Cynthia Mendes, a single mom working two jobs, says she never thought she'd run for office. But she's well on her way to being a changemaker—much like several other single moms on the ballot this fall. Read more as part of our Moms Run the World editorial series—all about boss mamas who are leading the world.

By Maressa Brown
October 07, 2020
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Photo courtesy of Cynthia Mendes

Last month, Cynthia Mendes, a 40-year-old single mom, upset her challenger during Rhode Island’s State Senate primary election in East Providence. She got 61.5 percent of the vote. Mendes' current reality is something she says she could have never imagined in her wildest dreams. She had never aspired to run for office. Sure, her parents urged her to become a lawyer when she was growing up. "I was quite the antagonist, outspoken and loved a good debate and good fight," she explains. But she planned to channel that inner fire toward working two jobs, raising her daughter, and serving her community by working at a soup kitchen or food bank. Then, in early 2019, after few friends in her Rhode Island community urged her to run, and Mendes began to seriously contemplate it.

Her Call to Action

Her friends were also involved in feeding the homeless and outreach campaigns. "We worked together serving the community, and we witnessed firsthand what it means for people when they don’t have someone looking out for them in the State House," she says. "There are a lot of people suffering and who get left behind."

Although Mendes didn't necessarily see herself as a lawmaker—and she says she initially thought it was "hilarious" that her friends wanted her to run—she did know that her life's work was going to be service. And in a significant moment, Mendes found herself reading a book about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to her father, who early in his life had walked away from law school to work as a prison chaplain. "Dr. King kept being pushed to the forefront of leadership, to be the person to speak, to move to the front of the movement," she recalls. "And even though he felt inadequate, he concluded, 'If you believe I can, then I will serve.'"

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Mendes

Upon reading Dr. King's words, Mendes knew she should embrace the call to action—and decided to go "full-throttle."

Running Alongside Her Daughter

Mendes knew that running for office would mean having a sit-down chat with her now 17-year-old daughter Francesca and making sure she was OK with it. "We’re very close," says Mendes. "She was a part of the dialogue from the very beginning, and one of the things I found amazing was through the whole thing was she never had a doubt in her mind. She felt like it was the right thing to do." The mother and daughter discussed how running would allow Mendes to actually be able to do something about the issues close to their hearts: social justice, fair wages, and the environment.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Mendes

And although Francesca is naturally introverted, she has assumed a lot of responsibilities of the campaign. "We agreed that if we were doing this, we were doing it together," recalls Mendes. And her daughter not only learned to speak up about her own needs, but she stepped up to take care of Mendes, reminding her when it was time to close her laptop and take a break to watch a movie or have a dinner.

Suffering Losses Along the Way

Running for public office is a challenge in and of itself, let alone doing it as a single mother during a global pandemic. And on top of all that, Mendes has faced personal heartbreak twice over the course of her run.

Last fall, she lost a young woman who she mentored and thought of as a daughter or little sister to suicide. And in May, her father passed away from COVID-19. Both times, Mendes felt she was faced with the question of whether she could grieve and run at the same time. "What I realized is that we have an incredible capacity to hold multiple feelings in tandem," she shares. "To be both angry and sad, joyful and committed all at the same time."

She also realized that she didn't want to hide her pain—especially from her daughter. "It shows grit and what we are capable of," she says. And it's a reminder to call on another mom or someone else who has been there before for support. "That is not only allowed but should be celebrated as this point," says Mendes.

And in the face of tremendous grief, Mendes felt empowered to push forward—in part because of women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush who've taken on established incumbents. "If someone had presented me with a crystal ball and said, 'I can tell your future, and you will not win,' I would have done it the same exact way," she says, noting that when political establishment tells you "there's no space for you here," it's a sign to keep fighting. "Just running was an act of rebellion."

Other Single Moms Joining Mendes' Fight

As a single mother stepping up to represent her community, Mendes is far from alone. Here are several single moms running across the country:

To discover even more candidates who are moms running in your area, check out Moms in Office and Moms Rising.

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