Like our most effective teachers in public schools, Army drill sergeants are often undervalued by us while teaching math or marching us to Hell. Yet, when we are no longer with those teachers and drill instructors, we fondly recall them. Tough, but emphatic; demanding, but impactful. We didn’t recognize their worth to us until too late.
That’s what I thought after lunching in downtown Opelika recently with Sherri Reese. She is the Democratic candidate for the state senate in District 27. In a 24-year Army career, she held key roles not fully understood by people unfamiliar with the Army. Drill sergeants have challenging jobs with long hours and many duties. Inspector generals have meaningful jobs dealing with personnel, work teams and more. A captain leading in human resources, as Reese later was, has a job with depth.
“That was my thing, taking care of people,” Reese said. “People are my passion, and serving them is what I did as a human resources officer in the U.S. Army. My years as a drill sergeant, assistant inspector general, recruiter and community leader prepared me for this moment. I have all the skills, training and time necessary to excel as your senator in Montgomery.”
Reese graduated from Opelika High School in 1991. A Tuskegee native, she served in the Army from 1992 to 2016. In 2009, she became an officer and retired seven years later as a captain. She has a bachelor’s degree from Touro University (California) in 2003 and a master’s degree from Webster University (Missouri) in 2018.
“My interpersonal and reasoning skills are combat-tested and battle approved,” Reese told Ballotpedia. “These skills may prove to be very useful in working past divisive politics and placing the focus back on the concerns of my constituents in District 27. A victory for me may not deliver immediate and decisive change in policy but nothing changes unless we have a seat at the table.”
When military veterans run for office, they don’t usually win unless they have prior government experience (aside from the military), are competitive in campaign funding, face a weak candidate or gain office due to one party’s “wave election.” Still, these candidates usually work hard in meeting plenty of voters; that certainly helps a victory become possible.
In 2020, of the 535 seats in the U.S. House and Senate, 90 members have served in the military, with almost half (42 out of 90) of them in the Army. That is according to Axios, a top politics website. In the senate, Reese would replace Thomas Whatley, a retired colonel in Alabama’s Army National Guard.
A National Council of State Legislatures analysis after the 2020 elections identified at least 911 military veterans currently serving in legislatures of 50 states and five U.S. territories. They comprise approximately 12% of the 7,383 state legislators in the United States.
Since retiring from the Army, Reese has volunteered as a member of the Lee-Russell Transportation Board, community liaison for the Opelika Police Department and assistant track and field coach at Opelika High School (As a junior in high school, Reese was state champion runner.).
“For decades, Alabama has deprioritized public school investment,” Reese wrote in her education statement. “The result? We are perennially ranked among the bottom five academically performing states. We can do better; our children deserve better.”
Healthcare and criminal justice are also big campaign issues for Reese. She pledged to fight for Medicaid expansion, increase rural medicine funding and help reform the state’s justice system. She would do so by decriminalizing cannabis use, releasing nonviolent offenders and treating addiction as a public health problem.
“Create jobs, not more prisons,” she said.
The key aspect of a campaign such as Reese is waging is she offers an alternative interpretation of the issues and, win or lose, ‘shows the flag’ for the Democrats. That party has only eight members in the senate, while Republicans have 27 (A positive note: This year the Libertarian Party of Alabama has many candidates signed up on various ballots.).
Reese’s opponent, Jay Hovey, will be spotlighted here in October. It is an important contest because for the first time in 12 years there will be a new senator for District 27. Hovey has been an Auburn city councilman since 2018.
Reese plugs along. If there is an upset and she secures this seat, she might hit Goat Hill in Montgomery like the drill sergeant she was. Her favorite phrase from her Army years is: “Boots on the ground.” That’s a common military expression, but since our interview I cannot but think she will do as she says, if she becomes a state senator.
Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer since 2011. He is a member of the national Education Writers Association (focus-Higher Education). firstname.lastname@example.org.