While walking across the White House’s West Lawn with President Obama, the gravity of the moment struck Lillian Salerno. Coming from a working-class East Dallas family with eight kids and running through Garrett Park, to working on policy with the president, Salerno knew she had come a long way. And apparently, she isn’t done. Salerno is running for Congress to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas’ 32nd district.
Salerno’s sees her diverse career roles as a strength. She ran a small business that sold medical devices to prevent needle stick injuries and the spread of HIV and AIDS, and advocated for better infrastructure for rural farmers as the Deputy Secretary for Rural Development in the Department of Agriculture in the Obama administration. She hopes this diversity of experience and record for caring for the underserved will carry her to victory in 2018.
Salerno grew up on Swiss Avenue, which, during the 60s and 70s, was not full of the picturesque restored homes that reside there today. When she lived there, the manicured estates were more like boarding houses, with owners renting rooms or entire stories to working families. Her father owned a shoe repair store, but they were far from wealthy. She remembers playing tennis, being in plays and swimming at Samuell-Grand in the old neighborhood. “I always felt safe and that other people were looking out for us,” she says.
It was her time at the local parks that exposed to her what lay beyond East Dallas. Neither of her parents went to college, but she remembers meeting a lifeguard at the pool who told her about university life. The interaction planted the seed for Salerno, who would go on to the University of Texas and law school at Southern Methodist University.
She joins a crowded field of Democrats in the race for Texas 32nd district, which includes two other former Obama staffers. She will be in the Democratic primary against Colin Allred, who played in the NFL and was a special assistant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of General Counsel during the Obama years, and Ed Meier, who was a senior advisor in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of State and was Director of Policy Outreach for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Despite the crowded field, Salerno is confident she can win out. “I am comfortable working across the aisle, and I am a coalition builder,” she says. “That makes me a little bit different.”
Pete Sessions, who has held the position for decades, will be running again. His district voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, giving challengers hope that they can unseat him. While Salerno is running as a Democrat, she hopes her experience running a small business and working in the agricultural sector will give her common ground with voters across the political spectrum. “I am hopeful that people will recognize themselves and their values in me,” she says.