Marie Gluesenkamp Perez ’12 in Vancouver, Washington.
Marie Gluesenkamp Perez ’12 in Vancouver, Washington.

Driving Change

Marie Gluesenkamp Perez ’12 led a grass-roots congressional campaign and surprised the nation when she flipped a district.

By Anna Perling ’14 | August 8, 2023

Marie Gluesenkamp Perez ’12 was on the verge of a very big decision. 

It was February 2022. The year before, Republican Joe Kent had announced his campaign for Congress for Washington’s Third District over the incumbent, the more moderate, Jaime Herrera Beutler, who had voted to impeach Donald Trump. Trump had endorsed Kent in September. Gluesenkamp Perez was charged up by Kent’s extremist politics; she has called him a “fascist” and a “white nationalist, Nazi sympathizer” online. She was considering running against him. 

Her interest in public office was not without precedent. In addition to co-owning an auto repair and machine shop with her husband, Dean Gluesenkamp, she had been involved in her community and active in local politics since 2016, when she ran for, and lost, a seat on the Skamania County Board of Commissioners. Undeterred by the loss, she started working on the Underwood Conservation District board in 2018.  

When the idea of running for Congress began to bloom, she called Hannah Love ’12, a political strategist and her former housemate, to ask her for advice. Love, wanting to be a true friend, tried to deter Gluesenkamp Perez at first. “I think you can do it, if anyone can do it,” Love remembers saying, but she cautioned against long hours and the potential of losing. 

Making the choice took serious consideration. Gluesenkamp Perez cared deeply for Washington, where her family has deep roots going back generations, and where she’d spent childhood summers playing in the forest. But the true inflection point for her came during a calm moment, while she was nursing her son, Ciro, in the home she and her husband built from the ground up.

“That was the point where I was like, oh, I think I need to do this,” she said.

And she did. In what pundits later called the biggest upset in the 2022 election, she flipped her district to defeat Joe Kent through a grassroots campaign, with no financing from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—despite a two percent predicted chance of winning. Being a political underdog came with a kind of freedom, said Gluesenkamp Perez: “There was not an alternative to being who I am.” 

■ ■ ■

On a cool day in April 2023, the cherry blossom trees surrounding the Battle Ground Community Center in southern Washington State are out in full force: their flowering branches bob in the breeze, promising spring. There’s only half a second to admire them, though; I’m hurrying through the door behind Congresswoman Gluesenkamp Perez and her staffers.

Inside, more than 70 people from all over the state mill about before settling into seated rows. They’re aged young, old, and infant. They wear suits, suspenders, jeans, espadrilles, and baseball caps. And they bear titles as diverse as flower farmer, director of governmental affairs at the Washington State Potato Commission, representative from the Washington ATV Association, director of the Anti-Hunger & Nutrition Coalition, and scientific policy advisor for the Washington State Conservation Commission. 

Yet all these people have something in common: they’ll each spend just two minutes talking to Glusenkamp Perez. In their allotted time, they’ll share their hopes and asks for the 2023 Farm Bill, a gigantic, complex piece of legislation that passes once every five years and encompasses such wide-ranging topics as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program  (SNAP) benefits, crop insurance, land conservation, forestry services, commodities pricing, federal loan programs, and rural development. It’s a big deal. A podium stands in the center of the room, waiting for people to approach.

Facing them at the center of a folding table, Gluesenkamp Perez sits flanked by staffers with computers out ready to take notes and stacks of business cards to hand out after the session. 

Her bright green pin pops out to designate her as a member of Congress. Otherwise, she’s unadorned. Wearing a blue oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans, and Blundstone boots, she looks casual enough that she could go from the district office to a timber conference. Likely that’s because, sometimes, she does, in addition to petting cows at creameries and donning a hood to watch students learn to weld (all of which you can witness on her Twitter feed). When not in Washington, D.C., she spends her days in her home state visiting local facilities, meeting with constituents, and engaging in listening sessions like these. “Every day that I don’t have a vote in D.C., I’m in the district,” she told me over the phone prior to our day together. “I’m spending one-on-one time with community leaders, local electeds, and business owners. And I think that’s really critical. You have to know what’s going on in your district.” 

Staying in the know, however, is a gargantuan effort, one that the congresswoman says other representatives in “safer” seats don’t have to worry about quite so much. We’re at stop number two of four, a light day according to Tim Gowen ’10, her deputy district director, and Gluesenkamp Perez looks a little wan. She’s recovering from a bout of the flu that left her, her husband, and their 19-month-old son sick with fevers earlier in the week. After one day off, she’s back on the road. Still, her gaze is steady as she smiles and waves hello to the people she knows in the crowd. She holds it trained on every speaker over the next two hours, nodding and taking notes and occasionally interjecting with excitement or concern, never once yawning or looking away. 

Though she’s unassuming in appearance, Gluesenkamp Perez has a certain star power that draws people in. Maybe it’s her sincerity, or the fact that she’s funny, or that her general approach to life is pretty punk. She doesn’t boast a massive Twitter following, and she hasn’t pulled flashy stunts like attending the Met Gala like some other representatives (at least not yet). But it feels like she’s a local celebrity. During my day with the congresswoman in mid-April, I felt like I was buzzing. At all of our stops, she was excited to see people. But they were really excited to see her. 

She urged people not to use any of their precious two minutes at the listening session on niceties, but most couldn’t resist. Joe Zimmerman, representing the Clark-Cowlitz Farm Bureau, ended his time by saying, “I’d like all of us to understand the historic situation we have where a Clark and Cowlitz County representative from southwest Washington is on the Ag commitee. I don’t think that’s ever happened.” Applause ensued.

Gluesenkamp Perez particularly related to several speakers. Rob Baur, who owns Baurs Corner Farm and identifies as the CTO, or “Chief Tractor Operator,” shared his ongoing problems with a new John Deere tractor to illustrate a need for federal right-to-repair legislation. Perez agreed emphatically. “You can’t wait three weeks [to fix the tractor] when you’ve got harvest coming,” she said. 

Her connection was visibly strongest to Nicole Curtis, a community advocate at Northwest Harvest, a hunger relief agency, who took the podium to request permanent protection for SNAP. Wearing a low, tight ponytail, Curtis kept her head down as she read quickly from her script. She spoke of struggling to feed her two sons after a pandemic layoff and the end of SNAP emergency allotments in February after President Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act. In closing remarks, Gluesenkamp Perez called her out specifically to thank her for making the time to be there. After the session, she rushed to speak to her first. I caught up with Curtis as folks were filing out from the community center. She is a huge fan of the congresswoman; she even donated to Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign. “She’s got a different energy; it’s refreshing,” she said. 

The hours added up as we stopped at a community clinic and a food bank. Gluesenkamp Perez kept up the energy, even as she paused to occasionally blow her nose. Some of her remarks, like one on how empowering it is to know how to cook beans and rice, felt rote. But when she opens up to tell  her own stories, she gets through to people. At North County Community Food Bank in Battle Ground, she shared that her grandma had volunteered at a food bank, which resonated with the crew. She also made it a point to emphatically thank everyone for their work throughout our tour. 

After, I chatted with lavender-haired volunteer Bev Jones (Battle Ground Citizen of the Year 2016) to talk about the visit. Jones stays away from conflict, which makes it tricky to talk politics with neighbors displaying Joe Kent signs in their yard. But she’s happy Gluesenkamp Perez won and hopes that she hangs on to the seat. “I appreciate her being a woman in that position and a small business owner. Just her showing up with her questions today, I’m even more impressed,” she said. She paused and smiled, before doing a little wiggle. “She’s my girl.”

■ ■ ■

When Gluesenkamp Perez decided to run for office, the first order of business wasn’t brainstorming how to fundraise or hire consultants, but securing childcare (an issue she has spoken passionately about; she and Dean often brought Ciro with them to the auto shop because they couldn’t find affordable daycare). She called her mom and mother-in-law to ask for extra support during the campaign. Then, she needed to get Dean on board; he was hesitant. “It’s a family decision to run for Congress,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “He really believes in me, and his perspective was, I’m not just saying yes to a campaign. If you run, you’re gonna win. And that’s going to change everything about our life.” 

Dean ended up being right. 

The odds were not in her favor. With a lack of support from the DCCC and even groups like EMILY’s List, which supports women candidates in favor of abortion rights, she embarked on an intensive grassroots campaign. (Emily’s List endorsed her in October 2022, less than a month before the election.) 

“All the pundits said I had a two percent chance, and I get it, people try to make strategic decisions,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “But it’s hard when they say they want people who work in the trades, and women, and moms, and Latinos. Like, where the hell are you?” Finding media coverage was also a challenge. She reached out to me a year ago to cover her story; the New York Times declined the pitch (now, the Times’s coverage of Gluesenkamp Perez includes an array of reporting and opinion, with headlines like “A New Voice for Winning Back Lost Democratic Voters”).

When we finally got to have our interview, we lamented the paradox facing underdog candidates: you need a critical mass to get people to pay attention, but how do you gain that critical mass? Gluesenkamp Perez credits the support of her local community for believing in her at the beginning: “You just work your phone book, and go from there.”  

One connection led to another, and once she had an audience, her message—of supporting working families, championing small business owners, ensuring abortion access, investing in clean energy, and increasing education in the trades—resonated. Her platform leaned centrist, which may have helped appeal to Republicans who weren’t sold on Kent’s extreme views. And surely, so did her earnestness as a regular, small business–owning mom. Without coaching or party pressure, she was able to talk about what was meaningful to her and people in her district. In interviews, she speaks candidly and passionately, often interjecting a curse or a quip into a serious remark. She’s shared personal stories during her campaign of her own economic hardships and a previous miscarriage before having her son. 

After seeing Gluesenkamp Perez give her stump speech, Love was impressed by her authenticity. “That’s when I was like, if more people can see her do this, she could really win this thing,” Love said. Love worked on the campaign in a small role, helping organize several rallies and field events to harness a swelling of grassroots support. “The first event was unlike anything I’ve seen,” she said. There weren’t many traditional party activists; instead, attendees included first-time volunteers, first-time voters, and people who just wanted to meet Gluesenkamp Perez after reading about her.

Gowen joined the campaign during the summer as one of two staff members, with no prior political experience (Gowen previously owned a prepared foods store in Portland, Oregon). 

Other Reed alumni also pitched in for the campaign. David Azrael ’13 assisted with social media; Sandeep Kaushik ’89 was campaign spokesperson. Washington First District Congresswoman Suzan DelBene ’83 has been a “huge supporter,” according to Gluesenkamp Perez. Notably, DelBene was the only member of Congress who endorsed Gluesenkamp Perez before the top-two primary election in summer 2022.

The campaign involved long, tough days. When she won, Gowen said, “We were all exhausted.” But in the face of the damning election predictions, the moment felt monumental to the tiny team. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” said Gowen. “It was a crazy thing that no one thought we were going to do.” 

Gluesenkamp Perez was sworn into the 118th Congress on January 7, 2023. Now, six months into Congress, she’s been appointed to the Small Business and Agriculture committees. Having won, she said she doesn’t feel beholden to vote on party lines. “The things that feel small and unimportant to a lot of national players are the things that are really meaningful to everyday people in my district,” she said.

 Instead, she wants to focus on serving her constituents—she doesn’t hide from them. She’s been holding town halls over recent months, something her predecessor, Jaime Herrera Beutler, failed to do. Some politicians are wary of hosting in-person meetings after former Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011; Gluesenkamp Perez likes to remind people that she owns a gun (defense of the Second Amendment is part of her platform). The town halls have been going “shockingly well,” she said. 

Gluesenkamp Perez has to balance national priorities with local ones, and  some of her bipartisan votes so far have raised eyebrows—or backlash. She has joined as a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, and as we were sending this piece to press, she was one of two Democrats to vote in favor of a resolution to block President Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan. (At time of writing, the Senate had passed the bill and President Biden had vetoed it; the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the plan this summer.) Her statement via Twitter felt like a red herring: it demanded dollar-for-dollar investment in trades education before she would support debt forgiveness. The tweet was ratioed (which means it received more negative replies than likes), with replies criticizing her and expressing hope that she gets challenged in the 2024 primary. 

I remarked to my editor that the longer we waited to publish the piece, the more time Gluesenkamp Perez had to take important or controversial actions that we would need to address. But of course, this is the point of being a politician—to take a stand—and the challenge of writing an early-career profile. Gluesenkamp Perez didn’t run a typical campaign. She is not your typical congressperson, and she won’t do typical things. She’s still a developing story.

■ ■ ■

It seems that Gluesenkamp Perez has never been one to ask for permission, or follow a conventional path. “She definitely gave our parents more gray hair than I did,” said Philip Perez, the congresswoman’s brother. The youngest of four, Gluesenkamp Perez grew up in Houston, Texas. Her father was a pastor in an evangelical church, and the family was involved in the church growing up. Her parents leaned politically and religiously conservative. Gluesenkamp Perez credits the exposure with helping her feel open around all kinds of people. She and her siblings were home-schooled by their mom for their early education, and their parents instilled an appreciation for intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. “It was important to question things, think about things, and find out the answer for yourself,” said Philip Perez of their upbringing. The kids often spent summers in Bellingham, Washington, hanging out in their grandfather’s carpentry shop and gaining an appreciation for the woods around them. Gluesenkamp Perez comes from a long line of loggers on her mother’s side. “Even as a child the trajectory I saw for my life was living back home in Washington,” she told me. “So after graduating [from Reed] there was no real question that I’d remain up here.”

After graduating from high school, she spent a semester at Warren Wilson College, known for its focus on work and service, before discovering Reed. Her parents stopped paying for tuition when she stopped going to church. “Afterwards, I worked three jobs and paid for Reed by the credit hour; working as a nanny, barista, and in an iPhone case factory,” she told me over email. 

At Reed, Gluesenkamp Perez was a thoughtful, creative student who was active in campus life, a member of Student Senate—and who had a reputation for being down for anything, especially if it involved helping someone. One of her legacies at Reed is a memorial bench that sits in front of the Paradox, made from half of a fallen Doug fir tree on campus. When her boyfriend died before she graduated, she and his friends made the bench to commemorate him and other deceased Reedies. She rallied more than 40 students and faculty members to help haul and saw the 100-year-old tree during finals week in 2012. After 12 hours of pulling a two-man misery whip saw, they cut through. “What has shaded Reed for the past century will hopefully continue to serve its students for the next 100 years,” wrote Reed Magazine at the time. I stopped by the Paradox this spring and took a seat on the bench, stretching my legs all the way out across its width. It  feels smooth and cool, a little worn. Sitting on it, you feel held.

It’s fitting that Gluesenkamp Perez left such a practical monument behind. Ten years into co-owning an auto shop, she champions the trades, and investment in technical education, over getting a college degree. Yet she appreciates her liberal arts education and certainly worked hard to get it. She was driven by a desire to prove herself. “I felt a four-year college degree would serve as some form of validation,” she said.

As an economics major, her thesis interrogated the effectiveness of Portland’s composting system. Advisor Prof. Noelwah Netusil [economics] was struck by Gluesenkamp Perez’s measured approach. “[It was] a very insightful, sophisticated question for someone to be asking, because you can imagine a lot of people being like, of course, it’s good,” Prof. Netusil said. As it turned out, when the program was getting started, Portland lacked the infrastructure to process the compost locally; instead, they were driving it to the Canadian border, leading to increased emissions.

A highlight of her time at Reed was managing the bike co-op; the experience helped spark an interest in right-to-repair legislation. “When I started dating my husband, I was the comanager of the bike co-op, and he was working as a mobile mechanic,” she said. “That was a place for us to bond and gave me a sense of freedom and agency that comes from being able to take care of your own shit.” 

She looks back with some humor at trying to teach practical skills like bike repair to Reedies who embraced a life of the mind. “I will literally never forget trying to teach a physics major how to hold a wrench,” she said of working at the bike co-op. “That really throws into relief where this sort of liberal arts education begins and ends.” 

Since her swearing in, she has made disparaging comments about higher education, including tweeting that “the system needs a total overhaul” before she would back student loan forgiveness. With her dogged support of working families, it sometimes seems like she is pitting people who work in the trades against those with college degrees. Yet when asked for further comment on her statement, she provided an 850-word response with much more nuance. (The response was later sent to her campaign email list with the subject line “This is why I’m in Congress.”) She disagrees, essentially, with the classism higher education can perpetuate, and said changing perceptions of people without college degrees was a major motivator to run for Congress. “When I say the higher education system needs a total overhaul, I mean that we need one that costs less and provides more opportunities for different types of education in different types of fields,” she said. 

Gluesenkamp Perez credits Reed with helping her learn to defend her ideas, and appreciates the value that students placed on hard work (even if it sometimes felt obsessive). “When I was at Reed you weren’t indoctrinated, you were given tools for analyzing what’s in front of you,” she said. She felt her background gave her a different perspective than many students, but she wasn’t afraid to engage with them. “I’m comfortable talking to people when we don’t agree about issues, or we don’t have the same worldview.” 

It’s clear that Gluesenkamp Perez doesn’t believe a liberal arts education should be branded as superior to a trade education, but also that she has benefited from experiencing both. “There’s something to the stochastic art of being a mechanic,”she said. “I could write the best essay about the car being fixed. If it doesn’t run, it doesn’t run.” Still, she keeps books from classes with Prof. Netusil and Prof. Jan Mieszkowski [German], her Hum 110 professor, in her office. A marriage of intellectual curiosity with pragmatic, hands-on experience is ideal in Glusenkamp Perez’s view: “It’s really powerful to have a background in critical analysis and argument, but also, what’s the reality going on around you?” She is a rare politician that embodies that duality in Congress, keeping a foot—or a hand—in both worlds. 

■ ■ ■

In the car between stops during our tour, Gowen passed back a press release on the mifepristone ruling for Gluesenkamp Perez to approve.  (The drug, which is widely used for medical abortions, is the subject of a Supreme Court case about its continued availability after a preliminary overturning of FDA approval. At time of writing, the FDA still approves access for it.) Gluesenkamp Perez had a 103-degree fever when news about the overturning broke. She simply quote-tweeted an announcement from Planned Parenthood with the word “Bastards.” 

Now, she was polishing up a more formal response. The response included mention of her work to reintroduce the the Protecting Reproductive Freedom Act, which gives the FDA authority over abortion medications. She credits her “amazing team” for helping her prioritize what to focus on. Though her staffers were focused and professional, they had the conviviality of a band on tour: they chatted about roofing, the importance of oil changes, and rent prices throughout the ride, sharing chips and jokes in between briefings. It was a little jarring to swing from the silly to the serious so many times. When I asked Gluesenkamp Perez how she kept up with it all—keeping a pulse on both national and local issues while going through her daily life—she simply said, “It’s crazy.”

As dazzled as I was by watching Gluesenkamp Perez move with surety through a dizzying amount of interactions and decisions, I had to remind myself that I was witnessing her on just one day—and it seemed like a good one. I asked if she had disappointed people yet. Had she made anybody mad? Yes, she said, and trailed off. She told me that she asks her advisors all the time if they are overpromising people. She shared an anecdote about a pair of Afghan pilots who visited her office to ask for help bringing over their families, who had been living in hiding from the Taliban for 18 months. The pilots looked “skeletal,” with bags under their eyes. She couldn’t do anything; the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide a path to residency for Afghans who helped the U.S., is stuck in the Senate. “We promised them,” she said. “That was really difficult.” She’s also spoken to a grief counselor for help on processing the emotional whiplash of being a congressperson, and “how to be with people on a human level, because it’s not just political.” 

Beyond being a new politician, Gluesenkamp Perez is a relatively new mom. When I asked how she balanced family life with her new job, I appreciated her realistic answers to my questions, though they were hard to hear: there isn’t balance. There are choices. She prioritizes mornings with her son, and works at night after putting him to bed. On our tour day, she told me that her husband had asked her to stay home for the first time that week, when he and Ciro were sick. She had a scheduled meeting with veterans who would travel from all over the state to see her. She kept the meeting. “That was a low point for me in this whole thing,” she said, “that I couldn’t stay home.” Gowen interjected that Perez had been showered with praise for the meeting by commissioners and mayors who don’t typically support Democrats.

“So it was worth it,” Gowen said. 

“I mean—” Gluesenkamp Perez paused. “You have to ask my husband if he thinks it’s worth it.” Sundays, at least, are for family. 

■ ■ ■

Gluesenkamp Perez keeps moving forward: she’s already campaigning for 2024. Beyond making waves within the party, her win is inspiring people to consider how to get involved in their own neighborhoods, in their own ways. “My students were following her election very closely,” said Prof. Netusil. “I think she has inspired the current Reed students to pursue careers in public policy or to get involved in their communities, whether that’s the school board, volunteer work, or running for elected office. They’re like, wow, she graduated 10 years ago, and she’s in Congress.” 

Speaking to Gluesenkamp Perez a few months into her term, it’s hard to tell if she has enough distance from her own congressional win to advise others on how to pull off what she did. She still shared some thoughts for people looking to enter politics that were both simple and daunting. “Do what you’re good at, and do what you love, and be useful to your community,” she said. Most importantly, don’t wait for an approval or endorsement to act. “No one is going to give you permission to run,” she said, with a bit of an edge to her voice. 

Gluesenkamp Perez’s story might help rewrite the larger narrative of who can win a federal election, and which campaigns deserve attention. “I do feel like we’ve sort of carved this new path and changed the conception of who can get elected and how elections can work,” she said. “And I’m very proud of those things.”

Prof. Netusil recalled a discussion in an econometrics class about the statistics of Gluesenkamp Perez’s predicted chances of winning after FiveThirtyEight, a prominent polling and political website, gave her that two percent chance. Forecasting, Prof. Netusil told her students, can be wrong. “They don’t know Marie like I know Marie,” she said. “And if anyone would have beaten those odds, it would have been Marie.”

Anna Perling ’14 works as an editor and writes about what interests her. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tags: Alumni