Democratic Primary for state rep: Sarah Grace

Sarah Grace wants to fight for well-paying jobs and working families in Ohio’s 94th House District, and she wants to help generate an environment in the state for opportunities to be leveled.

“My desire is to try to help opportunities be equal, whether it’s educational opportunities, job opportunities, protections, equal pay for women, equal opportunities for minorities,” she said during an interview Tuesday at Fluff Bakery on North Court Street in Athens on Tuesday.

Grace is supporting an agenda recently released by state legislative Democratic leadership that includes raising the minimum wage, expanding paid family leave, ensuring equal pay for equal work, making college affordable, reducing taxes for working families, and investments in clean energy and infrastructure jobs.

A local real-estate business owner and manager, Grace is one of two Democratic Primary candidates vying for the party’s nomination to replace term-limited state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, in the 94th House District.

The district includes all of Meigs County, all of Athens County except Trimble Township, and parts of Vinton and Washington counties. In the primary, Grace faces Ohio University Graduate Student Senate President Eddie Smith (featured in a separate story in this issue). The winner will go on to face Republican Jay Edwards, of Nelsonville, in the Nov. 8, 2016 general election.

Grace lived in Vermont until she was 10 years old, at which point she moved to Missouri where her parents had previously lived. She ended up graduating from high school a year early as her dad’s job was transferred to Columbus.

After visiting Ohio University, Grace was admitted into the Honors Tutorial College program in 1993 but transferred out of the program to take a broader range of courses in arts and sciences. During her college years, Grace met future husband (and current Athens County Municipal Judge) Todd Grace.

Upon graduating in 1997, Grace moved to Florida and got a job working for the Florida House Committee on Water and Resource Management, a non-partisan position wherein she conducted research and produced reports on various issues related to water and resources in Florida.

“I learned a great deal about the behind-the-scenes process of how government works and the importance of very careful drafting of legislation,” she said. “If you’re involved in drafting a law that can impact an entire state, you need to think about all the implications of what that will do, being sure that the words have the intended impact.”

Todd Grace proposed to Sarah while she was in Florida, and she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, with him where he was beginning law school. In Ann Arbor, Grace said she worked for a real-estate company.

At the age of 24, Grace said, she was diagnosed with cancer. This would have a major impact on her life and outlook toward public policy to this day, she said. Grace underwent chemotherapy and was successfully treated, but she faced dire circumstances. If not for the kindness of her boss at the time, she said, she could have lost her job, which provided her and her husband housing and income while he was a law student.

For one thing, she would have lost her health coverage and been faced with a mountain of medical bills. Their lives could have been very different, she said. Fortunately, her boss kept them in their home and kept her on the payroll, though impacts of the diagnosis would keep cropping up, she said, including being repeatedly denied insurance coverage in later years due to the pre-existing condition. It wasn’t until the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010 that insurance companies could no longer deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.

“The fact that can happen so fast. We were independent doing perfectly fine. I was working. Todd was in school. But just an unexpected medical diagnosis could have just entirely changed the trajectory of our lives,” she said. “We could have been put in the position of risking potential future bankruptcy, his career, just for my health. That makes me a strong support of paid family medical leave and rights and protections for workers and families.”

Speaking of the time she was being denied health coverage, Grace also mentioned how important Planned Parenthood could be to women without health insurance, calling the organization a lifesaver. Currently, the Ohio Legislature is considering a bill to defund Planned Parenthood.

“To have access to something that was safe, accessible, local, it’s vital for so many people,” she said. “It really makes me sad that it’s become so politicized. It hurts people’s lives. I can say that as someone who needed it.”

After the birth of their first child, Wesley, the Graces moved back to Athens, where Todd began work as a local lawyer and Sarah focused on Wesley and three more children to come, as well as managing the family’s local real-estate business.

She said educational issues have become very important to her, what with her experience homeschooling Wesley due to needs with advanced learning (having begun college coursework at the age of 12), and sending her other children to public schools.

“I wish all public schools were fully and fairly funded,” she said, pointing to unconstitutional and inequitable funding models for public education, efforts to undermine teacher’s unions, and standardized testing that overburdens students and puts targets on the backs of teachers. “Teachers don’t go into teaching for the money or the glory. I think we need to trust our teachers.”

She spoke of the need for prevailing wage, to stop right-to-work, to ensure there is a social safety net so that when things fall through, people can still pay their bills and feed their families.

“I want to work to improve the quality of life in our schools, in our jobs and in our communities,” Grace said. “I know I can do that. I know it won’t be easy.”