It was less than one year after winning a Pulitzer Prize that columnist Connie Schultz took a leave from her job with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She wanted to campaign full-time for her husband, then-Congressman Sherrod Brown, in his run for the Senate. It turned out to be a shock to her system. In her just published book, … and His Lovely Wife, Schultz tells of sitting down at her kitchen table the day after her decision and writing in her journal, "WHAT'S TO BECOME OF ME?"
She quickly saw her identity "vaporizing," as tends to happen in campaigns in which a spouse is simply viewed as "a prop or a problem." In December 2005, at a restaurant in a southern county, a local party chairman introduced Schultz along with Brown as simply "his lovely wife." This quickly became the norm throughout the state ("his lovely wife, Candy," on a bad day), even in Cleveland where she had written for the Plain Dealer for twelve years. Schultz writes that the campaign trail would "test my every assumption about how far women have come in this country."
But over time Schultz learned something that will come as no surprise to devoted readers of her (now syndicated) biweekly column: "…I could write my own playbook. I didn't have to follow someone else's rules on how to be a political wife. In fact, I could just keep on being Sherrod's wife and do what I have always done: talk to people, take notes, and share their stories – and my own. It took a while for me to get there, but once I did, I never looked back."
What gave Schultz her moxie?
Schultz grew up in a working-class family in Ashtabula, Ohio, where – as she said on the campaign trail and in her book – her parents "wore their bodies out so that we would never have to." Her father worked "a factory job he hated every day of his thirty-six years at work"; her mother took a job as a nurse's aide, working for an hourly wage, so that her parents could "buy the first, and only, home they ever owned" when Schultz was in high school. Schultz was the first in her family to graduate from college – Kent State University – "ninety minutes and a whole world away" from Ashtabula.
Now, as a columnist (and as she campaigned for her husband), Schultz's spirit – her sensitivity, empathy and humor – authentically capture the way people are living their lives. While columnists such as EJ Dionne, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Frank Rich, Eugene Robinson, Ellen Goodman, Maureen Dowd and others cover national and international politics in smart, sassy and often passionate ways, what sets Schultz apart is her attentiveness to the gritty detail of ordinary lives, and the personal, and the local. Credit the Pulitzer Committee for getting that right: the citation for her Pulitzer Award for Commentary noted "her pungent columns that provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged."
There's also a fearlessness in her writing – and in Schultz herself – and that quality, along with her humor, reminds many of the late, great Texas columnist, Molly Ivins. Her fearlessness was striking on the campaign trail, and in the agreement she made with her husband before he entered the race: any time Republicans attacked, Sherrod would fight back.
Or, as a Washington Post profile last year on Schultz reported her telling a United Auto Worker rally, "We're going to fight back. You respond, you pivot, and you deck 'em." Schultz's humor was a great asset on the campaign trail too. Early in the race, Fox News identified Brown as a woman, and Rush Limbaugh described him as African American. In a speech the next day Schultz told an audience of women, "So, you see, I'm even more liberal than you thought. I'm actually married to an African American woman."
Schultz is now back at her job and understands how lucky she is to be able to step back into a career where she's made a name for herself. Other spouses aren't so lucky. Which brings us back to her book.
In these times, when a woman is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, 16 women serve as senators, and a woman is Speaker of the House – is "Political Wife Syndrome" changing?
"I hope so, I hope it is," Schultz tells me. "I hope I'll help move that conversation along with the book, that's part of the reason I wrote it. And it's not just about spouses of politicians – it can be any woman married to a man in a prominent position, anywhere, even in a small town…. I hope that readers of my book start thinking about other women who they have dismissed as the less significant part of a couple."
We're lucky Connie Schultz has written about her life during the campaign. We would also be lucky if she decided to run for Ohio's other Senate seat. But don't count it. Schultz says she doesn't have the constitution for political office and she can make a difference doing just what she is doing. "But I'm a hypocrite," she says, "because I want lots and lots of other women to run."
It's probably for the best. Schultz's writing would be missed.