Rebecca Mehra had unique criteria for her careers moves after graduating from Stanford University in 2016. She wasn’t just looking for the best opportunity to pursue her running at the pro level—she also wanted her new training ground to be a place where she could get involved in the community.
Mehra, 25, who earned a degree in international relations, soon ended up in Bend, Oregon, to train with the Little Wing team, sponsored by Oiselle, under coach Lauren Fleshman. When she arrived, she immediately jumped into the local mayoral election, serving as communications director for Sally Russell. After Russell’s victory, Mehra went on to become the mayor’s special assistant, a role she continues to fill.
While many elite athletes choose to focus mostly on training and racing, Mehra said she always knew that wouldn’t be enough for her. And since the pandemic hit this year and competition has been derailed, she’s been grateful to have other important issues on which to focus, especially in an election year. On top of her responsibilities in the mayor’s office, she’s also the campaign manager for two Bend city council candidates, Anthony Broadman and Kat Mastrangelo.
“I knew I needed some other outlets, something I cared about and knew I was giving back,” Mehra said. “We’ve gotten a lot done in Bend, and you can see how impactful local government is.”
On the athletic side, Mehra was gaining momentum in 2019 after struggling with injuries—including the aftermath of an electric shock while unplugging her oven last year—in the past couple of years, placing third at the 2019 Fifth Avenue Mile and making the final at the U.S. outdoor championships in the 800 meters (her personal best in the event is 2:02.55, and she’s run 4:08.14 in the 1500 meters).
While training continues (and she has ambitious competitive goals to pursue when the opportunities start presenting themselves again), Mehra recently talked with Women’s Running about her investment in local politics and how the pandemic has created more time to focus on important issues during a critical election year.
Women’s Running: When you first moved to Bend, you quickly got involved with the mayor’s campaign. Why did you decide to pursue that?
Rebecca Mehra: I knew that I needed another job, and I got introduced to Sally Russell and clicked with her. She’s awesome. Once she won, she asked if I’d stay on. I was really interested in the policy side and learning more about local government. I morphed into being her de facto special assistant. I’m still working with her, despite taking on two candidates’ campaigns for city council, which is maybe a little crazy, but I’m enjoying it. You see how much power local government has—I had thought about working in foreign policy in D.C., but I’ve been really impressed and pleasantly surprised, really, about how much can get done locally.
WR: What are your specific responsibilities as the mayor’s special assistant?
RM: A little bit of everything. I feel like a jack-of-all-trades. I do communications work, which means I write all of the mayor’s emails, I make sure everybody is responded to, I do all the social media, I write talking points for her. Sometimes she has me read over policies that the City of Bend is proposing and she has to vote on. Until COVID-19 hit, she had a transportation bond that would make the transportation system in Bend better. That vote ended up getting moved to a year from now. But I work on everything from policy to communications to any other kind of support I need to provide.
WR: A lot of athletes have struggled with routine and purpose this year. Did you go through that at all?
RM: I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, for altitude training camp when the pandemic hit, and it was overwhelming. It was a big year. It’s been a letdown and frustrating. Like anybody, when you put a lot of work and focus into anything and then the rug is pulled out from under your feet, it’s not great. But I had always felt the sense that 2020 is a big election year. If I wasn’t running, I’d be working on a campaign. I’d be trying to get somebody elected that could make a change. Who knows? Maybe I would have been working on some level on a presidential campaign?
A sense of loss is probably too strong of a way of putting it, but I did feel a sense of civic responsibility to be involved. When track season wasn’t happening anymore, I jumped on the opportunity to be more civically engaged. I took on a job when in normal years, when I’m competing on the track and traveling all the time, would not be possible to do. I looked at this as a silver lining, because life doesn’t look the same as if the Olympic Trials were in 10 days. Instead of racing that day, I’ll be doing fundraising call sheets with my candidates for four hours.
It feels good to make a positive impact with really good candidates, who will be really good elected officials in this town, move the progressive needle forward. Especially right now, we’ll do a lot to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion policy to Bend. It’s a historically white town. It’s a lot of good people, but a lot of people who need to take a look in the mirror and make sure we’re doing everything we can for a growing population to make it as inclusive as possible.
WR: What are your specific roles in the campaigns you’re working on?
RM: I’m a campaign manager for two Bend City Council candidates. They are awesome. It’s [also] a jack-of-all-trades kind of job. Right now we’re focusing on fundraising, getting communications up and running, including social media and making sure they have email lists to communicate with people. Traditionally in a campaign you’d be getting a voter log to search phone numbers and addresses, to phone bank and canvass. This is going to look a lot different in the time of COVID, what we’re able to do, so we’re trying to figure out what we can do virtually instead of having large-scale events and canvassing. I don’t know if it’s going to be kosher to knock on people’s doors. We’re going to have to get creative, so I’m thinking a lot about future campaign plans.
WR: The pandemic will definitely change the way you campaign, won’t it?
RM: Definitely. Part of the way we usually fundraise is through events like dinners—food and parties. You get to tell people about yourself, making speeches, and have personal interactions with people who want to get to know you. We have to replace those with smaller Zoom calls. If it becomes possible and safe enough, we might be able to do small-scale things with social distancing. It’s going to be a lot of phone calls and virtual stuff to get the messages out there.
WR: What are the most important issues in Bend right now?
RM: A few months ago I would have said homelessness and transportation. Central Oregon is growing so much—I’ve heard estimates of 9 to 12 people were moving here every day before the pandemic. So you need to manage a growing economy, make sure people have living wages, so that young people can come to down, get a job, and be able to afford a place to live. All these things are still really important, but right now, it’s reopening businesses and making sure local businesses are as supported as possible, making sure people in town have access to basic necessities.
Right now there’s a growing immigrant and Latino population in Bend, and as we talk to the Latinx organizations here, we hear that they aren’t able to access unemployment. So we’re trying to get programs off the ground in order to make sure those families are taken care of. And of course diversity, equity, and inclusion—we need to make sure that the City of Bend is doing a good job involving all communities in town and making sure everybody has a seat at the table. We’re going to be picking a new police chief over the next couple of weeks, so also making sure the right people are making a really good, holistic choice. And then, what is the City of Bend doing to address systemic issues? That’s what my candidates are talking about.
WR: Where did your interest in politics come from? What drove your interest in international relations at Stanford?
RM: A lot of it comes from my family. My grandmother was an official at the World Health Organization. My aunt and uncle and other members of my family who live in Switzerland have worked at the United Nations and at the International Labor Organization. I was always really drawn to the type of work they were doing. It feels like they make a tangible impact, and I’ve always appreciated that so much. When I got to college, I was immediately interested in history and economics, which melded together in my major. I spent a summer working at the U.N., I spent a summer working at the State Department in Washington, D.C. I was all over the place in terms of policy and where I wanted to work the most.
When I graduated from college, I worked at a venture capital firm. I worked in policy and regulatory affairs, but I also worked in tech policy, which was new for me. I never knew I was interested in local government—I never put that much thought into it, I hate to admit. But when I was thinking that I wanted to keep running and wanted to see how good I could get, I decided to make the move to Oregon to see what I could do, and there aren’t a whole lot of international relations jobs or federal policy, but there’s local government. To be honest it’s so important to what happens here, and I don’t think I knew that until I started working on that campaign.
WR: Your dad came from India. Did that influence your direction and how you’ve engaged in the world around you?
RM: A lot. He was born in India, but because of my grandmother’s job with the WHO, my dad grew up all over the world. He had the childhood I sort of secretly wish I had. He lived in so many countries—he lived in India, then Tonga, he lived in Switzerland, he lived in England, he moved to the U.S. in college. I wrote my thesis in college about a water treaty between India and Pakistan, so I’ve always been interested in studying that part of the world where my family is from. The impetus for being interested in international relations came from sitting at the dinner table with my aunt and uncle and my grandmother and my father, not only talking about what was going on in the world, but also hearing how they were making an impact. My grandmother was part of a program that provided polio vaccinations for parts of the world that didn’t have them initially—I was always very attracted to that, how they could change parts of the world.
My family also speaks a lot of languages. I was always very jealous that my cousins spoke English, French, Hindi, Spanish, German. I wanted to learn, so I did—not as well as they do. My grandmother made fun of the way I spoke Hindi on the phone the other day.
WR: I think it’s occurred to a lot of people during this pandemic that local government is way more important than most of us has given it credit for.
RM: It makes a huge impact. The first time I realized how impactful it was, ironically, was when I was working at the venture capital firm in the Bay Area. We’d host a lot of mayors, and I realized how much influence they have in tech policy, which I never would have known or guessed. These elected leaders, who we don’t pay much attention to or learn about, actually have a lot of influence in what’s going on in your daily life.
WR: A lot is going on in this country. Does it bring new meaning to what you’re doing?
RM: Four years ago, young people didn’t vote. It feels like people are understanding that you need to be involved at all levels. Local government has huge influence on your life—it decides what your local police department is like, for example. In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen how much this city is mobilized and is looking to make change. I’ve been on the other side of things—I’m still in charge of the mayor’s email and we’ve gotten several hundred emails from people who want to know what the city is doing to reform our police department and how much money goes to our police department. And of course there’s the other side, too—people who don’t want to see change. My boss, the mayor, has taught me that governance is hard. When you have people who want change and others don’t, you have to learn to make decisions down the middle sometimes and use your best judgment.
I’m personally excited that we’re putting in a lot of work to find a really great police chief who will be named by a diverse group of people. It’s amazing—I’ve never seen so many people take an interest. We’ve had protests here, too. We’ve had a lot of our elected officials and my candidates there. It’s a really good step.
WR: So what would you be doing if you weren’t running?
RM: I don’t think I would have stayed in venture capital. I probably would have been interested in moving to Washington, D.C., and working on the Hill or in federal policy. I’m interested in going to law school. I can see how important it is to really understand the law to implement it better. We’ll see.
WR: I was piecing your time as a pro runner together, and you’ve had so many different experiences outside of running earn the spotlight, like at the beginning of the pandemic when you helped the elderly couple get groceries; that story took off. Before that you had the odd experience of electric shock and how it impacted your training.
RM: I have no idea how all of this happened. Maybe the electrocution was the wrong place at the wrong time, and maybe the groceries was being in the right place at the right time. It’s funny. In college if you had told me I’d be a professional runner, I would have laughed. My boyfriend was a baseball player and it seemed like he should be the professional athlete, not me. I was so interested in other things. I was so lucky to be in a place where I was able to explore those other interests and take advantage of them. Part of being injured a lot was that I was able to take advantage. Like, during track season I was able to take a class with [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. I think the reason I’m able to run my best is because I have other things going on.
WR: A lot of pro runners don’t opt to engage with the communities where they train. They don’t get involved. Should they?
RM: I think it’s important. There are so many ways to get involved. Not everybody is going to manage a campaign and train at the same time, but there are awesome ways to get involved with youth, for example. And runners have platforms. The most interesting runners to follow are the ones who have something to say outside of running. They care about something else or are multifaceted. People should talk about the things they care about as much as they can and want to. We’ve seen that in a positive way in the last few weeks, I think.
WR: Are you a better runner because of the work you do? And how does your running make you a better campaigner?
RM: The way I’ve developed as an athlete has always been to have a way to turn off the athlete brain, perhaps, and turn to something else. I’m never going to be the type of athlete who’s cool with running and hanging out. I feel like I need to be doing something and feel civically engaged in order to feel fulfilled. But you have to be competitive to work on a campaign. I want my candidates to win and I’m really driven and motivated. They make fun of me a little bit for how excited I get when we hit milestones, but it’s really easy for me to think that way because of running. It’s different for everyone—all athletes function in different ways—but I’ve learned in the last few years that I need some other outlet I feel like I’m making an impact in.
WR: In a few days we would have been heading to Eugene, Oregon, for the 2020 Olympic Trials, had they not been postponed for a year. What has 2020 taught you about yourself, and what lessons are you going to take with you?
RM: It’s really important to be OK with quick changes. Lauren, my coach, has said in the past that I’m not good at that, but it’s something I’ve really worked on. I have thought a lot about how to be better at making quick shifts, which you have to do as an athlete a lot. You find out there’s a race in three days in another country, and you get on a plane and go for it. That wasn’t a strong suit of mine. I really loved planning, so this year has made me better at thinking on my feet and being OK with changes. I can’t control the fact that there’s a pandemic, but I had wished I could do more for the elections this year, so I guess that’s my silver lining.