Michelle Munroe
Michelle Munroe

If there’s a single, driving force in Michelle Munroe’s life, it’s to make things better. “It’s what my Mom taught me. It’s what the Girl Scouts taught me. It’s what I sought to do everywhere I went as a military officer,” says Munroe, a 28-year Army veteran, nurse, midwife, and former commander of Winn Army Community Hospital at Ft. Stewart in Hinesville.

That leave-it-better-than-you-found-it motto now has propelled Munroe, 52, to the political stage: She’s one of four candidates vying to represent the Democratic Party in this fall’s contest for Georgia’s 1st District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The winner of the primary election on May 24 likely will face four-term Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter in the Nov. 4 general election. 

As part of a series of Q&As with the candidates, The Current spoke with Ms. Munroe in mid-January at her home in Richmond Hill. We talked about the poorly rated state of health care in Coastal Georgia and why she is passionate about improving it. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed why leaping into a congressional race despite never holding elected office makes sense, how her Army career equips her for political office, and why it’s time for a different face to represent coastal Georgia in Congress.

You retired from the Army in December 2020 with the rank of colonel after nearly three decades as a nurse, a midwife, and a hospital administrator. Why go into politics?

I felt that I wasn’t making the impact in Georgia I’d like. I’m a nurse and a midwife. I’m passionate about health care, especially about maternal and infant care. Unfortunately, the health metrics in these areas in Georgia, compared to other U.S. states, are abysmal. We can do better. 

Last year, the March of Dimes gave Georgia a grade of a D- for the number of babies who are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Only six states and Puerto Rico ranked worse. In Chatham County, the number of preterm births in the county increased over the previous year. It got an F. For Black women across the state, the situation is disproportionately worse—their preterm birth rate is 45% higher than the rate among all other women.

In 2019, Georgia’s infant mortality rate was worse than for all but five other U.S. states, the CDC says. On a global scale, Georgia was slightly better than Lebanon and worse than Cyprus. That’s unacceptable.

After retiring from the military, I was a health-care consultant and took on some of these problems. That was frustrating. I met with Buddy Carter last year to offer my expertise to help address the problems of maternal and infant care. I assumed he’d be helpful and interested with someone to help on this issue. In 2018, we held a conference for midwives in Savannah, and he’d sent a memo in support. So, I was surprised at our meeting in his Savannah office when he said, “That’s not an issue for me. That’s a state issue.” What he meant was: “I’m not willing to work on that.”

I was disappointed by that response, but it spurred me on. The problems of health care for mothers and babies in Georgia—and health care for the state, in general—aren’t just state issues. They need to be addressed cooperatively at both the federal and state level. I’m running for Congress to push for that cooperation. 

What should be done to improve maternal and infant health care in the 1st District and elsewhere in Georgia?

We need to expand Medicaid in Georgia. Under current rules, a family of three can only receive help under Medicaid’s Planning for Healthy Babies program if it earns $3,654 a month or less. If we raised that ceiling, we’d open access to health care and decrease our maternal mortality and infant mortality rates, and more effectively address other health care issues. We’d make our communities and the people of Georgia healthier. That’s huge to me.

To improve the health of mothers and babies in Georgia, we need to allow qualified health-care personnel to fully practice their skills. I was a trained midwife for 18 of the 28 years that I served in the military. I delivered — I stopped counting at 500 — probably a thousand babies. I could do that in the federal system. In Georgia, however, I can’t open a practice and take care of women without the supervision of a physician. One result of this restriction is that there are 79 counties in Georgia that do not have an OB-GYN. If we allowed health care providers to work to the highest scope of their practice, we’d open access to health care across the board. 

For Black women, who are already poorly served by the system, this restriction is another hardship. One of my daughter’s friends and one of my friends, both Black women, wanted a woman health-care provider. Both had insurance. But one woman ended up going to Planned Parenthood for women’s health care because that was the only place she could find a woman to treat her. The other woman booked an appointment with a health-care provider but found out when she arrived for the appointment that she’d have to see a man. Her wishes hadn’t been respected. When that happens to any woman, they don’t want to go to the doctor at all. When we respect women’s choices, they feel more confident and are empowered. Our world is better.

Why are you so passionate about maternal and infant health care? 

When we take care of the women in the family, we’re taking care of that entire family. In my own family, for instance, it was my mother. She not only took care of me as a child but also my grandparents. I’m also the one who says to my husband, ‘Okay, it’s time to go to the doctor, we need to get this done.’

Everything done early — whether it’s health care for women and infants or education for children — means better long-term outcomes. That’s why I’m such an advocate for the good foundation. Starting children in school early, at the age of three for pre-K, gives them a better foundation. It helps them become successful learners. Throughout my career, it has been important to me to help set people up for success. When we do that, ultimately everyone’s successful. 

Was there a particular moment when you decided to enter the race for the 1st District seat? 

No, it was a decision I came to over time. When I was in school and in the military, patients, colleagues, and other students told me I’d be really good in politics. When I started thinking about retirement, people who knew I was staying in the area urged me to consider it.

Along the way, I started taking some classes and researching what it would take to be a politician because it wasn’t something I’d honestly ever thought about. I looked more closely at Georgia and how I could best serve this community. What I saw is that a lot was being done for Chatham County, but the rest of the 1st Congressional District was overlooked. The district is more than Chatham County — it expands all the way to Florida. Rural issues are as important as urban ones. I thought that was important to address. 

Finally, there was my family. I waited through the holidays to talk with them about entering the race because I felt that at the end of the day, it was a family decision. My husband, along with the seven children we have between us, got together and asked, “Is this something that we want to do?” There was definitely a consensus that I should run. My family’s very proud of me.

What do those people who urged you to enter politics see in you?

I think they saw that I cared and that I treated people equally. The military is very much a melting pot. When I was commander of Winn Army Community Hospital, we served people from all walks of life. Being a leader in that kind of community translates into being a leader elsewhere. 

Friends and colleagues and staff at the hospital who urged me to go into politics saw that I could take initiative, lean forward and be an advocate for our community. They saw me manage a large number of people and a large amount of money. Winn served about 86,000 service people and their families. We had a $131 million budget. With it, I put together programs that were needed. I made things better.

I expanded the simulation center that trains medics to handle battlefield trauma from 5,000 to 18,000 square feet, including a section that could be adjusted to resemble any battlefield environment where American troops might be deployed. We also were the first base in the region to install electric charging stations. When the pandemic hit, I did Facebook Live events three times a week to get the message out and make sure that people were aware of what was going on.

You’ve had plenty of experience running a large institution, but you’ve never held elected office before. been elected to a school board, to city hall or to a state legislature. Why are you jumping straight into a race for a seat in Congress?

Public service is in my blood. I was the first person in my family to attend university but the third generation to serve in the military. I believe my 28½ years of federal service equates to a federal-level position. I understand how policy’s made and implemented at that level. I have a doctorate in nursing practice, which gives me a deep knowledge of health-care policy. 

I also attended the Army War College and earned a master’s degree in strategic studies. Part of the mandatory curriculum is reviewing history and the mechanisms of war, and how the tools of diplomacy, information, the military and economics are used to exercise power. My knowledge of those tools and my first-hand experience with them in the Army are very translatable to Congress. 

This isn’t to say I’m finished learning. One of the most fun classes I took at the Army War College was an elective course about asking questions. The more questions you ask, the more information you gain. Knowledge is power.

You don’t think it’s important to serve on a school board or in city hall or the state legislature first? 

I took a course from the New Politics Leadership Academy in Boston called “Answering the Call.” What I learned from that is that the key question isn’t where you enter politics but whether you have the right mindset. What’s your aim? Nowhere do they say, “You have to start at the bottom,” or “You have to work your way up.” My federal experience translates better to the federal level. I know Washington. I lived there four years. I’m confident I can navigate its politics.

Running for Congress also makes practical sense for me. I can’t run for the Richmond Hill City Council because my home is located one street outside of incorporated city limits. The only option for me is the Bryan County Commission or go to the state level. 

I believe I can be a force in Congress now. Historically, not many nurses have served in Congress; I know of only three who currently do. There’s never been a midwife, either. Finally, the 1st District has never been represented by a woman. In the past 30 years, only two people — both men — have held the seat.

You face two very daunting tasks to represent the 1st District in Washington. The first is to win the nomination and second is to defeat the four-term Republican incumbent, Buddy Carter. How do you plan to go about the first task?

Both elections involve getting people out to vote. I entered this race because I feel like we need someone representing Coastal Georgia who’s going to build relationships across party lines and other divisions. That’s how to get things done. I’m a moderate who can bridge divides. That’s who I am. People say, “I’ll listen to your issues,” but it isn’t just about listening. It’s hearing, taking action, and showing that you’re making progress towards a goal. I want people to know that I’m an advocate for them. I care about every person I come across. What matters is relationships.

What it takes to win votes in the Democratic primary may not win votes in the general election. Are you approaching the primary differently?

My advantage in the primary is that I’m different. Two of my counterparts have run for office before. Another is an attorney. We have lots of attorneys in Congress. I’m the different choice. I’m not your typical politician.

The lawyer you’re referring to, Wade Herring, has focused much of his attention on Buddy Carter’s actions and statements about the Jan. 6, 2021, attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Do you share his criticism of Rep. Carter?

A hundred percent. How can Buddy Carter say that the outcome of the election was illegitimate in President Trump’s case but legitimate in his own? That doesn’t make sense to me. As someone who took an oath to “support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” the Jan. 6 insurrection hurts my heart. It makes me think of 9/11. It brings back that gut emotion because it was an attack on our country. Like 9/11, it will go down in history as something that we will talk about forever. 

Buddy Carter’s now trying to gloss over Jan. 6. He’s also introduced legislation that would prohibit federal funding of public schools and universities that teach what he describes as racist and divisive ideology. But it’s a mistake to run away from the mistakes and tragedies of history. At the War College, I learned again and again how failing to learn about the past means being condemned to repeat it. 

There are districts in Georgia that are purple or blue or 50-50 tossups. But the 1st Congressional District has been solidly red. Donald Trump won by 15%, in 2016 and 12% in 2020. Buddy Carter won by 15% in 2018 and 16% in 2020. It isn’t clear that the state Democratic Party will invest any resources to try defeating him. How does a Democrat win over voters in Coastal Georgia?

Health care should be the focus. Buddy Carter is a health-care provider, a pharmacist. But what has he done lately to make health care in Coastal Georgia better? Has he had our backs? 

I’ve served my country and fought for it. I spent eight months in Iraq and know what war is about. I know what it’s like to have a battle buddy, someone who looks after you. That’s what we do in the military — we have each other’s back. That’s what I do as a congresswoman. I’ll have Coastal Georgia’s back.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? 

My Mom. I saw her overcome so much. I became a nurse because when I was six years old, she contracted Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was diagnosed six months after we deployed with my father, an Air Force master sergeant, to Germany. She was sent back with us to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for treatment. My sister, who was four years old, and I went with her. We were allowed to go with her to the base hospital for the chemotherapy. Nurse Cabrette was in the chemotherapy unit. I remember her being there and making sure we were okay. At six years old, that made a difference in my life. 

At one point, my mom got so sick that her weight dropped to 80 pounds. I didn’t think she’d live. But the weekend nurses snuck us into the chemotherapy unit so we could have a few minutes with her. My Mom was resilient. She had multiple other health issues before and after the Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She eventually got lung cancer and passed away in 2004. But she was strong. She brought my family together.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...