Kelli Dunaway Challenging Ann Wagner: First Impressions
An Article by the Occasional Planet
By Gloria Shur Bilchik | Published August 6th
Kelli Dunaway introduced herself to a small, informal group of progressive-minded Democrats last week and, as she told her jaw-dropping origin story, made a strong first impression.
Dunaway has decided to challenge entrenched, right-wing Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District in the 2018 election. It’s going to be an uphill climb: Wagner is a carefully scripted conservative with lots of money behind her and a district drawn for Republican dominance. She has easily beaten back every Democratic challenger in the past three election cycles.
But Dunaway [she’s running as “Kelli for Congress”] may have the best chance so far, among several other Democrats [all male] who will be on the primary ballot with her. If the man currently in the White House continues to alienate Republican party leaders—and even, perhaps, a portion of his base—and if 2nd District voters wake up to Wagner’s unwillingness to talk to her constituents, and to her lock-step support of the increasingly unpopular Trump—Dunaway could find a path to victory.
But it will take more than a D behind her name to secure the win. She will need to be seen as a clear alternative. She’ll have to be well-funded. And she’ll have to be perceived not as the typical Democratic long-shot, but as someone who can win.
After meeting with her for nearly two hours, I can say that she has the potential to be all those things. She is fired up. She is determined. She strongly supports the pillars of the progressive agenda. And she comes across—in contrast to the cardboard and reclusive Wagner—as an authentic and open person who has lived a real life loaded with tough challenges.
I knew nothing about Dunaway when she first walked in the door of the coffee shop where our group met her. She seemed like a regular, relatable human being [already an advantage over Wagner], who we learned is a lawyer with a large St. Louis-area firm and lives in suburban St. Louis with her two young children.
Then, we heard her astonishing life story, and we began to realize the spunk and determination that have gotten her to this point and that could propel her to a seat in the U.S. Congress.
Dunaway’s challenges started early in life, when her parents divorced—her father moved out without leaving a forwarding address. To support the family, her mother took a job as a coal miner in Southern Illinois. When she was in high school, Dunaway was in a car accident that left her paralyzed and in a wheelchair [in a high school that did not accommodate wheelchairs.] Told that she would never walk again, Dunaway fought her way out, and two years later, was able to walk using a cane, on which she still relies.
In college, she traveled to Egypt. “That changed my life,” she says. “I saw women who were treated as property. I realized that, as an American woman, I could do anything.”
She earned a law degree at UCLA. She took the Foreign Service Exam and considered a career as a diplomat. She got fired up when Barack Obama declared his candidacy for president and took a leadership job in his California campaign organization. She was a field trainer for the Courage Campaign for marriage equality. She got married, moved to St. Louis, had two kids and then divorced.