Sewell '86 launches historic campaign for Congress
If she is elected to the open seat in Alabama's 7th Congressional District, Terri Sewell '86 will be the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Alabama.
Sewell is currently an attorney at the Birmingham law firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale PC, where she was the first black woman named a partner. Though she is not a career politician, Sewell explained she is running for Congress because she is a "deeply concerned citizen" who grew up in the district, which includes Birmingham and nine counties of the Black Belt region in Alabama.
People across Alabama are "fed up with and have a loss of confidence in our current elected officials," Sewell said, adding that this inspired her to run for office since she is in a unique position to relate to the district.
"The heart of [the Black Belt] is Selma, Ala., which is where I'm from," said Sewell, a Democrat. "I really want to use my voice to give back to a community that gave me my voice ... That really has been the impetus."
She noted that the counties of the Black Belt, named for its rich, black topsoil, are some of the poorest counties in the United States. Unemployment rates reach double digits in some areas.
"[A position in Congress would be] a powerful way to leverage my contacts and skill set to benefit the community," she said.
She explained that the number one issue facing the district would be economic development and creating new jobs.
It is important and "quite empowering" for women to enter politics, Sewell said, adding that she has been "very moved by the reception that [she's] received from women supporters and donors."
"It's important to crack open the door," Sewell said of women in politics. "It's even more important to break down the door."
Days at Old Nassau
Sewell was the first black valedictorian at Selma High School as well as the first student from her high school ever to attend an Ivy League college.
"The leap from Selma High School to Princeton was the biggest jump," Sewell said, explaining that she had never thought of attending Princeton until Julian McPhillips '68, who has been recruiting applicants to the University for 32 years, contacted her when she was in high school.
McPhillips said he recruited Sewell to Princeton after reading an article in a local newspaper about her accomplishments as a debater.
"[McPhillips] called up my guidance counselor [at Selma High School] and invited my mom and I to come hear about Princeton," Sewell said.
McPhillips said Sewell stands out as "one of the top" students he has brought to Princeton.
As an undergraduate, Sewell was involved in many areas of campus life. A member of Cap & Gown Club, she served as the vice president of her class twice and as a class representative to the USG. A Wilson School concentrator, Sewell won the African-American Studies Senior Thesis prize for her thesis, titled "Black Women in Politics: Our Time Has Come."
Sewell was a member of the first class of Princetonians to go through the residential college system. A member of Mathey College, she forged a close relationship with the Mathey College dean at the time, current Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel.
"[Sewell] was a member of the first class to go through the college system, and she was a stunningly impressive member of the college community and university community," Malkiel said in an e-mail.
Besides her involvement in student government, Sewell was "instrumental" in helping the admission office develop minority recruitment activities, Malkiel added.
"It was clear to those of us who knew her back at Mathey College that she was destined for a political career, and we've been watching and waiting ever since," Malkiel said. "She will make an absolutely spectacular Member of Congress!!!"
During the summers of her undergraduate years, Sewell worked for then-Sen. Howell Heflin as well as Richard Shelby, who is currently a Republican senator from Alabama but was back then the Democratic representative for the 7th Congressional District.
"I really credit Princeton [with] giving me and reassuring me of my commitment to public service," Sewell said.
Beyond the Bubble
After graduating from Princeton, Sewell continued her education at Oxford University, where she received a master's degree in political science with first-class honors. She then continued on to Harvard Law School and graduated in 1992, a year behind President Obama.
"I've been inspired by President Obama's call to action ... to become more involved in our communities as well as our country" she said.
Frank McPhillips, another partner at Maynard, Cooper & Gale PC, said Sewell's work has focused on representing colleges and universities in connection with their capital needs.
"She has a real heart for people who are needy," he noted, adding, "She's high energy."
Sewell began her legal career in 1994 at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York and returned to Alabama in 2004. There she has served as first co-chair of the Women's Fund's Voices Against Violence inaugural campaign as well as on the boards of the St. Vincent's Foundation, Girl Scouts of Cahaba Council, the Minority Health and Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the Alabama Council on Economic Education.
Her impressive achievements and run for office come as no surprise to those who knew her during her undergraduate days.
"From the moment we met her, we expected Terri to take Princeton by storm," Malkiel said. "She has an infectious laugh, a capacious heart, a keen intelligence, a deep sense of commitment to making her community and the larger world better."