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After years of union advocacy, Cynthia Thornton is prepared to run for office. After all, she says, when it comes to representing the people of Michigan’s State House District 7, it’s not far removed from her existing job of Pride at Work Michigan president and as a union steward.
“I’m accustomed to being a representative in the interest of other people. You have your law book, so to speak, which is your contract, and you are advocating. So the people in that situation would be the membership,” Thornton said. “So on a larger scale, state rep versus union rep, your job is the same: to make sure that the interests of your constituency are being met and that the laws, as they apply to the circumstance, are being fairly applied to your constituents so that they get what they’re entitled to.”
But as eager as Thornton is now to run, it’s a decision that developed over the last five years. Though Thornton said her status as an out lesbian in the ’80s could be considered a form of activism, it was 2011 that she took up the activist banner. As early as 2015, she began receiving a regular question: Why aren’t you running for office?
“My routine response was, ‘Because I’m too busy running for my life.’ And that’s still a real thing,” Thornton said.
For Thornton, speaking “truth to power” has not always been the simple thing to do, merely the right thing. For instance, she’s stated bluntly that her activism has not always been kind to her personal career goals. Like when the executive director of an organization said that her workers’ rights advocacy work was “hurting my promotional opportunities.”
Fully content to continue her work — like establishing the first LGBTQ Caucus in a Michigan Congressional District and the first LGBTQ Committee in the MDP Black Caucus — it was one conversation that really tipped the balance for Thornton to run.
“A union brother said to me, ‘You know that you can take that activist mindset and your activism in general to being a legislator; it doesn’t have to change who you are and how you advocate. It actually just gives you a stronger voice for the issues that are important,’” she said. “I had to agree with him. No one had said it that way [to me before], and I had never thought of it that way, but workers’ rights are still crucial to me. Civil rights are still crucial to me. Water shut-offs are still crucial to me. [Stopping] facial recognition technology [is crucial to me, too].”
Changing Minds on Key Issues
Thornton is passionate in the arenas of civil rights enforcement, working to dismantle systemic racism within the criminal justice system, LGBTQ advocacy and continuously fighting for workers’ rights. Similar to the lasting effects of the conversation that changed her mind and inspired her to run for office, Thornton’s goal is to do the same for on-the-fence voters.
“I actually had a Republican man tell me in the last year that his having been in my space and having heard me talk about issues affecting LGBT [people] and particularly talking about the fact that we want to make a living, be able to take care of ourselves, take care of our children, retire with dignity. How is that any different than what any other working person wants?” Thornton said. “And for him being able to hear that from someone, a real person, it made a difference for him. And we differ philosophically on a lot of things, but the point is I was able to reach him. And if can reach him then I can potentially reach others.”
The key to that interaction, Thornton said, was viewing the man not as an “R” to convert to a “D” but as a person.
“To me, that is the most important part: get to know me as a person. Hear me as a person. Let me tell you peoples’ stories, not just positions, not just policy. Let me tell you how people are experiencing this, what they are considering that you may not know. And if you are somebody who is identifying as a human being and not just as a politician who has a loyalty but actually as a public servant who has a higher calling than that, then we can move forward and we can make some progress,” Thornton said. “That’s what I’m looking for: Who is open? And I have to be open, too. I’m here to listen. I’m here to educate myself and find commonality, because within our stories, if you’re telling me something that I don’t know and I’m telling you something that you don’t know, we might actually hear something that resonates and allows us to build something together. And that’s what we need to do.”
Aspirational Goals are Worthy Goals
When asked why Thornton believes she would be the best candidate for the position, she said that her combination of union work and paralegal education has given her familiarity both with constituent issues and legal questions. Additionally, she said she’s been working to broaden her existing knowledge base and looks forward to taking on public service fulltime.
“And I continue to do that work. In the last year or so, I have learned more about sexual assault than anybody could probably want to learn and some of the ramifications that I had never considered. So being a state rep will broaden the number of issues that I’m involved in because, guess what, it will be my fulltime job. I will not have to spend eight to 10 hours a day on other work,” Thornton said.
And coupled with her LGBTQ identity, it’s her diversity of lived and work experience that Thornton hopes will translate in the August primaries.
“My voice is still going to be there no matter what I’m doing, but having people who look like me and who are very out and very outspoken and proactive on behalf of myself and other peoples’ interests, it just seemed to take that to the next level,” she said. “Civil rights in general, workers’ rights, all that’s under attack and it doesn’t seem to be decreasing.”
Win or lose, however, Thornton made sure to impress one point to voters: “Nothing is going to change if we just sit back.”
“Well, I’m going to put it this way: it won’t change necessarily the way you want it to. Life changes all the time, but in terms of having a vision, and some people may laugh, but I do. At its simplest, I want a ‘Star Trek’ world. I want to see people from all walks of life, all colors, all sizes, all different abilities coming together [and] working toward a common goal,” she said. “… If they could model that for us in the ‘60s, is that not something we can actually be now accomplishing in the 2000s? … So, I’m doing what I can do to move it forward so that over the next 50 years, and hopefully shorter, but so that the people who come behind me won’t be saying, ‘Why are we still here? Why are we still battling the same fight?’ We need to not let this particular set of protests die on the vine. Whatever may come out of it, we need to stay engaged so that there’s actually [change] fulfilled.”