Lillian Salerno: A lifetime of fighting for the people
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Lillian Salerno, one of nine children, is an entrepreneur, lawyer, and former appointee of the Obama administration, has managed to leave her own mark on the Texas community. In the most recent stage of her long and successful career, Lillian ran for the United States House of Representatives for Texas District 32, which is mostly the northern and eastern part of Dallas county. After making it to the democratic primary runoff in May 2018, Lillian was defeated by Colin Allred. Her loss, though, didn’t stop her from continuing to fight for her fellow Texans. Lillian started Pod Bless Texas, an irreverent and conversational podcast showcasing the behind-the-scenes of Texas politics by giving voice to passionate Texas politicians. “I feel so strongly that Texas is sitting here being one of the reasons whether this country moves in the right direction or not,” she said. “I happen to be in this position where I know a few things that might help… [and] I want to do everything I can to help during this critical period.”
Lillian grew up in East Dallas with a strong web of support from family members, the local Catholic community and others. When the time for college came, she received Pell grants and low-interest loans so that she could attend the University of Texas at Austin. Afterwards, she returned to Dallas and waited tables at night while starting her first company helping people find jobs. She learned then how important good jobs were for women going back to work and how unfair the system was for working mothers. Lillian then went back to school to get her master’s degree at the University of North Texas. During graduate school, she worked with inmates trying to re-enter the workforce. She ended her formal education by attending law school at Southern Methodist University and then opened a law office where she represented ordinary people. After working for many years working on behalf of nurses and healthcare workers affected by the HIV epidemic in the early 90’s, Lillian moved abroad with her family to Geneva to work internationally. After moving back to the US and working on healthcare policy in Washington, DC Lillian joined the Obama Campaign in 2008. Ultimately, Lillian joined the Obama Administration and served for five years as the Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development. Lillian travelled around the country to make sure that communities disconnected from urban areas were receiving government services that could create economic opportunities. Her role ensured that those communities had access to safe drinking water, affordable housing, and high-speed broadband. “I did high school in rural Texas,” she said. “So I have a big heart for rural [areas]... they are so challenged to try to create opportunities for kids like me that grew up in little towns in the current environment we live in.”
Having spent a portion of her childhood in a small town, Lillian was quite popular and found herself in many leadership positions in her high school student body. She says it is her family and some of these opportunities that have inspired her to be the leader she is today. “I attribute my leadership qualities to being in a big family without many resources,” she said. Even as a natural leader, running for a political position one day wasn’t always at the front of Lillian’s mind. “It wasn’t my first, second, or… even third choice,” she said. “I didn’t know that people worked on campaigns and had jobs! I literally didn’t know that. I never watched The West Wing or anything.” Lillian’s first bit of campaign experience came when she decided to work on the Obama campaign before he was elected as president. Despite the fact that she was glad to see Obama into office, she later felt that she had been naive to think that electing him alone was enough to catalyze widespread change in American politics. “We were all drinking the kool-aid and getting Obama into office, and meanwhile we lost governorships and state houses all over the country,” she lamented. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
Despite her defeat, Lillian is dedicated now to winning over Texas and making sure effective leaders are elected to positions in all areas. Despite the fact that her friends in DC would like to have her back, Lillian is determined to stay in Texas because she wants use her knowledge and experience to be a leader of the major political changes that are coming soon to the great state. She expressed some disdain for Texas’s current leadership in governorship and state commissioner roles, and remarked “they’re not leaders, and none of them are women… it’s just crazy!” Lillian has a strong belief that Texans are heading in the right direction though, and that they are looking for true leadership in this state. She said, “I really believe that if people in Texas knew how much better their lives could be by putting people in charge that really care about the public good and not just about lining people’s pockets, they might make the right decision at the voting booth.” Because of her strong belief in her fellow Texans, she continues today to work on projects to help educate and inform them.
Lillian feels that her year running for the United States House of Representatives was a privilege more than anything. She tells any woman who asks for advice about running to just do it! “Even on the worst days when I think to myself ‘oh… look at this credit card debt I’ve incurred’ or ‘I had someone who invested over $5,000 for my campaign and I’ve lost the race and now I have to go see them and I’m embarrassed ’… I get over myself! I learned so much from that experience. Putting yourself out there is uncomfortable, but you don’t learn unless you’re uncomfortable!”
To learn more about Pod Bless Texas, click here.