Jessica Fitzwater, a public school music teacher in Frederick County, Md., is about to finish her second four-year term as a county council member. Finishing with 58 percent of the vote in a three-way Democratic primary, she is now running to replace the current term-limited county executive.
The 38-year-old widowed mother of two small children has taken a leave of absence from her teaching job to focus on the race. But her background in education informs her policies and politics. “Not only is public education a core function of government,” she says, “but it also brings more high paying jobs, more business investment and more families that want to move to your community. It has a ripple effect on almost everything else that you’re trying to accomplish as a community.”
The new county executive will be sworn in less than a month from now, leaving little time for a transition. “If I am lucky enough to win, once I’m officially county executive there is no stopping,” Jessica says. “The budget process for this fiscal year really has already started … . In January, we have to go to New York to defend our AAA bond rating … . The [state] General Assembly session starts in Annapolis. It’s going to be hitting the ground running for sure.”
With only a few days to go before the election, Governing spent a day on the campaign trail with the candidate as she worked for votes.
At 7:40 in the morning, Jessica’s first task is to get the kids to their schools before heading out to greet voters on the last day of early voting.
On her first stop of the day, the candidate chooses a polling place where access to voters is easier than at other locations. “I’m Jessica,” she says to everyone who walks past. “I’m the Democratic nominee for county executive. I don’t know if you’ve made your mind up, but I’d love to earn your vote.”
Jessica agrees to meet a local reporter who is writing a story outlining the candidates’ views on the issues. Before the interview begins, she learns that her opponent has received his questions in advance. “I’m not OK with not being on a level playing field,” she says. “If he is answering via email, then I would like to do that as well.” The reporter agrees to accept her written response by 8 p.m. that night.
Before noon, Jessica stops in at headquarters to meet with Campaign Manager Malcolm Bates, her only full-time staff member. Part-time consultants help with fundraising, direct mail and media. The campaign office rents space above a Starbucks in the city of Frederick.
Malcolm and Jessica discuss the best way to use a flurry of late donations. “I’m going to spend every nickel between now and Tuesday morning that we have,” says Jessica. “We’re utilizing it for the best kind of targeted and direct voter outreach as we can.”
At 1 p.m. Jessica, Malcolm and a team of volunteers meet up in a local Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. Before they split up to canvass the neighborhood, Jessica records a quick video message, thanking “everybody who has knocked on doors, made phone calls and texted folks, making sure that people know … how important it is to vote.”
Armed with data telling them where the likely voters live, Jessica and her team move through the neighborhood block by block.
When no one answers, the candidate carefully writes a quick message on a campaign flyer before leaving it at the door. “Sorry I missed you, Jessica.”
“I love getting out and knocking on doors,” says Jessica. “And sometimes you just never know if you’re the person that’s going to convince somebody to vote.”
At 4 p.m. Jessica makes an appearance at a shovel ceremony for a local tech incubator, listening to speeches and posing for pictures with other public officials.
The last event of the day is a “young professionals happy hour” at a trendy bar. “For goodness sake, we must elect sane people who actually care about our kids and education,” she tells the crowd. “There are still ways that you can help. We are going to be out knocking on doors all weekend, talking to folks who haven’t voted yet. Making sure that they have a plan to vote on Tuesday.”
After most of the party guests have left, Jessica and Malcolm check over her answers to the reporter’s questions from their early-morning encounter.
The candidate finally heads home after a long day.