WASHINGTON — Two appearances here this weekend by actress Ashley Judd are feeding into growing guesswork over whether she'll make a bid for a U.S. Senate seat.
On Friday, Judd was the featured speaker at a forum for women's reproductive rights at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services. While in Washington, she is also set to accept an award for humanitarian work Saturday.
Judd did not take questions or speak about the possibility of running for Senate in Kentucky, but prominent state leaders have said her appearances and networking in Washington suggest the Democrat and political novice might enter the race to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
One student prefaced a question with just that speculation, to which Judd replied, "Is there an elephant in the room?"
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She also pointedly welcomed questions from George Washington University's chapter of College Republicans, but the focus of the forum remained on issues of improving public health, decreasing disparities in gender equality and addressing violence against women.
They're issues close to Judd's heart, she said. In addition to growing up in an often-turbulent childhood, during which she spent stretches of time on her own in a rural farmhouse, Judd said she is a three-time survivor of sexual assault.
"I see some people crying, which is a good thing, and that's one of the reasons I have the passion and the ability," she said, "I'm not saying it doesn't hurt, because it breaks my heart and I lose my faith and I cry so hard in hotel rooms that people next to me are saying "Oh deary me, do we need to go help her?"
Judd said the difficulty of fighting against inequalities can be a heavy weight to bear; people burn out or take other routes, as Judd said she did at 22 when she took up acting rather than remain in the American Peace Corps.
"Talk about emotional immaturity," she said.
But Judd said she eventually decided to stop indulging in self-pity over small inconveniences, like cold showers, when billions of people have no access to clean water or a proper bathroom.
She said she immersed herself in advocacy, working with the roots of the One Campaign and traveling to India, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries to do humanitarian work.
Some students posed questions on how they can continue to move forward when faced with what seem like insurmountable barriers.
"Do you know how hard it is to walk out of an orphanage?" Judd responded. "My hands tingle right now as I can still feel the weight of a baby I can't take with me. That's a debt for me, a spiritual debt, and there's always something that brings me back."
Judd encouraged each student to find what makes them mad and gives them a fire in their belly. When they've done that, they've "found your pig," she said, using a slogan her family coined after a relative kept a pet pig even after moving from Eastern Kentucky to San Francisco.
Judd's family and Kentucky resurfaced throughout the forum, adding to speculation that she might take up the Senate race.
"It points to it," said Casey Soiron, a George Washington University student who asked Judd for advice in helping his female friends get help after experiencing sexual assaults. "It was Kentucky this, Kentucky that. She's obviously, I think, going to run."