct advantage in a crowded field. Understanding bureaucracy and which levers of government to pull are valuable skills for a politician.

And when it comes to pragmatism, nothing has aided her more than becoming a parent. Henderson, who, along with her husband, is raising an 18-month-old child, says becoming a mom and having a social circle consisting mainly of other parents has opened her eyes to the distance between policy theory and implementation that sometimes occurs.

“For years … we’ve been having conversations about online learning,” she says. “‘Oh, the flexibility for the child’ and all of this other stuff. And now that we’re experiencing it, we are learning, “Oh no, no, trying to do online learning for pre-K3 and pre-K4, even kindergarteners and first-graders for that matter, is just a really, really difficult endeavor. And it doesn’t work.”

Henderson is currently a legislative assistant for Schumer, a New York Democrat. Before that, she spent four years as a policy adviser for the D.C. city council after her first Hill staffer job for former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan. Henderson says she runs for office on her own time and would resign her position in Schumer’s office if she wins.

During our conversation, Henderson, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, slips in and out of policy and politics, sometimes coming off as a wonk, but also a savvy political strategist. She’s had to adjust on the fly, as many candidates have, since the COVID-19 outbreak.

“No one ever anticipates the first time that they run for office will be during a global pandemic,” she says. “So what my plan was in November was very different than what my plan was at the end of March, when it was very clear that the stay-at-home order was going to last longer than two weeks.”

The at-large seat Henderson is running for has a field of more than 20 hopefuls, but only five stand a chance, she says. The large field can be attributed to two factors, according to Henderson. Because of the pandemic, candidates were required to collect only 250 signatures to get on the ballot, instead of the normal thousands. There’s also a new public financing program, which was actually one of the first bills Henderson worked on during her time as a council staffer.

And since there’s no runoff, distinguishing yourself as a candidate becomes even more important. “You need to target and find who are your voters, because someone is going to win this race with probably about 13 to 14 percent of the vote,” Henderson says.

Henderson, who loves to “nerd out” on policy, says she enjoys talking with potential constituents but finds other aspects of the campaign to be more daunting, like raising money, particularly as a female candidate.

“It requires a different skill set, of asking others, especially if you’ve always been the type of person to not really want to ask people for help,” says Henderson. “It really takes a lot to do that.”

Henderson says she finds herself asking one question: “What would Nancy Pelosi do? She would make the ask.”

And for those working behind the scenes on Capitol Hill who think they’d like to give public office a shot? 

“There are a lot of staffers on the Hill who probably think in the back of their mind, ‘Oh yeah, I definitely want to run for office one day,’” says Henderson. “And I would say to those folks, you need to examine why you’re doing it,” before adding that campaigns are not for the “faint-hearted.” 

“It’s really easy to get frustrated and disillusioned about the process, unless you remember, ‘I’m doing this to serve.’ That is the No. 1 goal. And if you don’t feel like you can be driven by that … find another occupation.”

She laughs and then pauses.

“I do wish more staffers would run because we do know what we’re talking about.”