The New York Times recently called Sandy Adams the toughest representative in Congress’s freshman class of 2011. Which is not surprising, given that her journey into national politics began with an abusive marriage.
Adams dropped out of high school at 17 to join the Air Force. She married at 18, and it wasn’t long before her husband turned violent. She considered leaving him but thought twice when she got pregnant. “I wanted to give my husband the opportunity to be a good father,” she says. “But it became clear that wasn’t going to happen.” When her daughter turned three, Adams moved out of the couple’s home near the Jacksonville, Florida, Naval Air Station. “When I left him, I left behind the house, the car—I only took her clothes and my clothes,” she says. “All I really wanted was my daughter.”
Adams moved to Eutaw, Alabama, to be close to her parents. Her father owned a racing kennel, and at first she took a job there, cleaning out the dogs’ crates. She also worked a pari-mutuel window, paying out winning tickets at dog-racing courses around the state and moving every few months to follow the circuit. “You can’t really be choosy when you don’t have a high school diploma,” she says. But her daughter was toddling toward kindergarten, and Adams wanted to give her more stability. “I was sitting with a friend,” Adams says, “and I told her I needed a job that would keep us in one place and give us some health insurance.” The friend’s fiancé, a deputy sheriff, suggested law enforcement, and the idea quickly grew on Adams.
But the police academy required at least a general equivalency diploma to enter. Adams said a prayer, took the test and passed. She attended school at night while working part time in retail. But when she graduated, no local police departments were hiring. For two years, Adams worked the pari-mutuel window and searched for a police job. Finally, in 1985, just before she turned 30, Florida’s Orange County Sheriff’s Office hired her as a deputy sheriff. She worked road patrol, foot patrol and special investigations. She also fell in love with a fellow officer, Frank Seton, a man eight years her junior. “When he asked me to marry him, I told him to go ask his mother,” Adams says. The two wed on August 1, 1987. Adams’s daughter, then 11 years old, was their maid of honor.
Together the family jokingly looked forward to May 1989, when Seton would turn 25 and legally be able to rent a car. He never got to enjoy that rite of passage. Just 17 months after they were married, a helicopter was called to assist Seton during a confrontation with armed suspects. While he was being evacuated, he fell to his death. “My daughter didn’t want me to go back to work because she thought I was going to die, too,” Adams says. “But I had to go back because I had to take care of my child.”
After a few weeks of bereavement leave, she returned to the sheriff’s office with a new intensity to her feelings. More and more often, Adams’s job took her to the state capital, Tallahassee, where she advocated for victims’ rights and started to think that making laws was at least as important as enforcing them. She began night classes at a nearby college, studying criminal justice, and after getting her degree married John H. Adams, a Florida Circuit Court judge. “I remember telling John that I was thinking of running for State House,” she says. “I expected him to tell me I was crazy. Instead, he said he’d support me in whatever I wanted to do.” Throughout her 2002 campaign, Adams would work an eight-hour sheriff’s-office shift, come home and put on her tennis shoes, then walk for miles knocking on doors. A Republican, she won a five-way primary with 41 percent of the vote. She was re-elected three times.
Florida limits state officials to eight years in office, so as 2010 approached, Adams got ready to return to law enforcement. But she was upset by what was going on in Washington: She believed the health care act infringed on individual rights; she was appalled by the budget deficit. “I thought we were headed in the wrong direction,” she says. Adams was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2010 with 60 percent of the vote.
Today, Adams is one of 15 House members who have not missed a single vote—and she is determined to keep her perfect record even when her daughter, now a 36-year-old insurance agent, gets married this March. When asked how she made it from kennel cleaner to Congress, Adams breaks into a huge maternal grin. “You just look into your daughter’s eyes,” she says. “You just have to put forth the effort.”
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