For newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the work begins right away. Less than two weeks after Election Day, Kathy Manning traveled to Washington, DC from her home state of North Carolina to attend orientation for new members. There, she got to know her fellow congressional freshmen—while also never getting too close to them. “We were all in the same hotel, but we didn’t eat together,” she recalls. The new members picked up their meals in bags and boxes, and then ate alone, or spaced apart in the Congressional Auditorium’s cafeteria. When they attended presentations, they sat with several empty seats, and at least one empty row, between them.
Manning, a Democrat, couldn’t help noticing that the social realities of pandemic life highlighted existing party divides, with Democrats wearing masks and social distancing, while Republicans were less careful. “That created a little bit of difficulty,” she says. “Particularly, it hampered us from getting to know people across the aisle.”
Manning, 64, is a former immigration lawyer and a high-profile civic volunteer in her hometown of Greensboro. In 2009, she became the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America, overseeing the powerful Federations fundraising engine across the country. She first ran for Congress in 2018, joining a handful of women pursuing elected office after rising to top positions—and breaking critical glass ceilings in the Jewish institutional world. That year, she lost to incumbent Republican Ted Budd in North Carolina’s 13th District. But this time, Manning ran in the state’s 6th District, which had undergone court-ordered redistricting in 2019, and beat Republican Lee Haywood with 62 percent of the vote.
When she decided to run again, she says, “all of the issues that had motivated me to run in 2018 had gotten worse.”
Once she settles into Congress, Manning’s priority is getting the pandemic under control, with a focus on protecting essential workers. Long before COVID-19, health care was one of her driving issues. During her first campaign, she spoke often about how she decided to run for office after her daughter was diagnosed with a chronic illness and she encountered the labyrinthine process of getting insurance to cover her medication. When she decided to run again, she says, “all of the issues that had motivated me to run in 2018 had gotten worse.” Once the country went into lockdown, “it simply magnified the problems that we had had before,” she adds. “Health care, job loss, people being able to afford to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, for people to be able to pay for post-secondary education. All those things have become even more difficult.”
Another concern is rebuilding trust in government in the wake of the Trump era. “When you have a president who is so disparaging about people, who calls anybody he disagrees with a liar or calls the news ‘fake news,’ disparages immigrants, disparages minorities, that sets a terrible tone,” she says. “We won’t see that with Joe Biden. I think Joe will try to heal the divisions that have been exacerbated by President Trump.”
But she knows that like 2020, 2021 is not going to be a normal year. Americans will continue to face challenges, and as she has already experienced, bipartisanship may prove elusive. And while Manning won, House Democrats overall lost a total of nine seats, leaving the party with a thin margin. She notes that many of the seats Democrats won in 2018 were in tough Republican districts. “Realistically, we should have expected that we wouldn’t keep all of those seats,” she says. “And the most important seat for us to flip was in the White House.”