By Melissa Bell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010;
Natasha Pettigrew stood on the shore of Virginia Beach looking out at the choppy, wild waves of the sea before her first triathlon in 2005. Some of her fellow competitors demurred; conditions were rougher than expected, too risky, they thought, for the race’s first leg.
“I saw Natasha standing there in her wet suit, staring at the water,” said her mother, Kenniss Henry. “I thought, She’s going to swim. She’s going to do it.”
Pettigrew did. She charged in, dove under a huge wave and swam the kilometer out and back to shore. She came bounding out of the sea, grinning and waving to her mother. “My heart was in my throat, and she’s gushing about how cute the lifeguard was!” Henry remembered.
The challenge of that first race had Pettigrew hooked. But five years later, she would dive into a very different kind of race, where the prize was not a medal but a U.S. Senate seat.
Pettigrew, 30, had spent her Washington-area childhood tagging along with her mother to political demonstrations, museums and documentaries about social issues. Henry said Pettigrew was a statistic: the child of a single, black mother. But Pettigrew, who grew up watching her mom work three jobs to make sure her daughter could get a good education, wanted to show that hard work could overcome the dire predictions often lobbed at women such as her. She took a leave of absence from her final year of law school at the University of Miami and returned to Largo with plans to run for Senate.
Pettigrew knew the race would be an uphill battle when she walked into the office of Brian Bittner, the co-chair of the Maryland Green Party, and asked if his party would back her candidacy. It was a bold request, given that she and Bittner had not previously met.
“We don’t really relish being in the role of the underdog,” Bittner said. “But we try our best to get our voice out there.” Pettigrew hadn’t been active with the party before, but her values lined up with theirs: social justice, environmental issues, feminism and grass-roots democracy. Pettigrew’s enthusiasm, and her willingness to enter the long and likely unwinnable battle, persuaded Bittner that she was the right voice for speak for the party.
The official campaign photograph on her Web site (headlined “Natasha for Senate: Running for the People!”) shows Pettigrew wearing a huge smile. Her hair is long and loose. Her face gleams with excitement. She relished time out in the field, meeting new people, stumping on ways to strengthen the education system, advocating for health care reform, talking to children about the need to stay in school. That she was a third-party candidate running against incumbent Barbara Mikulski — a Democrat popular with voters and the longest-serving female senator in U.S. history — did not dissuade Pettigrew; rather, she felt invigorated by the task.
“It cannot be the easy route. It always had to be a little bit different. She thrived in that mentality,” said her best friend, Imani Gamble. “The rest of us try to find the way we can do something with the least resistance. Not her.”
Winning the election was a long shot, Pettigrew knew, but garnering the most votes was not the only victory she sought. She wanted to offer people another option to incumbent politicians. She hoped to get votes without raising corporate money. She wanted to show people her own age that they didn’t have to wait around for someone else to fix things. If she could inspire some people, if she could make a difference, that would be a success.
“If you want to see change happen,” Pettigrew had told friends, “do it yourself, because it’s not going to happen otherwise.”
Despite the pressure of the campaign trail, Pettigrew made time for triathlon training. She was up and out of her mother’s house before dawn on the morning of Sept. 19 for a bike ride. She had often complained to friends in Miami how terrible the city was for bikers and praised the trails and bike lanes in Maryland.
She set out on one of those bike lanes along Route 202 in Largo. At 5:30 a.m., a Cadillac Escalade crashed into her; the driver didn’t realize she’d hit a person until she got home. Pettigrew died two days later, just five weeks before Election Day. An investigation is ongoing, according to police.
When Pettigrew died, her Facebook page filled up with notes from voters promising to write her name onto the ballot. Her mother stepped in to finish out her daughter’s campaign. “She had already won the race,” Henry said. “I just had to make the sprint to the finish line. That was the least I could do.”
Henry received 20,717 votes — just over 1 percent, but a win in her mind. On Election Day, a man approached a Green Party pollster and said Pettigrew’s story had inspired him to vote outside his party for the first time in his life. “We collectively completed what she set out to do,” Henry said.
Now Henry has taken on a new challenge: pushing the Maryland General Assembly to adopt stronger safety laws to protect bicyclists and pushing for tougher penalties for drivers who hit them.
It’s exactly what Pettigrew would have done — worked to fix the problem.