Meet the Two Congressional Candidates Trying to Unseat Steve Chabot

Nikki Foster of Mason and Kate Schroder of Clifton are running in the Democratic primary for Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. Both mothers of small children, they’re focused on fighting for better access to healthcare.

In January 2019, a record-setting 131 women were sworn into the 116th United States Congress. Women now account for 24 percent of all Congressional lawmakers, with 101 female voting members in the House of Representatives (plus four nonvoting members) and 26 in the Senate. An overwhelming majority of these women are Democrats—107, versus 24 Republicans—and the female-fueled blue wave doesn’t seem to be breaking any time soon. In fact, it’s only motivating more women to run for public office.

Nikki Foster (left), Kate Schroder (right)

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

On March 17, two women will appear on the Democratic primary election ballot for Ohio’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses Warren County and parts of Hamilton County: Nikki Foster, a 38-year-old U.S. Air Force Reservist of Mason, and Kate Schroder, a 42-year-old public health expert from Clifton. As educated, married working mothers of young children, Foster and Schroder share a similar goal: unseat incumbent Republican Steve Chabot, who by this January will have represented the district for 24 of the past 26 years. While each candidate has her own laundry list of improvements she plans to work toward if elected, both are honing in on one issue that’s particularly close to home: expanding access to affordable, quality healthcare. “Healthcare is the No. 1 issue for voters,” Schroder says, “and Chabot has voted to undermine the Affordable Care Act 50 times with no alternative plan.”

In February 2018, Foster was preparing to run for Ohio State Representative in the 54th district, which covers portions of Butler and Warren counties, including her Mason neighborhood. The same week petitions closed, she and her husband received exciting news: They were pregnant with their second child. Foster stayed active by knocking on doors and introducing herself to voters, but around the 20-week mark her doctors noticed a complication. Their son, whom they would name Henry, had a hole in his heart. “At first they didn’t know how serious it would be,” Foster says. “They said he could come home the next day [after birth] or he may need a heart transplant.”

After he was born on September 27, Henry was immediately transferred to the cardiac intensive care unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where doctors examined how his heart delivered oxygenated blood to his body. Within 72 hours, Henry’s condition improved enough that he transferred to a step-down unit, and within five days he was released to go home. “We’re very fortunate that he turned out to be OK,” Foster says. “But we met all these other families that weren’t so fortunate. Down the hallway, a family from Dayton was having a pacemaker put in their child’s chest. There was another child who had his six-month birthday there. You see what other families are going through and realize that they need advocates.

“Henry is always going to have a hole in his heart. He’s doing great now, but this is always going to be something he lives with. So it’s really about fighting for working families that just want to live their lives without being afraid of going bankrupt.”

In November 2010, Schroder was living in Washington, D.C., and working for a global health organization when she noticed lumps on her neck. “I didn’t think anything of it,” she recalls. “I was like, No big deal, it’s just lumps.” Later that month while visiting family in Cincinnati for Thanksgiving, she showed them to her father, a retired oncologist. “He felt my clavicle and the back of my head, and he’s like, This is a classic presentation of lymphoma,” says Schroder, who was 33 at the time. The following Monday, a CT scan confirmed her father’s diagnosis, and in January, after two biopsies, Schroder learned it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “You’re never ready to hear you have cancer, much less hear it from your own dad,” Schroder says in her campaign video. “Everything changed in that moment.”

Fortunately, Schroder had access to healthcare in D.C., where she endured four months of chemotherapy. She completed her treatment in May 2011, and five years later she was medically declared cancer-free. Still, she says she “spent hundreds of hours on the phone talking with tons of different companies” only to “pay a ton for crappy life insurance.” The entire experience changed her perspective of the U.S. healthcare system and is ultimately what compelled her to run for office.

“This was the first time I was at the mercy of the healthcare system,” Schroder says. “Your whole goal becomes surviving, which is dependent on access to healthcare, which for a lot of people is not in their control. We have a complex system that’s highly imperfect, but we need leaders who acknowledge the complexity and actually roll up their sleeves to make meaningful, positive improvements. It makes me so upset when I see politicians who are just playing politics with people’s lives.”

Foster lost her statehouse race in 2018, but she says the experience only motivated her to “step up again.” During the same election cycle, Chabot defeated Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval by a slim margin, but the energy surrounding Pureval’s campaign, says Foster, was especially encouraging. “Steve Chabot is beatable. There are a lot of folks who want to see a change in leadership,” but the key to flipping the district, she says, requires “going places where people haven’t gone before” and “reaching out to voters people say aren’t reachable.”

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

What’s important to you? That’s what Foster asks when she’s knocking on doors and meeting new people throughout Warren County, a largely conservative area, where President Trump won 66 percent of the 2016 presidential vote. “That’s what servant leadership is,” she says. “[It’s] about listening. You’re not telling people what to do. You’re supposed to be their surrogate, their voice in Congress.”

The value of servant leadership was instilled in Foster at a young age, thanks to her parents, whose families immigrated to the U.S. during the Civil Rights Movement. Her mother was just 2 years old when she moved from the Netherlands, and her father was 16 when he immigrated from the Philippines. Foster says her father taught her the significance of being involved in democracy—a lesson she took to heart at 17 years old, when she relocated from her hometown of Clifton, Virginia, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I believe it’s important to understand what it’s like to serve your country,” says Foster, whose maternal grandfather served in the Dutch Navy and paternal grandfather served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. “I don’t think it should be a requirement, but it’s a very important prerequisite to serving in public office, because you can understand what it’s like to work together with people of all different backgrounds and political beliefs to get a mission done. You put country first, because when you’re in the U.S. military, you swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.”

Nikki Foster is a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Use of her military rank, job titles, and photographs in uniform does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Air Force Reserves, the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

Photograph courtesy of Nikki Foster

During her junior year at the academy, Foster realized the gravity of this oath when 9/11 shocked the nation. The countrywide crisis compelled her to sign up for pilot training the following year. Soon after 9/11, Foster’s then–50-year-old father, an auto mechanic, fell off a ladder while painting the house and broke his back. His injury caused him to lose his job and file for disability. “He ended up going bankrupt, and we basically lost everything,” says Foster, who recalls witnessing her father cut his pills in half when he couldn’t afford to refill his medication. Her mother, who worked as a secretary at the time, returned to college to better support the family, and Foster often sent her parents money to help pay for her younger siblings’ education. Her father eventually became a school bus driver, but he still lives with chronic pain.

“A lot of female veterans kicked some tail in 2018,” Foster says. “They’ve chosen to continue to answer their country’s call, and I’m proud to be among them and to be considered for this position.”

In 2003, Foster became the first person in her family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. Over the next 12-plus years of active Air Force duty, she deployed to the Middle East five times. She completed her first three deployments from 2006 to 2008 with her husband Rob, whom she met in pilot training, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in diplomacy from Norwich University. “I would literally go fly a mission, come back, write a paper, and then do it again the next day,” says Foster, who later served as an instructor pilot and the women’s rugby coach at the Air Force Academy. By the time she left active duty in 2015, she had completed more than 3,000 flying hours and commanded more than half of the 217 combat missions she flew over Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, Foster serves in the Air Force Reserves as an admissions liaison officer for the academy and Air Force ROTC, and Rob is a pilot with United Airlines.

Nikki Foster with her husband Rob and their son Wyatt.

Photograph courtesy of Nikki Foster

In late 2015, an opportunity in Evendale with GE Aviation, which manufactures the engines that powered the aircrafts Foster flew during active duty, drew her family to Cincinnati. After starting in the company’s Junior Officer Leadership Program, which helps veterans transition into civilian careers, she climbed the ranks to senior customer program manager, overseeing contract service agreements between GE and companies like Delta and United Airlines. Foster also works closely with GE’s Veterans Network to help hire veterans into the company, and on the side she volunteers as a career counselor with national nonprofit Hire Heroes USA to help veterans transitioning into the civilian workforce.

In January, Foster took a leave of absence from GE to focus on her campaign, which she launched in July. She has since received endorsements from local and state leaders, including fellow Air Force veteran and State Rep. Connie Pillich, who’s also Foster’s campaign chair and a candidate for Hamilton County Commissioner, as well as support from national organizations like Vote Vets and New Politics.

If elected, Foster plans to defend the Affordable Care Act, expand coverage for preexisting conditions, and lower prescription drug costs. She’s also determined to continue advocating for veterans, especially female veterans. “Our issues are unique to our gender,” she says.

Foster also wants to strengthen local communities by investing in infrastructure, job training, and education, and she vows to protect Social Security and Medicare. She believes her national security background is a strong campaign asset. “A lot of female veterans kicked some tail in 2018,” Foster says. “We saw women with service backgrounds step in to run for U.S. Congress and actually flip seats all across the country in districts just like this one. They’ve chosen to continue to answer their country’s call, and I’m proud to be among them and to be considered for this position.”

The first time Schroder verbalized she was contemplating running for public office was on April 14, 2017, the day after her father was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. “I had to tell him, because every day he was losing his ability to talk,” she says. He died three months later at age 69. “I didn’t start out thinking Congress. I was just having conversations [of] Where can I have the greatest impact?” she says. “I didn’t see anybody who could beat Chabot, and I think it’s unacceptable to give him another two years.” In the spring of last year, she and her husband, John Juech, one of Cincinnati’s assistant city managers, decided that running in the 1st District was the best choice.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Judging by Schroder’s track record, she’s clearly been interested in politics her entire life. She served as student body president at Ursuline Academy and later student body treasurer at Indiana University, where she studied political science. After graduating from IU in 1999, Schroder spent three years in legislative politics, first as a legislative correspondent for then-Senator Evan Bayh in D.C. and later as chief of staff for then–Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley. But she says her political drive isn’t fueled by a passion for politics: “It’s more a passion of serving others.”

As the second of four children in a fifth-generation Cincinnati family, Schroder grew up in Pleasant Ridge surrounded by medical professionals, like her father, who taught her the value of service. Her great-uncle was a doctor, too, and her sister is a nurse, just like their mother was. Her sister-in-law is a pediatrician; one uncle works in primary care, and another is a psychologist. But Schroder craved an opportunity to create macro-level change. “Everyone in my family was in clinical practice in medicine, and I thought, I’ll go into the policy politics side and help others that way with a focus on healthcare.” So that’s what she did.

Under Bayh, she was tasked with researching healthcare issues and drafting responses to federal, municipal, and constituent inquiries. But as someone who values tangible results, she felt like “things didn’t get done quickly [enough] in politics.” So after gaining local experience working with Cranley, she decided to transition to the business side of healthcare, and in 2004 Schroder earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, before returning to D.C. to research hospital management practices as a consultant for the Advisory Board Company.

Photograph courtesy of Kate Schroder

Schroder’s public health career took off in March 2007, when she accepted her first leadership position with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, a global organization dedicated to strengthening healthcare systems and expanding access to life-saving treatment in low-income countries. Schroder spent two years living in Zambia, where she established a new CHAI field office and helped secure more than $50 million in grant funding to increase the number of healthcare workers there, and then, from D.C., directed an initiative to improve pediatric HIV treatment rates across 35 countries in Africa and Asia-Pacific by facilitating drug cost negotiations between government leaders and private sector organizations. (Her cancer didn’t slow her down, either; during chemotherapy, she says she simply “stopped traveling and went down to working 40 hours” a week.)

In August 2011, she became senior director (and later vice president) of CHAI’s Essential Medicines, a program she helped launch in 2012 in Nigeria, India, Uganda, and Kenya to improve treatment rates for children with diarrhea. “Diarrhea is the No. 2 killer of kids globally. That’s crazy,” Schroder says. “Half of those deaths can be prevented with vaccines, and the other half can be prevented with treatment that costs less than 50 cents.” In just five years, the program saved an estimated 76,000 lives in those countries by increasing the number of children receiving the recommended diarrhea treatment from 1.2 million to 55 million. In 2016, the program’s focus expanded to include Ethiopia and to improve treatment rates for children with pneumonia, the No. 1 global killer of children under 5.

Photograph courtesy of Kate Schroder

Schroder moved back to Cincinnati in 2013 and continued working with CHAI until stepping down in July, just four days before launching her congressional campaign. She has received endorsements from local and state leaders—including Mayor Cranley, State Senator Cecil Thomas, and State Reps. Catherine Ingram and Brigid Kelly—and also won the Hamilton County Democratic Party’s official endorsement.

If elected, Schroder says she plans to increase access to affordable, quality healthcare for Cincinnati area residents, just like she did for millions of families overseas. “I’m a business person,” says Schroder, who also serves as the finance chair for Cincinnati Board of Health. “Pharmaceutical companies need to make a profit, but we can do it in a way that also allows the people who most need the products to access them.”

“My whole career has been working with governments and the private and public sectors to fix complex problems,” Schroder says. “I know how to get things done.”

In addition to lowering drug costs, premiums, and deductibles, Schroder wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, improve mental health services and coverage for preexisting conditions, use federal resources to address the opioid epidemic, and reduce disparities that cause higher infant and maternal mortality rates among African Americans. She’s also passionate about increasing infrastructure investments to fix the district’s roads, highways, and bridges, including the Brent Spence Bridge and Western Hills Viaduct; reducing gun violence by supporting mandatory background checks, a ban on military-style weapons sales, and red flag laws; strengthening the district’s public education system through universal preschool access and better pay for teachers; among a host of other issues. “My whole career has been working with governments and the private and public sectors to fix complex problems,” she says. “I know how to get things done.”

When they’re not campaigning, Foster and Schroder spend time with their families: Foster with her sons, 1-year-old Henry and 9-year-old Wyatt, and Schroder with her 6-year-old daughter Josie and 5-year-old son Peter. At the end of the day, they’re moms fighting to create a better future for their children. But it’s not an easy battle. “It’s super hard to run as a mom with young kids,” Schroder says, “but I think it’s really important to have that voice at the table.”

Illustration by Petra Eriksson

Currently, there are 25 mothers of minor children serving in the 116th Congress, which welcomed the first single and first lesbian mothers. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says there’s a double standard when it comes to mothers running for office. “For men, having young children has been an asset. They put them on [campaign] brochures and their website, and they talk about their kids,” Walsh says. “When a woman runs with young kids, people think they’re being irresponsible with their children. The 2018 election saw a shift in this pattern.”

To create a better support system for congresswomen with young children, Ohio State Senator and fellow mother Tina Maharath, who was a first-time candidate in 2018, introduced Senate Bill 211 in October. If passed, the legislation would allow Ohio candidates to use campaign funds for campaign-related childcare expenses.

Balancing childcare during her campaign, Foster says, has been the biggest challenge. Fortunately, her military background has trained her for this type of situation. “We’ve been dealing with this as a military family for years, where there’s one person holding down the fort and the other person goes and does the mission,” she says. Schroder, who often traveled to foreign countries with CHAI, is also accustomed to juggling things at home and at work.

Not only do Foster and Schroder have to prove their motherhood doesn’t affect their ability to serve in public office, they have to prove their gender doesn’t either. “It’s interesting to me how many people are like, It’s such a shame we have two women running in a primary. And I’m like, You would never say that about two men running,” Schroder says. “I think we’re setting a really cool example. We make each other better candidates. We sat down before this and agreed to no negative campaigning, and we’ll support whoever [wins the primary].”

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