Nevertheless, She Persisted
Imagine that, more than a decade ago, you make a mistake.
A mistake that happens to be against the law, which you own up to, express remorse for, and work to make right.
Imagine that between now and then, you go to college, earn a degree and start a career. You embrace being a public servant, and you seize an opportunity to make a bigger impact by running for elected office.
Then, imagine your mugshot is sent to voters. Imagine your family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and strangers seeing your face, accompanied by the words “guilty of theft,” when they go to their mailbox, mixed among their bills and correspondence.
JoAnna Bautch ’17 doesn’t have to imagine this. It’s what she experienced while running for a seat in the Wisconsin legislature. And it’s what drives her to keep pushing forward.
“I want to tell my story, I want to be vulnerable. The emotions are real. I was all in, and that heartbreak is real,” she says. “But I’m so eager to continue serving my community here in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin.”
FINDING HER WAY
In 2008, Bautch was charged with theft for stealing money from the bank at which she worked as a teller.
“I was young. I was living on my own for the first time. We were in the middle of a recession, and I was getting paid just above minimum wage. It was hard,” recalls Bautch, who pleaded guilty to the charge. “I know it wasn’t the right thing to do to take the money. I told my mom and my sister that this was happening, and I felt like I owed it to them to be honest.”
Bautch was placed on probation for a year and satisfied all conditions of her sentence, including community service hours and paying restitution. Eventually, a new job as a dental assistant inspired her to consider going to college: “I heard about all of these cool jobs and opportunities that my patients had, and it made me think: ‘There is so much more for me than this. I’ve got to go to school.’”
At Alverno, Bautch joined a community that challenged her to set ambitious goals and believed in her ability to achieve those goals.
Bautch graduated in 2017 and has devoted her career and her volunteer service to social justice and to working in the Latinx community. In 2019, the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee (HPGM) honored her as a rising leader. Today, she works as movement politics director at Citizen Action of Wisconsin.
READY TO RUN
Bautch is no stranger to politics, having logged many hours on the campaigns for her older sister, JoCasta Zamarripa, who in 2010
became the first Latina elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature.
State Assembly members hold two-year terms, so each time her sister came up for re-election, Bautch faithfully knocked on doors and spoke with voters. That is, until Zamarripa decided to run for — and won — a seat on Milwaukee’s Common Council. A new representative would be needed in Wisconsin’s 8th Assembly District.
Bautch initially hesitated to run out of fear that any opponent would use her past mistakes against her. “I thought there was no way someone with a criminal record could be a candidate, let alone get elected,” she says.
But with the support of her family and her Alverno sisters, she stepped forward this spring to announce her candidacy.
“Alverno equipped me with a community of women who showed up for me: women who knocked on doors, who handed out literature, who got people to sign my nomination papers, and who asked people to vote for me,” she says.
CONFRONTING THE PAST
As a candidate, Bautch didn’t seek to hide her record; after all, it’s part of her story. Still, it stung when she found out an opponent was mailing a piece disclosing Bautch’s record to voters.
“It was such a horrible feeling when I found out,” she says. “It was one of my biggest fears coming true, and I started to feel embarrassed. I took the rest of that day to regroup and remind myself why I was doing this.”
Bautch summoned her resilience and continued knocking on doors, finding supporters as she did so. Her experiences inspire her to work for those who aren’t able to move forward from their mistakes, who remain tethered to their pasts and whose futures remain impossibly out of reach.
“It’s hard growing up in my community. In my district, nearly 40% of folks live below the poverty line. We have a high school graduation rate of less than 60% and a college graduation rate of less than 10%. I know many people who grew up in my neighborhood who have had negative experiences with law enforcement and have criminal records. Many of my constituents fall into the criminal justice system and can’t get out,” she says. “It was heartbreaking to be attacked for a mistake I had made over 10 years ago.”
ELECTION DAY, AND BEYOND
For Wisconsin voters, August 10, 2020, was the primary election for a range of offices, including State Assembly. Bautch’s day started early with a treasured tradition: “shaking campaign signs for all those early morning voters,” she says. “I was with the women who stood by my side before the campaign, during the campaign, and have been there after the campaign, including my Alverno sisters.”
After polls closed, Bautch was in the lead for most of the night. But an early morning text brought disappointing news — she had lost the primary by 108 votes.
Bautch knows the unforgiving depiction of her record didn’t help her campaign. But she doesn’t blame it for her loss. Instead, she mourns the missed opportunity to hold face-to-face conversations with as many voters as possible due to the pandemic.
“After I finished telling people my story, I got every single person to be with me. Not one person told me no, you’re not good enough,” she says. “But in a pandemic, people didn’t want to open their doors to strangers. People didn’t answer the phone.”
At age 32, Bautch is far from done with politics. She relishes her work for Citizen Action, which takes her across the state working with current and emerging leaders within the political sector.
“This responsibility of working with communities to develop, prepare and support new political leaders in Wisconsin is very powerful,” she says.
Bautch knows that in addition to her professional experience and skills, she brings something else to the table: her story. A story that has shaped her into the person she is today, and which evolves as she grows into the person she’s meant to be. A story that she generously shares with others so that they don’t feel the shame and fear she has experienced. A story to inspire hope.
“I want my story to encourage folks to get involved in the political process in whatever capacity,” she says. “My district is home to the largest Latinx population in the state, and we also have the lowest voter turnout in the state. I want to change that. I want my story to remind people that we all have a voice and a seat at the table.”
After all, it is through sharing stories that we can establish common ground, build mutual respect and work together for positive change.
“At the end of the day, we all want the same thing,” she says. “We all want to move through our communities without fearing for our lives or the lives of our loved ones.”
This article appears in the fall/winter 2020 issue of Alverno Magazine.