"Politics was the furthest thing from my mind," she said during a recent interview at her home in Pinebrook.
But, last fall, when she was asked to be a consultant for a documentary film exposing the hidden epidemic of sexual abuse and rape in the military, McAleer met a group of women whom she credits with planting the notion that she should consider running for Congress. The film, "The Invisible War," went on to win an audience award at tyhe 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Soon after, she was courted by a coalition of Utah women intent on increasing their ranks at the U.S. Capitol and in Utah's legislature. They cited dismal statistics about their gender's participation in Washington, D.C.: Even though they make up more than half of the general population, they make up only 16 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives and 17 percent of the U.S. Senate. Utah's record is even more dismal, she said.
The political winds gained velocity in January after McAleer attended a workshop with a fistful of women who had served in, or were thinking about running, for a variety of elected positions - a mayor, state legislators and school board members. The event was basically a primer on running for office and according to the future candidate it was "phenomenally intense and educational."
That night, McAleer summed up the day on her blog and titled it "Real Women Run -- Ladies It's Time To Enter the Race." The post drew several comments including one from an old West Point friend.
"He wrote, 'That means you ma'am.' And in reading that comment I realized I was really talking to myself and trying to convince myself that, as someone who took the oath of office when they were 17 to serve, that oath doesn't really expire."
McAleer's conversion from regular citizen to candidate was sealed at the place she says has always inspired her -- West Point. While walking among the granite buildings, imbued with memories of the Founding Fathers and the nation's great military leaders, she decided to set aside her fears. On March 16, she officially filed as a candidate to represent Utah's First Congressional District on the Democratic ticket against the five-term incumbent Republican, Rob Bishop.
She said it has been a "whirlwind" ever since.
Despite her lack of political experience, McAleer believes her diverse background in the military, in business administration and in the health-care field (she is a former executive director for the People's Health Clinic) qualify her for serving at the federal level.
"I just felt my skills and perspective and interests were better suited at a national level than at a community level," she said. And like everything else she has done in her life, like hurtling down a bobsled track, McAleer is running at full speed.
First hurdle: fundraising
Her first inkling of the challenge that lay ahead came on the fundraising front. "I thought I could easily raise $1 million," she said, adding that she was soon forced to readjust her sights.
According to the candidates' last campaign disclosure reports filed on Sept. 30, Bishop had raised $285,886 and McAleer had raised $192,459. And unlike Bishop, some of McAleer's hard won funds had to be spent on a primary race against South Ogden's Ryan Combe. McAleer won the primary with 67 percent of the vote but it cost valuable resources that could have been used later against her well-funded general election opponent.
Unfortunately, according to McAleer, "Money raised is the measure by which the media and organizations measure the viability of a candidacy." She says her first campaign has strengthened her belief in the need for public campaign financing.
"Dialing for dollars," McAleer said, is her least favorite duty. "I understand the need for it, but people are electing me because they have confidence in me to be a thoughtful, well-researched legislator who is going to make solid, strong decisions based on what is best for my constituents I am being elected by the people, not by large corporate donors. That's what is challenging about fundraising and why I really believe in public financing of campaigns."
On the campaign trail
With the exception of asking for contributions, McAleer says interacting with people around the vast 10-county district has been exhilarating. "It's energizing, it's exciting and it is exhausting getting to talk to individuals who share a specific story or specific concern." She estimates that she has put thousands of miles on her Subaru this summer traveling from Box Elder County in the northwest, through Cache, Rich, Duchesne, Morgan, Summit, Weber, Uintah and Davis counties and as far east as Daggett. Along the way she has spoken to teachers, postal workers, the elderly and veterans.
Recently, in Logan, she met a Vietnam veteran who informed her that his fellow servicemen are dying at the rate of 396 a day, due in part to their exposure to Agent Orange. "This one vet was undergoing chemo therapy and you hear about the sacrifices these vets make and they continue to make, yet for treatment he has to go from Logan to the Huntsman Center." As a congresswoman, McAleer said she would push to establish more accessible clinics.
Bullish on the military
Hill Air Force Base, one of the state's top employers, is arguably the heart of the First Congressional District, and those who are unfamiliar with the candidates might assume that the Republican in the race would be the base's biggest champion. But McAleer, who was president of her class at West Point and an army officer in Germany, wants to set that record straight.
"I did get challenged on this and it was an opportunity to talk to a voter who had made an assumption about me, because of my party affiliation, that I would slash the defense budget. I shared with him that, as a veteran and the only veteran running for the office, I believe in a strong military and a strong national defense."
According to McAleer, Bishop, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, "has voted against pay raises for deployed soldiers, has voted against increases for housing, voted against job training. Yet, he has voted for his own pay raises. That's pretty disappointing."
She also says that on Bishop's watch "the command of Hill has been downgraded from two-star to one-star. "And having worn the uniform, I understand the importance of the relationships within the Department of Defense, with the Pentagon, between congressmen, and the relationship between the community and that base."
While confirming there are opportunities to reduce redundancies and fine-tune the military budget in general, she believes Hill has a strategic role to play in the nation's defense, as well as the local economy. If elected, she said she is committed to enhancing its status.
Immigration policies are out of whack
McAleer acknowledges that current federal immigration policies need comprehensive reform and suggests a balance of creating legal paths to citizenship and strengthening enforcement. In particular, she says current policies are out of whack with the economic realities.
"We need to look at our needs, at what are our needs for our workforce both at the highly skilled level and at the entry level, at the hourly workforce. We have become a nation, unfortunately, that is addicted to very low-wage labor."
She credits state politicians with making more headway on the issue than the federal bureaucrats saying, "The Utah Compact is a productive model that could be used around the country."
McAleer also supports legislation that helps children of undocumented parents go to college by offering in-state tuition breaks.
"We need a policy that allows children who are going to school here, and have been on our public school system and who are doing well, to go to college. Why wouldn't we want them to have those opportunities?"
Equality is an American issue
Social issues are not at the heart of McAleer's agenda. She claims they are used by the media to fan divisiveness. Nevertheless, McAleer does not equivocate on her support for the recent repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military's controversial requirement that gay soldiers hide their orientation,
"I am for equality. Our citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their skin color, regardless of their religious upbringing, regardless of their socio-economic class deserve equality. That is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. To me, that is a citizen issue, that is an American issue.
McAleer added, "The studies showed there was no impact (of the repeal) on unit cohesion and morale. I am proud to say I wrote several articles about the detriment that policy had. We lost more than 12,500 members due to that policy, members that were forced out or asked to leave at a cost of $350 million in terms of training, and we don't know how many more left while that policy was enforced because they didn't want to live a dual life."
Battle is uphill but winnable
In 2008, Bishop defeated his Democratic challenger, Morgan Bowen, with 64 percent of the vote. In 2010 he stretched that lead to 69 percent. But, according to McAleer, the 2012 election is a new ball game. The district has new boundaries and he has a new challenger.
"I am playing this to win, not to lose. The focus is on running an incredibly strong campaign that actually demonstrates a difference. That is something that has not been done in a campaign in this district in a very long time."
In June, she trounced her primary opponent by earning 67 percent of the vote in the 1st District. In Summit County she won an astonishing 91 percent of the vote.
McAleer says she is counting on a big turnout to help her unseat Bishop. "When you don't vote, that is a vote for the status quo," she says, adding that she also hopes voters will consider each race individually rather than casting a one-party ballot. Utah, she explained, is one of only 11 states that give voters the option of voting a straight-party ticket with the push of a button. That, she believes, "is an abdication of voter responsibility."
Finally, regardless of party politics, McAleer encourages everyone to vote on Election Day because, "This is the true exercise in democracy and making our voice heard."
Donna McAleer is scheduled to debate Rep. Rob Bishop on KPCW, Park City's local public radio station, on Tuesday, Oct. 23 from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.