The Tyler Loop Interview: Shirley McKellar, candidate for U.S. House District 1

We're talking to Dr. Shirley McKellar, a retired U.S. Army nurse who treated wounded soldiers in Iraq and is on her fourth attempt to unseat Republican Louie Gohmert.

Photography by Jamie Maldonado

Ahead of this November’s midterm elections (early voting is through November 2nd), The Tyler Loop reached out to candidates running selected major Texas races who aim to represent Tyler and Smith County at the local, regional, or statewide level.

In our final installment, we’re talking to Dr. Shirley McKellar, a retired U.S. Army nurse who treated wounded soldiers in Iraq. Born and raised in Tyler to a family with a long local pedigree—Erwin Street is named for her father’s family, which for generations was a major rose supplier to the Tyler Rose Festival—she has worn many hats in community service and business in our region. She earned her PhD in nursing, founded and ran an early childhood education center and a nonprofit aimed at breast cancer awareness among black women, and ran a small clothing business. She also earned multiple medals for her military service.

McKellar is running as a Democrat for U.S. House District 1, the seat currently occupied by Republican Louie Gohmert. This is her fourth time attempting to capture Gohmert’s seat. Gohmert captured over 70 percent of the vote in each of those elections. Multiple requests made to Gohmert’s staff for an interview did not receive a response.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running?

I am a retired United States Army officer. I’m also an Iraqi war veteran. I was injured overseas during that war and spent a year in the hospital in San Antonio. I had a fall during a road march one morning, going up some steps with wet feet into a metal building. I got up, brushed myself off, and continued on, but the next morning, I realized that I was really injured: I had fractured my shoulder, threw out a couple of disks in my back, and banged up my legs.

When I was discharged, they told me it was going to be 18 months before I could get into the VA [Veteran’s Administration] system to continue my health care. I said to them, “I can’t wait. I need to continue my care so that I can return to duty.”

I wrote a letter to the general of the Fifth Army, and within two weeks, I was in the system. Then I found out that some of my other [veteran] colleagues were having the same issues. I began working on their medical paperwork, looking at what their diagnoses were and telling them what they needed to say in order to push forward. I still do that for people. For about five or six years, as I began to heal and get back up on my feet, I started to give some of my service to the VA by volunteering in various areas of the hospital there.

Around 2010, a group of black Republicans came to me and said, “We’re very discouraged with the person who holds this seat now in East Texas. You really should run for congress because you’re doing all of the things a congressperson should be doing. Not only that, but your background: you’re military, you’re medical, you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve employed hundreds of people here in East Texas, and you’ve been in education.” I said I’d never be interested in running for public office—though I had always worked on someone’s campaign since the age of 18. But they kept needling me about it. I said, well, let me discuss it with my family.

I did, and then I attended a number of campaign schools where they teach you how to run—including one for veterans and one for women—and I enrolled at U.T. Tyler in the political science program and earned that degree. Then I got accepted into the master’s program, and I got halfway into that program.

What do you say to someone who says you’re too liberal for East Texas?

I can tell you this: I grew up born and bred in East Texas, and I do have some conservative values. I’m conservative in that I’m not going to waste my resources or yours. I’m careful in how I spend my money. I spend it wisely. To me, that’s conservative.

I’m a giver as far as liberality is concerned. If I see someone who is suffering, to me, a liberal person is a person who gives, a person who helps. One of the issues that bothers me tremendously here in East Texas is homelessness. I go down under the bridge two to three times a month and serve food. I’m not tight in my resources because I believe, spiritually, that when much is given, much is required. I was taught that by my parents.

As a retired United States Army officer, I served the entire country. There’s not just red in the flag, and there’s not just blue in the flag. There’s a third color: red, white, and blue. So we’re supposed to be here to serve all people. We’re not getting that with our representative right now.

Yes, I’m a member of the Democratic Party because we have a two-party system in this country, and I gear more to the values of the Democrats. But there are some things in the Republican Party that I agree with as well.

What do you see as the greatest unmet need in East Texas that you would be able to impact in this seat?

Healthcare is number one. If we are a healthy District 1, we can go to work every single day. As a retired nurse, I believe in preventative medicine. People are healthy when they can get their annual mammogram, their annual physical, immunizations for their young children. They can go to work every single day and pay taxes back to the community.

East Texas has dire unmet mental health needs. As a member of Congress, what specifically would you do to bring additional resources to our region?

I want people to know that you don’t have to look at mental illness as a stigma. There is lots of help out there. I volunteer my service each week at the VA hospital, and I’m a member of an organization that works under the hospices of the VA hospital called the Mental Health Advocacy Counsel. I serve as the vice president, and I work with men and women who have military sexual trauma and PTSD.

I want to write a bill to make sure that the veterans are well taken care of. We promised in our constitution that we would take of veterans when they serve this country. But we cannot forget about the regular citizens as well. So I want to make sure that health care for all is in East Texas.

The Trump administration is considering new policies for separating asylum-seeking families at the border. Most Democrats oppose policies like this, but support legal immigration control. What do you think is an appropriate level of border security?

We have about 11 million people that are here without citizenship. I’m not for illegal people just coming in, right? But since we already have them here, and we know we’re not going to send them back, why don’t we get the paperwork together and legalize people that are already here? Then from that point on we have to make sure that our borders are secure.

But of course we know that people no longer just walk across. There are tunnels that people are coming through. I know that we’re not going to build a wall, I don’t believe in that. We’re just trying to enforce the laws that are already on the books. There’s a process that they have to go through in order to come into our country and I’m for that process.

This is your fourth time running for this office. What have you learned, and what are you doing differently this time?

What I have learned is to not give up. I have a friend in Houston who ran five times and right now she’s in that elected [position] because she did not stop until she got that seat.

I also learned that name recognition is very important. I ran against a guy in the primary and [won] because people knew who I was and knew my fight. More people are now reaching out to me whereas [before] I’ve reached out to people.

This time, I’m doing digital advertisement which is really, really big now. I’m doing more coordinated campaigns. I’m working closely with other candidates throughout East Texas to say, “We’re in this together, we complement each other.” This is the first time we’ve done this.

What’s your relationship like with local Democratic party organizers? Do you feel that you’ve gotten support?

Even though we have a great relationship, I think that women don’t get the support that they need, period. We don’t get the attention media-wise that most of our male counterparts get, and we don’t get the funding that our male counterparts do. After the election is over, we have to sit down at the table and have that discussion.

I want the same thing we see given to the male candidates, from that state party as well as the local party. In East Texas, I do have a great relationship with the party, but I don’t see the same response for me as I do for male candidates. And that has to change.

You’re a woman, and you’re also a woman of color. How does that play into it?

It’s almost like a double strike. I am so pleased to be African American, but I recognize that—that some of that still exists.

I get some negative comments about, “Well, she’s not serious.” I don’t know why anyone would think that I was not serious. I have so much skin in this game. I have spent a lot of my own personal resources running these campaigns. Why would I just be out here wasting my resources or anyone else’s resources who donates to my campaign? I am so serious. That’s why I keep fighting.

Tyler is 50 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 25 percent black. What would voters of color get if they came out to support you this November?

They would get a bill to make sure those 11 million people that I talked about would be taken care of. They would get healthcare for everybody. They would get someone who is fighting to bring jobs to East Texas, someone who knows how to bring jobs to East Texas because I’ve brought many initiatives to East Texas.

They’d have somebody that’s working on their behalf as far as our education system is concerned. I believe in early childhood education. We have to prepare our students to be able to compete with anybody: globally, throughout the United States and abroad. And veterans would be well taken care of.

If the Latinos and the African Americans pulled together, I could win that seat.

Traditionally, young and minority voters don’t turn out in midterm elections. What have you been doing to mobilize these voters?

I’ve been on every college campus in East Texas. Texas College here locally. University of Texas at Tyler has been really good for me because I was a student out there. Tyler Junior College, I’m a prior student so I have people who are working on my campaign who are students and employees there. We’ve registered young voters at Wiley College and Jarvis Christian College.

Nine times out of ten the Baby Boomers are going to come out to vote. So we’re working hard on the millennials. We don’t want them to graduate with a massive college debt—that’s one of the issues that I always present to them. Many of them graduate from college owing $60,000 to $80,000. Why would we saddle that debt on these young folks who are first starting their career? That’s one of the ways that I can reach them, by showing them that I’m for them not graduating with a massive debt from college.

Many people dislike the idea of young people graduating with a lot of debt. But what specifically do you want to do to fix it?

I’m pushing for the first two years of college free. I have traveled to other parts of the world, being in the military and in regular travel, and I see that they can educate their students [with free tuition]—all four years. We’re the wealthiest country in the world, so why is it that our children cannot have that same form of education?

I’m also pushing for a zero interest rate for college students who have to get a loan to go to school. And more grant funding so that they can go to school without having to pay back lots of money.

If you don’t win this year, will you try again in two years?

I only want to speak for right now. I plan on winning in 2018. This is the most important election I have ever seen and I’ve been involved in politics since I was 18 years old. I see that a lot of people feel the same.

I see a difference in comparison to 2016. People are not as complacent. They see how the country is changing. They see, unfortunately, that sexism still exists, racism still exists. They want that to change and I want that to change as well. But it’s going to take all of us working together as a team to make that transition.

Is there a point you’re making by running, even if you don’t win?

That point is a woman can run. There’s never been a woman to run for this seat here in East Texas. It’s always been occupied by men. The point is that women do have a voice and that we need to use that voice, and we need to fight for women and their issues.

I want any other African-American woman, or any other woman of color, or any other woman period to know that she has a voice and she can utilize that voice. I’m here 100 percent to support her if she decides to run for whatever seat she decides to run for.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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