Rachel Roberts glides through the room, stepping quietly between yoga mats. “I am breathing in,” she instructs her students, who are resting in child’s pose. “I am breathing out. Present here and now.”
The studio at The Yoga Bar in Over-the-Rhine is packed this Monday evening. It always is when Roberts, the studio’s founder, is teaching. She rarely does these days, trying to limit herself to one class a week along with hosting free yoga classes on the Washington Park lawn and the annual NamasDey yoga fund-raiser at Paul Brown Stadium.
Something new is keeping the Newport resident busy these days: She’s running for Kentucky Senate. She’s not exactly your conventional Commonwealth candidate: a yogini—a practicing Buddhist, at that—with no political experience. Unheard of? Not in 2018, election experts say.
More women decided to run for U.S. political office this year than ever before. In fact, 530 women—nearly twice the number who ran in 2016—launched campaigns for Congress this spring, according to data kept by the Center for American Women and Politics. Some states are seeing a spike, too. In Kentucky, Roberts is one of 71 women running for a seat in the Kentucky General Assembly. There were 37 female candidates in 2016.
Many of these women, like Roberts, are breaking historic molds that female candidates used to be expected to fit into. They’re running unabashedly as themselves at levels never seen before, says Patricia Russo, executive director of the nonpartisan, issue-neutral Women’s Campaign School at Yale University. “The evolution has been extraordinary,” says Russo, who has helped hundreds of women from both parties build successful campaigns since 1994. The majority of the crush of candidates are Democrats, like Roberts, but Russo says “every day and every way Donald Trump is inspiring women on both sides.”
Women were obviously fired up after the 2017 Women’s March, Russo says, and her phone rang like never before. The #MeToo movement has also emboldened female candidates. Times have certainly changed, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. Three years after the center opened in 1971, there were just 47 female general election Congressional candidates across the U.S.
Back then, Walsh says, people told her there was nothing to study—count the few women in government, and what else would she do? “Fifty years later, we are at the center of one of the most written-about topics in American politics,” she says.
What happens come November is anyone’s guess, but, Walsh says, “in some ways, all bets are off.”
In her yoga classes, Roberts often tells fables. They’re intended to quiet the mind and reinforce principles of peace, gratitude, and generosity—lessons she learned from her parents and has tried to explore more fully by studying yoga in Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
Roberts, 45, found herself telling one particular fable over and over last winter. As it goes, there is a grocery store owned by a man and inhabited by a community of mice. Some nights the store owner is too tired to sweep, but the mice clean up the crumbs. They live in harmony like this for years until the man becomes lonely and gets a cat. No longer can the mice dare eat the crumbs for fear of becoming a meal themselves. But there must be a way for them to coexist. One mouse offers a solution: Put bells on the cat’s neck and feet, so the mice can always know where the cat is and stay safely away. But who, the question becomes, will bell the cat?
“I sort of came to the realization that I was telling it to myself,” Roberts says. She had always been political, protesting the Gulf War and nearly every war that came after and marching for equal rights, including attending the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. She volunteered and contributed to candidates she liked. She even thought about running for office several times, but had always talked herself out of it until Trump became president.
His comments about and actions toward women disturb Roberts, and his policies on education, immigration, and the environment don’t align with her values. She takes similar issue with politics at the state level in Kentucky. “For me, the belling of the cat is stepping out of your comfort zone, risking your own safety, security, and comfort to do something greater and better for your community,” she says. Roberts could no longer expect someone else to work on her or her community’s behalf. She was going to have to bell the cat.
“Part of being a yogi is to do no harm,” says Sarah Crabtree, a Yoga Bar instructor who says Roberts’s candidacy feels like a natural progression. “It’s not just exercise to us. Using your voice and standing up for other people is part of it.”
No one close to Roberts is surprised she’s running. “That’s what you need,” says friend and mentor Melvin Grier, a retired Cincinnati Post photographer. “You need people who, if they see something that needs to be corrected, are willing to do something about it.”
“She has not been a fearful person,” says dancer/choreographer Heather Britt, a friend since childhood, who recalls when Roberts became one of the only female white-water rafting guides on a river when they lived together in Colorado in their twenties. “She likes taking risks and going for it.”
When Roberts was growing up in Clifton Heights near the University of Cincinnati, her father ran a private substance abuse counseling practice out of their home. Her mother worked through law school to become a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board and later a mediator for Hamilton County courts. “I grew up in a home that was abundant with love but often not abundant financially,” Roberts says. “I’m so grateful for my upbringing, because we had enough that I was never scared, but not so much that I can’t be super appreciative for every small thing as an adult.”
Education was important in her family. One of her parents always seemed to be in school earning an advanced degree in order to reach their aspirations of helping people. It rubbed off on their daughter.
“Rachel always had this incredible work ethic,” says Grier, who met Roberts after he spoke to her high school photography class at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She was one of the few young people who took him up on his offer to shadow him at The Post. She showed up with a camera—and a good eye for photography, Grier adds—and their friendship has grown ever since.
He’s watched Roberts spread her wings. On the day she turned 18, she moved to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where an aunt lived. Roberts worked as a photographer for the newspaper there (as well as a bartender and server), but island life proved too isolating and she didn’t stay long. She took classes at UC and then moved to Colorado, where she got a marketing degree, pursued a passion for snowboarding, and got married.
She and husband Daniel Goddard traveled the country and parts of Mexico and Canada for 14 months in a truck camper. In the early days of blogs, they wrote a popular one called UnderAged-RVers that financed their travel. “We met people from every conceivable walk of life in the United States,” Roberts says. “What I learned is that people were inherently generous, curious, and kind.”
The marriage ended amicably, and she and Goddard remain friends. At the time, Roberts didn’t quite understand why she couldn’t settle. She used money from a buyout of their Colorado home to travel the world and, as she puts it, “invest in myself.”
Roberts became fascinated with yoga and wanted to explore it and a Buddhist lifestyle, and over the next two years she visited 22 countries. “Someone would say, ‘You should study with this teacher,’ and I would just say, ‘OK, you’re probably right,’ and I would go find that teacher and study with them,” she says. “It served me well.”
She came home to Cincinnati from time to time to see her family and friends. On one such trip she ran into a high school boyfriend, Michael Skrzelowski. They dated again, and Roberts decided she was ready to open her own yoga studio in Cincinnati. She and Skrzelowski married, and he’s been her biggest supporter, she says.
Through it all, Roberts kept in touch with Grier. Her personality never changed, he says, and has continued to be “upbeat and determined.” Grier has attended a few of her meet-and-greet events as a candidate, and says, “It’s very interesting to see her in that setting when I have also seen her as a very young person. Now I see this sophisticated woman who stands there and talks about things she’s concerned about.”
After Roberts decided to run for office, she and Skrzelowski sat down to discuss her campaign and messaging. They had a decision to make: Emphasize Roberts’s first name or her last? They decided on “Rachel.”
“There are still people who don’t think a woman can be their primary care physician,” Roberts says. “There definitely is still gender bias. I’m not naive to it. I have experienced it in my own life and my own career.” Ultimately, she knew she wouldn’t hide the fact that she’s a woman—they need to speak out and claim a place at the table, she says. Women are 51 percent of the American population but hold just 20 percent of the seats in Congress; at the state level, Kentucky ranks in the bottom 10 for its percentage of women holding office. Studies show voters will elect women almost as often as they do men, but men simply outnumber them as candidates, says Walsh at the Center for American Women and Politics.
Roberts is challenging Republican Wil Schroder, who has held the 24th District seat representing Campbell (home to Newport), Pendleton, and Bracken counties for one term. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story. According to his website, Schroder lives in Wilder and is a lifelong Northern Kentucky resident and part-time attorney. “Through his parents’ examples, Wil learned the importance of faith, dedication, standing up for what you believe in, and hard work,” his online bio reads.
At 36, Schroder is Kentucky’s youngest state senator. Before he won the seat in 2014, it was occupied for 16 years by a woman, Republican Katie Stine. “So there are people who will vote for a woman in this district,” says Roberts, who points out that in the 2014 election, registered Democrats in the 24th District outnumbered registered Republicans nearly 2 to 1, “but Democrats haven’t been voting.”
On a hot July day at the Pendleton County Youth Fair, Roberts is doing what she thinks is the best campaign approach: listening. A man with a military background complains that the district’s Veteran Affairs hospital is understaffed and could be serving more people. A family whose daughter is showing animals laments the difficulty of finding a good-paying job in places like Falmouth. Men in overalls listen, sizing her up.
Roberts wants to get elected, not forever but for one or two terms, to try to make a difference for people like those she meets at the fair. “I want to be a real conduit for my community and for the law,” she says. “I can’t sit here and tell you I have all the answers, because I don’t. I didn’t have all the answers when I opened the business, either. But I’m a fast learner and a compassionate soul, and I’m capable of looking at big problems and issues and breaking them down into manageable pieces to make smart decisions.”
The cornerstone issues of her campaign are education, the opioid epidemic, and economic prosperity. She was furious with what she calls the “pension debacle” when the Kentucky legislature introduced and passed a bill—originally about sewers—in six hours to limit pension benefits for teachers across the state. A Kentucky judge declared the pension overhaul bill unconstitutional in June and blocked it from becoming law. “One of the things that was so reprehensible to me about this year’s General Assembly is how much stuff took place outside of the public eye,” Roberts says.
When she looks at Kentucky’s opioid problems, Roberts remembers that her father would open the door at all hours for people in crisis. “He taught me from a very early age that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing,” she says. “We should look at someone who’s an addict in the same way we look at someone who has cancer or heart disease, with empathy, compassion, and understanding and the ability to give them every tool they could possibly need to survive.”
To Roberts, economic prosperity means attracting better jobs to the state. “Kentucky has a huge revenue problem,” she says. “We have to collect more revenue, and one of the best ways is to bring new jobs into the state. We’re getting jobs, but we’re not getting the kind of jobs that can really support a family.” She calls the new Amazon facility in Florence a perfect example. “We get the Amazon warehouse, but we don’t get the headquarters because we don’t have an educated enough work force or a strong school system.”
In the end, Roberts remains something of a long shot to win next month. In 2014, Schroder beat his Democratic opponent with 62 percent of the vote. “I don’t like to do the crystal ball thing,” says Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics. “Every day there is some new drama that could have a big impact on these races.” Normally, incumbents win about 90 to 95 percent of the time, she says, “but we are not in normal times.”
Is Roberts worried about her non-mainstream Buddhist identification? Not really. “I’m absolutely fascinated by religion, by people’s devotion,” she says. “I consider myself to be a very devoted spiritual practitioner, but I don’t wear religion on my sleeve. I certainly don’t generally walk up to someone new and ask about their religion. Religious beliefs are intensely personal.”
Russo was thrilled to welcome Roberts to the Women’s Campaign School last spring, when she became the first graduate from Kentucky. “She was very clear about her priorities and how she wanted to go about realizing those priorities,” Russo says. “So confident. So self-assured.” She thinks Roberts’s Buddhist background will serve her well. “She practices love and kindness and always tries to see people for who they are.”
For a little while longer, at least, instead of spreading that message from a yoga mat, Roberts is sharing it in bingo halls, church fish fries, and neighborhood block parties. She says getting to know people and trying to understand what they need from their government has been enlightening and enjoyable. Her team has been encouraging greater voter participation, no matter who it’s for.
“If you aren’t happy with the direction of our broader country in this moment, we’ve got to understand that it starts at the state level,” she says. “And sitting out the midterms is no longer an option.”
As she moves down the campaign trail, Roberts carries her fables and inspiration along the way. And she keeps reminding herself, I am breathing in. I am breathing out. Present here and now.