Congresswomen Lauren Underwood, Alma Adams, Pramila Jayapal and More on the Ways Their Fathers Shaped Them

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Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images
Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images

How do our fathers shape us, for better and for worse? It's a question Melissa Harris-Perry asked several women who hold elected office, in advance of Father's Day, as guest host of WNYC's The Takeaway. For those women—among them Representatives Lauren Underwood, Pramila Jayapal, and Alma Adams, as well as big-city mayors Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta) and Jenny Durkan (Seattle)—the impact and legacies of their fathers manifest not only in their personal lives but in their public service, as well.

In partnership with WNYC, here are the lessons and memories of dad from eight women shaping our laws and policies today.

Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images
Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms describes herself as a “daughter of Atlanta.” She was born in the city and served as both a judge and member of the city council before her election as mayor in 2017. While she may be a daughter of the city, she is unreservedly a daddy’s girl.

“My daddy was the absolute best dad in the whole world.”

Her dad, Major Lance, was an R&B singer and songwriter. His most popular hit, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um is still a legitimate bop. Lance suffered from glaucoma and heart disease, ailments that cut short his recording career and ultimately his life. He died in 1994, at just 55 years old. Mayor Lance Bottoms remembers her dad with adoration and love:

“He was a lot of fun. He always saw and believed the best in me. And although he was an entertainer, [and] his schedule often caused him to work at night, he was the one that I saw when I got home from school. He was a good cook. He was a lot of fun. And I miss him every single day. The most important lesson I learned from him was to never be afraid to be told 'no.' He would often say to me, “Did you ask? Did you try? The worst they can do is tell you 'No,' baby."

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Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images
Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images

Rep. Lauren Underwood

When she was sworn into office in 2019, Lauren Underwood became the youngest Black women to join the U.S House of Representatives and the first woman, the first person of color, and the first millennial to represent her district (the 14th congressional district in Illinois) in Congress. As a trained nurse and a former policy professional with the Department of Health and Human Services, Underwood has made health equity the cornerstone of her legislative work.

Her father has been there every step of the way.

“He loves politics. He is obsessed with our democracy and ensuring that it is protected and that it lasts. And while would have never have vocalized a desire for his daughter to serve in the Congress, he just bursts with pride. Now, I am not married, and so I have the great fortune of inviting my dad to be my plus one to many of my activities both formal and informal as a member of Congress and he LOVES it!”

Mr. Underwood is more than an escort for his daughter’s events. He remains enthusiastic about offering feedback for her work as well.

“Every week when I come back from Washington I go to their house and I sit at the kitchen island. My dad will stand for an hour and talk about what I said, what the Speaker said, what Representative Adam Schiff said, even what they said on MSNBC about it! Then we talk about the actual decisions that were made. We go through it in depth. And it is a joy to be able to share, not just an achievement, but something I have poured my whole life into at this point, with my parents, specifically my father.”

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Photo credit: COURTESY - Getty Images
Photo credit: COURTESY - Getty Images

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman

In 2015, Bonnie Watson Coleman became the first Black woman to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Congress. The next year, she joined with Representative Yvette Clarke and Robin Kelly to establish the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, the first truly intersectional legislative structure at the federal level. Before her election to the U.S. House, Watson-Coleman served for eight terms in the New Jersey General Assembly, becoming the first Black woman majority leader.

Her groundbreaking political career continues a tradition created by her father John Watson, who was a trailblazer in New Jersey politics. A WWII veteran, Watson was the first African American elected to a countywide seat in Mercer County, New Jersey. John Watson served eight terms in the New Jersey General Assembly and became the first African American to chair the powerful appropriations committee.

“He was my idol. He was my standard. I thought he was the most gorgeous, kind, brilliant, man that God ever created. He’s very much responsible for my sense of public service and I followed in his footsteps in the state legislature after he died, because it was my way of keeping him alive and carrying on his legacy…. I came in years after him, and I am telling you that from the time I got into the assembly until the time that I left, people had John Watson stories about how he helped them and how important he was to them. And I was just bursting with pride to be his daughter."

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Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images
Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images

Rep. Pramila Jayapal

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal is the first South Asian American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she represents the seventh congressional district of Washington state. As Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jaypal is a leading figure pressing for a living wage, demanding universal health care, sounding the alarm about climate change, and working to mitigate the devastating effects of systemic bias and inequality. Jayapal is a proud parent of two and has written about the journey and joy of parenting a gender non-binary child.

Unconditional support and overflowing pride are lessons Congresswoman Jaypal learned from her own father, MP Jayapal, who is 90 and living in India.

"The greatest lesson I learned from my dad was to believe you can do anything. My dad really believed that. He took his last $5000 and used it to send us—his girls—to the United States at the age of 16. He really believed that there was nothing we could not do. There were all kinds of things he wanted us to do, and politics was not one of them! But he really believed nothing was impossible and his girls could do anything."

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Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Rep. Alma Adams

In 2014, Congresswoman Alma Adams became the 100th woman elected to the 113th Congress. She represents the 12th Congressional District of North Carolina and has earned a reputation as a champion of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and as a stalwart advocate of Black maternal health. Adams serves as the Vice-Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, where she has fought for food subsidies for poor families, equitable funding for land grant Black colleges, and justice for Black farmers.

Adams said that her relationship with her father taught her the importance of learning from mistakes and using that knowledge to serve her community. She was reared primarily by her mother after her stepfather passed away when she was a child. She did not meet her biological father until she was 15.

“My dad made a lot of mistakes. But forgiveness is the key. I do not want to repeat those [mistakes]. I use them to help me do the best that I can do, not only for my family and my children but also for the community I serve.”

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Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images
Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images


Sen. Nina Turner

Ohio’s Nina Turner has held multiple elected offices and political leadership roles, including serving on the Cleveland City, in the Ohio State Senate, and as co-chair of Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. But Turner is not from a traditional political family. Her parents were teenagers when she was born and she struggled with childhood poverty, low-wage jobs, and an interrupted education journey.

Turner’s mother was only 42 years old when she passed away in 1992. Turner has long relied on the love and support of her father, affectionately known as “Coach T.” They became even closer after her mother’s death.

"When I think about my dad, I think about a quiet, regal strength. I think about someone who is beautiful on the inside and the outside He is always so cool, calm, and collected under fire. I definitely did not get that trait. I wish I had that trait. Y0u will never see my dad sweat!"

Despite the challenges of his own young adulthood as a Black man in Cleveland, Ohio, Nina Turner’s father has been a steadfast supporter of his daughter.

"He continues to show love and appreciation for me and he is very proud of me. Especially in light of the fact that my mother is not here, I really do lean on my dad to be that presence."

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Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images
Photo credit: COURTESY, - Getty Images

Mayor Vi Lyles

Vi Lyles is the first Black woman elected mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. Transportation and infrastructure development have been the core accomplishments of her time in office.

She came to Charlotte to attend college. There she built her family and had a distinguished career as a city employee, private consultant, and non-profit leader before being elected to City Council and eventually to the Mayor’s office.

Lyles grew up just south of Charlotte in Columbia, South Carolina. Her father and five brothers co-own and operate the family’s construction business that her grandfather started with “just a wagon and a mule.” As the only daughter with a protective father and five brothers, Lyles joked,

“I tell people I had to leave Columbia, South Carolina because I wanted to get a date once in a while. My boyfriend had a new Volkswagon Bug. My brothers picked it up and moved down the street. He comes out of my house and he is looking for his brand new car. And my brothers are having the best time laughing and laughing. I was so embarrassed. I knew then that I would never meet a man if I had to stay with them!”

Lyles remembers her father as affectionate and attentive.

"I can remember my father reading the newspaper to us at dinner because he thought it was important for us to know about what was happening. Those are the kinds of things I remember. Those little snippets of Daddy love."

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Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Mayor Jenny Durkan

In 2017, Jenny Durkan became the first woman and second openly gay person to serve as mayor of Seattle. She came to office with an aggressively progressive agenda centered on equitable access to education, included expanding the Seattle Preschool Program, implementing the Seattle Promise to offer two years of tuition-free community college, and creating free access to public transportation for high school students. Durkan was one of the first big city mayors to face the crisis of the pandemic. And as a former prosecutor with strong law enforcement bona fides, Durkan was roundly criticized last spring for the ways she managed protests for racial equality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Resilience in the face of crisis is a core lesson Durkan learned from her father, Martin Durkan Sr. who was a long-serving member of the State Senate in Washington. A veteran of WWII, Martin Durkan was a member of an elite Navy team that was a precursor to the SEALs. Mayor Durkan remembers her father as a man who faced great personal adversity but remained focused on the goal of public service.

“At the end of the war, he suffered catastrophic injuries and was in naval hospitals for an extended period of time. They did not think he would ever walk again, but he did. He went on to become a successful lawyer as well as an elected official. But he taught us as kids, that it wasn’t how well we did, it was how we helped others do well… I grew up in a family that was very much involved in the civil rights struggle. He brought it to our house and introduced us to Black Panthers, Indian activists and Farm Workers union workers. At that time we were very focused on how to build a better world for all of us and my dad showed us how you could lead the way on that.”

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