Why We Run: Kellen Squire

Kellen Squire is a 32-year-old emergency room nurse running to represent the 58th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates.

How is your campaign going?

Great. I’ve been busy as heck getting things off the ground. We just did a training put on by the Virginia Democratic House Caucus and before that I was at the Sorensen Institute at the UVA Center of Politics. It was Thursday through Sunday with classes from seven-thirty in the morning until nine at night. It was really fun but exhausting. I’d say it was like trying to drink out of a firehose, with as much information as we were getting. I don’t know if I know everything now, but I’m certainly much more grounded.

Was there one big takeaway from the Sorensen Institute?

You know that motivational poster with iceberg on it? With the teeny little tip out above water at the top and the giant iceberg underneath? Well it’s clear to me how true that is with everything you can learn in life. Even political junkies might think that they know the ins and outs of it all, but until you get there and you stare at the enormity of it you’re like, “Oof.”

So I don’t know if there is one big thing that I took away, although at the Sorensen Institute they do have an emphasis on ethics. So if I had to take something away, it’s to make sure that you run a campaign that you can be proud of. They kind of strike it home that, you know, you’re the one that’s going to be in the grocery store on that second Wednesday in November, and everybody’s going to be looking at you, so whatever you do as a candidate is going to be remembered. I’m a nurse and so that weighs on me, too, to make sure that I’m running a campaign I can be proud of because when those folks come to me for help I don’t want them to then think in the back of their heads “Oh, you’re that guy.”

You started your campaign with a listening tour, correct? Why do that instead of something big?

It’s just more my M.O. Some people hold rallies and stuff like that but I’m a nurse and listening is what we do. I also feel that one thing that people are disappointed in with politics these days is that it doesn’t feel like folks in either Richmond or Washington are really listening to us. It’s more like they’re just waiting for their turn to talk. They might hear what you say but they’re not really listening, if that makes sense. And so I wanted to make sure that to start my campaign, that I didn’t start by doing that. My hypothesis was that folks don’t even necessarily want a politician who agrees with them on 100% percent of everything. I mean, I’ve yet to meet a single person on God’s green earth that I agree with 100%. That would be boring. Right? But they want somebody that’s going to listen to them and that will respect them even if they disagree.

The listening tour was supposed to be just one day. We were going to do it on Friday, March 3. But then I got so many people that wanted to just have their thoughts listened that we did it that Friday and Saturday. Almost all-day each day. We talked to a lot of different folks. There was one gentleman who’s an unelected Republican leader. He’s in charge of a group that isn’t specifically related to the Republican Party, but if I said their name aloud it’s the first party you’d think of. And so he asked me to come and when I actually showed up at his house he’s like well I didn’t think you’d actually show up. I told him straight up that if I have the honor to go to Richmond I’ve got to represent everybody. You don’t just represent just the fifty-percent-plus-one vote that sent you there or whatever margin it is, you represent everybody even if they didn’t vote for you. Even if they don’t agree with you on everything, you’re still supposed to represent their best interests. He and I chatted for awhile and at the end of the conversation he did say, “Well, you know, I may still not vote for you in November. But, you know, I’m impressed that you showed up and I like what you had to say.” So I thanked him sincerely and kind of explained why I was doing the listening tour and stuff and he said, “You really need to hold a rally. That’s better. You get your your face out there and everybody cheering for you.” And I said, “That’s not my M.O. I like to listen.” And he said, “Well, you’re not going to be a very good politician.” And he was laughing and I said, “Well, I’m not a politician. I’m a nurse.”

As you talk to more people in your community, are you noticing any trends in what concerns people?

It has been kind of scattershot. You know, the Democrats and the Republicans each have their own voter data systems where you can go and pull up the list of strong potential voters and where they live. But I’ve been going to every house. There was one I went to where they had a homemade Trump/Pence sign. I will admit the conversation was a little perfunctory but I wasn’t afraid. I wanted to hear what they had to say, too.

But the central theme of what most people are saying is exactly why I got into this. I tell them I’m running for office because I got tired of how nasty things were getting and I figured I could either sit around and bellyache about it or I could stand up and do something about it. Everybody seems to perk up when I say that. If there is a unifying position that cuts across all ages and socioeconomic and political group, I think it’s probably that. I think that people recognize that no matter who you voted for in November, you believe that politics is broken and that something has to be done about it, even if we don’t all 100% agree on what that something is that needs to be done.

What sparked you to run this year?

I guess I can’t point to any one thing that led me to do this. There are a number of them. One of the bigger things is that being an emergency department nurse and kind of sharing a very unique and big role in my community’s social safety net, along with my friends in fire and EMS and law enforcement. When people were starting to talk pretty cavalierly about repealing the Affordable Care Act, you know, it’s always fun because whenever you hear a politician on TV they say, “Everybody’s fine. They can just go to the emergency room.” As an emergency department nurse I’m like, “Great. Thanks.” Because that’s not how healthcare works.

There’s a very dark adage amongst nurses that, “Nurses don’t quit, they just burn out.” It is very dark but unfortunately it’s much more true than I would like to believe. And it’s also true amongst firefighters and paramedics and police officers because we don’t do what we do, I don’t do the twelve or thirteen or fourteen hour shifts at the hospital with no food and maybe one bathroom break, because I get Scrooge McDuck-sized vaults full of money and stuff. We do what we do because we love to do it. We love to help. However, the downside to some of that is that we take the burdens that the community has and we kind of shoulder that load so that they don’t have to. So as a consequence, rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress and burnout among those working in emergency services is really at a critical level.

I mean, I can attest to that personally.

For me, every pediatric code I’ve ever worked, I never forget a single detail of it. Sometimes I sit up in the middle of the night and think about what I could have done differently. Things like that, they’re not unique to me. Everybody that I know has things like that, too. And when I see how things might devolve with the Affordable Care Act, it makes think about all of my friends, all of my brothers and sisters in emergency medicine, and how much of the load they already shoulder and kind of the prospect that that weight would just get bigger because a lot of people might be left for the safety net to pick up.

In an emergency department, if the ambulances keep coming we can’t say “No. We’re full right now. We’re too busy.” We just got to make it work. And so faced with the prospect of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, I wasn’t content just to stand idly by and do nothing. I recognize that I’m just one person but I wasn’t just going to stand there and let it happen. I was going to fight.

That’s probably the biggest motivation for me to run, amongst other things. Being tired of being used as just sort of a political pawn.

Another example of that is that a few years ago our legislature passed some laws to make narcotics harder to get. Which is great and something we need to do. But they kind of did it as a stand alone thing. It was kind of more of a feel-good thing rather than to tackle the whole problem head on and the end result was that we had like a couple order of magnitude increase in the rate of heroin overdoses. People couldn’t get their Percocet and so they had this cheap heroin flooding in and so they turned to that. People were lacing that with fentanyl and a bunch of other really nasty stuff and so I remember having had to deal with that one day at the emergency department and getting home and seeing a very self-congratulatory mailer from my representative, the one that I’m running against actually, patting himself on the back for doing such a really good job of helping to tackle the opiate crisis. And to be fair, this cuts across party lines. It’s not him alone that is guilty of that. But they do stuff and they don’t bother to think about the folks on the front lines who have to deal with it.

Should you be elected, do you know what policies you’d like to tackle first?

Obviously granting that no man is an island, there’s definitely stuff that I’d like to tackle. Things like working with physicians groups on Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant autonomy. Especially in areas like primary care and mental health care. We have these old family docs that were pillars of their communities and now they’re retiring. There’s a great one that delivered both of my boys but when he retires from his little family practice, I don’t know that anybody is going to replace him because physicians aren’t getting into primary care anymore. So something needs to be done and I think that nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants are good intermediaries there. I think they’re well suited to do stuff like that, to be able to deliver high quality primary care and mental health care in rural communities especially that are more likely to be underserved.

There’s some stuff I’d like to tackle as far as economic opportunity. Just making sure folks have a level playing field. It’s something I’ve always felt. There are so many times that I feel like our economic system is…

Are you familiar with Atlantic Coast Conference basketball at all?


OK, so have you ever heard of the Carolina Ref axiom?

Let’s say no.

Well, what that refers to is that if you are basketball team in the Atlantic Coast Conference and you happen to go to play in a place like Cameron Indoor, like where Duke plays, and suddenly there’s all sorts of phantom calls or things like that magically appear and that favor the home team. Everybody says the joke is on any Duke fan that complains about a call, right? And I sometimes feel like our economic system is sort of weighted that way. It’s not a level playing field and you’ve got people sticking legs out and stuff to trip up working class folks and we don’t want made-up calls if that makes sense. We don’t want a handicap on the game. We just want the game called the same for everybody.

That’s why I love the NCAA tournament because even all those underdog teams if you put them on the same stage and give them the same shot they can beat those big teams like Duke and North Carolina and Virginia as long as they’ve got the same opportunity to do it.

And the other thing is responsive and accountable leadership. I think that a big thing has got to be redistricting. You know it’s tough for me because I recognize that my district was kind of gerrymandered. In fact if you go over the mountain into Elkton and Rockingham County which is part of my district and you talk to the folks there, one said something to me which made me simultaneously furious and depressed. They just very resigned said to me, “When they put us in this district over the mountain here we knew it was so they could forget about us.” I mean just to have that sort of resignation, knowing that somebody in Richmond made that decision, knowing that they would just be taken advantage of the whole time and that they recognize that really just… Like I said, furious and depressing at the same time.

But you know I love this place. This is home. And all these people, these are the folks that come to my emergency department, that I’ve come to know and love for better or worse and I recognize that we need to do something to fix redistricting. But I love my district. I know that’s kind of a schmaltzy thing to say but it’s true. I’m not afraid to run against anybody. I’m willing to stand up for my ideas and what I believe in, and it doesn’t bother me if the district gets quote unquote re-weighted and stuff as long as it it represents everybody as best as we can. There’s got to be things we can do better that way and I think that any politician that is afraid of having an honest fight way is probably part of the problem.

I guess in the end that’s probably the biggest single thing. Because if we just made politicians of all stripes, really of any political persuasion, if they came to be principled and accountable to the people that they represent, I think that’d go a long way to fixing everything.

Tell me more about your community. What is it about the people there that’s made you give up a lot of a life you clearly love?

If I had a theme song for the campaign it would probably be “Homegrown” by Zac Brown Band. In it he says, “I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.” And that’s really how my life is. I’ve got a beautiful family and my wonderful wife who’s incredibly supportive, probably way more so than I deserve especially as I dove into doing this all of a sudden. We’ve got a great house. I love my job, as stressful as it can be sometimes. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. I love being a nurse. We’ve got a perfect little property here. We have a camper trailer and we love to take the kids to go camping. It’s easy to do. If you’ve ever been in the central Virginia area here, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah mountains, it’s beautiful. My wife is much more of a beach person, but I love the mountains. I love being here. I love waking up in the morning and seeing the sun just shine on the mountains. The hospital I work at, if you work a 7:00 pm to 7:00 am shift, because of where it’s situated when you walk outside in the morning, no matter how rough your shift was, and you see the sun highlighted on the mountains behind you that just takes your breath away. I mean it really does.

The district is pretty big. It goes all the way from the Harrisonburg suburbs to the James River. It’s got a huge part of Shenandoah National Park in it, which is one of my most favorite places to go.

The 58th, it’s got Monticello, it’s got Ashland Highland, and actually this was Thomas Jefferson’s old district. Thomas Jefferson once upon time was the delegate for this district, and because I’m a graduate of the University of Virginia the only thing better for me is if Chris Long and Tony Bennett showed up to say hello to me. Really, what more could a UVA grad want than to represent Thomas Jefferson’s old district? Some people say UVA grads are lame because we love to quote Thomas Jefferson at every opportunity and everybody else rolls their eyes and stuff but man, I dig it.

How has your age been received?

Nobody’s mentioned my age at all.

In general, a lot of people have been talking about excitement that millennials are finally getting involved, because Millennials have long been derided as the slackers, that they don’t do anything and they want the world handed to them. I’m happy to brand myself as a Millennial if it could help subvert that sort of thing and show folks that people my age, we don’t want stuff handed to us. We want to work our butts off and get stuff fixed.

How has connecting with Run for Something helped your campaign?

The resources and the mentorship has been fantastic. Even conversations like this helps put it all in perspective. It’s always good to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, and the more people that you can talk to about that, I feel it helps keep you grounded. To be honest with you, my big fear is not losing in November, it’s becoming the sort of person that I hate and have railed against. I’ve seen better men and women than me get corrupted by the process, that’s what concerns me the most.

How can people contribute to your campaign?

My website is Squireforyou.com and at Facebook it’s SquireforYou and on Twitter it’s @SquireforYou.

We’re always look for volunteers. You know you can never have too many feel like. I’m also always happy to listen to folks that have been through this before, or who’ve done any work on a campaign because we’ve got a good team of talented folks here, we just don’t have the breadth of experience behind us that some folks do. I said to everybody that’s working on my team that anybody who wants to come and learn that I want them to come along, too. Because although I don’t intend to do anything to the detriment of my campaign, I can fully recognize that it’s got to be about more than just this election. The Cubs wouldn’t have won the World Series if they hadn’t started six, seven years ago building their farm teams and building their networks up and finding the right talent and being able to plug it in. If they hadn’t done that hard work, and it took them that long to get it done, and I think that barring some major flip it’s probably going to take us that long to get the left back to where we need to be, too. I think everybody needs to recognize that. That it’s a marathon, not a sprint and it’s going to be a lot of blood sweat and tears along the way. But I absolutely think we can get that done. Just recognizing that there’s not going to be a lot of relaxing for a while.

And also, as a leader, I’ve always benchmarked my success as whether I can train somebody to be better than I am at a critical task or process. If I can look and see somebody that I mentored be better than me, I can go, “Yes. I did a fantastic job.” That’s my benchmark for success.

Is there anything else that you want people to know about you?

Honestly, there’s nothing special about me. I’m an opinionated jerk just like anybody else can be. It’s just that sometimes it takes somebody to stand up for what you think is right and that sometimes that can be a superpower in and of itself. So anybody out there that reads this, know that one person can make a difference. I know, again, that’s one of those schmaltzy things you hear all the time but it’s true.




A series of brief Q&As with young people who decided to run for government. Surprise! It turns out, they’re just like you and me.

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Run for Something

Run for Something

Recruiting & supporting young people running for office. Building a Democratic bench. Want to help? hello@runforsomething.net

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