Machaela Cavanaugh ’97 has public service coursing through her veins. With nearly every member of her lineage involved in civics, holding roles varying from public defender to congressperson and everywhere in between, Cavanaugh was practically brought up to serve her community.
On Nov. 6, Cavanaugh beat incumbent Theresa Thibodeau and was elected to the state legislature to represent District 6. Cavanaugh embodies the word “super human” in every essence of the word. She successfully campaigned in a district of over 36,000 people, held a full time job at The Buffett Early Childhood Institute, mothered two kids under the age of 5 and was the first ever woman in the state of Nebraska to run while pregnant.
To outline her lengthy career of advocacy and political action would take about a year, so for the sake of time, we will flash back to these very halls in 1994. Cavanaugh’s sophomore year was her first experience being politically active and in a role of leadership was right here at Marian. She was an active member of the Young Democrats Club, a Student Board member, and later her senior year, was the editor of the 1997 yearbook. This year, she and her sisters volunteered on Ben Nelson’s local gubernatorial election and got her first taste of what being on the inside of a campaign fully entails.
After her four years at Marian were up, she went on to study sociology at St. Thomas University and subsequently worked again for congressman Ben Nelson in Washington D.C., worked on a special election for Stephanie Herseth’s congressional race in South Dakota. Regardless of the many things she did and saw outside of the great state of Nebraska, there was always something pulling her back. “Omaha really is a great city. I have a lot of family here, and the community is just like no other” Cavanaugh said.
When she returned back to the 402, she came right back to her roots: Marian High School. Cavanaugh was the Development Director for the Servants of Mary, raising money for the convent. She held a few other jobs, started her family and decided that she needed to advocate in a bigger way than ever before, through elected office.
The decision to run was not an easy one. Cavanaugh is very passionate about giving the people of Nebraska the resource of paid family leave. She tried to provoke change in this area without running for office, but when she wasn’t getting the results she had hoped, she took to the state legislature. “We can be doing better” she said. That optimistic view on the way Nebraska can pave the way for the other states in paid family leave and beyond, has stayed with her through the course of her campaign, and will remain throughout her time in office.
Nebraska’s 2018 legislature is the most diverse bunch we have seen to date, and Cavanaugh brings a pivotal perspective to that representation. “I am the first person in Nebraska to run for office and have a baby at the same time. Day one of my orientation is when I found out the Capitol did not have a room for mothers,” Cavanaugh said. Cavanaugh may be the first woman to even run for office in this state while being pregnant, but she is not the only working mother who works in our state Capital and surely isn’t the state’s only working mother. As a member of the legislature, Cavanaugh’s mission is to advocate for the people of this state, and mothers are a part of that population. Accessibility in the building that is made for the people, should reflect the needs of all its people. “The Capital is the people’s building and should reflect that, and be accessible,” Cavanaugh said.
While Cavanaugh does bring an essential voice to Nebraska, she notes that she cannot always be the voice of everyone. “I hope that we continue to bring diversity to representation because there’s a lot of voices that I don’t bring that need to be brought to the table” Cavanaugh said.
In her years to come in the legislature, Cavanaugh plans to focus on healthcare, paid family leave, early-childhood education and education as a whole and cutting property taxes as her main issues. She will do each of these things confidently, genuinely and personably, to make Nebraska a better place for all.
As Cavanaugh sat in room 304 flipping through her trusty yearbook, she smiled and laughed as she shared fond memories from her time within these walls. Marian has been such a huge part of her life, but it has changed a lot since she has left. The thing, however, that has never changed and will never change is the impact Marian left on Cavanaugh as a whole. “For me, when I reflect on my time here, I felt like I could just be myself, be who I am and live out loud, which I continue to do every day. This sense of self-dignity and self-worth that is fostered here… you can go get things and be supported by your peers,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh uses the lessons and values she was taught at Marian each and every day and will continue to use those principles to best advocate for the people of District 6 and to be an asset to our community as a whole. Her years in these halls may have come to a close, but the imprint she has left on Marian and that Marian has left on her is constantly evident. Cavanaugh is paving the way for a more compassionate and inclusive Nebraska. With her light spirit, evidently passionate heart and articulate mind, there is no doubt that the change she is bound to provoke will move mountains, or rather, cornfields.