Carolyn Bridges has been the principal at the high school where she graduated, helped establish a girls’ school in an Islamic country and fulfilled a longtime dream of working at Walt Disney World.
But now she’s poised to take on what could be her toughest challenge yet – advocating for public education while trying to bring accord to the Statehouse in Topeka.
Bridges has filed as a Democrat to run for the 83rd District seat in the House of Representatives, seeking to replace Rep. Jo Ann Pottorff, R-Wichita, the longest-serving woman in the Legislature who is retiring this year after 27 years in office.
Bridges will face off against another career educator, Rodney Wren, a conservative Republican who works as a teacher and debate coach at the private Wichita Collegiate high school.
Although they are of different parties, Bridges said she sees herself as a natural successor to Pottorff, a politically moderate former Wichita school board member who is leaving Topeka with the lament that the Legislature doesn’t care as much about public education as it used to.
Saying Pottorff was a strong voice for public schools in the Statehouse, Bridges said “We need someone there speaking out with that same voice, I certainly see myself in that same vein.”
“These kids are the ones who are going to be taking care of us in our old age,” said Bridges, 65. “I want them to be educated.”
Bridges said she was dismayed by the contentiousness that marked the recently concluded legislative session, which ended late and without an agreement on redrawing legislative district lines – an issue that will now be decided by a federal court.
“It is unforgivable, frankly,” she said. “It’s all due to basic infighting. That’s not the way the Legislature should be run.”
With moderate and conservative Republicans fighting for control of the legislative process, Bridges acknowledges that bringing civility to the Statehouse is a daunting task. But it could be accomplished if voters elect her and others who want to change the Capitol culture, she said.
Bridges took early retirement 12 years ago after working 32 years in the Wichita school district, 25 as a principal. A graduate of South High, she spent four years as principal of that school.
After her retirement, she spent time in Florida, where she worked as a literacy coach in an inner-city Orlando school.
But she also spent about six months working at Disney World, something she had wanted to do for a long time. She sold souvenirs at the park “and met people from all over the world, even some from Wichita,” she said.
She said she hoped to move into management, but female managers were required “to wear heels and hose in the park,” which she didn’t want to do.
Bridges went overseas with an American company advising the Supreme Education Commission in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which is bucking tradition in the Islamic world by expanding educational opportunities for young women. Bridges said she worked with a Qataran principal to open a high school for girls.
“I’ve always been kind of an adventurous person,” she said.
In Kansas, Bridges has worked with the education departments at Baker University and Southwestern College.
Bridges will kick off her campaign with a hot-dog lunch at noon Saturday at her home, 5219 E. First St., Wichita. The event is free, but Bridges is asking attendees to bring office supplies for the campaign.
The primary election is Aug. 7 and the general election, Nov. 6.