SC Representative Phyllis Henderson:
Plan carefully and be prepared to work hard
Representative Phyllis Henderson’s first experience with a political campaign was in 1992, when her friend Bob Inglis approached her at church and asked if she would like to help with his campaign for Congress. Henderson had just left her job with the Greenville Chamber of Commerce following the birth of her first child, but decided that she would get involved with Inglis’ campaign. Six years later, she took on an official political role as the campaign manager for Jim DeMint’s successful 1998 Congressional race.
Inspired through her growing political experience, Henderson decided to take direct action and run for Greenville County Council where she served multiple terms. When State Representative Bill Wylie of Simpsonville passed away in 2010, leaving a vacancy in Greenville House District 21, Henderson considered the options, stepped up – and won! She is now serving her second year in the South Carolina House of Representatives and cutting her own successful path through the legislative network.
Henderson emphasizes the importance of making “a wise choice” about a political race before going public: are you ready to work hard and do you have the ability to win? “Running against an incumbent is an uphill battle and one you should think through thoroughly before entering the race,” she advises. But if you feel strongly – and are willing to do the work – nothing should hold you back. She encourages anyone considering running for office to “sit down with your spouse and evaluate if you have or can raise the necessary resources” that campaigns require—and before you make any commitments. “It’s critical to have your family on board.”
Rep. Henderson has learned to think through all the aspects of public office before making the decision to run. “Are you prepared to accept the responsibilities of a campaign?” “If elected, can you fulfill your commitment to voters?”
“You need to have a really good plan,” Henderson says, “not just a monetary plan, but a basic ground plan.” While campaigning, your main concern is “reaching your base”—don’t waste time on the campaign trail with events that don’t touch your prospective constituency. She says it is also essential to know your district and your opponent. Research the district voting history and your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. And understand your own. Be candid.
Henderson credits her political success in part to her willingness to listen to constituents, friends, family and advisors, both negative and positive. In her view, the best political representatives are those “who’ve never met a stranger”, “people who like people”. She thinks women have an advantage in this area because they are particularly good at connecting with a wide range of people. “Public service, helping people…I like that,” she says. “The ability to connect with constituents helps both when you’re campaigning and once you’re in office.”
Speaking specifically to young women who are interested in a political participation, Henderson suggests becoming known in their community. “Get involved in your hometown or neighborhood activities, get to know people,” she advises. “Don’t get pigeonholed on any issue, including so-called ‘women’s issues,’” Henderson suggests. “You want people to understand that you understand all the issues, the entire community, and are capable of addressing a broad range of needs.”
Unfortunately, according to Rep. Henderson, women in leadership positions are often criticized for being either too hard or too soft. “You’re either too pushy and bossy or too cozy and familiar,” Henderson says. “It’s a tough fence to walk.”
Like Phyllis Henderson, many female leaders have multiple roles to fill. “We balance our roles as wife, mother and elected representative,” she notes, suggesting that it takes a lot of work. “It’s easy for a public servant to spend all his or her time doing things for other people, but you need to protect your family time, your personal time or you’ll run yourself down,” she says. That balance is essential because “You don’t want to get elected to office and feel like you’re doing it only halfway.”
Representative Henderson takes pleasure in remembering her specific constituents – the problems they’ve faced, the happiness they’ve found and does that by sending personal notes and cards. It’s one of many small, personal ways she reaches out to remind her constituents that she’s there in the community to serve them.
Representative Phyllis Henderson, a Republican, serves House District 21 – Greenville County – Map