Coming from small town Mineola, Texas, Audrey Spanko had no idea what social work was. But when she finally discovered the field, she knew it was exactly where she needed to be.
She obtained her bachelor of social work degree from UT Austin in 2011 and began direct service work in hospitals, clinics and nonprofit organizations before settling into her career with the Department of Family and Protective Services.
In her search to make an even greater impact in social work, Spanko returned to the Steve Hicks School to obtain her master of social work degree in 2019.
In a social policy class, during a discussion about elected officials, she realized the need for social workers to be involved in policy-making. She obtained an internship at the Texas Capitol as a policy advocate for the National Association of Social Workers and while there, she solidified her decision to run for Texas state senate in 2020.
In the November 2020 elections, Spanko ran in District 1, an East Texas conservative region that she believed was neglected by politicians. Her top priorities were to expand health care coverage, fund public education and raise wages for working families.
“Four hospitals closed in my district, so individuals are literally dying on the road and in the ambulance trying to get to the hospital,” Spanko said. “On the issue of health care, uninsured rates are astronomical in the region and it’s unfortunate that this area has some of the highest infant mortality, maternal mortality and suicide rates in the state.”
Spanko’s campaign team was initially just her and her parents, who helped develop a website and began fundraising and organizing. However, it wasn’t long before seven classmates from her MSSW cohort joined the campaign in various roles including campaign coordination, volunteer management, outreach and policy research. Before she knew it, Spanko had a full team of social workers behind her trying to get her elected.
As the first serious Democratic candidate to run in her district in years, Spanko knew she was entering a challenging race. She was defeated by incumbent Republican State Sen. Bryan Hughes, who received more than 76% of the votes.
“I think we were on the cusp of something and we still are,” she said.“It was unfortunate we were unable to connect with more people and that the pandemic had such a detrimental impact on our ability to campaign.”
Since ending her campaign, Spanko refocused her energy back into her full-time career working in substance-abuse prevention. Although she is not making an official commitment to run again, she says the door will always be open. For now, Spanko is encouraging more social workers to get involved in policy-making and to consider running for office.
“We need to be thinking more about how decisions actually impact people and communities outside of who we interact with daily,” Spanko said. “We need to be looking at the big picture. We need social workers because we have a level of empathy, understanding and compassion that’s really needed in politics.”