An African American single mom of three aims for the White House
“I won my first election last night. I won as a single mother of three, as a black woman, and as a first-time politician against a man who was none of the above. On to November!!”
—Mary Catherine Roberson, March 20, 2018
On March 20, Mary Catherine Roberson of Danville, Illinois, won the Democratic nomination for Vermilion County clerk, defeating Georgetown-area businessman Darrin Wayne Holycross. Roberson is a Solo Mom of three daughters, has taught English as a second language (ESL) at Danville Area Community College for several years, and now runs after-school programs at Project Success in Danville.
Q: Congratulations on your first successful election! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
A: Thank you for the opportunity! I believe that when we find our power, our job is to share it. I’ve run into a lot of people who think that you have to have a specific degree in order to run for office. I thought the same thing when I started. I’ve got three kids, two different dads; I’m a baby mama. I’ve never been married. In the beginning, I thought, They’re going to judge me for that; that’s going to kill me. I’m a poor, black woman from Danville—from the hood of Danville, at that, and we are facing an established businessman and candidate. For me, this was huge. In the beginning, I felt the shame of it.
Q: Can you share with us your experience of being a Solo Mom?
A: I got my degree from DePauw University. My daughter was seven months old, and I was three months pregnant when I transferred there. I was actually in a domestic-violence situation then, which was very bad. When I left, I walked away from that. I got accepted to DePauw in February and found out I was pregnant in April, and just realized we had to go—even if that meant going alone. So when you talk about the struggle and the push—it ain’t nothing new. I felt that when we did that—and I say we because my older two kids and I graduated together [in the sense that we all played a role in my being able to go to school and graduate and therefore share in this milestone together]—I knew it was something they’ll always have. I wish we could pass that on to all kids—to see with their own eyes that their moms can graduate while they raise us, their moms can run for office, that being a mom doesn’t cut you off from doing your own thing and doing great things. Really, at the end of the day, all of this is for the kids, after all.
Q: What made you decide you were going to run for office?
A: I’m a political science major, so the government has always been something I was interested in, in theory. I had never put that into practice, though. After Trump got elected, I went to the Women’s March in DC and came back on fire. I thought, What can I do? How can I harness this energy in my own town? So I started going to local Vermilion County democratic meetings. We also formed our own Indivisible group. That led to organizing events, holding a solidarity march, registering voters, etc. Through this informal entry, we found out that the local county clerk was running unopposed. We knew this was not the time for Republican officers to run unopposed; we knew someone [else] had to be on the ballot. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I resisted it for a few months, for the reasons we talked about: I don’t have the best background, I’m a woman, I have kids, and I don’t have much money. I had a laundry list of reasons why I couldn’t do it. But I had an even longer laundry list of people who told me yes, I could do it. One of my friends gave me a $20 bill and said, “OK, this is going to start your campaign fund.” They started passing petitions to get me on the ballot before I was even 100% confirmed. I ran on the strength of these powerful women who said they had my back. It just seemed like the natural next step. I went from registering voters and doing informal outreach to running for the office that was in charge of that.
Q: What was your greatest challenge in deciding to run for office?
A: I’m humble, so I don’t think, I’m so great, people will follow me. I’m so great, people will pay me money to run for office. I had to come to terms with the fact that running for office didn’t mean I felt that way. I am running for office because people believe in me and want me to do this job. I don’t have to feel like I’m being cocky when I ask people to join the team because it’s not about me, it truly is about the team. When Danville stands up and votes, and when Danville gets engaged, and when Vermilion County gets involved—it benefits all of us. If I can get people to come to the table who have never been to the table, I’ve done my job. Even if I never [had] become county clerk, that’s still my job as a citizen, as a human—especially for marginalized people who don’t feel like their voice matters. I bring them to the table because their voices do matter. If you aren’t comfortable speaking, let us stand for you. If you’d rather speak, let us give you a platform.
Q: When did you realize you were definitely running?
A: I went to VoteRunLead, which is an organization that empowers women to run for office. It held training in Minneapolis in November. But again, I’m kind of broke, so I wrote an email asking for a scholarship. The organization . . . paid for the training and for my hotel. I found a plane ticket for $83, so I paid for that because I could afford it, and I don’t like to ask for anything I don’t need.
Q: What is the VoteRunLead training about?
A: It is a three-day training session where women who have already run for office train other women to do the same thing! They taught us how to knock on doors, raise funds, and get our soap speech ready. There were different factions, too, so I also joined the Black Women Lead group because they have resources targeted at black women. It was an empowering three days. I set up my Facebook page during the conference because I thought, This is it. I’m running. This is it. It was the final nail. I realized that I not only had the backing of a lot of good people back at home, but there’s a network of women across the nation who have my back, and this is what they want, for women to run for office—we are what they are looking for. This definitely gave me the extra confidence and belief I needed.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish as county clerk?
A: Mobilization and outreach is the largest part of my platform. As county clerk, I want to see voter outreach and education in every corner of the county. We want to do voter-registration drives. There are polling places that are very far from our impoverished areas, and these people are having a hard time getting to the polls. I want to see mobile voting in these places. I want to get into the schools, too, so that even kids who aren’t old enough to vote yet can get fired up. I want to make local politics fun; I want it to be engaging. I want to make people excited about coming out to vote for the primaries. I want them to see the faces of the people they elected other than at election time. Also, I want to make the county clerk’s office accessible, so people will feel comfortable coming in—which is not the case right now.
Q: What is a key message you want to send?
A: I taught ESL for several years, so I’ve worked with undocumented students. I’ve seen the struggles they’ve seen. We all come from such a variety of backgrounds, but at the end of the day, if any of us is oppressed, none of us is free. Now is the time we stand up across all these lines. We are all here in this together. Even if you can’t vote, your voice matters, and we want your opinion at the table anyway. That’s the message that sometimes gets lost in politics when we talk about votes. Sometimes the voices of people who can’t vote get lost. I want to make sure we are here to be inclusive, not just for votes—because that’s who we should be.
Q: You are on Black Women in Politics’ list of black women in the United States who are running for office in 2018. Can you speak to that?
A: Yes! I made the list! It’s powerful. I come from a long list of people who’ve fought centuries for this. I once read a quote that we are all our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I think we should all be our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Who are we not to be?
Q: Do you have any advice for Solo Moms who are thinking about running for office?
A: We don’t have to let money be the reason why we don’t throw our name in the hat. I’m not going to make it because I have lots of money. I’m going to make it because I’ll have the backing of the people, I’m going to work hard to get them to vote for me, and I’m going to utilize all the resources I have.
Q: What are your resources?
A: First, my mother is a huge support system for me. She was, even when I was in school. When I have to go to meetings at night, my mother watches my kids for me. I know this is a privilege that not everyone has. If you don’t have huge family support, I would recommend looking into your state’s income-based child care. Does your state offer a subsidy, for example?
Q: What other resources can Solo Moms access?
A: Once you start reaching out to your network, you will be surprised at how much help you will get. There are people around you that you might not realize want to help. I would think of the community resources, churches, people you know. They may not necessarily be able to offer huge financial support, but I believe that everyone is important, and everyone can support you in some way. Maybe it’s $5, maybe it’s knowledge, maybe it’s connections, maybe it’s picking your child up from school, maybe it’s the willingness to go knock on doors for you. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Q: Is there anything else you’ve learned from this process that you want to share?
A: Find people who are in the place where you want to be, and reach out to them. I reached out to Carol Ammons, a Democratic member of the Illinois House of Representatives. She’s not a Solo Mom, but she’s an African American woman who started out without a lot of credentials, and I wanted to know how she did it.
Q: Was that intimidating for you?
A: Yes! I was super nervous. I worried that she was busy, that she had her own life, that I would be bothering her. But once I spoke to her, we hit it off right away. I was shy about [doing] it, but what I found is that people want you to do this.
Q: So it’s not a burden to them when we reach out for advice?
A: No. They want to help people, and they can’t help people without people to help. When you ask for help, it’s a gift; you give them an opportunity. It would be the same for me. I’m a mom of three kids, with a job, running a campaign—but if someone wanted to talk to me about how I’m doing this, I would find time. Don’t be shy about it. . . . Get every piece of advice you can get from them. You have people in different corners with different things they want to help you with. I’m still scared to ask people, but I’ve never been told no. There are people in every category who want to help you.
Q: What do your kids think about their mom running for office?
A: They are really excited. Of course, as you might imagine, I have had to sacrifice time with them, so we’ve had to talk through this. I’ve had to say, “You know Mom loves you, but this is something we have to do together for a better future for all of us.” My kids have their sights set on the White House, so I also say, “If you want to get to the White House, we have to start here.” They are empowered. My middle daughter, who is nine, wants to be president. She wants to be the second black woman president—after me. She said, “It’s not fair—there has never been a mother-daughter combo even though there has been a father-son combo.” She’s fired up.
Q: We’ll have a chance to vote for you for president, then?
You might also be interested in reading about Solo Mom Allison Galbraith’s run for office.
Mika Yamamoto, ESME's Guide for Public Assistance, has successfully nurtured two children as a Solo Mom and now hopes to achieve the same results as a plant nanny.
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