What I Learned
Congressional Candidate Kendall Qualls reflects on how influencing black communities doesn’t necessarily have to come from an office in the U.S. Capital
It was maybe 9 p.m. on election night when a campaign consultant came into our war room at the Bloomington Hilton to tell me that the Associated Press was about to declare incumbent Dean Phillips, my opponent, as the winner in the election for representative of Minnesota’s Third Congressional District.
The news arrived much earlier and with a wider margin than any of us anticipated. I woke up that morning thinking that either of us might win by something like three points. Polling showed that Phillips initially defeated a “generic” Republican by 52-40. But when poll respondents heard that I was an African American candidate who had bootstrapped himself from childhood poverty to the military and had a successful career as a health care executive—and that I wanted to focus on health care policy—my support jumped to 47 percent. And Phillips slipped from 52 to 47. I had prepared election night speeches covering either result.
That night, I had been splitting my time between visiting the party faithful in the hotel ballroom and my “war room” suite upstairs filled with family, personal guests and key campaign employees. As I pulled out the concession speech, I thought briefly about why I had entered the race at all. I never set out to be a politician. But I thought it was dangerous when this new Congress was sworn in with liberal leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar openly calling for socialism and calling our country racist. We have racists in our country, but we’re not a racist country—and that’s a very important distinction. I heard no one locally condemning those comments. Dean Phillips said nothing.
I had heard an interview in which Omar incredibly compared ISIS and Al Qaeda to the U.S. Army. It was such an egregious statement, and no one called her out on it. That was the tipping point for me.
I spent four years in the Army Reserve in college and five years afterwards on active duty as an artillery officer. My father spent 25 years in the Army. My father-in-law spent 30 years in the Army. My brothers and brothers-in-law all served. My son, Jonathan, is fourth generation Army.
When I approached the ballroom mic, I saw disappointment in the faces of the volunteers who had worked so hard for my campaign, especially the young ones—the high school and college students who had volunteered hours and hours knocking on doors and waving signs on street corners. I did my best to keep a positive spin for their sake and for the staff. I had a clear emotional sense that this fight is not over yet. You only lose the fight when you decide not to stand back up. I knew there was more to do. This is a transformational time in Minnesota and in America. My role in helping to shape that future didn’t necessarily have to operate from an office in the U.S. Capitol.
I was surprised at how my personal background—my unalterable commitment to family, faith, education and the military—made such a meaningful connection with so many voters throughout the campaign.
My parents divorced in 1968, soon after my father came home from the Vietnam War. My mother bought six tickets for a Greyhound bus that would take her and her five children closer to her parents. We moved from our home in Fort Campbell, Kentucky to Harlem in New York City. I was only five years old, about to enter first grade, but I still remember it vividly. We got off the Greyhound at Grand Central Station and boarded a city bus to 125th Street in Harlem. We were just three blocks from my grandparents’ apartment building when we got a real introduction to our new neighborhood. We got robbed. A man, an obvious drug addict, accosted my mother in broad daylight and demanded all her money.
I still remember my mother saying, “Please, mister. This is all the money I have. I have five kids here.” Another man, leaning against a nearby building, told her to give up. “Lady, you’d better give him all your money,” he said. “He doesn’t care if you have five kids or 10 kids.” Harlem in thosedays was an epicenter for drugs and violence. We experienced what it feels like to live in a place where they defund the police.
As a kid in elementary school, I remember having to fight two or three days a week just to defend myself. I never knew what would happen after school on my way to the public housing project where we lived, or what would happen once I got there. We lived on the 10th floor, and half the time, the elevator didn’t work. But merely walking up 10 flights wasn’t what we feared. The stairways were dark because the heroin junkies would knock out the light bulbs. We’d have to navigate around them on our way up the stairs, never quite sure what we would encounter.
But walking into our apartment was like experiencing sunlight after leaving a dark cave. The place always smelled like Pine-Sol. My mom was a woman from Savannah, Georgia who believed that cleanliness is close to godliness. She used to say that just because you live in a place like this doesn’t mean that you have to live like you’re from a place like this. We didn’t have a lot, but what we did have was clean and tidy. My mom worked really hard, but even as young kids, we knew that the stress of raising five kids all by herself was taking a toll. We could see the anxiety on her face every night when she put us to bed.
Harlem’s street culture started to absorb my older brothers and sisters. After a couple of years, my father came and took my younger brother and me to live with him in Oklahoma. He was still a drill sergeant there. All he could afford was a small trailer in the trailer park. So, that was my start in life.
But the neat thing about America is that where you start in life is not where you have to stay in life. I wanted my life to change, and I knew that it all started with education. I worked full time all through college. I delivered pizzas from 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. and got up at 7 a.m. for class. Money was tight. There were times when I had only about $2 left to put in my gas tank for the week. I joined the Army Reserve in college. Because I was in ROTC, I got commissioned as a second lieutenant when I was 19 years old. I had men reporting to me that were my father’s age. I received leadership development from the United States Army, an organization that’s been training leaders for over 200 years. After I graduated, I went on active duty as an artillery officer. And after that role, I got promoted to captain, and the Army sent me to South Korea, right on the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I got out of the Army. Both my father and my father-in-law were men from the Jim Crow South. They believed the Army was the only place in America where a black man could earn a living and be treated with respect, dignity and fairness. I also learned that lesson in the Army. One of my first drill instructors told me that when it comes to race, we’re all the same color, Army green. We work as a team. There are no individuals.
That lesson has served me well throughout my career: Focus on objectives that are larger than ourselves. Everyone has value; everyone can contribute to the team. I’ve used that Army wisdom to hone my leadership skills all throughout my civilian career.
As I thought about a career outside of the Army, I felt that because I was black, I wanted to become more prepared and better qualified than my peers. I earned a master’s degree while I was in the Army, and two years later, I acquired another MBA. Then I got my third master’s degree, this one from the University of Michigan, about 10 years ago.
I started in the pharmaceutical industry with Johnson & Johnson, an industry that does a phenomenal job of training. I started in sales, got promoted to sales management, and then got transferred to the home office in New Jersey for marketing. I was, this kid from Harlem, managing a $95 million budget, an hour away from where a drug addict held us up when I was five years old. That can only happen in the United States of America. I don’t tell my story here to pat myself on the back. It never would have happened if there weren’t people in my personal and professional life—white and black, rich and poor, male and female—who mentored and coached me along the way.
The value of my story became more obvious to me throughout the campaign. And from that I grew to understand the cultural value of story-telling from one generation to the next, particularly in America’s black communities.
My wife, Sheila, and I have five kids, between the ages of 16- 27. It’s possible that they learned more about me during the campaign than in the entire time they were growing up. They knew my background, but not some of the nuances about the isolation of living in poverty, being abandoned by my father, and eventually moving to a trailer park with him. They were surprised by the reaction to my background from the crowds and the supporters.
I was humbled at how receptive people were to our campaign messages. At first, we expected only a handful of people to attend the meet-and-greets we hosted in conference rooms and local libraries. But the crowds grew to 30, then 50. More than 300 people showed up when we opened our campaign office. Some people responded to my speech with tears in their eyes and told me about how they overcame rough starts in their lives. It was not unusual for people to stick around as long as 45 minutes after a meeting to relate their own stories or just to say hello and take a picture.
This experience convinced me of the transformational power of personal American stories, particularly across generations, and led directly to the creation of TakeCharge Minnesota.