Editor’s Note: This is the second of two profiles on the 15th District Congressional candidates.
Allison Russo has come a long, long way and accomplished much — and she plans to accomplish a lot more for Ohioans.
The Democratic candidate for Ohio’s 15th District representative to U.S. Congress — vacated when Steve Stivers stepped down this spring — is currently in her second term representing the 24th House District in the Ohio Statehouse. She will oppose Republican Mike Carey on Nov. 2.
Russo recently spoke to the News Journal about family, politics, and her long, winding road to Ohio and to representing its residents.
She was born to a single mom who was barely out of high school, and raised in a small town in rural Mississippi, south of Vicksburg near the Mississippi River. By the time her mom was 21, they were a family of three, including Allison’s little sister.
“She was a single mom with two little girls trying to make ends meet,” said Russo. “We lived in pretty deep poverty. She worked in a convenience store, and cleaning houses and office buildings.
“Then finally she got an opportunity to get workforce training through the local carpenters’ union. She became a union carpenter, and for the first time we had a stable income and a place to live and she was able to pay the bills. That really changed life for us. She went on to get community college credits and some other jobs as I was growing up,” said Russo.
“That experience has really been the foundation for things I am most passionate about in public service — understanding that when someone has a true opportunity for a good-paying job, and health care, and access to good schools and a good education, it changes the trajectory not only for that person, but for their children, and for the entire community as well.”
Growing up, before things became more stable for the little family, they “bounced round a lot” in Mississippi.
“We were very fortunate that my grandma lived close by, and when things didn’t work out in terms of where we lived or if we couldn’t afford rent, she provided a home base where we could go for a couple months at a time.”
When Allison’s mom became a union carpenter — around the time Allison was in second grade — they were able to buy “a small, simple home.”
Living in the country in a farming community, like a lot of kids “we had to make our own entertainment” playing in the nearby creek, fishing, and just exploring.
But she was a good student, and loved learning and going to the local library.
By the time she entered high school, she became involved in many activities, and graduated as valedictorian — in a class of 38 students in one K-12 building.
She said many graduates of the area worked on the local farms or at the furniture plant, joined the military, or attended the local community college. Allison said she was the only one in her class to attend a four-year university — The Mississippi University for Women — through a combination of part-time jobs, work-study programs, subsidized student loans and a Pell Grant.
“It was a small campus and easy to get involved in campus life,” Russo said. She became active in student government her freshman year, and by her senior year was treasurer of the student government association. “I ran for president; it was my first and only election loss,” she said.
She graduated with a degree in microbiology. The university recently honored her with a Distinguished Alumni award.
On her way to a healthcare career, she met a young Air Force officer training as a pilot at the nearby base. Allison and Brian married in 2000, and lived in several places while he served in the military.
During that time she became a public health professional involved with the military health system, working on veterans and military issues.
After her husband — a combat veteran and former law enforcement officer — left the Air Force, the couple decided to settle down in Ohio in Upper Arlington, near his parents in the Dublin area, and his sister in the Dayton area.
“Politics wasn’t something I planned to get into — I’d been working in healthcare policy, with military families and senior health care as well,” Russo said. “In 2016 I got more engaged in politics because it was a very contentious election season, and we had some local elections in 2017 and I got involved in a large school initiative.”
She was interested in redistricting reform as well as the state’s budget, and how it related to healthcare and opportunities. Plus, she was “tired of all the political dysfunction I saw.”
The state representative seat came open in her district, and someone suggested that she run. But by then they had three children, including a baby just a few months old, plus the seat had been occupied by a Republican who had won the previous election by 21 percentage points.
“I thought, ‘If I don’t go for it, who else will?’” She ran in 2018, and won.
“I got to work on day one, with focus on issues including Ohio military families and health care, issues around mental and behavioral health services, early childhood education, and kids’ health, as well as trying to ensure that youths and adults have access to good-paying jobs, which is ‘rooted in the foundation of my own experience in my early years.’”
After winning re-election in 202o, she is currently in her second term with “leadership roles on the health committee, joint oversight, working on the state budget — I wear many different hats.”
Russo told the News Journal that she wants to see the federal government pass the infrastructure bill.
“It will have a significant impact on bringing jobs to the state and is an investment in infrastructure to keep our economy going as well as our roads, water, electrical grid, and making sure we are rebuilding schools,” she said. “I’m glad to see Democrats and Republicans working together”, and she praised U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) for “coming to the table” and doing what’s best for Ohio and the nation.
She said that in Ohio’s 15th District, people mostly tell her they just want the opportunity for good-paying jobs — “to make an income where they’re not just surviving, but thriving” — and she wants to improve access to affordable physical and mental health care, and ensure that everyone has access to a good education and to job training.
“I have proven myself to be a real individual voice in a diverse district with diverse opinions,” Russo said. “I am regarded as someone who is reasonable and works hard, and at the end of the day I’m there to fight for my constituents and their issues.”