After discovering that not all health problems can be solved in the exam room, one nurse practitioner is hoping to beat the odds by winning a seat in the U.S Congress.
Celeste Williams, a family nurse practitioner and mother of four, is running against the Republican incumbent Rep. Steve Womack as the Democratic candidate for Arkansas’ Third Congressional District.
Before considering running for Congress, Williams attended a Capitol Hill lobbying day with the Arkansas Nurses Association in 2016. She said the event made her realize that politicians did not have nearly the same insight into health care as she and other nurses.
“I went to meet my members of Congress to talk about issues facing nurses and the effects – predominantly on rural people – the appeal of the Affordable Care Act [has] and I realized that they didn't have a really good understanding of health care policy or effects of bad policy.”
As a nurse practitioner, Williams said she has patients who – because of difficulty affording quality healthcare – face a lower life expectancy and poorer health. If elected, Williams plans to focus on meeting Americans’ basic health care needs, regardless of income.
“I’m a nurse practitioner,” Williams said, “Every day I see people in my practice who cannot afford their medication or health care or choose to ration them because they have no other options.”
Williams knows firsthand that hospital staff are exhausted from a lack of resources during the pandemic, as intensive care unit staff have seen an influx of patients, she said. Williams thinks the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates a need for new leadership in Washington.
“Our president was not forthright with our people in what was happening,” Williams said. “He knew it was dangerous and he chose not to tell anyone and downplay the pandemic. If President Trump would have said, ‘It is our patriotic duty to wear a mask and help fight this common enemy,’ then we would be in a different place right now and that to me is a lack of leadership.”
Jordyn Releford, a freshman and first-time voter, said she thinks Williams is the connection to everyday Arkansans that Washington needs.
“I feel like she’s actually speaking to you,” Releford said. “Not like she has a higher position than you. She speaks to you as a regular person. I think that’s what a candidate representing our cities should be. She represents who she is running for.”
Less than a week before Election Day, political analysis site FiveThirtyEight predicts Williams has a less than 1% chance of winning.
Williams said she thinks the projection is based more upon historical election results than what is happening on the ground in Arkansas. In 2018, Democrat Joshua Mahony challenged Womack for Arkansas’s Third Congressional District in the U.S House and although he won just 33% of the vote, it was the second-closest Arkansas Congressional race that year.
“More often than not, the Republican in office has not had a challenger,” Williams said. “And when you look at the third district, Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt are always recruiting talent and working on diversity and inclusion. That has an effect on the culture of our district, and with a thousand people on average moving to NWA every month, they're not all Republicans.”
In her most recent TV campaign ad, Williams described Republican opponent Steve Womack as ‘too chicken’ to hold town hall meetings and face questions from constituents about his pandemic response. She said he was too cowardly to stand up to his corporate donors, who have agendas she thinks are bad for Arkansans. Williams is only accepting grassroots donations to her campaign.
“Steve Womack is taking a lot of money from pharmaceutical PACs and special interest groups, like the poultry PACs,” Williams said. “There's no incentive for him to vote in a way that actually benefits his constituents because that's not who he is representing, so I want to be held by everyday citizens rather than some special interest groups.”
Alexia Sikora, Womack’s campaign spokesperson, said in an email that the congressman has held several town halls and community events during his current term. Womack has represented the Third District since his election in 2010, and was mayor of Rogers prior to his Congressional victory.
“The Congressman has held multiple town halls during the 116th congressional term, which included in-person town halls, 'Coffee With Your Congressman' events, and mobile office hours,” Sikora said. “At the outset, we held a telephone town hall specifically on coronavirus relief and resources and have continued to directly engage with constituents and local organizations through webinars, virtual calls, and socially-distanced, in-person meetings.”
Phil Necessary, a senior, has seen up close how Steve Womack has given back to the Northwest Arkansas community after interning for Womack during his sophomore year, he said.
“When he ran for Congress he really pushed for tax incentives and incentives for businesses to set up shops in NWA,” Necessary said. “He’s been big about getting hands-on with local schools, and getting his name established as someone who cares about their constituents, not just about being in office.”
As Election Day draws near, Williams said she is pushing as hard as possible to turn the Third Congressional District blue.
“2020 is the year of the nurse,” Williams said. “It’s the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale's birth, and this was a designation [made] by the World Health Organization several years back, before we even knew there was going to be a pandemic. So I think, what better time to elect a nurse than right now?”