SENECA COUNTY, OHIO — Rachel Crooks is the tallest person in the room, but she spends most of the evening standing in the corner of the kitchen or sitting at the edge of the dining room table, away from most of the crowd gathered around the counter island.
Eventually, the group quiets and Crooks, 35, comes forward to say a few words about why she’s running for state legislature. She steps out of the corner — but not quite to the middle of the room — and thanks the group of 20 or so people gathered in a supporter’s rural Ohio home.
“Most of you know why I’m running for office,” she says. “A lot of you helped me make that decision.” The reason she’s running, she tells the group, is because she believes there’s a lack of integrity in politics right now, in both D.C. and Columbus.
“I really think that you build the economy from the bottom up, not the top down, so I think we need to really focus on that in our district, and elevate everyone, not just the wealthy and the people at the top,” she says. “So that’s what I hope to do, and I think that once you do that, a lot of other things fall into place.”
Crooks keeps it brief, speaking for less than two minutes before stepping back to let former Rep. Zack Space take the floor. Space is now running for state auditor, and he speaks for twice as long and twice as loud as as Crooks. But it’s Crooks who the women gathered here want to talk about. She’s the one they’ve thrown their energy behind.
When I join them at the counter island, where they’ve all placed the plates of desserts they brought to the event, the first thing they tell me is that they did encourage Crooks to run. One of them has even vowed to get a tattoo commemorating their success should Crooks win her race.
The group is mostly made up of older white women who found each other after the 2016 election.
“One or two of us, we wouldn’t be alive without each other,” one woman, Sheila Graham, tells me. The group mostly found each other on Facebook, and Graham says they now meet regularly to discuss politics and organizing efforts.
Crystal Henson, who went to high school with Crooks, says she was the first person to email Crooks and ask her to run, and she tears up as she talks about having to tell her two young sons that Trump won the election. Now, she’s focused that energy on Crooks.
Later, when Crooks is ready to leave, one attendee asks if he can give her a donation, which she accepts with a smile. Then, she politely asks him if he can move his car from where it’s parked behind hers.
At a bar in Tiffin, Ohio later that night, Crooks gets recognized by two different groups of people before she evens sits down. It’s significantly more attention than your average candidate for state legislature gets when they walk into a bar — but Crooks, of course, isn’t your average candidate for state legislature.
Crooks is one of a record number of women running for office this year, but she’s the only one who also counts herself among the more than a dozen women who have accused the president of the United States of sexual misconduct.
In 2005, Crooks says that Trump — then just a reality TV star and mostly-failed real estate mogul — forcibly kissed her in an elevator in Trump Tower while Crooks was working in the building.
But that’s not really what we’re here to talk about.
When Crooks makes her way back to our table, she orders a chicken sandwich and fries. She opens up the sandwich, using a fork to eat the chicken and leaving the bread behind, and we talk about wind turbines.
Essentially, county leaders are considering a development plan that would add hundreds of wind turbines to the Seneca County area. It’s angered property owners, who say they haven’t been able to weigh in on a project that would result in turbines up to 600 feet tall placed right next to their homes and land.
“I mean, people are up in arms about it,” she says. “Because there’s really no opportunity for the local people to have like a voice or a say in this development project and it’s really being dictated at a state level, so I think that’s part of the issue… They have environmental concerns, too, but ultimately it’s not having a local voice and sort of infringing on their property rights.”
Crooks hasn’t taken a position on the issue yet. At first, she said that as someone who wants to invest in renewable energy, she thought she would support it.
“I think wind and I think renewable energy and I’m all for it, and then I’m like, why is my Republican opponent supporting this?” she asks. “Like, what’s going on? It’s usually not their M.O. to be for, like, green initiatives.”
“I think wind and I think renewable energy and I’m all for it, and then I’m like, why is my Republican opponent supporting this?”
On top of that, some of the liberal women in the community who have thrown their support behind Crooks are against the plan, so Crooks has taken it upon herself to dig further into the issue. She attended a meeting with supporters of the plan, saying she wanted to hear their side; now, she’s planning to speak with environmental organizations about the issue before officially taking a stance.
“If wind is right for us, we should embrace it, but if there are real concerns then we should address them,” she says. “It’s my understanding that Ohio is one of the only states that doesn’t give the local government more of an opportunity to kind of hash things out and, you know, make sure property rights are being acknowledged or that local people have a say… So I haven’t taken like a firm stance, but I definitely hear the concerns of the local folks and I think there’s some validity to them.”
Gina Ganni, who hosted the event for Crooks earlier that night, is one of the local residents who has concerns about the issue. If the development project goes forward, one turbine will placed be right near her house.
“We’ve had no say… People should have a say,” she says.
“She stops and she thinks.”
But Ganni says she hasn’t talked much with Crooks about the issue. She wants to let Crooks to make a decision for herself — and, according to the women who gathered at the house party that night, Crooks’ careful research on the wind issue is one of the things they like most about her.
“She stops and she thinks,” Deb Depinet tells me, specifically referencing Crooks’ efforts to fully understand the turbine debate.
Ganni agrees. “One of the things I like is that [Crooks] will listen to the citizen.”
Last December, Crooks spoke about her experience with Trump on Megyn Kelly’s morning show, saying she was “so uncomfortable” and “threatened” during the alleged assault in the elevator more than a decade ago.
“You feel like you have to say yes. You don’t want to be the nasty girl, the mean girl that doesn’t comply and who puts up a fight,” Crooks said during the interview. “I wish I had been stronger then. I would feel differently now, I’d like to think. Things would be different now.”
“I remember asking, like, do you think there’s space in politics for people who are not how you perceive politicians?”
Not long after the incident, Crooks left New York and moved back to Ohio. In 2016, she shared her story with The New York Times, which published her account along with a number of others just weeks before the election.
“I had a lot of social anxiety after the story first came out because most people didn’t say anything about it, so then you didn’t know if they didn’t believe you, they didn’t know about it, they just didn’t want to talk about it because they supported Trump,” Crooks tells me as we sit at the bar, a year and a half after her story first became public. “It was always this unknown in the air, and it made me anxious and uncomfortable.”
Coming forward with her story shot Crooks into the national spotlight. She was on cable news, talking to national media, telling and retelling her story. Her national profile is what initially caught the eye of the Democratic Party.
When the local Democratic Party and some members of her community first started asking her to run for office, Crooks was resistant. She wasn’t sure the timing was right. She works full time; she’s getting a PhD; she has a dog and a cat and a boyfriend to look after. Plus, she’s an introvert. She wondered if voters would ever be interested in a candidate who doesn’t like to hear themselves talk.
“I remember asking, like, do you think there’s space in politics for people who are not how you perceive politicians?” she tells me.
But she was ultimately convinced it was her duty. Because she now has a national platform, Crooks says she feels it’s important to use it for good. She also wants to create a space in politics for other women like her who aren’t more “traditional” politicians.
“Ultimately I decided there should be a space for this kind of person,” she says, picking at her deconstructed sandwich.
As a first-time candidate, Crooks says she’s had her eyes opened to the realities of politics. She recounts an education bill proposed by her opponent, Bill Reineke, shortly after she announced her candidacy. She was surprised that it wasn’t a more serious piece of legislation.
“I’m new, I guess, to politics. You like to think people are working and doing the right thing, and they’re just… not.”
“It was like they had swept this thing in and hadn’t consulted like any educators or anyone that should have been involved,” she says.
Crooks says she doesn’t want to be naive, but, she says, growing as passionate as I’ve seen her all evening, “Like, obviously! How are these people not involved when you put this together? Crazy.”
“I’m new, I guess, to politics,” she adds. “You like to think people are working and doing the right thing, and they’re just… not.”
While Crooks navigates the politics of wind turbines, she’s also balancing the benefits and drawbacks of her national profile. Like other women who have made accusations against powerful men, Crooks says she’s been criticized by some who say she’s only doing it — and now only running for office — for attention.
In many ways, Crooks tells me all of it makes her uncomfortable.
“What’s really been a struggle for me, right,” Crooks says cautiously, running her hands over her placemat, “is, yes, I have a kind of more national profile and that immediately seems to give me this political clout. Like I’m someone special… I don’t feel special in my local race.”
“I have a kind of more national profile and that immediately seems to give me this political clout. Like I’m someone special… I don’t feel special in my local race.”
Crooks points out that other candidates have been working at this longer than she has and yet have struggled to garner as much support.
“I had a friend who started campaigning immediately after the Women’s March, and she unfortunately just lost in her Democratic primary, but she had worked so hard for like a year and didn’t necessarily achieve this fundraising that even I had in just a couple months,” Crooks says. “And that made me uncomfortable to be put in that position even as sort of a latecomer to the race.”
On top of that, Crooks says she’s sensitive to the fact that her story isn’t the main thing that people care about in her local Ohio race.
“If anything, I think it’s a turnoff locally,” she says. “Like, ‘Is this girl just doing this for media attention?’ and all I want to say is ‘I hate this!’ Like every time I’m on TV it’s completely stressful and draining for me, so please know that I, again, just feel like at some points it’s a duty to engage or respond to something.”
There’s another aspect of the response that Crooks says she found frustrating.
“They were calling me a crazy Hillary supporter,” Crooks says of the response to going public with her story about Trump. “Fun fact: I love Bernie.”
“If anything, I think it’s a turnoff locally. Like, ‘Is this girl just doing this for media attention?’ and all I want to say is ‘I hate this!'”
Crooks voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the 2016 primary and sports a Sanders 2016 sticker on the back of her car to this day. Sanders’ ideals and outsider mentality represent to Crooks “all that is good,” and one of Sanders’ pet issues — getting money out of politics — has become increasingly important to Crooks lately, she says now.
“If we could have publicly financed campaigns, that would help so immensely,” she says. “I go to these events with other candidates, and we’re of the same party, and we are fighting, like, essentially for the same donors to give us their money, and it’s like there has to be a better way.”
Just a day before Crooks and I meet in Ohio, former President Bill Clinton sparked new criticism about his response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, saying he wouldn’t have done anything differently, even in the #MeToo era.
Asked in an interview with NBC if Clinton thought he owed Lewinsky an apology, the former president said, “No, I do not — I have never talked to her. But I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry. That’s very different. The apology was public.”
The story is a cloud over my conversation with Crooks the next day, as the two share a strange sisterhood: Two young women taken advantage of by the most powerful men in the world. And while Lewinsky has been an outcast for more than two decades now, Crooks is running for office, representing in some small way the changing tide.
“I have nothing to hide so I might as well use that voice to do something good.”
Crooks, when I ask about that dynamic, points to strength in numbers, saying that she only was comfortable telling her story about Trump when someone else had told theirs, calling it a “domino effect.”
“At first when that story came out I didn’t want to do anything else, you know?” Crooks says, referencing the Times report about her experience with Trump. “Because I felt like it was out there and that was it and people made their decision about the election, sadly. But once I saw the #MeToo movement happen and people holding men accountable, but not Trump, that’s when I was like, that hypocrisy will not stand.”
She adds, “I think I could have … kind of retreated at that point still, but it just didn’t seem fair. I felt like there should still be justice. I have nothing to hide so I might as well use that voice to do something good.”
Despite her qualms with the attention, it doesn’t seem like Crooks is going to retreat anytime soon.
“I was always politically active to some extent,” she says, mentioning the fact that she’s consistently volunteered for camapigns. “It’s something I’ve been doing since college, so maybe it will be amplified and I like to think that I’ll continue with it, but I’m not quite sure what the next step will be.”
She pauses, and then with a smile, adds, “I should probably finish my dissertation first.”