Sarah Elfreth in Her Own Words – Candidate for Maryland State Senate

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Sarah Elfreth
Sarah Elfreth

When I met Sarah Elfreth at a “Meet and Greet” in my Eastport neighborhood, I was impressed by this young, ambitious candidate for Maryland State Senate, District 30. I’ve never been terribly political, but lately I’m driven to support promising female candidates. I showed up to hear what Sarah had to say.

She wants to protect the environment, support public schools, promote affordable health care, help people find jobs, take care of children, and keep people safe—all things that matter to me. She talked of her work on campaigns for Maryland Democrats; her experience as a lobbyist, fundraiser, and consultant; and her tenure as government affairs director at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

I’d read about her background, including a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins and training from Emerge Maryland, which grooms Democratic women for office. I’d wondered about her youth (age 29), but in person I see it’s a huge plus, she’s so poised and energetic. I wanted to understand what drives her, who she is. “I have a hard time talking about myself,” Sarah confessed, but she agreed to let me interview her. Here’s the result of our 60-minute phone conversation.

Tell me a little about your childhood.

I grew up outside of Philadelphia in Barrington, a town of 6,000, with an older sister and younger brother. I went to public schools, played softball throughout childhood and into high school, and made the varsity team sophomore year.

My parents divorced when I was 3. I was raised by my mom, who was a probation officer, and my stepdad, a locomotive engineer who worked the night shift. They married when I was around 7 and he truly filled the father role for me. My mom has a degree in history and she somehow fell into her profession; I would describe my parents as working class people. Both were union members. I get traits from both; empathy, tolerance, and listening from my mother. My stepdad is a friendly Philadelphia Eagles fan who can walk into a bar and talk to anybody.

As a child, what were your ambitions?

Like so many kids in my generation, I thought about being a marine biologist. Growing up near the Jersey Shore, with rivers and streams everywhere, I was fascinated by the water. Across the street was a stream and forested area; I caught tadpoles and played in the woods. It was really cool that as an adult I ended up working for the National Aquarium.

But really, my goal was to go away to college. Not everyone I knew got to do that. The rule in my family was, you can go away to school only if you get a scholarship.

What was your very first job?

At age 13 I ran the lines at the softball field every day, marking them with white chalk. I earned a dollar a line. In high school I worked at a jewelry store, a cheese shop, and a coffee shop. I worked all through college.

Why did you choose to major in political science?

At 17, when I entered Towson University, I didn’t really know what politics is, but I loved history and something drew me to my major. My favorite book was Burr by Gore Vidal, with its interesting perspective on the founding of our country. My family, though, was not at all political; no PTA, no civic association membership in my household.

How would you describe yourself?

I’ve always worked hard. I’m known for being well prepared and for being everywhere at once. I’m active and involved, and I get a lot done. And I have a weird “rain man” sort of ability to pull information from the depths of my brain—I can access facts and details I didn’t realize I’d stored. I’m also good at bringing people together and getting them to work toward a goal.

I’m a definitely a nerd. I was in the honors college at Towson. Governor Martin O’Malley appointed me as the student member on the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland. Every member of the board was a mentor to me and they taught me what public service is.

What traits will help you succeed as an elected leader?

I think being a good listener is essential—doing more listening than talking. In politics people tend to value male-leading traits—being aggressive, speaking well in front of large crowds—but in my 11 years in politics I’ve found that what’s really effective is the ability to absorb what people have to say and to work across the aisle. I’m not afraid to talk with people who have different opinions and beliefs. Compromise is critical. I always think, how do we get to a place where we can both win?

I have a professional motto of, “don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution.” I’m a problem solver. I see the challenges our community faces and I want to solve them. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines watching when I have so much to offer.

What are you most proud of? 

People say to me, “I can’t believe you’re so young and have done all the things you’ve done.” They’re surprised at how effective I am. At the National Aquarium I’d hear, “You ran the most efficient meeting I’ve ever been to,” and I’m proud of that. I know how to stay on topic, keep focused, and zero in on what needs to be accomplished.

Thanks to my experience on the Board of Regents, I wrote my senior thesis on student representation on governing boards. I explored the history, looked at approaches in different states, and gathered advice. The result was published by the University of Alaska as a “field guide for student board members.”

I’m proud of the floating wetlands I helped launch at the National Aquarium, where we planted native grasses whose roots absorb pollutants and provide habitat for organisms. I obtained funding to bring in Maryland school kids for free so they can learn about the natural environment. We’re supporting cutting edge research and also communicating science to everyday people.

And, working with my best friend, we endowed a scholarship at Towson to help pay for unpaid internships in politics and public policy for undergraduate woman—so that a lack of income doesn’t stand in their way.

I feel good about all these things. But there so much more I want to do. For example, putting together forums on issues the community struggles with, such as domestic violence—looking at how it affects families, police, hospitals—and what to do about it.

I want to be the legislator who really explores the issues, gives people a voice, and gets results.