NeW is proud to educate, equip, and empower conservative women to be the next generation of leaders. As part of that programming NeW hosts interviews with members of Congress to educate women on policy and leadership advice. Alexis Flowers, Director of Programs for the Network of enlightened Women, had a conversation with Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) who encouraged women to become leaders.
You can find a transcript below:
Alexis Flowers: Welcome. My name is Alexis Flowers and I am the Director of Programs here at the Network of enlightened Women, also known as NeW. Our mission at NeW is to educate, equip, and empower young women to be principal leaders for a free society. As part of our programming this year, we’ve hosted discussions with some of the women who have been elected or newly elected or reelected to Congress as part of our Meet the Members series. Today I am honored to be joined by Congresswoman Debbie Lesko, who represents Arizona’s eighth Congressional District. In May 2018, Congresswoman Lesko was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives after winning a special election and was reelected recently to her second full term. She served in the Arizona legislature for nine years, the last three of which were in the Arizona State Senate. Thank you so much for joining us today, Congresswoman.
Congresswoman Debbie Lesko: Thanks for having me. I’m excited for the questions.
Flowers: Yes, we’re excited to have you and we’ll just jump right in. After your time serving in the Arizona legislature, what inspired you to run for Congress?
Congresswoman Lesko: It’s kind of funny. I was at a conference, not in Arizona, it was ALEC, American Legislative Exchange Council, which is a group of conservative-thinking state legislators from all over the country that get together. The CEO of ALEC, Lisa Nelson, who’s a wonderful lady, she heard that Trent Franks unexpectedly resigned, and she encouraged me to jump in and run. I thought about it for about two weeks because there were some people that had jumped in that I had served with in the Arizona State Senate. Ultimately, I decided that if I didn’t try it, I was going to regret it the rest of my life and so I ran. I beat 11 guys in the Republican primary and then beat a Democrat. Then I had another election, had to beat another Republican in August of that year, and then the same Democrat in November. I had four elections in 2018. It was a busy year.
Flowers: Very busy. That’s wonderful that another woman encouraged you to run. We’ve been hearing that a lot of times as women in general, conservative women need to be asked multiple times to step into these roles. Was that the case for you whether for Congress or for your initial run to the State Legislature?
Congresswoman Lesko: I really had to think about it, because being a member of Congress is different than a State Legislator, right? As State Legislator, I lived about 30-minutes away from the State Capitol and I could be with my family and drive into work. Here, you fly in and you’re away from your family for could be weeks at a time. It’s more of a commitment away from your family. Now, fortunately, it was the right time of my life for me. All of my kids are grown up, they’re adults. I have five grandkids now, so I’m able to handle it. I have to give credit to all of the young men and women who are in Congress that are away from their families. It’s difficult. It’s a difficult job to balance family with your work.
Flowers: Absolutely. Yes. That’s something that we hear from a lot of our students and young professionals. Questions about balancing that. Do you have any advice or have you heard any good feedback from those with young kiddos who are serving in Congress of how they do that? How they make that balance?
Congresswoman Lesko: I guess it’s just like any other job. If the spouse travels a lot, you have to make sure that you take time out for your family. When I fly back during the weekends, I make a point of seeing all of my kids if possible, all of my grandkids and my 93-year-old mother and the constituents. Usually I’m always busy. I’m always busy all the time. I’m either in Washington, DC or I’m back in Arizona in my district and going to meetings. Like today, I’ll be going to a Salvation Army toy drive, which will be fun handing out toys to children. I’m just always busy, but I always make time for my family.
Flowers: I’m switching gears a little bit, but thinking about, as an organization, we promote leadership, and we talk about leadership a lot with our students. Obviously, you’ve held many positions of leadership. What are some skillsets that you think are important for young women to develop if they want to be leaders now and in the future?
Congresswoman Lesko: The thing that I always try to do is work hard. I try to work hard and be honest. It’s very important to also network with other people and try to build a relationship. In my case, with other Congress members, whether it be on the Republican side of the aisle or the Democrat side of the aisle. I think it’s important if we want strong legislation, important legislation to get approved that you need to be able to go to the other Congress members and get their buy-in on it. In order to do that, just as in all careers, you need to network with people. That means talk to them. That means be friendly to them. Ask them about their family life. Ask them what they’re doing for Christmas. Whatever it is, whatever you can do. It is important because people can be the smartest people in the world, but if they don’t get out their message to other people about what they’re capable of doing, nobody will know about it.
Even if you’re a shy person, you have to try to network. One of the organizations that I went to, because I was shy at speaking, I didn’t like public speaking before I went into politics. I went to Toastmasters, which is very inexpensive, but it’s a good way to improve public speaking skills, which also helps with networking. Part of Toastmasters is you had to come up with an impromptu, two-minute speech on a subject that was given to you at the last minute and you had to start talking about it. You also had to put in an odd word. You had to work that into it. You really had to think. Other members of Toastmasters had little bells and every time you went, “ah, um”, they’d ring the bell. It was very distracting. After a while you got used to it and it trained you to be better. I would suggest that quite frankly to anyone, whether they’re good at public speaking already or not. I think it’s very valuable.
Flowers: I recently heard a presentation from someone talking about public speaking and how even if it’s something that comes more naturally to you, it is a skill you have to keep practicing. Toastmasters is a great program. You got to keep practicing.
Congresswoman Lesko: It is a skill. Another thing that I think is a skill, is a learned behavior, I don’t think you’re born with it, is dealing with controversy. Most people take it personally. If you’re not used to it, and if you’re not trained on it and experience it, if you’re too shy to speak out and be upset that people aren’t going to like you, then you’re not going to learn the skill. I have to say, I admit, when I first started getting involved in any type of politics, it was through my children’s school. I was involved in my children’s school, and I was the fundraiser chairman. Everybody liked me when I was the fundraiser chairman. When I started questioning how money was being spent at the school, some of the parents didn’t like me. The next meeting, we showed up, they ignored me, they were rude to me and I was devastated.
I remember I came home, and I was crying saying to my husband, “People are saying bad things about me.” It toughened me up and it’s all for a purpose. It’s for a purpose, because here I’m in Congress and now I have tons of people. If you read my comments on social media, they say nasty things, all kinds of nasty type stuff. It’s hardened me in a way that I can deal with it. I don’t get all personally emotional about it or be angry about it. It’s something you have to learn, I think. Most people do not know how to handle controversy.
Flowers: That’s an incredible point. Unfortunately, the internet, while there are great things about the internet, the internet has also made people more mean I feel like, or at least able to voice their negative or kind of hostile opinions. That’s something that a lot of our college students deal with, unfortunately, especially conservatives on campus. They’re worried about the backlash that they might receive. The negative feedback is I guess a generous way to put it.
Congresswoman Lesko: My message to them, anybody that’s conservative that is afraid to speak out, it all turns out. It turned out for me. I would speak out and I would speak out about conservative issues, whether they were pro-life, pro-religious freedom. Boy, I remember when I was in the Arizona House of Representatives, and I introduced a piece of legislation that was pro-religious liberty. For whatever reason it got nationwide attention, condemnation. I was watching the NBC Nightly News and all of a sudden, my bill was on there. Planned Parenthood had put out a talking point about it that all of the media used, and it was absolutely false. It was an absolutely false narrative. I got so many people… It was a hard time because Planned Parenthood put out my home phone number nationwide. For two weeks I had to disconnect my home phone because I got the most vile phone calls from people wanting to do bad things to me and saying bad things to me.
It was kind of depressing. They would call my Arizona State House office as well. The woman that answered the phone there, was an upbeat person and she became depressed because it was just hard listening to these people. They were so angry, so mean. Then I remember there was a huge group of people that came out and supported me. They all rallied, and they supported me. The legislation passed. Then years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of my side of the legislation, and it made me stronger. It made me stronger. I’ve learned just to speak the truth and what I believe in. I get stones, arrows, whatever you want to call it, thrown at me. Sometimes they think, “Oh, that’s not a politically good thing to do.” It’s what I believe in. It’s always turned out. People have reelected me.
I was nine years in the state legislature and in May will be five years in U.S. Congress. I just keep working that way and thinking it’s all going to turn out. That’s what I would say to people that are afraid to speak out. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes people that speak out and they’re too scared to do it, they become like heroes of the rest of the people, and they become somebody that really becomes a leader. It turns into something where you become a leader in that issue, and you’ll have so much support that you didn’t realize when you started it.
Flowers: What an inspiring story. I know that will be a source of encouragement to our students and young women listening. I do want to be respective of time but wanted to see if you had any book or podcast recommendations, any sort of thing that you’ve been reading or have read in the past that you would like to share with the women in our audience.
Congresswoman Lesko: There’s a book that I read once in a while. I read it quite some time ago when I was in the school district battles about trying to learn how they were spending the money and what they were teaching and things like that. It’s called Get the Bulldog Attitude or Be Left Behind. It’s a very short book and every once in a while, I reread it because it gives me encouragement and it just says, “Be truthful, be strong, work hard, and you’ll succeed.” I like the book.
Flowers: Wonderful. Where can our students and young women find you? I’m assuming on social media, Twitter, Instagram?
Congresswoman Lesko: Yeah. I’m on all of the social media. I’m on, it’s @debbielesko is my unofficial Twitter handle. Then I’m at @rep, R-E-P-D, lesko is my official Twitter handle. I’m also on Facebook, Instagram, truth, I don’t know, all of them.
Congresswoman Lesko: It’s a way to get ahold of me. Also, my website is lesko.house.gov. I also have a weekly newsletter. If people want to sign up, they can go to my website, lesko, L-E-S-K-O, .house.gov and sign up there.
Flowers: Perfect. We’ll make sure to link to all of your social media when we post this later. Thank you so much for taking the time to share a little bit about your story and some words of encouragement with the students in our audience. We really appreciate you taking the time.
Congresswoman Lesko: Thank you, and thank you for all the listeners and good luck to you. You’ll be successful in the future. Keep up your conservative values. It will pay in the end.
Flowers: Great words to end on. Thank you so much and we look forward to following you and the 118th Congress.
Congresswoman Lesko: Thank you.