ACTIVIST. AUTHOR. SOCCER MOM
Colorado Book Award for Nonfiction
Susan Casey, PhD, is a political scientist, scholar, published author and respected authority in the field of American politics and government. Her writing career began at the age of 17 with her first byline for her hometown weekly paper, the Somersworth Free Press, where she wrote occasional articles about high school life. In the last few decades, her work has appeared in the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, the Daily Camera, the Boston Globe, the Concord (NH) Monitor and the Huffington Post. She is also the author of Hart and Soul, an iconic work about the 1984 presidential primary campaign.
Casey has spent a lifetime in public service. Her 30-year career in politics and government includes serving as a top advisor to presidential candidates Sen. Gary Hart, Sen. Bob Kerrey, Sen. John Kerry, and Gov. Martin O’Malley and serving in elected office as a member of the Denver City Council. In 2003, she was a candidate for mayor of Denver.
Casey has taught at the University of Colorado-Denver Graduate School of Public Affairs and Metropolitan State University of Denver and led an innovative new media project at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
A SOCCER MOM STORY
If you believe Wikipedia, the Boston Herald and the New York Times, Casey will be most remembered as the original soccer mom. “Susan B. Casey may well have coined the first political usage during Denver’s 1995 municipal elections with her slogan ‘A Soccer Mom for City Council.’ ” Neil MacFarquhar, What’s A Soccer Mom Anyway? New York Times , Oct 20, 1996.
Original Soccer Mom Spurs Kick
by Christopher Cox. BOSTON HERALD. October 24, 1996
She is white and college-educated, lives in a middle-class suburb, tries to balance family with career as she races through life in a minivan. She is, of course, the “soccer mom,” the Beltway catch phrase of the moment and the to-bribe-for voting bloc of the presidential campaign.
She appears to be the creation of Somersworth, N.H., native Susan B. Casey, 46, who won a Denver election last year running on the slogan, “A Soccer Mom for City Council.””Most of my life is organized around my children,” said Casey, who has spent much of her parental time shuttling daughter Jennie and son Conor to soccer practices and games. “That’s who I was. It was really just a way to communicate to other people who I was.”
Casey, who has lived in Denver for a decade, was no neophyte when she entered the City Council contest. New Hampshire political junkies will remember her as an organizer for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign. She was also a high-level paid staffer in Gary Hart’s two bids for the White House and wrote the 1986 political tome, “Hart and Soul.”
Despite her political pedigree, Casey wanted the voters of her middle-class district to know she cared most about the homefront. Thus was born Soccer Mom. A search on the Lexis-Nexis database shows the term’s first political usage was during her campaign. “We arrange our lives around our kids and support them,” said Casey. “I wanted people to understand that. I’ve been a teacher, I have a Ph.D., I’ve managed national presidential campaigns, but when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night, my heart and soul are in my family.”
Soccer Mom’s spiritual mentor is Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher who turned an opponent’s dismissive description of her – “Just a mom in tennis shoes” – into a winning campaign slogan in 1992.) In June 1995, Casey won the Denver seat by narrowly defeating political newcomer Tom Tayon.
Her interests still extend beyond the range of a minivan. She spent the last week in Albania as an election observer. There is no Balkan equivalent to Soccer Mom, she reported in a phone interview from Tirana, the capital: “They’re too busy trying to find water and transport it back to their village and trying to find food.”
Casey’s calling card remained dormant until this past July, when Time magazine described Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “soccer mom.” Faster than you could say “Ebola virus,” the term had infected the media. By Labor Day, the outbreak was full-blown. Newsweek had run a story titled “The Fight Over Soccer Moms.” Reporters began dutifully trekking to the ‘burbs to interview real-life “soccer moms.” The Observer explained the term to its British readers; it’s only a matter of time before Parliament panders to “cricket moms.”
Casey refuses to take credit for the phenomenal phrase, which pundits, pollsters, spinmeisters and candidates now use as shorthand to describe a certain demographic thought to be the “swing vote” come Election Day. “You are trying to find a descriptive way of identifying voter groups you really care about,” said Boston University communication professor Tobe Berkovitz, who lectures on political campaign advertising. “You find a cool word that describes the milieu of the time and the target. And man, oh man, ‘soccer mom’ is it.”
It is pretty heady stuff being the target voter du jour. Soccer Mom is right up there with the Silent Majority and the Angry White Male. Why, she’s bigger than Bubba, a Southern political animal. “The great thing about ‘soccer mom’ is it doesn’t matter geographically where the suburb is,” Berkovitz said. “It is a demographic that cuts across geographic lines. It is essentially a suburban mom, and there are ‘burbs everywhere.” If the term has national resonance it might be because it shows the priority parents place on their children.
“That was my campaign message,” said Casey, “and I think the use of it now is that ordinary folks are concerned about the day-to-day lives of their families, and not political battles or ideology or partisanship. It’s what makes sense for ordinary folks living day to day. That’s what this election will be decided on.”
WARM BUT TOUGH: After decades in politics, Sue Casey hopes to become Denver’s first female mayor
By William Porter. DENVER POST. January 19, 2003
And when your resume includes a stint as campaign manager for one of the more notorious crash-and-burn presidential runs in the modern era, you learn something about political toughness.When you grow up in a New England mill town in a working-class family of eight, you learn something about dreaming and scrambling. At 53 Susan Casey figures she can draw on those lessons in her bid to be Denver’s first female mayor.
“We have seven people running for the job, and those are long odds,” says Casey, who served six years on the City Council before resigning a year ago. “But Federico Pena and Wellington Webb were longshots before they were elected as mayors. I’m looking forward to defying the odds myself.” The former social worker, who shares a house in the Washington Park neighborhood with her husband, Terry, plans a campaign whose roots tap her New Hampshire upbringing.
Born in 1949 – part of the first wave of baby boomers – Casey grew up in Somersworth, N.H., a town of 10,000 people wedged into a toe of land that dips into the Atlantic Ocean. (To this day, she delights in surprising people with the who-knew fact that the Granite State has beaches.)Casey’s father, John Berry, was Irish. Her mother, Philomena Mucciolo, was the daughter of immigrants who came from villages near Salerno, Italy. A few years ago Casey backtracked their journey from Ellis Island to Italy, armed with two photographs and about as many words of Italian. “It was a real roots journey, but I found them,” she says with pride.
Somersworth sits about 18 miles from the ocean on the Salmon Falls River, right on the Maine border. In the 19th century, the waterfalls that gave the river its name powered a string of textile outfits – chiefly bleaching operations – perched along the riverbanks.The mills eventually shuttered, giving way to other industries. In Casey’s childhood, a General Electric plant and a shoe factory were the big employers.
Casey’s mother, who died three weeks ago, worked in the shoe factory. It was piecework, where workers earned a dime for every bit of sewing. She later switched to an insurance agency, and as a town polling-place clerk, gave her middle child an early glimpse of politics. “They were real people,” Casey says.Her father worked in a grocery store, unpacking produce and cutting meat. Casey was in the middle of a six-child family made up of two boys and four girls.
Money was tight. “We never went to bed hungry, and there was a roof over our heads,” Casey says. “There wasn’t much beyond that, however. But my mom could make a sack of flour go a long way.”She remembers her mom as a terrific cook – a recipe for Philomena’s meatball sauce adorns Casey’s campaign literature. “But my dad being Irish, she had to do the boiled dinner, too,” she adds with a laugh. The eight-member family’s weekly menu looked like this: Sunday was roast beef, courtesy of her dad’s butcher counter. Monday was warmed-over roast. Tuesday was hash. Wednesday was pasta. Thursday – see Wednesday. Friday was fish, the family being observant Catholics in Holy Trinity Parish. Saturday saw beans and hot dogs.
Visiting neighbors could tell what day it was when they walked into the house, if for no other reason than that their tables mirrored the one at Casey’s house. “Although every so often Sunday would be lasagna day,” Casey says.
She attended the parish grammar school, one of 34 students scattered between grades 1-8.Casey was a good student whose knuckles apparently escaped the ruler. “You know, I was never scared of the nuns,” she says. “I loved them. I thought they were magical. I admit this might not be the opinion of everyone who went to parochial school in the 1950s.” Her mom wanted the kids to experience music, so for two years Casey was packed off to piano lessons at the local convent. “For 50 cents a week, Sister Barbara, who was about a gazillion years old, taught me piano,” Casey says. “It didn’t take.”
During her teen years in the 1960s, urban renewal arrived in Somersworth. Town plans threatened the grocery, so Casey’s father embarked on a pre-emptive job hunt. He found one with the just-launched New Hampshire state lottery, where he marketed the game store-to-store. “It was a very big deal for our family,” Casey says. “He went from a guy in a grocery store to a state employee. There was a salary and benefits. It made a huge difference.”
Casey landed her first job at 13. She was tapped by the town librarian to serve as a worker shelving books. This was viewed as an honor among Somersworth kiddom, a sign of worthiness in adult eyes. The person selected held the post through high school. The job paid 50 cents an hour, Casey’s sole source of money. But the job was much more than the small check that was banked for college. “It was really a transforming experience, because it was the first time I had met a woman who was a professional and had gone to college, except for teachers,” Casey says. “The library was a place where people read and talked about ideas, and I got to meet the people in town who did that.”
Casey went from an enthusiastic reader of Nancy Drew mysteries to a young woman who devoured everything sporting a Dewey decimal number. Anne Crist served as librarian for the Somersworth Public Library. She was the woman who singled out Casey and hired her. Now retired, she recalls a hard-working girl whose family was well-known in the working-class community. “Sue was a very good worker who was a self-starter,” Crist recalls. “She could see what needed to be done and did it without being told.” The library became a home away from home for the teenager. “In a way she sort of grew up in the library,” Crist says. “She started coming there when she was little, and by her teens she was doing her homework and essays there after she was through shelving books.”
In 1967, Casey graduated from high school. She applied to the University of New Hampshire, calculating it was the best school she could afford. Casey studied to become a social worker.”Back then in small-town New Hampshire, it was still like the 1950s,” Casey says. “I didn’t know what you did other than become a teacher or nurse or social worker. “But I liked the idea of being a social worker and changing the world and helping people, not that I had a clue what a social worker was,” she says.
Like other U.S. campuses in the last years of the 1960s, the University of New Hampshire saw its share of protest against the war in Vietnam. Casey threw herself into it. “I knew guys from college and my hometown who were killed in Vietnam,” she says. “I remember the candlelight vigils where we took turns reciting the names of boys who had been killed recently. She remembers sitting with her girlfriends on the night the lottery was announced, each with a list of birthdays of the young men they knew, comparing them to the lottery numbers.”The draft lottery and the fear of someone having to go was a direct presence in our lives.” One of those boys was a guy she’d grown up named Terry Casey. He was spared a trip to Vietnam, and they married the year after her college graduation. They’ve been married 30 years.
Casey has a reputation as a political activist. Her council tenure in Denver was marked with lobbying for ethics standards for city workers and citizen oversight of police activities. “In every community we’ve lived in, she has always been involved in a variety of political or social issues,” says Terry, an investment banker. “It’s just something she has taken an abiding interest in.” While it may be tempting to make the counterculture connection, Casey says her campus days found her conflicted about how far to take protest. “In my junior year, students were marching on Washington and shutting down campuses,” she says. “I didn’t participate as much as I wanted to, because I didn’t want the school to shut down. I didn’t want to lose my credits. I was a little torn about those things.”
Casey’s rearview mirror does not have rose-tinted glass. But when she recalls the ’60s, she is struck by how visceral the politics seemed then. “Compared with today, politics then seemed so real,” she says. “It wasn’t 30-second sound bites.” For all the campus vigils, Casey was a novice about the art of politics. She did not see politics as the province of the working class, the culture she sprang from.”It seemed more like something for rich, elite people,” she says. “One of my dormmates was majoring in political science. I had to ask her what that was.”
After graduation, Casey got married and embarked on her career as a social worker. She entered the University of Connecticut, earned a master’s in her field and settled in Westport with her husband and young family: daughter Jennifer, now 25 and an ex-teacher aiding the Casey for Mayor campaign; and Conor, 21, an ex-Olympian and soccer pro in Germany, a kid credited by several sources with inspiring the term “soccer mom.”
Friends describe Casey as a whip-smart woman of varied interests, possessed of curiosity and engaged with the world. Kate Dickstein met Casey 25 years ago when both worked at the same junior high school in Westport, Conn. Casey was the social worker; Dickstein taught special ed. Dickstein says she was struck by the commitment Casey brought to the job. “Sue was just incredibly impressive,” Dickstein says. “She would identify a problem, whether it was with the kid or the family unit, and went about solving it. “It wasn’t in her job description to do home visits, but if she felt that’s what was needed, she’d make them,” she says. “She went out of her way for people.”
Dickstein recalls how Casey spearheaded a drive to bring a professional day-care center to Westport. At the time, there were only a handful of providers – all small operations run out of living rooms.Casey lobbied for funds, found a vacant school to house the facility and made sure child-care specialists were hired as staff. “As an activist, she doesn’t just talk about it, she does it,” Dickstein says. “I have tremendous admiration for her.”
The Caseys returned to New Hampshire and built a house. “We did it ourselves,” she says. “We poured the footings, milled the lumber, put up the siding, everything. We did it with the help of a few friends over 2 1/2 years.”
The Caseys stayed politically involved, with Sue working on state campaigns. In 1983 a friend asked a favor. The friend was Jeanine Shaheen, a fellow Democrat and future New Hampshire governor. The favor: Help Shaheen run the crucial state primary campaign for a U.S. senator and presidential candidate from Colorado. The politician’s name was Gary Hart.
He recalls helping recruit her into the the first Hart presidential campaign. “I was at a breakfast meeting sorting out the New Hampshire strategy, and being told by someone who knew that state’s politics that if we were going to do anything in the state, we needed to call this woman named Sue Casey who was supposed to be a real idea person.” Bill Shore, who worked with Casey on Hart’s campaigns and runs Share Our Strength, the Washington, D.C.-based relief organization, lauds a “gutsy, plain-spoken woman who tells it like it is and is driven by public service, not politics.”
Hart’s 1984 run did not pan out, but it put him on the national map. And the dark-horse campaign, run with considerable grass-roots vigor, inspired Casey to write “Hart and Soul,” an account brimming with heady optimism. Hart regrouped for a 1988 White House run, and the Caseys moved to Denver in 1986 so Sue could work in the headquarters, where she would be assistant campaign manager. “We had already fallen in love with this place, and there was never any question that we were going to wind up here,” Casey says. Things were working out so well. And then …
In 1987, Hart was rolling. But that spring reporters began sniffing out stories that Hart, married for years, was philandering. Were the stories true? Nope, Hart said, challenging the media to follow him around and see for themselves. Reporters from the Miami Herald did just that. In May, the now-famous photo of Hart was snapped with a leggy young woman named Donna Rice perched on his lap. They were sitting dockside in front of a pleasure boat named Monkey Business. Hart quit the race in the uproar’s wake.
Hart’s exit ‘devastating’
Casey still finds it hard to talk about those days. “It was devastating for everybody,” she says, her voice trailing off. Six months after leaving the race, Hart re-entered the campaign, with Casey as campaign manager. The run proved quixotic. By spring, clobbered in the early primaries, Hart bowed out for good. Michael Dukakis wound up as the Democrats’ presidential nominee. A Republican, George H.W. Bush, wound up in the White House.
“It was an absolutely brutal time for all of us,” Shore says. “We were just devastatingly disappointed. I remember taking a five-seater plane back to Colorado with Gary and Lee (Hart’s wife), and Sue and I. The Harts hardly said a word, so we just sat there and every now and then a tear would roll down our faces.” Sitting in a South Pearl Street coffee shop, Casey curls her hands around a mug of java and talks about forgiveness, regret and how the Harts are “still family to us.” She also talks about the lesson she took away from the Hart debacle. “If you’re in politics, you know that anything – and I mean anything – can vanish in a day,” says Casey, who also served as manager for Sen. Bob Kerry’s brief 1992 presidential run.
Casey’s own foray into politics began with a successful run for the southeast District 6 council seat in 1995, which was followed by re-election in 1999. Charlie Brown holds the seat today. He was elected after Casey resigned in February. Her resignation a year ago, made in the wake of new laws imposing council term limits, brought mixed reactions. Casey’s supporters praised the move, saying it will prevent a wholesale turnover in experienced council hands. Councilman Ted Hackworth, who often butted heads with Casey, sees things differently. “I guess I’m disappointed in Sue in that she got elected and then resigned,” Hackworth says. “You shouldn’t do that, especially if your excuse is saying, ‘I want to write a book and learn Spanish.’ From a character standpoint that bothers me,” he says. “You have a contract with the people.”
But Casey counters that her decision to leave office in February 2001 was a function of the new term-limits ordinance. Casey says she acted to give her district a chance to tap a new representative who could gain two years experience and then be eligible to run for re-election in May.
Casey wants to be the mayor who works with that new council. With the election in May, her campaign’s core issues include improvements in education, transit, housing and public safety.”One thing I truly believe is that ordinary people can make a difference,” Casey says. “This campaign is going to be deeply oriented to the community.” So she’s out on the meet-and-greet circuit, shaking hands, talking with everyone from students to seniors. As was her custom during her council years, her morning walks are often in the company of constituents – or these days, would-be constituents.
Susan Barnes-Gelt, who worked with Casey on the ethics bill, says the two were joined at the political hip during Casey’s tenure. “We were very close,” she says. “After that ethics bill fight we were known around city hall as the black-eyed Susans. I had enormous confidence in her thoroughness and competence.” But Barnes-Gelt says Casey’s resignation stung. “I’m still bothered by it,” she says. For now, she says, she is standing neutral on the mayor’s race.
Hackworth says he likes Casey on a personal level, noting that “she’s a very nice lady and easy to talk to.” But he adds that what common ground they share seems to end at the council chamber doors. Hackworth says he often found himself puzzled by the issues she chose to champion. “She pushed really hard for the ethics code, and I frankly didn’t think it was the most pressing issue this city had on the table,” Hackworth says. “I think that debate used up time and energy that would have been better-spent on several other things that really needed to be addressed.”
With a campaign against six other mayoral opponents just heating up, Casey says she is learning once again how much time gets hoovered up by a run for office. “It really does get incredibly busy,” she says. How much time Casey will have for her other passions is up in the air. An avid bicyclist, hiker and snowshoer, Casey adores the Indian Peaks Wilderness area west of Boulder. Rocky Mountain National Park is also a favorite haunt, especially the moraine lakes. “On weekends if I’m not in the mountains on either Saturday or Sunday, it’s a lost weekend,” Casey says.
With the campaign heating up, Casey might feel lucky just to get in her reading. Favorite novelists include Tim O’Brien and Richard Russo. Other interests include black-and-white photography – she has her own darkroom – and writing. And she is likely the only mayoral candidate who can rattle off the names of players on European soccer teams. “I’m a soccer maniac,” she says.
Friends say she’ll run a strong campaign. “There’s not a phony bone in her body,” Dickstein says. “What you see is what you get. She cares deeply about people, but she’s not soft or mushy at all.”Dickstein says there is a steeliness to Casey. She can radiate warmth, but she can also project a tensile toughness. “I think she got that from her mother, who was a strong and independent woman,” she says. “She’s extremely kind and caring, but she’s nobody’s fool. She knows people and understands them very well.”