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As the youngest woman serving in the Montana Legislature, I often reflect on how I got there. I think about the incredible responsibility that falls on my shoulders, what it means to be a leader. I think about my roots. I think about my mom.

Her name was Cyndi. She was 17 when she met my dad. They fell in love and married three years later. I came along that same year, followed in two-year intervals by my brother, then my sister. My mom wasn’t encouraged to go to college. She was supposed to get married, have kids, maybe take a part-time job when they were old enough for school. That’s what she did and she always insisted that was her choice. She was happy.

I wasn’t too old before I realized that we were poor. My clothes weren’t store bought like the other kids. Mine were hand sewn. Every morning we woke up early and piled into our only car — an old, beat-up Suburban — to drop my dad off at work. One night at dinner we begged our parents to take us to the fair. My mom told us we had a choice: go to the fair, or eat dinner for a week. My sister was too little to understand what that meant and she voted for the fair.

My parents worked hard but struggled. Our health insurance wasn’t great. When I was 8 years old my mom was rushed to the hospital. I found out she might die, and eventually learned she had a stroke. I almost lost the person I loved and depended on the most. I didn’t know it at the time but my family incurred crippling medical debt.

These are some of the experiences that shaped me. Ours is a story that is too common. Despite my parents working hard all their lives, holding multiple jobs and saving what they could, my childhood home was lost to foreclosure in 2012. This shouldn’t happen to hardworking families in America today.

My mom taught me to speak up, to fight for the little guy. When people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line, I speak truth to power. I fight to make things better. That’s why I’m weighing in now on the Democratic congressional primary.

Montana is represented by the wealthiest member of the U.S. Congress. Greg Gianforte violently attacked a reporter the evening before he was elected. He’s like bullies I knew when I was little — the ones who made fun of kids like me because my mom didn’t drop me off for school in a fancy car or have name brand basketball shoes.

There is a candidate who has spent his career fighting bullies like Gianforte. He has taken on big banks, insurance companies and corrupt politicians who prey on and deceive vulnerable Montanans. He will stand up for families like mine, for people like my mom.

That’s why I am proud to endorse John Heenan as the next congressman for Montana. I think my mom would be proud, too.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, represents Senate District 25 in the Montana Legislature. 

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