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Cover Story: Riding the Wave of Change

Wulsin says her profession and her gender have informed her candidacy

By Elena Stevenson · May 7th, 2008 · Cover Story
  Victoria Wulsin hopes to address the country's health care crisis if she's elected to congress.
Emily Maxwell

Victoria Wulsin hopes to address the country's health care crisis if she's elected to congress.

I knew Democratic congressional candidate Victoria Wulsin was a woman of many talents, so I didn't bat an eyelash when she drew a picture during our interview. On a scrap of paper in her Anderson Township campaign headquarters, her pencil formed one bell-curve arc, then another overlapping the first.

Wulsin gestured animatedly as she talked.

"This is men, and this is women," she said. "You're familiar with right-brain, left-brain, right? Well, everyone's different, but women tend to be more right-brained, more looking for consensus. Men are more hierarchical. Over time there's going to be little difference.

"I feel strongly that I represent all of my district, men and women. I want to build consensus with those who disagree -- not 'I'm right and you're wrong if you disagree' -- and I see that as a feminine trait."

Wulsin is a product of the feminist movement's first generation, pursuing a career in medicine while raising four sons, now grown, with her psychiatrist husband. A desire for change in Washington spurred her to run for Congress in 2005 and 2006. By the looks of her fundraising numbers (50 percent more than incumbent U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt this quarter), the voters of Ohio's 2nd District seem receptive to Wulsin's brand of change.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rated the district one of the Top 40 Republican seats vulnerable to a Democratic takeover in November. In the 2006 election, Wulsin lost to Schmidt by less than one percentage point, and in the March 4 primary 14,000 more votes were cast for Wulsin than her Republican rival.

In a heated race between two women -- a rarity for U.S. Congress -- Wulsin recognizes the importance of addressing the issues important to all voters. But it won't be easy for her.

Schmidt is a battle-tested campaigner who earned two tough wins for the seat, including a victory against Iraq War vet Paul Hackett in a 2005 special election.

Wulsin believes her strongest platform is health care reform. As an epidemiologist who's spent most of her career in public health, she has a unique gift for addressing the big picture of American health care while retaining compassion for individual issues.

When I asked Wulsin what solution she proposed for the health care crisis, I half-expected her to pull out a chart. Her answer was more Socratic.

"What we all want (in health care) is quality," she said. "There's a lack of respect for the patient in health care today. You have to talk to four receptionists to get to the nurse. My mother has to pay a co-pay for physical therapy, and I ask her, 'Are you going?' and she thinks about skipping it because of the cost. There's tremendous insecurity, even among people with insurance.

"In this country, if you have a right to a lawyer, you should have a right to a doctor. But how we get there has to be incremental. There's a decades-old establishment that needs to be changed."

Wulsin has a better handle on the how-to of health care reform than most, recognizing that political promises also lead to fear of change. On the right, pundits go into histrionics over the dangers of government-controlled care, while liberal cries for universal insurance make many fear the price tag of reform.

Wulsin stresses the importance of prevention as a benefit to the individual and the infrastructure.

"The elderly need physical therapy before they have surgery," she said. "The patient should be empowered, and the provider. ... It shouldn't be the insurance company making these decisions."

Wulsin's desire to help others led her to medicine, but she soon saw that prevention of disease was better morally, economically and socially. Public health taught her the importance of community: "I get vaccinated so you don't get sick."

She cited her experience working with diverse people groups as a catalyst for political decision-making.

"My Christian background led me to the importance of caring for our brothers and sisters," she said. "That's what government should do -- fill in the gaps -- and our government is not doing that."

I asked Wulsin to specify legislation she would back. She believes in a Patient's Bill of Rights that reflects the particular medical needs of women, men, minorities, children and the disabled. She's also in favor of making preschool available to all Americans.

Wulsin is adamant about a swift troop withdrawal from Iraq and believes that veterans' care is critical to attracting talent to the military. She admitted she's still researching legislation to assist working mothers.

"Our systems should not discriminate against the pathways women tend to take as they move in and out of typical male-led workforces," she said.

This political season being marked by mudslinging within parties as well as between, I asked Wulsin about negative campaigning.

"There's not a place for (it)," she replied, "where you take an issue, a personality trait or a situation and present that as a reason not to vote for that person."

Undoubtedly, she was referring to Steve Black's attack ads during the recent Democratic primary citing a request for State Medical Board Examination on some of Wulsin's AIDS research and Schmidt's condescending cartoon of her "crazy" ideas. Wulsin cited "contrast campaigning" as a way to point out the differences between legislative decisions made by Schmidt and decisions she would make in Congress.

"I put families first, and she puts George Bush first," Wulsin said.

I could feel her campaign momentum during my visit to her headquarters. Staffers worked hurriedly in tight quarters, yet each took the time to greet me. Dress among staff is a mix of casual and professional, and Wulsin insists on everyone calling her "Vic." Many on Wulsin's staff are of age to be her children, and speak of her with an affectionate brand of respect.

"I was lucky enough to come on board as an intern," said Sean Pace-Scrivener, adding that health care reform is key to his support of Wulsin so "it's all the more important that we send a member of the medical community to Congress."

Ann Herzner, campaign communications director, cited her admiration of Wulsin's character, integrity and leadership. "This is only my second job in politics, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to work for her."

Perhaps the slow, relationship-fueled gains of public health have informed Wulsin's campaigning style. A primary loss and a general-election loss were a chance to regroup, learn from her mistakes and run again.

She's ridden the wave of society's changing expectations for women, and her experiences inform her leadership style. She'll even draw you a picture of the America she'd like to see. ©



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