Lightning bolt moment sparks career in public service

Above: Sen. Anna Wishart and her quarter horse Bubba enjoy some quiet time in Lincoln’s Wilderness Park.

Sen. Anna Wishart can tell you the exact moment that she was first inspired to run for elective office.

While attending an annual luncheon in honor of former Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis in 2010, she heard a speech by state Sen. Amanda McGill on the importance of women running for office. McGill had been elected to the Legislature in her early 20s.

“I turned to my mom and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I could do this,’” Wishart said. “I remember it so clearly; Amanda literally spoke to me.”

Soon after, the 25-year-old decided to run for the Lincoln Airport Authority. After five years on the board, including serving as chairperson, Wishart decided to take an even bigger leap and seek the open seat in her legislative district.

Having served as a legislative staffer for six years — and as campaign manager for a state senator — Wishart knew the territory well. As a life-long Lincoln resident, she also knew her district, but wanted to learn more.

So, she and her faithful border collie Finnegan hit the campaign trail.

“Knocking doors is an incredible opportunity to get to know the people you want to serve,” Wishart said, “but I’m slightly introverted, so my dog Finn was a great icebreaker. People still ask about him.”

Another dog, along with two horses, help the new senator pursue her love of the outdoors. A fan of long distance running and horseback riding, Wishart said she spends as much time in nature as possible, visiting Lincoln’s Wilderness Park four or five times per week.

She credits her family for instilling in her a strong sense of place. Her father, a UNL professor who focuses on Great Plains studies, helped impart an appreciation for Nebraska’s wide open spaces.

“My family wasn’t involved in party politics,” she said, “but my twin sister and I were taught at a young age to feel rooted in a sense of community.”

Anna and her sister were active in We the People at Southeast High School, reaching the national finals in the civic education competition. Wishart said she loved learning about the constitution and government, but a career in political office never crossed her mind at the time.

Instead, after graduation she headed to Middlebury College in Vermont to study film.

“I love classic films,” she said, “especially John Ford westerns.”

College led to work as an assistant location manager on a film that was shot in Iowa, but Lincoln has always been home.

Now in office, Wishart said she feels a keen sense of responsibility to the constituents who live in the neighborhoods where she grew up, adding that following through for them means something distinctive in Nebraska’s unique legislative environment.

Success here, she said, requires checking one’s ego and party at the door and cultivating an open attitude and a willingness to work closely with those who see the world differently than you do.

“I’ve never wanted to live in an echo chamber of my own beliefs,” she said. “Some of my best political mentors have been people who’ve challenged me.”

Asked what might surprise people about life as senator, Wishart said some Nebraskans may not realize how open and available senators are and how willing they are to work for their constituents.

She recalled a day as a staffer several years ago when she encountered a man and his son outside the Capitol building looking confused and hesitant. Wishart asked if she could help.

“The man asked which door the public could use to enter,” she said. “I replied, ‘All of them. This is your building. This is the people’s house.’”

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