There are people who have politics running through their veins. It’s just who they are, and depending upon whom you ask, that’s either a positive or a negative.
Maryland State Senator Cheryl Kagan is most definitely the type of elected official who lives for public service, not personal gain. She walks the walk and believes that small acts of import can lead to large-scale change. She’s managed to avoid the puffed-up chest bravado or overly slick veneer that we see in many politicians. And, because of an unwavering devotion to her constituents and to making a difference, she is one of the most highly respected individuals in Maryland politics.
Cheryl, the eldest of three children, grew up in MoCo. From a young age, she exhibited a propensity to protect those she felt were being treated unfairly. In 5th grade, she stepped between a bully and a smaller kid in her class. She may have walked away with a broken arm after the bully pushed her to the ground, but she wasn’t deterred. It was certainly the start of a long career spent looking out for the “little guy.”
She graduated from Winston Churchill High School and went on to Vassar College. Her original plan was to major in foreign languages, and learning languages came fairly easily to her. She has various levels of proficiency in French, Spanish, Hebrew, and even a bit of American Sign Language. She wanted to communicate broadly and not fit the stereotype of an American who only spoke English.
Her American Politics course in her freshman year ultimately inspired her to shift to a political science major and start a career in politics and policy. In the summer after her freshman year of college, she took a bus to Dupont Circle in DC and walked into the offices of Senator Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign headquarters to volunteer. She spent her first day photocopying checks and ended the summer as a staffer on the floor of the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
Rather than attend graduate school right after college, she returned to DC to work in national politics. Starting at the federal level, she worked for national advocacy organizations, including the Brady Campaign (gun control) and NARAL (reproductive choice), and served as a Chief of Staff on Capitol Hill. Although she was working at the national level, Cheryl got involved in MoCo politics and became a Democratic Precinct Chair. She was hesitant to run herself, at first, but she garnered support from then-Councilmember Ike Leggett and others and was victorious in a 10-way race for the House of Delegates. Despite having been active in politics for nearly 15 years, her age, gender, and marital status were regular topics of interest while she was knocking on doors.
Cheryl spent eight years as a member of the House where she enacted laws related to condos and homeowner associations, won “tuition equity” at the Universities at Shady Grove, and pushed to expand women’s reproductive options for rape survivors. After September 11, 2001, Cheryl decided not to seek reelection. She stayed active in local politics and became the first-ever Executive Director of the Carl M. Freeman Foundation.
In 2014, she was recruited to run for the Maryland State Senate against her House successor, Del. Luiz Simmons. At that time, Cheryl was working as the Director of Community Engagement at BBYO (formerly known as B’nai B’rith Youth Organization). She hadn’t lost her campaigning acumen, though, and she and her team worked hard. Although it was one of the ugliest races run in the state that year, Cheryl won big.
Since being sworn into the State Senate in 2015, Cheryl has worked to update our 9-1-1 emergency response services; enact laws to support Maryland’s nonprofit sector; protect women from sexual harassment; strengthen consumer protection measures; and guarantee “Language Access” on our government websites. She is working to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) statewide, pass election reform measures, and strengthen data privacy. Cheryl is sponsoring the bill that could bring “Ranked Choice Voting” to Montgomery County. This method, already in use in Maine, San Francisco, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Australia is especially helpful at reflecting voter intent when there is a large number of candidates. Cheryl has built her entire career on amplifying the voices of the voiceless, and she believes that this system is the best way to give everyone an equal say.
In addition to her legislative and political endeavors, Cheryl is deeply involved as a volunteer leader in the community. Her “Folk ‘N Great Music” house concert series just wrapped up its 16th year of bringing national touring singer/songwriters to Rockville. 100% of the proceeds go to the performers. Her series is the first in the nation to unionize and offer pension payments to those she presents. The day after the 2016 presidential election, Cheryl wanted to do something, but what? How could she use her skills to raise funds for important causes? Her answer was the UnNaugural Concert, an evening featuring 5 performers (including Sweet Honey in the Rock as the headliner!) to benefit 5 progressive causes. It sold out a 500-person venue in Silver Spring. All of the proceeds went towards Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the ACLU, the Brady Campaign, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. People loved it, and the attendees were a veritable who’s who of politics. It was so successful that Cheryl’s hosting it for the third time on January 18, 2019 (Tickets can be purchased at www.UnNaugural.org).
Cheryl loves teaching at schools in her district and welcomes young women to shadow her in Annapolis in the hopes that they might consider running for office someday. What does she suggest when they ask how to get started? Go out and do something. The biggest gains often come from the smallest steps. It’s important to know what goes on in your community and how you can get involved. Pick up trash in a park; attend a county board meeting; join the PTA or the board of a local nonprofit organization you admire. Cheryl doesn’t think you have to be someone with politics running through your veins to make a difference. You just have to get off the sidelines and be part of the solution.