Reta Jo Lewis is running for mayor of Washington, DC! If you have met the savvy, sophisticated government exec before, you wouldn’t have been surprised by the announcement.
It’s late winter, just a few months before the primary, and her campaign headquarters is bustling with energy and excitement. She took a break from the activity to talk with us about her career, her long-term goals, and why she decided to throw her hat into the race for DC mayor.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Be Inkandescent: When we last spoke with you, you were working as the special representative for global intergovernmental affairs for the US Department of State. You were also the president of Executive Women in Government, and you offered our Be Inkandescent magazine readers 10 Tips for Attaining a Successful Government Career. What made you decide to run for mayor?
Reta Jo Lewis: A number of factors led to my decision, among them my desire to continue my life’s work in public service. But you know, while I was at the State Department, I represented the United States of America in 22 countries on five different continents. Often, I would be talking with leaders from those nations about the importance of openness, transparency, and accountability in government. Far too often, I’d read on the Internet about what was happening back home, and time and time again, I would read stories of corruption in our own local government. After thinking about it, and looking at my experience and skills, I truly felt the best thing I could do for my community would be to run for mayor and help to solve some of the critical issues facing our city.
Be Inkandescent: When elected, what will your big goals be?
Reta Jo Lewis: Several things.
- Ending corruption and bringing openness, transparency, and accountability to City Hall as mayor.
- Growing and sustaining our middle class by ensuring our residents have good-paying jobs. We must diversify our economy and attract new business and entrepreneurship to the District by working collaboratively with business and labor.
- Making sure that our children all have access to top-quality schools so they can be prepared to compete on a global level. We must also ensure that all children have access to a computer and the Internet—not just during school hours, but when they go home, too.
- Providing solid leadership to end the affordable-housing crisis. I will invest $100 million each year in the Housing Production Trust Fund and work with our private sector, nonprofit community, and others to leverage additional resources.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us a little about your background. You are a lawyer by training, and then spent decades working in some high-profile DC jobs. Share some of that history with us.
Reta Jo Lewis: I’ve lived in Washington, DC, for more than 35 years now, and I’ve been honored to hold some wonderful positions. Most recently, I served in the Obama Administration as a diplomat under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, working directly with state and local officials from the US and their counterparts abroad. I also served as a senior advisor to President Bill Clinton on political affairs. Earlier in my career, I was able to serve our city government as chief of staff at the DC Department of Public Works, and again, more recently as the chairman of the DC Commission on Women. I was very honored to have served as director of Nelson Mandela’s National Tour when he came to the US following his release from prison in South Africa.
Be Inkandescent: Why do you love what you do?
Reta Jo Lewis: I love what I do because I have the ability to be an advocate for people and fight for the issues they care about most. I’ve also always enjoyed being an advocate for women and girls. In our city, women make up more than half of the population—and often, women are the ones who are making most of the decisions that impact their families. But you know, I’ve always enjoyed being able to bring people together—from business, labor, government, academic institutions, the nonprofit and faith community—to solve difficult challenges. I believe strongly in the power of collaboration and making certain that all stakeholders have a voice at the table.
Be Inkandescent: What aspect of your career tested you the most?
Reta Jo Lewis: I have always taken challenges as opportunities, and when I went into the State Department, I was asked by Secretary Clinton to do something that had never been done before. Our foreign policy has always been, and will always be, done nation to nation. But we looked at 21st Century diplomacy and wanted to include more stakeholders, so the Secretary tasked me with working with state and local officials domestically and creating linkages with their counterparts abroad. I took on this challenge and we had great successes. We created one of the most robust diplomacy efforts working on major issues—such as job creation and economic development, climate change, and creating openness and accountability in government—with nations such as Brazil, China, Russia, India, and South Africa. Together we created partnerships between our state and local officials and state and local officials abroad.
Be Inkandescent: What was the major crossroads in your career? How did you handle it?
Reta Jo Lewis: After working for eight years, I decided that to accomplish the types of things I wanted to accomplish, I knew I needed additional education. So, I decided to take some time off from my career to attend law school full-time. It was a great decision—it allowed me not only to continue my work in the public sector at a higher level, but to diversify my own career by opening doors in the private sector as well.
Be Inkandescent: Looking back, what advice would you have for your 25-year-old self?
Reta Jo Lewis: You know, I think I’ve done a good job of heeding the advice of my parents, which was always do what is right, work hard, and care about your neighbors. They instilled in all of their children not only a strong work ethic, but they showed by their own example the responsibility we all have to our neighbors and communities. My dad did this through his work with the Democratic party, and my mom, in her work with the NAACP—and both of them as entrepreneurs and small-business owners. They made a huge impact in my community growing up, and I’ve always followed their example.
Be Inkandescent: What do you love most about being a woman in the business world? And what do you hate about being a woman in the business world—and what would you change if you could?
Reta Jo Lewis: Well, if I could wave a magic wand, I would ensure that in every boardroom, in our Congress and among our elected officials, that women were represented. And while we’ve made a lot of progress to ensure the inclusion of women, we still have a long way to go. For instance, women make up less than 20 percent of our elected officials at the national level, yet women represent more than half of our population. I’m very proud of the work that I have done throughout my career to help continue the pathway for women not just in the private sector, but in the public sector as well. My former boss, Secretary Clinton, encouraged many of us—especially women—to continue their work in public service, and I think it was one of the reasons I decided to take the step to run for mayor.
Be Inkandescent: What’s your top leadership lesson for other women? And do you live by that lesson?
Reta Jo Lewis: To borrow an old phrase from the Marine Corps, I’ve always encouraged women to lead from the front and not from behind. But everyone will always be more successful with a team. We all have—I have—taken risks throughout my career and to find the strength and confidence in ourselves to do the things that need to be done. One of the greatest compliments I’ve been paid throughout my career is that I am courageous. I’m not sure that I look at it that way, but it is a real honor to be called that. I feel like throughout my career, I have been transformative—not just of myself, by going back to school and becoming a lawyer—but in helping to transform institutions to help improve the lives of people. But we have to make sure we’re prepared for what we’re trying to do, and that means to work hard to make sure you have the right skills and experience. Beyond that, just believe in yourself and what you can do.
Be Inkandescent: You are clearly making strides and changing lives. Being mayor will be an amazing experience. But if things don’t work out as planned, what is your Plan B?
Reta Jo Lewis: My focus right now is on the upcoming primary on April 1. I truly believe that running for this office is what I am supposed to be doing, so for the next 35 days, I’m going to continue to be out there on the street meeting with the men and women of our great city and continuing to share my vision of how we can create a DC that truly works for everyone.