While Americans fixate on the new Republican majority in Washington DC, they may have overlooked the party’s gains in their own state capitals. It wasn’t just Donald Trump who won big-league in 2016. Republicans also picked up dozens of seats in statehouses. All told, the GOP now controls the legislatures of 32 states (compared to 14 for Democrats), an all-time high for the party.
My home state of West Virginia is no exception. Two years ago, we saw our first Republican majority since the Great Depression, with the GOP gaining even more ground in 2016. One of those gains was in my district, where my friend and fellow homeschooling mother Patricia Rucker recently became my state senator. Although I’m admittedly biased, Rucker is both a good model for anyone looking to get more involved in local politics, and a reminder of the value that freedom-seeking immigrants bring to America.
I first got to know Patricia through local politics, where she seemed to be an almost omnipresent force. Dark-haired and slender, she’s one of those people who radiates energy. At every phone bank, fundraiser, lit drop, and Tea Party rally, Patricia was there—always with several kids in tow. A devout Catholic, she and her husband Jimmy have five children.
As the legislative session began February 8, Patricia packed her bags, left the homeschooling in Jimmy’s hands, and made the five-hour trek to Charleston as a freshman senator. For a woman who was born a continent away and became a U.S. citizen just 12 years ago, it’s the culmination of a remarkable journey.
Patricia Comes to America
She was born Patricia Elena Puertas in Caracas, Venezuela. Her parents, José and Haydeé, had both grown up as the eldest children of large, working-class families. They each became the first in their families to attend college, working hard to support themselves as journalism students. They used their first paychecks to help Haydeé’s parents leave the slums for a two-bedroom apartment in Caracas, with their eight younger children.
“Family interdependence was such an important part of Venezuelan culture back then,” Patricia remembers. “It’s one of those things that socialism is trying to destroy.”
The Venezuela of Patricia’s childhood was a very different place than it is today. At the time, Venezuelans enjoyed the highest standard of living in Latin America. Patricia remembers an easy-going, family-oriented culture, loosely organized and far from centrally planned.
“There was certainly quite a bit of petty corruption, a quid-pro-quo system,” she says. “But in general, the government required very little from you. You didn’t have to get a license and a permit for every little thing. You lived how you wanted. People didn’t have a lot of material things, but they also didn’t see those things as important. Everyone had their little plot of land, their garden. We relied on our families. We took care of each other.”
As his family grew, José was climbing the career ladder as a journalist with the Paris-based Agence France-Press. Eventually, AFP asked the young Venezuelan to move to its Washington DC, bureau. It was a prestigious job that involved covering politicians and world leaders—including the U.S. president—as a member of the international press corps.
It was hard for José and Haydeé to leave their extended family in Venezuela, but they didn’t sell their Venezuelan home, confident they and their five children would return. “We arrived in DC on January 3, 1981, just before Reagan was inaugurated,” Patricia remembers. “To this day, it’s the only presidential inauguration I’ve ever seen in person. Of course, I didn’t really understand any of it.” She was six years old.
The family settled in the DC suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland, where the children went to school. “I had speech delays and had a hard time communicating, even in Spanish,” Patricia says, “so between that and learning English, my first years in school were hard. I was an outcast.” The experience, though difficult, was formative. “It made me sympathetic toward other people. After that, I was always the one befriending my fellow nerds and outcasts,” she remembers. “It became a part of my personality: I defend the little guy and I stand up for them.”
Becoming a Republican and an American
By sixth grade, Patricia had finished speech therapy and mastered English. After that, she quickly advanced to her school’s “gifted and talented” class. There she had another formative experience.
“Even though there weren’t many Hispanics in Montgomery County back then, I never thought of myself as different. In my mind, I was like everyone else.” But her fellow students were more familiar with the ways of the world. “As soon as I got into the gifted and talented program, several of the other students assumed that I was only there because I was the token Hispanic. They thought I hadn’t gotten there on my own merits.”
The experience rankled. “It was then that I decided I hated the labeling. I hated the affirmative action. You’re trying to do me a favor, but you’re actually making it worse for me! I don’t want you to do me a favor. I want to succeed through my own achievements.” She laughs a little at the memory. “And I think that’s when I first became a Republican. The Democratic Party has become a party of favors and putting people into pigeonholes. I don’t want to be labeled; I don’t want to be limited. I wanted to be limitless. I don’t want you giving me anything. I want you to get out of my way and let me live my life.”
Sixth grade also marked the beginning of her political career: she ran for class president and won. She remained active in student government throughout her middle and high school years. While still a senior in high school, Patricia met Maryland native Jimmy Rucker at a church Bible study. Jimmy was a nursing student at Catholic University, and asked her out on a date.
“I knew pretty quickly that this was the man I was going to marry,” Patricia says. They dated for four years, until Patricia graduated from Trinity College with a major in U.S. history. She and Jimmy married the same year, and Patricia took a teaching job with Montgomery County public schools. After having their second child, they moved to Jefferson County, West Virginia—“refugees from socialist Montgomery County,” Patricia laughs. “It’s true. We came here for freedom.”
All this time, Patricia was slowly working her way through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. “Before I even met my husband, I already felt more American than Venezuelan,” she says. For Patricia, U.S. citizenship was the fulfilment of a dream. “I had majored in history, and the more I learned, the more I fell in love with the Constitution. I fell in love with the American founding and the American dream—it was not just a cliché for me.”
After an eight-year process, Patricia was finally granted citizenship in 2004. By then, she was already the mother of four young Americans, the smallest just four months old. Patricia was given the option to be sworn in at a DC ceremony with President Bush in 2005, but she opted for an earlier local ceremony instead. “I chose to do it early because I was so eager to vote in the fall election,” she explains. “I just couldn’t wait.”
Patricia cast her first vote in November 2004. When she looked at her ballot, the names on national races were familiar, but the names on local races weren’t. “It really shook me that I didn’t even know who some of those people were,” she said. “That day, I promised myself never to let that happen again.”
Socialism Rears its Ugly Head
While Patricia was busy putting down roots in America, her native country was remaking itself. Hugo Chávez, a self-declared Marxist, had come to power in 1998, bringing with him a new socialist vision. The Puertas family, who continued traveling back to Venezuela every two years, watched the transformation unfold before their eyes.
“I was in Venezuela when Chávez was campaigning in 1998,” Patricia remembers. “He preached a gospel of envy, both internationally and locally. If the United States was wealthy, it was because they had stolen and cheated from other countries. And if your neighbor was better off than you, it was also because they had stolen and cheated. Therefore, you should be allowed to take what was theirs.”
Besides nationalizing industry and rewriting the constitution to grant himself vast powers, Chávez unleashed the envy he’d been fomenting in a government-sanctioned wave of lawlessness. He made it known that the government would not prosecute squatters who took over “unproductive” or unoccupied buildings and land. A spree of private property thefts ensued.
“It got so bad that women had to quit their jobs and stay home all day, just to make sure their homes wouldn’t be broken into by squatters,” Patricia says. “You can only imagine the violence. In a place where we never had violent crime when I was a little girl, people were terrified to go out at night.”
Yet Chávez’s welfare state policies, funded for a time by Venezuela’s vast oil revenues, continued to make him popular with the majority. “It’s only in the past few years that most Venezuelans have realized what an incredible mistake they made,” says Patricia. As oil prices have fallen and Venezuela’s war on private industry has reached its natural end, the country is in an economic tailspin. For the past four years, Venezuela has been ranked as the most miserable nation on earth, according to economist Steve Hanke’s “Misery Index.” Last year, the Venezuelan currency officially reached hyperinflation, with average people unable to buy food or basic necessities.
Despite living abroad, José and Haydeé were not immune from the chaos. Not only were they driven to sell their Venezuelan home at a fraction of its value, but they also lost the apartment they had bought for Haydeé’s parents all those years ago, when it was “claimed” in a break-in. Sadly, they realized that there would be no returning home. The old Venezuela was gone. They too applied for U.S. citizenship, finally becoming Americans just last year.
From Mom to Activist to Candidate
Back in West Virginia, the Ruckers were busy raising their growing family, now with five children. Despite her full life as a stay-at-home mom and homeschool teacher, Patricia began getting involved in grassroots activism. “When I heard Obama campaigning in 2008, I was shocked to hear how much he sounded like Hugo Chávez on the campaign trail,” she says. “All the stoking of class envy—it really concerned me. After seeing what happened in Venezuela, I was not going to let my adopted country go that direction without a fight.”
Her worries extended beyond Obama and the Democrats. “In 2008 I was feeling deceived and disillusioned by both parties,” she remembers. “I felt the need to fight back, with education as the primary tool.” She founded a local Tea Party chapter, kicking things off with a tax-day rally at the county courthouse in April 2009.
“About 200 people showed up on a rainy day,” she remembers. “That was so encouraging. We forget that the Tea Party started because people were furious about the stimulus, the Wall Street bailouts, the fiscal insanity. I had felt very lonely, but now I saw I wasn’t alone.”
Patricia sent out invitations for meetings, and the group slowly grew. “We were committed to two things: First, defending the Constitution. Second, educating ourselves and others. We really tried to remain non-partisan and not get caught up in social issues.” After several years, the group restructured as a political action committee and began recruiting liberty-minded candidates for local office. “Every year, we did a little bit more. We started having some successes.”
In 2014, the Tea Party couldn’t find a candidate for one race, a House of Delegates seat in the county’s most liberal district—Patricia’s district. “I just could not stand the thought of the Democrat being unchallenged,” she recalls. “I tried hard. No one was willing to run against him.”
As moms everywhere know, if you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. After prayer and discussion with her family, Patricia reluctantly stepped aside from the Tea Party PAC and filed as a Republican candidate for the seat.
Her opponent was incumbent Delegate Stephen Skinner, a private attorney and the first openly gay lawmaker in West Virginia. As founder of the LGBT advocacy group Fairness WV, he was one of the most liberal legislators in Charleston, with progressive social issues at the center of his agenda.
The odds against Patricia were steep, but she worked hard, going door to door throughout the district. On Election Day, she came just 133 votes away from unseating Skinner. The narrow loss in a tough district whetted her political appetite: “It gave me a taste for the fact that I could do it.”
2016: The Rematch
In 2015, Patricia filed as a candidate again—this time for the West Virginia Senate, where Republicans held a narrow one-seat majority. She badly wanted to see this seat flip to the GOP, “but we needed a candidate who was really going to work hard for it.” Patricia thought she’d be challenging the incumbent, Sen. Herb Snyder, but in June she got some surprising news: Snyder was stepping down, and Skinner would run for the seat. The stage had been set for a rematch.
“I was excited when I heard I was going up against Skinner again,” Patricia says. “He’s my political polar opposite. It’s much easier to run against someone who disagrees with you on almost every point.”
It became one of the most hotly contested races in the state, making headlines for the amount of money spent. The vast majority of that money—four out of every five dollars—was spent on Skinner’s side. One PAC in particular, calling itself “West Virginia Family Values” but funded by unions and trial lawyers, poured money into massive ad buys against Rucker. The Skinner campaign also went on the attack. Patricia was painted as a radical with the incongruous goals of legalizing all drugs, taking away women’s birth control, and defunding public education.
“I think [these allegations] created more support for me than they did me harm,” Patricia says.
While Skinner and his allies took to the airwaves, Rucker took to the streets, again pursuing her door-to-door strategy. This time, instead of a small House district, she had a massive Senate district to tackle. “I created a daily schedule for myself,” she says. “I would start with six hours of homeschooling. Then I would go out for two to four hours of door-knocking. I’d come home and make dinner, and every night I would finish by writing personal letters to the people I’d met that day.” She kept up this grueling pace from October 2015 until Election Day 2016—eventually knocking on over 16,000 doors.
While many would consider this a form of torture, meeting voters energized Rucker. “Talking to people inspired me,” she says. “So many people believe the same things we do—more than you’d think. But they’re busy. They don’t have time to go out and investigate all the issues. My biggest strength in politics isn’t that I’m rich or creative or entrepreneurial—it’s that I’m a teacher. It’s just in me to educate. If I can help someone understand something they didn’t before, that’s where I get my reward.” She also got her reward at the polls on Election Day, defeating Skinner 53 to 47 percent.
Mrs. Rucker Goes to Charleston
While the Senate is now solidly in GOP control, Patricia nonetheless anticipates a tension-filled freshman session: “Down there, they think they know it all.”
Asked what her goals as a senator are, Patricia says, “I want to make West Virginia a state that supports and respects its citizens. That sounds basic, but it’s not. The state government makes too many decisions for its people. At the same time, it’s failing in its core responsibilities of education, infrastructure, and protecting citizens’ rights. I want to make the state more responsive and accountable, while empowering local governments and citizens to reclaim our freedom. Follow what the Founding Fathers expected: that we would manage our own affairs.”
“Part of the state’s role should be protecting its citizens from federal overreach,” she continues. “We need more representatives who have the courage to do that. It means making decisions that aren’t popular, but I didn’t run because I wanted to be popular. I ran because I wanted someone in office who’s going to stand up and not be afraid.”
To the grassroots activist who aspires to political office, Patricia advises: “Don’t give up. Know clearly what you’re fighting for. If you don’t have principles to ground you, you can easily get used and bought off.”
Rucker doesn’t seem to be in any doubt about what her principles are. As someone who has both studied America’s founding and witnessed socialism firsthand, she knows the stakes. At a January swearing-in ceremony held locally for friends and supporters, a crowd of us watched her take an oath to defend the Constitution, with confidence that she really meant it.
As we filed out of the room that night, I overheard one man in a ball cap make a passing remark in his thick local drawl. “If every native-born American loved this country as much as she does,” he said, “we’d be a whole lot better off.”