Ohio is home for Hillary O'Connor Mueri. She was born in Parma and moved to Painesville at three years old. She's a graduate of Ohio State University and entered the Navy as a Buckeye ROTC midshipman in 1996.
To her, it made perfect sense to run for Congress at home, in Ohio's 14th Congressional District. And she believes she has the perfect resume for it.
"This is where I'm from," she told Military.com. "This is where I call home. My parents still live in the house I grew up in."
But running in her home district also opens her up to intense media scrutiny in front of her lifelong friends and family. With the election still nine months away, she's already seen her opponent and his allies come out hard against her in local media. Like many veterans, she presses on, confident in her abilities. She never thought this would be easy, she says.
"Growing up, I always thought that politics was something wealthy people did. So it was never, you know, an ambition of mine," she explains. "And I think we really need to change that narrative. We need to make the House for the people again, to make this something that everyone can aspire to."
That aspiration is just one reason Mueri, a lawyer and former naval flight officer, decided to run for Congress. She felt a desire to serve early in her adult life, while studying aviation engineering. She wanted to use her love for all things aircraft to serve her country, especially after realizing she'd rather be flying planes than building them, she says.
Her grandfathers were both in the Navy, but they died before she was born. Still, the tradition of service, and the Navy in particular, resonated with Mueri. For her, landing on aircraft carriers meant she could always fly on the cutting edge of aviation technology.
As a naval flight officer, she was the backseater in the F-14D Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet, F/A-18F Super Hornet and F-16B Fighting Falcon. In the Tomcat, her role was radar intercept officer, but was called weapons systems officer in the other three airframes.
"Tomcats forever. First love," she says. "All the other aircraft have amazing characteristics, but there's something about the F-14 that's just gonna stick with me."
Her career took her to train in Pensacola and to the carrier Theodore Roosevelt. In 2003, she flew Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance missions supporting ground troops in northern Iraq from the Roosevelt. She later became an instructor at what was then the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center's (now known as Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center) Strike school at Nevada's Naval Air Station Fallon.
She left the Navy in 2007 with the rank of Lieutenant after getting engaged to her future husband, Simon Mueri. When he was transferred to San Diego, she went too. While there, she struggled with finding meaningful work as a civilian and decided to go to law school. Graduating in 2010, she was hired by the prestigious firm of Perkins Coie in Los Angeles.
Eventually, it was time to move home to be near her family in Ohio. But running for office wasn't her first thought. She saw an ad for Emily's List, a reproductive rights organization that supports women running for office. There was something about the idea of running that stuck with Mueri the same way the Tomcat did.
"Watching how chaotic our government has gotten, how it turned from service and lawmaking into partisan bickering, I couldn't sit on the sidelines anymore," she said. "In the military, we talk about the Constitution and how service is so valuable. I want to bring that back to the House. The House of Representatives is the people's house, and I want to be able to affect real change for everyday people."
Part of that dedication to service is why she thinks more veterans should run for office. She believes veterans have a "country first, mission first" outlook that drives them from day to day, regardless of political party.
"It's about identifying what needs to get done and getting it done," she said. "So you learn how to work as a team and ignore the distinctions between you. I think having more veterans with that perspective focused on the greater good, instead of about the petty day-to-day things, we're going to be able to really accomplish a lot that is solely for the benefit of the country."
But it isn't easy. Running for office is almost a 24/7 job, with nearly limitless pulls on the candidate's attention. Being a veteran is also good preparation for those problems, she says. The 24/7 mentality is strong with most military members, and the demands of military life are great practice for balancing priorities. What most veterans probably aren't prepared for is suddenly being in the spotlight.
"Suddenly, you have to realize that there will be a larger amount of attention paid to what you do, as opposed to going about your everyday life," Mueri said. "That takes some getting used to."
In her situation, allegations were made by the Ohio Republican Party that, while she was transitioning to civilian life and moving from Nevada to California in 2008, she requested an absentee ballot from the state of Ohio and voted in two primary elections.
The allegations were debunked in a statement from Ohio's Lake County Board of Elections, clarifying that, while it mailed her a ballot, she never sent it in. The incident received media coverage in newspapers and television stations from Cleveland to Akron, no small thing when running for office in your hometown.
"You're very exposed," she said. "It's shocking to see that sort of thing sprung on you. In the end, you have to let it roll off your back and keep moving forward as long as you have the truth on your side. And I do, so I just have to carry on being myself."
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at email@example.com.
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