Teresa Patterson never called politicians until last year's Columbine High School massacre. When she did, she did not like what she heard. Suddenly, she wants to become one.
Patterson, a stay-at-home mother of three daughters, lives in DeWitt, Mich., a suburb of Lansing. In the aftermath of Columbine, the Michigan Legislature was considering a bill to loosen permits for concealed weapons. The law would have allowed the number of citizens who are allowed to carry handguns on the streets from 21,000 to an estimated 200,000.
She phoned her state representative, Republican Valde Garcia, who supports concealed weapons. Patterson said Garcia mouthed the National Rifle Association party line about the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. ''I got so upset,'' Patterson said. ''How can people keep taking about the rights of gun owners when the news is so hard to hear?''
Patterson called Garcia again earlier this month before she and her 10-year-old daughter Emily went to the Million Mom March in Washington; Garcia had not changed. Garcia, with the NRA's approval, last year introduced a bill to prevent Michigan cities from suing gun manufacturers for the municipal, medical, and law enforcement costs related to gun violence. In Detroit, the costs are so high that police chief Benny Napoleon said, ''I absolutely, 100 percent support an effort to sue the gun makers.''
Garcia said, ''Detroit and Wayne County are wasting taxpayers' money by filing harassment lawsuits'' that would ''bankrupt the gun industry.'' In a column in USA Today, Garcia wrote, ''More than the Second Amendment is at stake when cities and states file lawsuits against gun manufacturers. The entire Constitution and the principles underlying it are, too.''
So Patterson went off to Washington. At a hotel rally, her daughter had her picture taken with Michigan Senator Carl Levin. The next day on the Mall, a college roommate, Deanna Douglas, saw how Patterson was being moved by mothers who have lost children to gun violence and said, ''Why don't you run for office? You've been calling all these politicians, it's time for you to get out front.''
Patterson remembers saying, ''No, I could never do that.''
On the 11-hour bus ride back to Michigan, Patterson never slept a wink. Thirty-nine years old and a social worker by training, she remembered that when she was 14, she stunned her family and friends by volunteering through her 4H Club to go on a humanitarian mission to Belize and Honduras.
She used nine months of baby-sitting earnings for the trip. She was escorted by a Peace Corps volunteer to a village, where she lived with a 10-child family that slept in one room. Within the first hour of her arrival, she saw a woman carrying her dead baby out of a hospital. Malnourished children with bloated bellies played limply outside their grass huts.
''The trip changed my life forever,'' Patterson said. ''When I came home, I would be at the dinner table and my brother said he didn't want to eat peas. I would be so mad at him.'' When Patterson got off the bus and drove home from the Million Mom March, she was changed again, forever. She checked with the election commission to see who was running against Garcia. No one who cared about the gun issue was running. ''I've got to run against this guy,'' she said.
Patterson filed as a Democratic candidate. Her husband, Patrick, said, ''I thought she was crazy at first. But we've gotten through some big projects in our marriage.'' The Pattersons once purchased a house for $100, moved it 10 miles, restored it, and then watched a fire burn it down. ''So I figure we'll get through this one.''
The race is very uphill. Garcia is popular in a district that is becoming more suburban, but remains significantly rural and significantly progun. But Laura Baird, a pro-gun-control representative who represents a bordering district that includes East Lansing, said she is ''thrilled.''
''I think people are going to be surprised with the number of votes she gets from mothers,'' Baird said. ''She has already changed the tenor of the campaign. Just a month ago, Garcia was an obnoxious advocate for the NRA. Now he is trying to seem more thoughtful. He is being forced to listen to other viewpoints.''
Garcia said by telephone that he is confident that most of the voters in his district still want to ''exercise the right to have a gun.'' Patterson wants to see just how much that is true.
''The morning I filed, I stopped at my Catholic church to light a candle and get my thoughts collected,'' Patterson said. ''As I walked into the church, a maintenance man had Rush Limbaugh on. Limbaugh was talking about how all the Million Mom March wanted to do was repeal the Second Amendment and how the mothers were hiding behind their sob stories. I figured that was a sign to go ahead and run.''
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company