Photo by Brian Kaiser.

The Interview: Allison Russo

Representative / Healthcare Advocate / Mother

Born in rural Mississippi and married to a combat veteran, Allison Russo has experienced much of the country as she’s moved from city to suburb, and even occasionally crossed the pond to live overseas. But now, quite intentionally, she’s chosen to live here, in the heart of The Heart of It All. “At the end of the day, people are pragmatic,” Russo said of Ohio. “I think that is our strength as a state. We have this really strong history of innovation and working hard.”

Now Russo will get the chance to leave her mark on her new home state as a state representative for Ohio House District 24: Upper Arlington, Hilliard, some of northwest Columbus, part of Clintonville, and several of the townships in southwestern Franklin County. But besides representing a geographical area of the state, Russo also represents working moms of young children: a demographic with historically low numbers among the members of the Ohio General Assembly, but a demographic with great economic influence and policy concerns. Not having held office before, Russo funneled her experience as a healthcare policy research director, her involvement in her children’s education, and her engagement in her community to launch her successful campaign.

With her campaign out of the way and her term in office not yet begun, Russo is taking a breather to get back to reading and binge-watching period dramas on Netflix. (You know, what the rest of us call “an evening at home.”) It’s a time for her to reflect on what has gone well, and to speculate what her (and Ohio’s) future may hold.

What made you decide to run?

Allison Russo: Running for office was never part of the plan, even though I’ve always had interest in policy. After the 2016 election. I thought I really needed to re-engage. As I started to become more engaged in what was going on at the state level—certainly what was going on nationally—I realized that there was a real need for people like me who came with some expertise and real-life perspective on many of these issues and how they impact people. This particular seat became open and I decided, well, it’s now or never…. Because of the population growth that we’ve had in Franklin County, the demographics have changed, so you have a lot of young people moving in new suburban areas. You saw districts like mine in this election cycle flip.

“At the end of the day, people are pragmatic, I think that is our strength as a state. We have this really strong history of innovation and working hard.”

Your campaign was very personal, talking about your kids, spouse and career. I’m interested to hear about that choice.

AR: I was very intent on running as myself and being as authentic as possible, because […] one, frankly I didn’t know any different, and two, as a woman, I have many different roles. I’m a mom, I’m a professional, I’m involved in my community. All of that is what made me the candidate that I am. And I think that’s what many women do. We connect with people, and making those connections opens us up to listening to different perspectives. So I just embraced that.

Authenticity and likability seems to be a general problem for women on the campaign trail. What could help?

AR: Part of being authentic was [that] I often had my kids in tow with me while we were knocking on doors and at campaign events. But you’re also very aware that you’re judged by a different set of standards. And it’s not just the physical part of it. It’s how you present yourself. It’s even your experiences because many of us who were women running for the first time, we didn’t have the typical politician experience. It was talking about that, and many times explaining our experiences and justifying why we were just as qualified as someone else who was running.

Is healthcare your passion? Where does that come from?

AR: I originally thought I might go into medicine, but then I studied public health—that’s my background—and kind of fell into the policy after working in public health as an epidemiologist for a couple of years […] I was working on chronic diseases, mostly, and working on some Medicare issues…. When I was in graduate school I did spend several months working with the county health department and we would go and do disease notifications, and it was during the beginning of hepatitis C […] that was really interesting because then you were seeing what keeps people from getting treatment and keeps them in these disease states. So that was a real interesting life experience for me.

You’re an evidence-based policymaker. How do we get people who are science-resistant to consider policies that are grounded in evidence?

AR: That’s tough. Some of it is just informing. There’s a lot that happens in policy that is sausage-making. I think part of that is just having voices at the table that bring some of that [experience] with them. I think it’s unusual for people like me […] who come from kind of these real research, science, evidence-based backgrounds to suddenly be at the table making the policy because usually we’re on the other end of it.

There was a lot said about this being the “Year of the Woman” in elected office. Do you feel like that occurred in Ohio?

AR: You certainly had many more women stepping up to run for these state offices, legislative offices than ever before […] I think that women, when they ran in Ohio, they did as well as men. With the new freshman class […] coming in, we are a 50/50 caucus.

What are some ways folks could get involved without running for office?

AR: Pay attention to what’s happening with your local city council, with your township council, certainly what’s going on at the statehouse. Attend your school board meeting, your city council meeting, a committee a hearing at the statehouse. Anyone can participate in those activities. Once they participate once or twice they realize that, “Hey, there’s opportunity here for me to participate, and to have a voice.” So much of policy that impacts our day to day lives happens at the state level and happens in our local governments, and I think it’s a little bit of a mystery to many people about how that works, so I would like to increase the transparency of the day-to-day happenings at the statehouse.

“Once they participate once or twice they realize that, ‘Hey, there’s opportunity here for me to participate, and to have a voice.’ ”

What are you looking forward to about this role?

AR: Building relationships. I think constituency services is going to be huge for me, and making sure that I stay very connected to the people who are in the district. But also building those relationships with my colleagues both within my caucus and across the aisle. I think people are very hungry for this General Assembly to work together and start to solve some of these big issues that Ohio is facing.

And for anyone who did want to run in 2020, any advice you would put out there?

AR: I would start with talking to people who are in elected office. That’s the very first thing that I started doing. In fact, I’d joke that if I ever write a book about running for office, it probably would be titled, “I Hope You Like Coffee,” because I participated in so many coffee meetings with people who are in elected office.

Allison Russo will be sworn in as State Representative on January 7. Follow her on social media at Russo4Ohio.

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