The politics are personal for Kate Yglesias Houghton ’06

Kate Yglesias Houghton ’06 advocates for social justice on behalf of women in her leadership role at the Democratic National Committee

Political staffer Kate Yglesias Houghton ’06 was in the middle of a campaign swing through Ohio in March 2012 when she finally decided to go see a doctor. She had not been feeling well but her demanding schedule as the traveling point person to Democratic National Committee Chair and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t leave her much time to worry about her health. The then-27-year-old didn’t even have a regular doctor.

With two days off, she caught a plane home from Cleveland to Washington, D.C., and went to a walk-in clinic. She figured she had the flu. They sent her to the Emergency Room because her red blood cell count was so low.

More tests followed. Two weeks later Houghton sat across from a hematologist who began speaking about “immature white blood cells.”

Houghton knew what that meant: cancer.

Her boss is a breast cancer survivor and Houghton had been fundraising for cancer research and care for years. She’d volunteered for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She and Wasserman Schultz created the Congressional Women’s Softball Game in 2009 to benefit the Young Survival Coalition, a nonprofit that helps young women under 40 with breast cancer. The event has raised more than $500,000 to date.

Now, a doctor was struggling to tell Houghton that she had a rare form of leukemia.

“It’s got to be so hard to tell a 27-year-old she has cancer,” Houghton said. “I thought he was going to cry.”

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Community service was part of Houghton’s upbringing. Raised in a Miami Catholic family,  she has a grandfather, Robert Yglesias, who serves as a deacon at St. Louis Catholic Church. Her grandmother, Barbara Yglesias, imbued her with the idea of “social justice.” Together they volunteered in the women’s maximum-security section of the Krome Detention Center teaching remedial English and math.

Early on, Houghton knew she wanted to make a career of community service. At FIU, she studied political science and began to see the connection between social justice and public policy.

“I realized I could go into nonprofit work, but in the course of learning about government and how many people you impact I saw that there was a way of doing what I wanted on a much larger scale,” she said. “You can help people. My eyes opened to a different world.”

She went on to earn a graduate degree in public policy at George Mason University and completed a congressional internship with Wasserman Schultz in 2007. Eventually, the Congresswoman asked her to join the team. Houghton’s responsibilities grew when Wasserman Schultz became chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

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Houghton in action at the Democratic National Committee office in Washington, D

Acute myeloid leukemia comes with a life expectancy of three to six weeks. When she was diagnosed in 2012, Houghton was in the midst of planning the annual softball game she founded. It pits the female Washington press corps against bipartisan women members of Congress for seven innings of fun and friendship, all to help women with cancer. Houghton was too sick to make it that year.

“My husband went in my place and wore a shirt that said ‘Mr. Kate,’ ” she said.

Houghton more than beat the odds on leukemia. Four months after her diagnosis, she went back to work. The next year, she was back in the game. She poured her energy into the softball game and helped raise a record $166,000 to help young women with cancer.

“That was me sticking it to cancer,” she said.

Today, Houghton is in remission and serves as the director of the Democratic Women’s Alliance at the DNC. Day-to-day her role is to give Democratic women leaders the tools they need to effectively communicate the party’s platform and messages. She quickly analyzes and responds to issues in a fast-paced, high-stakes political arena.

The issues have always been personal for her. None more so than the Affordable Care Act. As a cancer survivor, she said, “There’s a security in knowing I’ll never be denied coverage because of this massive pre-existing condition I have.”

She’s had $450,000 of medical treatment to beat cancer. “It gave me a real perspective on what medical bankruptcy could mean,” she said. “I could lose my home for something I didn’t do to myself.”

As the oldest child of a working mother, Houghton is also passionate about establishing pay equity for women. “Women earn 78 cents for every dollar men make,” Houghton says. “I don’t understand that. I’ve been inspired by so many strong women.”

Accepting leadership of the DNC Democratic Women’s Alliance, she said, was scary. But cancer never was.

“What is the alternative? I could live or die. Dying was not an option,” she said. “I was going to live. In some ways it’s the most sure thing I’ve ever done.”

Being a cancer survivor, she said, has fueled her commitment to making change through public policy.

“People’s living conditions can be improved by the service providers, by the government,” she said. “I’ve seen how policy impacts a person in a personal way.”