Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden are best friends. Both lost young sons on one of the most violent days in recent US history. Both have spent the past five years working to stop gun violence and improve school safety. And next week, they’ll announce whether one of them will be running for Congress.
Hockley’s son, Dylan, and Barden’s son, Daniel, were among the 26 children and staff murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. In the wake of that tragedy, they’ve tirelessly worked for gun reform and safer schools as the leaders of Sandy Hook Promise, a grassroots organization that trains educators, students, and parents to identify the signs of violence and intervene before it occurs.
Their high-profile activism recently caught the attention of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which asked if either of them would consider a run for Congress in Connecticut’s 5th district, which includes Newtown. The seat abruptly opened up this month when the incumbent, Democrat Elizabeth Esty, announced she would not seek reelection. Esty’s decision followed reports that she’d continued employing her chief of staff, and recommended him for a job with Sandy Hook Promise, after learning he had allegedly threatened a former staffer’s life.
In the days since the DCCC reached out, Barden and Hockley have been consulting with party leadership in Connecticut and Washington, and the two activists say they are in the process of deciding between themselves who might be best suited for elected office. They’ve already made one key decision: They won’t run against each other—just one, or perhaps neither, will join the race. If either of them does announce a run next week, they would enter a midterm election that has already been shaped to an unusual extent by the gun debate. But as they weigh the possibilities of acquiring policy-making powers, both are thinking carefully about what they’d leave behind—a partnership and a legacy of nonpartisan activism that has made progress where Congress often could not.
“We’ve been on this upward trajectory, regardless of the political climate—we’re a nonpartisan, non-political group,” Hockley told Mother Jones. “To move from that to being a public servant and a government official is a very significant shift.”
For half a decade, Barden and Hockley have been driving forces behind a movement that was born out of the tragedy that took their children’s lives. Sandy Hook Promise—along with Shannon Watt’s Moms Demand Action, Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ foundation—provided much of the policy and organizing expertise behind the outburst of activism that followed February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Unlike many of its allies, Sandy Hook Promise has built an unusual reputation for transcending political divides. While less focused than some of its partner organizations on firearms restrictions, the group has supported tougher background checks and federal funding for gun violence research, as well as mental health and criminal justice reform initiatives. Since its founding, it’s helped pass two pieces of federal legislation aimed at improving the climate in schools. It was the only gun safety organization present at a White House event in February that brought together survivors and families affected by shootings.
“The skills that Mark and I both have on this issue are the ability to create common ground,” Hockley says. “It’s kind of going back to old school politics, when politicians used to reach across the aisle and work more together.”
They also share a depth of knowledge on the subject and a knack for breaking down complex policy into layman’s terms—skills honed over years as reluctant experts on gun violence. Hockley’s talents were on full display during her trip to Washington this week, when she shared Sandy Hook Promise’s achievements with a school safety forum hosted by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R).
The organization’s success, Hockley says, stems in large part from the way it prioritizes education and coalition-building over lobbying. The group has trained more than 3.5 million people to prevent school violence and is operating in more than 7,000 schools in all 50 states. “What we do is teach people about gun violence in a non-polarizing way,” she explains. “If you go in on the policy element only, people take sides too quickly. We go in on that middle ground—you don’t even really have to talk about guns to do that.”
Barden says that work has been achieved through their joint commitment, something that would inherently suffer if one of them left to run for Congress. “The vacuum one of us would leave [at Sandy Hook Promise] would have a big impact,” he notes. “We are actually seeing tangible results of our work. We know we have averted mass shootings.”
“To move away from that cerebral world to a policy world—it’s hard,” Hockley says.
And Barden and Hockley know first-hand just how hard that policy world can be. In 2013, they lobbied for federal legislation that would have expanded background checks on gun sales and banned some semi-automatic weapons. The bill failed five years ago this week, unable to garner the 60 votes needed to break a Senate filibuster. Since the Sandy Hook shooting, no significant gun control legislation has passed Congress.
It was the 2013 setback that convinced Barden and Hockley to focus their school safety work on areas where they could have a more immediate impact.
“I could have stepped away from all of it after the Senate background checks failure, but instead I felt compelled to take it even further,” says Hockley. “Sometimes you need a good defeat to in order to inspire you to go for the win in a different way.”
So why think about another change in course now? For Barden, it’s about putting the tragic circumstances to productive political use in an effort to fix Congress from the inside. “I think my particular life experience, and then subsequent education, would lend itself well to that kind of work,” he says.
There are other considerations, too. Both Barden and Hockley have surviving children. Hockley is a single mother with a 13-year-old son, and Barden and his wife have teenage daughter and a college-bound son. “My little Natalie is a sophomore in high school now,” Barden says. “I’d miss most of her junior and senior year.”
“I think when you lose a child, your priorities significantly change,” adds Hockley. “For either of us to consider being able to serve our country, but in a manner that potentially that separates us from the day-to-day life, there’s a lot to think about.”
After Hockley’s week in Washington, she’ll reunite with Barden at youth summit in Raleigh this weekend. Hockley says the two of them will get together on Sunday and Monday to mull things over. “We’ll see where our thinking is now,” she says, “Should one of us go for it, or should we continue at Promise and see just how far we can take this organization?”
The question became impossible to ignore in 1996, when her representative in Congress, Republican Dan Frisa, voted to repeal the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons. (The repeal effort failed.) To McCarthy, Frisa’s vote wasn’t simply wrong-headed, but also dishonest—she says he’d promised her he’d vote the other way. She had traveled to Washington for the vote, and when she saw what he’d done, she emerged from the Capitol full of rage. A local New York reporter caught up with her to ask if she’d consider a run for Congress. “I said, ‘You know what? I just might think about that,’” she recalls.
It wasn’t an easy decision. McCarthy had been successful in her advocacy efforts—she had worked alongside President Bill Clinton to pass the assault weapons ban in the first place. Her young adult son, Kevin, still suffered from complications related to his gunshot wounds; as a widow, she was his sole caregiver. And the introverted McCarthy, who had worked as nurse before her husband’s death, felt she didn’t have the experience or skills necessary to run for political office.
A phone call from Cuomo, who had been her weekly sounding board, assuaged her concerns. “He said, ‘Carolyn, I’ve heard you speak. You and I have traveled. You have the passion,’” she recounts. “‘It has nothing to do with experience. It has to do with doing the right thing.’”
The advice she received from other Democratic officials was less helpful. “The party came in and said, ‘You gotta learn this, you gotta do that,’” McCarthy says. “I just looked at them and said, ‘No, I’m running on this issue! This is the issue!’” In the end, she defeated Frisa by 16 points. She held office for 18 years.
Encouragement from a fellow politician also helped inspire Lucy McBath to run this year in Georgia. McBath—who Mother Jones‘ Jamilah King recently profiled—had also been thrown into activism after she lost her son, Jordan Davis, in a shooting in 2012. Her work as a full-time spokesperson for Moms Demand Action kept her busy on the 2016 campaign trail. “I hadn’t considered it,” McBath says of running for office. “What I do is political enough.”
But when Georgia House member Renitta Shannon asked McBath last year to run for the state legislature, McBath agreed. “I’d already been working on the national level with federal legislators, on the state level with state legislators, and I’d been doing bridge-building,” she says. “It was probably the most natural ‘OK’ I’d ever given.”
Then Parkland spurred McBath to seek even higher office. She declared her candidacy for Georgia’s 6th congressional seat just before the state’s election filing deadline. “Shame on me if I don’t do this, if I’m helping everyone in the nation but not my own state,” she remembers thinking. “I don’t know how to be a politician, but this is the time to move forward.”
Like McCarthy and McBath, Barden and Hockley have found plenty of people who eager to dispense political wisdom. The Connecticut Mirror reported that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Barden and encouraged him to run. He says he’s consulted several times with Esty and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who had held Esty’s seat before joining the Senate and has been a leading advocate for gun control. Barden says those two in particular have helped him understand how this decision would affect his life.
“I keep hoping somebody will say, ‘Here’s what you need to do and here’s why,’ but of course, they say, ‘You need to make the decision that’s right for you,'” Barden says.
Whatever he and Hockley decide, Barden says they’re grateful for each other’s friendship. “It’s comforting to have her as a sounding board, because we have come through this and have arrived at this place in our lives together,” he says. “It’s a real advantage for both of us to have the other—in not only making this decision, but with everything, really.”