Politicians all seem the same, don’t they? For most of history, they’ve looked the same – male, white, seemingly straight – and sounded the same.
As our society has progressed we’ve begun to see an increase in diverse representation – women, people of color, LGBTQ – but there is still a lot of work to do in order to achieve more equal representation in government. In no way is that a suggestion to vote for someone just because they check certain diversity boxes, rather it’s a hearty endorsement to elect quality people who also represent traditionally underrepresented populations. Bonnie Cullison is that candidate.
What makes Bonnie stand out is her interest in helping those who can’t get the attention of those in charge: kids in schools who need extra services; the elderly who can’t afford vital medications; low-income individuals who struggle to find someone to provide basic healthcare services. The people pushed to the margins of our educational, medical and political worlds are the ones Bonnie fights for. Her story will tell you why.
Bonnie was born in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her father was in the military, and they moved a lot while she and her 2 younger sisters were growing up. New York. Lincoln, Nebraska. Chaumont, France. Laredo, Texas. The tour in France was probably the most difficult one to do with a young family. Community integration wasn’t a goal back then, so the family basically stayed on base for 3 years. When her father had to go to Vietnam they were lucky to be close to family back in St. Mary’s County in Maryland. After his 1-year tour, they moved to Texas and, interestingly, that was where Bonnie’s world opened up. The family became part of the community. Bonnie, raised in an Irish Catholic household, attended Catholic school with Spanish-speaking kids and began to learn the language herself. The family’s final stop was in Germany, where Bonnie completed high school before returning to the states for college.
Although living out of state for almost her entire childhood, Bonnie’s parents had thought ahead and continued paying taxes in Maryland in order to secure in-state tuition for their girls. College meant a lot to her father since he was not a high school graduate, and the deal was that her parents would cover the cost IF she stayed in Maryland. Bonnie was accepted to the University of Maryland, College Park, and it was an extremely intimidating start. She was used to small schools, and UMD’s 40k student body was overwhelming. She chose Speech Pathology as her major, not because she wanted to teach, but because she loved science and people; ironically, teaching is how she was able to pay off her National Defense Student Loan (now the Perkins Loan Program). After completing graduate school she started a teaching job in St. Mary’s County. Three years later, in 1981, she decided to move to Montgomery County to become a speech therapist in the schools there.
Bonnie’s advocacy and activism actually began in the schools. Kids were waiting 3-4 months to get speech services and that caused them to lose ground as compared to their peers. Bonnie petitioned both her supervisor and union rep to allow her to conduct speech evaluations during the summer so that services would be in place when kids started back to school, but she was told that the school doesn’t pay teachers to do work during the summer so there was “absolutely no way” they’d pay speech therapists for it, and if she wanted to change things then she’d have to do it by making a formal proposal at a union meeting. Seeing that she couldn’t get anyone to take her seriously unless she herself stepped up, Bonnie got involved.
In MCPS, she became close to Mark Simon and learned from him how to work for her students from inside the union. She changed things. Like, literally changed things. She was so effective that she was elected President of the Montgomery County Education Association in 2003. Her time was spent building collaborative relationships with Montgomery County Public Schools district leaders, alliances that made MCPS and MCEA work better for the students and the teachers. Programs were put in place that maintained MCPS as one of the premier counties for K-12 public education as student needs increased.
People kept telling Bonnie that the state needed more educators in public office. MCEA especially pressed the case for her to run, but Bonnie thought they were crazy. She’d planned to finish her 30 years with MCPS and retire, end of story. But state government heavy hitters like Rich Madaleno and Anne Kaiser were weighed in, making arguments that appealed to her desire to stay involved for the greater good. Ultimately, Bonnie was convinced. And in 2011 she won District 19.
Since then her agenda has stayed true to her roots, and all of those MCEA skills she honed have been easily transferred to the political stage. She helped pass legislation that requires hospitals to coordinate care for patients’ caregivers rather than sending them out on their own. Bonnie has also dived headfirst into the Medicaid waiver that must reduce return trips to the hospital by 3%, something hospitals have struggled with because it puts a heavy front-end burden on them ensuring patients have all the resources and information they need before discharge. So Bonnie arranged for hospitals to talk to patients and their caregivers about their post-discharge experiences, and the hospitals started cooperating. Her bill that lowers drug costs and increases reimbursements was successful because she got input from those directly affecting the process: independent pharmacies and benefits managers.
Bonnie came out to her family when she was 21 – a decision that was very difficult and fraught with angst and fear of being cut off from people’s lives – and for the past 35 years she’s been with her now-wife Marcia Massey (they married in 2013). Her life outside of politics is blessedly uneventful, taking care of her dogs and cat, feeling joy that she can openly love the person who means most to her in the world, and being immersed in the community that has been such a big part of her life.
Seven years after entering politics, Bonnie’s still laser focused on all of the same issues that are most important to District 19. The upcoming election is a chance to both bring even more diversity to the Maryland House of Delegates and maintain the established voices fighting for greater equality. For more information about Bonnie, her campaign, and how you can help, please visit www.cullisonformaryland.com.