Anyone who still has doubts about balancing young children with political aspirations needs talk to Pickens County Councilwoman Jennifer Willis. When she first ran for office in 2003, she had a four-year-old and six-month-old at home. She first ran in a special election to fill a vacant seat, going door-to-door, calling hundreds of voters, and handwriting mailers to the community through both a primary and a general election. Then Willis turned around and ran again just six months later for the regularly scheduled reelections. Today, she has three children – aged eleven, eight, and six – though she does admit it helps to be the one setting Council’s schedule. Jennifer Willis, by the way, is also the first woman Chairman of the Pickens County Council.
“It is exceptionally manageable.” Willis says of county-level politics. Though, when she was first told she should run by a realtor and an attorney concerned about their community’s lack of a representative to the County Council, she admits “I was concerned about the time commitment, balancing work and family.”
“But I also believe very strongly, and always have, that if this is your community, you have to give back, and you can’t complain if you don’t vote. I believe it’s important to teach my children that, not just saying ‘you need to do this’ but being actively involved… they have a good understanding of how important it is to give back, and be committed.”
Willis has certainly given back to Pickens, working with the rest of the Council and other local officials to bring businesses to the county at a time when many other parts of South Carolina are struggling to hold onto the jobs they have. Pickens has just recently courted four new businesses and over 2000 jobs, building “a business friendly community worth millions in development.” Willis calls economic development her first priority in Pickens: “The success of businesses drives everything else.”
Willis and her husband own their own contracting business, which she says gave her critical experience in balancing budgets and management, as well as keeping her “very cognizant of the real estate market”, a serious issue in South Carolina today. Before that, Willis was an engineer in commercial construction, so “I understand how infrastructure works, with all the challenges inherent in that. In project management, you get general experience in building and creating things…[you’re] not afraid to ask questions, to get into something and say ‘I’ve never done this before, explain it to me’.”
While Willis takes her role as the only woman on the Pickens County Council seriously, and calls the dearth of woman in the General Assembly “a shame”, she also notes that it’s important for women candidates not to just define themselves solely by their gender: “When I ran, I said, I’m going to be the voice of families here, [despite the strong retiree vote in the county]. I brought a different perspective as a woman but also as a business owner and a parent.” Playing to those unique strengths has kept Willis in office for three terms already, and says she’s loved it.
Her advice to women considering a run for office is not to give up before you even try, just because it looks hard. “It’s really important to evaluate [candidacy] and not immediately say no. It’s hard to put yourself out there, but it can be exceptionally rewarding. It’s so nice to look around and say there’s improvements in my community because of me…I’ve made my little corner of the world a better place. That outweighs a lot of potential negatives. It’s well worth considering, so do your own research and investigating – the time commitment might not be as daunting as you think.”