Jackie Stevenson thinks everyone ought to join her religion. If she meets someone who hasn’t, she tries to convert her or him. But Stevenson’s religion isn’t a typical one: She is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat whose passion for her party is second only to her love for her family.
An unconventional woman
Stevenson’s family consists of her two children, Scott Stevenson, 45, and Leslee Tejada, 44, and Tejada’s children, Fiona, 8, and Gianni, 6. Stevenson’s life partner, Jim, died nine years ago. Theirs was an unconventional relationship: Though they were together for 43 years, they could not marry because Jim was married to another woman.
Stevenson, 73, had two children out of wedlock in the early 1960s at a time when it was a shocking, almost unheard of thing for a nice girl to do. “I lost many friends,” she said. Some family members shunned her. Though she was overjoyed to be a mother, it was a difficult time too, she said. “Do I regret it? No. I have two wonderful children who are also my best friends and two beautiful grandchildren. Of course it would have been much easier if we could have been married.”
Stevenson met Jim when they were working in the same building. They were friendly acquaintances who fell in love when a group from the building went skiing together. “When we kissed, it was like fireworks exploded. I had dated a lot of guys but never had any feelings like this. I never imagined this could happen. I thought, ‘uh oh.'”
Factors regarding Jim’s relationship with his wife led him to return home, a move Stevenson supported. But she could not stop seeing him. “It was like that first kiss had cemented us,” she said. “Was it a wise thing to do? Probably not. But you don’t choose who you fall in love with-sometimes it just happens.”
“Do I regret it? No. I have two wonderful children who are also my best friends and two beautiful grandchildren. Of course it would have been much easier if we could have been married.”
– Jackie Stevenson
Shortly after that, Jim decided to leave his law firm and start his own practice. He asked Stevenson to work with him. Though she had no secretarial experience (“To this day, I’m a hunt and peck typist,” she laughed), she agreed. The two worked together for 41 years. She found the law fascinating and eventually was as much a legal assistant as a legal secretary. Stevenson became pregnant with their son, Scott, when she was 28. Both Stevenson and Jim were thrilled. Her father tried to talk her into going away, having the baby and placing it for adoption. Scott was born in October 1962. Though Jim was “always there when we needed him,” Stevenson vividly recalls the first Christmas as a new mother as one of the hardest times of her life.
Baby Scott was 11 weeks old. “Jim came for part of Christmas Eve but had to go home. My mother was with us and stayed the night, then my brother picked her up in the morning to go to his house.” Stevenson and the baby were alone the rest of the day. “It was the first year my family was not together for Christmas. My dad had remarried and was with his new wife and their daughter.
“That was probably the most difficult day I ever had, other than the two times Jim was in the hospital and I had to learn about it indirectly. It was certainly the most difficult day at that point in my life. I cried, but I thought, ‘If I can get through this, I can get through anything,'” Stevenson said.
Daughter Leslee was born a year later, and when the children were preschoolers, she moved with them to the Minnetonka house where she still lives. The suburb was not welcoming to a single mother with small children, she recalled. “People gossiped … it was something of a scandal,” she said. There were some neighbors who refused to speak to her. The children were not subjected to the kind of treatment Stevenson experienced, she said. “No one was ever unkind to them, at least not that I heard about,” she said. “Sure, there were lonely times for me, but Jim was there when we needed him,” Stevenson said. “I saw him every day, and he adored the kids and saw them all the time. Everything was not always wonderful. There were frustrations; life was not a bowl of cherries. But we sat them down and told them from the beginning that they were loved and wanted.”
Born a Democrat
A few years after moving to Minnetonka, Stevenson became involved in DFL politics. “I was born a Democrat,” she said. You might say politics are in her blood. Stevenson’s father, an executive with the company then known as St. Paul Fire & Marine, was a city council member and mayor in New Jersey. Though he was not as politically active after the family moved to St. Paul when she was 3 years old, he was still an ardent Democrat, Stevenson said. One of her earliest memories is sitting on her father’s lap listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats at age 4. “I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” Stevenson said. “I’ve been pro-choice all my life, too.
“My dad instilled in me that if you were a ‘have,’ it’s your duty, your responsibility to make the world a better place for the ‘have nots’ in your community, nationally, internationally. I learned that from my father and it is something I have always believed,” she said. She has vivid memories of listening to her father talk politics and issues with the neighbor who was chief editorial writer for both St. Paul papers and shaping her own views as they spoke.
Stevenson first dipped her toe in political waters when, as a high school junior, she visited Washington for 10 days as part of Girls’ Nation. She met her congressman, Eugene McCarthy, then in his first term. After she returned home, McCarthy’s staff asked her to recruit some students from St. Paul Central High School to volunteer. Most of her friends did not find working in a campaign office as fascinating as Stevenson did; she found herself having to continually recruit new volunteers. Volunteer recruitment was one of the first political skills she learned, and one she uses to this day.
Stevenson’s political instincts were stirred again when, as a young mother, she, Jim, and a few others protested the Vietnam War. “We were some of the earliest protestors … we would stand outside the old Federal Building with signs. People would throw eggs and rotten tomatoes at us.”
When McCarthy decided to run for president as a peace candidate, Stevenson immediately supported him. She attended her first precinct caucus in 1968 and it was then that she started to get involved in the DFL Party. Minnetonka was not, to put it mildly, a haven for Democrats in those days. “I was one of six people at my caucus … and the others all knew each other,” Stevenson recalled.
She became involved quickly in party and electoral politics. “Once you disclose you’re a legal secretary, people always want you to be a district secretary or convention secretary,” she said. She began to make waves from the beginning. Elected an alternate to the 1970 DFL State Convention, Stevenson cast her ballot for the endorsement of African-American activist Earl Craig, who was challenging incumbent Hubert H. Humphrey.
In 1973 a group of women within the party formed the DFL Feminist Caucus, which became one of the main ways Stevenson channeled her activism. She is a past president and longtime political director of the organization. She became even more active after the devastating defeat of Joan Growe for U.S. Senate in 1984. “The [Caucus board] was so exhausted,” she recalled. “We were physically drained by all of the doorknocking, events, phoning, mailing. We were brokenhearted by Joan’s defeat. Some of us just couldn’t continue. Others needed a break, to leave politics for a little while. Other board members elected to stay on. Out of 22 of us, eight or 10 of us kept the Caucus going.”
In her 40 years of involvement in party politics, Stevenson has had her share of victories and defeats. One of her proudest moments was when she ran the successful campaign of DFLer Judy Traub, who was elected to represent Republican Minnetonka in the state senate in 1990. “I had lived in Minnetonka for 24 years, and she was my first Democratic senator,” Stevenson said.
She did not limit her activism to races in her area or statewide contests; she tried to actively support each candidate supported by the DFL Feminist Caucus. One year in recent memory she door knocked, attended events, phoned or did mailings for 22 candidates supported by the DFL Feminist Caucus throughout the state.
As she rose to the state DFL executive committee and then the Democratic National Committee, she continued to actively support candidates at all levels. One month Stevenson would be helping an unsuccessful state Senate candidate from another district retire her debt; the next, she would be dancing at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball.
Jim died in 1999; Stevenson learned he was in the hospital from a mutual friend. By the time she and her children learned he had been hospitalized, he was in a permanent vegetative state. He never regained consciousness.
Smelling (and growing) the roses
After Jim died, Stevenson retired. For the first time, she had time to do more gardening than the occasional tomato or zucchini plant. She loves to sit out on her deck, surrounded by flowers, making and taking political phone calls.
Stevenson’s also been able to spend more time with her grandchildren. She serves on the board of the Domestic Abuse Project, plays a lot of bridge, spends time with friends. And of course there’s the politicking. “I’ve slowed down some, I can’t door knock like I used to,” she admitted; permanent foot injuries have limited her mobility.
Stevenson is also ending a facet of her political life. After nearly 10 years, she has served her last term on the Democratic National Committee, and after 28 years off and on, her last term on the DFL State Executive Committee. “It has been an honor, a challenge and a lot of fun representing Minnesota Democrats on the state and national level. I’ve made some wonderful friendships and had some wonderful experiences. As I’m approaching my mid-70s, I realize it’s time for someone else to lead.”
“I think this has been the hardest political year for me,” she said. Along with her state senator, Terri Bonoff’s, defeat for the DFL endorsement for Congress from the third Congressional District, she was devastated by Hillary Clinton’s loss. She was involved with the campaign from the beginning, and was one of the most vocal of Clinton’s supporters among the state’s superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Editor’s note: A superdelegate is a delegate who attends a convention by virtue of her position as a party leader or elected official. Stevenson’s status as a Democratic National Committee member makes her an automatic, or “super” delegate. Unlike other delegates, superdelegates are not pledged to a candidate.
“It was very hard for me and for many others when Hillary withdrew,” she said. Clinton’s defeat was a political blow that struck her to the core of her belief system. “It was very depressing for me in the sense that I had thought that this country and its citizens had moved past considering women third-class citizens,” she said. “White males are first class, minority males are second class, and women are third class. That’s what Hillary’s loss and the way she was treated means.
“I’m hurt and very disappointed. It’s almost like all of these years, putting so much time and energy campaigning to help individuals have a better life, have I accomplished anything?”
It is a rhetorical question for Stevenson, who now supports the candidacy of Barack Obama. And she wants to talk about a dynamite woman who is challenging an anti-choice incumbent in a low-profile race. And then there’s her mail carrier. “I’ve been talking gardening some with my mail lady,” Stevenson said. “She said she’s going to come to our plant sale next year.”
The plant sale in question is a fundraiser for her Senate district DFL organization that she’s spearheaded for 12 years.
When asked if the mail carrier is a Democrat, Stevenson said, “I’m working on it. The last two mail ladies were. I couldn’t get them to do any [volunteer] work but they voted the right way.
“That’s a start.”