How the incoming State Senator overcame a troubled past, historic attack ad spending and a lack of party support to win her seat, and what she plans to do next

For hundreds of years, Tai people have celebrated the Loi Krathong festival, which generally falls in November. Participants construct krathong, or baskets, from materials like banana tree trunks, leaves, flowers and candles. As they float them in water, they let go of past transgressions and make a wish for the future.

On Nov. 22, the day of the 2018 festival, Tina Maharath arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, in a state of uncertainty. Back in Ohio, the Democrat was in contention for the Senate seat in District 3, which includes New Albany, Gahanna, Westerville, Reynoldsburg and Groveport. With Republican Rep. Anne Gonzales leading by just 329 votes following Election Day, the candidates were waiting for a tally of provisional and absentee ballots to determine the winner.

A 28-year-old former workforce analyst, Maharath had been the underdog during the entire race. She hadn't been endorsed by the Democratic Party. She'd faced $1 million worth of attack ad spending, which dredged up the financial and legal problems of her past, including her involvement in a 2007 fatal hit-and-run incident. By contrast, she'd only raised about $12,000 for her campaign. To top it off, she was running against an experienced candidate in a district held by Republicans for decades.

Though burdensome, the race had given her the confidence to pursue her lifelong dream of locating her extended family in Southeast Asia. Her refugee parents had fled communist rule in Laos. She had no tie to the paternal side of her family because her father had refused to go back. And any connection to her maternal side was lost when her mother died in a 2005 car accident, which also claimed the lives of her two brothers.

With a positive outlook in the face of adversity, Maharath placed her flowered candle into the river. “Hoping for best luck and good wishes,” she wrote alongside a picture on Facebook, capturing the moment.

Several days later, at 4:30 a.m. Bangkok time, she received word that she'd won the seat. “It seems so unreal right now,” a tired but excited Maharath said in a Facebook Live video, as her 7-year-old son, Teng, popped in the frame. “I just kept thinking, ‘I'm a woman. I'm a minority. I live in Columbus. They don't want me.' Well, I just won. I didn't need a recount. Haaa!”

How did Tina Maharath defy the odds? First, the Canal Winchester resident received a bit of luck when attorney Nathan Dowds, the candidate backed by the Franklin County Democrats, failed to submit signatures to qualify for the race. The party then endorsed their former executive director, Katherine Chipps, as a write-in candidate.

“That's when I just wanted to give up,” Maharath said in a late December interview. “I said, ‘There's no point without the party's money. I'm not going to have any shot in hell.' … But then I thought, statistically speaking, no one supports a write-in candidate.”

Maharath was right; she easily defeated Chipps in the primary.

Maharath's success in the general election is a matter of perspective. To her benefit, Franklin County has shifted hard Democratic in the past two decades, with Democrats holding the Columbus mayor's office. Currently, all City Council members are registered Democrats (at press time, two vacant seats were yet to be filled).

Though previously Republican, District 3 had shown signs of shifting. Hillary Clinton won the area by nine points in the 2016 presidential election. And though Maharath was the only Democratic senator to flip her district during the midterm elections (and since 2006), Democratic Reps. Mary Lightbody, Beth Liston and Allison Russo successfully flipped their House districts — 19, 21 and 24, respectively — which were similarly situated in suburbs.

Mike Hartley, president of Republican-leaning consulting firm Swing State Strategies, said those results are part of a trend in suburbs in Ohio and across the U.S.

“If you looked at what has occurred since 2016, the suburban voters who have been traditionally Republican went away from the party, replaced by the working class,” said Hartley, who once served as director of public liaison and senior staff member for Gov. John Kasich. “There's a realignment going on. … If you look at Franklin County, Hamilton County and Cuyahoga County, the suburban districts that were held by Republican legislators, they lost a lot of those.”

According to Hartley, Maharath's win was simply part of that trend.

“She didn't win by any efforts of her own,” he said. “She just rode the suburban revolt wave.”

“He makes a point that, yes, suburban areas did make a wave this election cycle,” said Maharath, who grew up in Whitehall and Reynoldsburg. “But they didn't come out unless we knocked on those doors.”

If you ask Maharath's supporters, she made a lasting impression in the community long before she announced her run for office. So if luck is a part of her story, which includes overcoming personal hardship and mistakes, so is perseverance and passion. And they expect she'll make use of those characteristics in office.

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Being an outcast was a recurring theme in Maharath's childhood in Ohio. And she didn't fare much better when her parents sent her to France to live with her uncle at age 13. “I got bullied a lot for being American,” she recalled. “But even when I lived in America, I got bullied a lot for being Asian. I guess it just never worked out for me.”

Unfortunately, more trials would come a year later. In a candid online essay, “When the World Gave Up on Me,” she recalls learning of her mother's and brothers' deaths. Her family withheld the news until she arrived home from France on spring break.

“I felt betrayed because the whole plane ride and days approaching my trip home, my friends and family … knew my family was dead, but didn't tell me,” she wrote. “I kept boasting in the car ride from the airport … how my little brother would love these shoes I bought him. … I felt like the whole world lied to me.”

The family carried on as three, including Maharath's father and younger sister, Eva, who declined to be interviewed by Alive. Maharath believes they would have benefitted from counseling, but it was forbidden by her father.

“Being raised Asian-American meant we weren't allowed to have emotions,” she wrote.

After finishing the school year abroad, Maharath returned to the States and proceeded to get in trouble.

Maharath said her “out of control” behavior culminated in 2007, when, at age 16, she struck something while driving. Because it was nighttime, she wasn't sure if it was a person. It was later determined the man, bicyclist Andres Gonzalez Aracen, was already dead, having previously been hit by another vehicle, she said. Still, she didn't turn back.

“I was a petrified teenager who was just so distorted from the traumatic experience,” she wrote. “Had I known what I know now … I would've stopped.”

Rep. Anne Gonzales focused on the incident in attack ads.

“They were basically calling me a murderer, and of course that hurt because I know I'm not,” Maharath said. But she was more concerned about the victim's family. “I just felt bad because now they have to relive that moment all over again.”

When it happened, it was the last straw for Maharath's father, who turned both of his children over to Franklin County Children Services. Maharath lived with a loving foster family on the South Side but couldn't shake the familiar feeling of abandonment. “My foster sisters treated me perfectly and always tried to make me feel good, but they just weren't my sister,” she said.

Maharath had some missteps in her early and mid-20s. She went through a divorce and a custody battle that led to her bankruptcy. She was also cited for contributing alcohol to a minor, but insisted it wasn't as heinous as Gonzales' attack ads portrayed. She offered her 19-year-old cousin a sip of beer in a small-town bar, she claimed. “I wasn't in jail for it. I didn't get arrested,” she said. “We just walked across the street to the police station so they could write up a ticket.”

Maharath turned her life around, graduating with a degree in political science from Ohio University, and eventually landing a job with JPMorgan Chase, where she worked in a call center. She further credits her transformation to her son and trauma-based counseling.

“I noticed that my life was changing slowly, physically and mentally,” she said. “I decided that I want to start doing things that make me happy, and politics was the first thing on the list.”

Her father, whom she still talks to once a week, warned her of the tough road ahead. “He said, ‘They will not accept you because of the color of your skin, and because of the fact that you're a child of refugees,'” she said. “I thought he was over-exaggerating. … [But] throughout the whole campaign experience, everything he's ever told me [came true].”

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To Franklin County Democratic Chairman Mike Sexton, Maharath wasn't considered the best choice at the time.

“We had a strong candidate in Nathan Dowds,” he said. “He was an attorney. He worked for AEP. He served in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

He also didn't have Maharath's troubled history.

“Tina obviously had some problems in her past that we knew the Republicans would use … or that could possibly hurt other Democrats on the ticket,” said Sexton, who is working to mend fences with Maharath. “I'm happy that she won and I congratulated her.”

Going forward, he said the party will have to think twice about candidates who don't have squeaky-clean backgrounds.

“It's something we have to consider,” he said.

Though Maharath is a first-time senator, she had some political experience. She interned at the Ohio House of Representatives in 2015. She was also involved in the Stonewall Democrats of Central Ohio, and expressed an interest in focusing on LGBTQ rights in office.

“I can't think of another single Ohio senator who has ever mentioned that as one of their top priorities,” said David Donofrio, a board of education member for the South-Western City School District who worked with Maharath at Stonewall. “We need more young people serving in every capacity. And we need as much diversity as we can [get] represented, particularly in the state legislature. And so I was excited to hear she was getting involved.”

The local Asian Festival committee members were also excited, as Maharath had been volunteering with them for years. “We were really impressed when she took the responsibilities to do things,” said Chairperson Manju Sankarappa, pointing to Maharath's involvement with activities like volunteer recruitment and health screenings. “I know she is really interested in making sure that we serve the underserved and uninsured population in Ohio.”

Maharath said her first priority will be to establish an Asian-American state commission. She also plans to advocate for the rights of pregnant women in the workforce, and tackle the opioid epidemic by ensuring greater access to and funding for treatment programs.

Additionally, Maharath gained the support of Reynoldsburg City Councilwoman Kristin Bryant. “She did a great job helping the Reynoldsburg Democrats in 2017,” Bryant said. “She did knock on a lot of doors for us.”

Maharath also knocked on a lot of doors during her own campaign, though she often felt discouraged.

“I thought for sure it was going to be a waste of time because … I ran into a couple racist people,” she said. But she kept going, stopping at one of the three Lao Buddhist temples in her district each day to find peace by meditating or completing chores.

“Tina worked extremely hard,” said Sen. Kenny Yuko, leader of the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus. “She was already off to a great start … getting to know the people, getting to know the issues and getting to know the players that will be involved in changing those issues.”

Maharath thinks her former classmates in Whitehall and Reynoldsburg may have contributed to her win.

“When I went back to do a social media search on myself post-election, I saw all these comments from my friends from high school,” she said. “It's like, ‘Oh, my God. This is the girl I grew up with. … And now she's on a ballot. I just voted for her.'”

Maharath also thinks the attack ads backfired, raising her visibility during the election.

“I had a lot of strangers reach out telling me that they did their own research [and] they saw the truth,” she said. “Some people even said, ‘I'm Republican, but I'm going to vote for you because that's horrible.'”

Councilwoman Bryant said people relate to Maharath and appreciate her transparency. “Millennials tend to be more honest and open with everything,” Bryant said. “I mean, look at what they put out on social media. They've never had the opportunity to hide their flaws.”

But to some, Maharath's win is purely a result of the blue wave, high turnout and straight-ticket voting.

“Now, she has an opportunity,” Mike Hartley said. “Will she legislate to her district, or will she legislate toward her ideology?”

***

Growing up, Maharath remembers her father being “emotionless.” But she noticed a difference when she gave him the news of her win. “It was as if he wanted to cry because we just lived our American dream,” she said.

But Maharath discovered there are still battles to be fought. On Dec. 18, she said she faced discrimination by a Statehouse security guard, who mocked her accent.

“I thought getting elected, I was going to catch a break,” Maharath said.

Maharath's complaint is currently under investigation by the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Though the incident cast a shadow over that day, Maharath has had much to celebrate since making her wish in the Bangkok river last November. She located both sides of her family in Asia, and learned she was a third-generation politician, and the first woman to hold office in her family.

“The women in the family were so proud,” she said. “It was like, ‘Wow, I broke another glass ceiling today.'”