HOTSEAT- Obama girl: Why Szakos eyes Council seat

Kristin Szakos

It's the Obama effect, and we're not saying that because Kristin Szakos has an Barack Obama "Hope" poster hanging in her living room.

After working on Obama's presidential campaign as the 5th District volunteer czar for nearly two years and assembling a formidable list of 7,000 volunteers, Szakos follows that with a run for City Council, which she announced on Valentine's Day.

"I have learned an incredible amount in the past few years about how hungry people are to be involved in things that can make a difference," she says.

That seems to be an underlying theme for Szakos. She's married to community organizer Joe Szakos, executive director of the Virginia Organizing Project, and in 2007 they wrote We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk about What They Do– and Why.

"I'm not a community organizer," specifies Szakos. "I'm a writer." Yet community organizing obviously is close to her heart.

She started out as a reporter for the Associated Press, and left a job in Atlanta to go work for a small newspaper in eastern Kentucky. Why? "I wanted to save the world," she admits. "That's why I left the AP."

At the smaller paper, she says, "I could have a real impact."

She could report on the potholes in the road, on a guy doing illegal wildcat mining, and other small-town wrongs that needed to be righted.

"It felt good to get things done using my skill and writing," says Szakos. "I've always been an advocate journalist."

She read Obama's book, Dreams from My Father, because he was a community organizer. "I loved it," she enthuses. "It was so beautifully written. I hoped he'd write another book."

When her mother heard Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, she kept calling Szakos. "So by 2007, I was there," she says.

Can Szakos transfer that enthusiasm people felt for electing Obama into running the city and fixing some of its long-standing problems? 

"What's missing is participation by people who are left out," she says. "Often, the people who are not thriving don't participate." She suggests ways to be inclusive beyond those who live in north downtown, such as taking City Council meetings to neighborhoods, or offering babysitting and pizza.

"I really believe in the power of communication," she says. "Without open communication, the most wonderful ideas in the world falter." She mentions a controversial, city-funded plan to hire a consultant to lead a dialogue on race and notes that could be expanded into a dialogue on class. 

And on other hot local issues, like the Meadowcreek Parkway or the water plan, she says she's listening to opposing viewpoints. "Is there common ground?" she asks.

Szakos faces incumbents Dave Norris and Julian Taliaferro in the May 9 Democratic caucus for the two Council seats up for grabs, and her biggest challenge will be getting the volunteers whom she organized for Obama out to vote for her over fellow Dems Norris and Taliaferro.

She's relentlessly upbeat. "I don't feel like I'm coming to this because I'm angry," she explains. "I'm coming to this because I have a unique perspective– an organizing perspective."

Age: 50 

Why here? It's southern enough to be warm most of the time, the schools are a lot better than eastern Kentucky, where we came from, I love all the flowers in the spring, and it's central to various family members.  And when we came, Virginia didn't have a statewide grassroots citizens organization, so Joe could build one.

What's worst about living here? People in different classes don't talk to each other– it's like we live in a bunch of parallel universes.

Favorite hangout? The dog park on a nice day

Most overrated virtue? Patience. Sometimes we tolerate the intolerable for too long.

People would be surprised to know: My job aspirations have at one time or another included both being a minister and a nun.

What would you change about yourself? My attention span

Proudest accomplishment? Helping to get Barack Obama elected president. Building a corps of volunteers and helping to keep everyone excited and focused.

People find most annoying about you: I can be pretty impatient.

Whom do you admire? Barack Obama

Favorite book? It changes with every book I read. I love well-written murder mysteries and nonfiction books that take me into another world or help explain this one.

Subject that causes you to rant? When people insist on doing something a certain way just because it's always been done that way, even though it doesn't work.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? E-mail attachments. I send documents to my editor in Islamabad, and he responds within seconds. I never get used to that.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Genetically modified food

What do you drive? A 1994 Hyundai Excel, a 1998 Dodge minivan, and a Suzuki Sport scooter.

In your car CD player right now: Allison Krause singing bluegrass gospel or a rehearsal CD for the Virginia Consort concert next week

Next journey? I'd love to go to France and see old friends.  

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? When I was 21, getting arrested for protesting at the "open house" at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, from where all our nuclear weapons are targeted. I was on probation for two years. 

Regret: Not sticking up for a girl in ninth grade that everyone teased– I've been trying to make up for it ever since.

Favorite comfort food: Soft-boiled egg stirred in with cut-up buttered toast, eaten with a spoon.

Always in your refrigerator: Fresh eggs from a friend's farm

Must-see TV: NCIS and Rachel Maddow

Describe a perfect day.  June, sunny, 75 degrees, I sleep till 10am, read a great book all day, breaking for coffee with a friend and a dog walk along the Greenbelt Trail, dinner at 7 with the family– someone else has cooked. Spend the evening jamming and singing great harmony with friends. 

Walter Mitty fantasy: In a nationally televised press conference, Barack Obama holds up my book on community organizing and says "Every American should read this book!" and then Oprah names it to her book club. 

Who'd play you in the movie? Sissy Spacek (sorry, Sissy!)

Most embarrassing moment? I'm too embarrassed to say.

Best advice you ever got? Never let anyone tell you you're too young or too old to do anything (by my grandmother, now 104).

Favorite bumper sticker? Got Hope?