Reform Austin: Women in Politics: Success, Supporters & Resources
By Isobella Harkrider
Women are running in at least half of the 2020 Texas races for Congress.
How do first-time candidates get started and build support from the ground up? Here’s lived-through advice from two Texas Democratic incumbents and two newer candidates.
Political campaigning takes more than vision.
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation advances women’s equality and representation in American politics and conducts studies on women in politics, the website states. Women candidates for major statewide office must come across as confident, qualified and competent in their initial presentation and then maintain the confidence.
Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) was the first Hispanic woman to serve in the state senate, and she has held the position since 1987. Zaffirini advises starting with the basics.
“My advice to women running for office is to learn campaign basics — organization, media skills, fundraising, get-out-the-vote, etc.; to craft a platform that is timely and appeals to a broad base of voters, and not to a targeted group.”
“Say and do the things that demonstrate their preparedness, professionalism, knowledge, intelligence, qualifications and potential for success without pointing them out,” she wrote in an email.
Zaffirini encourages emerging candidates to address issues that impact both genders, not only women, and “to articulate messages indicating they deserve voters’ trust and confidence; to be genuine and sincere, never hypocritical or disingenuous; to avoid negativity and disparagement of opponents, unless there is a compelling reason.”
Never take a vote for granted, Zaffirini said.
“Run only if they are better qualified and would do a better job than an incumbent or other candidates, and they are confident of the likelihood of organizing, implementing and funding a winning campaign,” she added.
The biggest obstacle is persuading women that they are electable, Nancy Bocskor, director at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at Texas Woman’s University, wrote in an email.
“While there are voters who occasionally ask female candidates, ‘who’s taking care of your kids?’ it’s not as prevalent as it once was. As Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, decades ago once quipped, ‘Add women, change everything.’”
Bocskor added that “2020 is an even bigger year for women candidates than 2018 – 32 Democratic and 30 Republican women ran in primaries at the Congressional level on Super Tuesday.”
When it comes to what is inspiring women to run in recent years, Bocskor explains, “The Democratic party has always prioritized diversity on the ballot — and affiliate organizations such as EMILY’s list, an organization that backs pro-choice Democratic women, have been there to ensure that happens. Republicans, for the most part, eschew ‘identity politics.’ They prioritize policy agreement over what the candidate looks like.”
“However, after the pivotal 2018 elections, where Republicans lost many seats, party leaders understood they had to win back ‘suburban moms’ who don’t vote for polarizing candidates. The party and its affiliate organizations, such as the Leadership Institute, trained hundreds of Texans to run for office and work on campaigns. While women were not targeted specifically, more women were encouraged to run. That work paid off on Super Tuesday.”
Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) did not have to address the idea of balancing a political career with family life at first.
”I didn’t run for state rep until my own children were grown and out of the house. However, since my husband’s traumatic brain injury last year, I’ve been his primary caretaker and have a new appreciation for the difficulties of holding office and running for re-election while caring for a dependent,” she wrote in an email. “It would be so difficult to run and serve the public while caring for young kids. Yet somehow that has not been an issue for most dads.”
Childcare can be a big issue, and Howard shared a tip. Candidates running for federal office can use their campaign funds to pay for child care.
Another Texas Democrat played a role in making that happen. MJ Hegar, a combat veteran and working mom, is facing Sen. Royce West in a delayed runoff (now set for July) as they both vie for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
“I know that the way our political system is set up makes it harder for everyday people, especially women, to run for office.” Hegar wrote in an email.
“We can’t let the barriers stop us from fighting for a future where money doesn’t rule the day and elected officials actually share the experiences of the people they represent, which is why I am proud to have successfully petitioned the [Federal Election Commission] to allow candidates who are working parents who had to leave their jobs to run for office to use campaign funds on child care.”
Joanna Cattanach, Democratic candidate for Texas House District 108 and mother of two, also has coped with issues of confidence and child care. She wrote words of advice for women who have concerns about the commitment it takes to run a successful campaign.
“STOP thinking you are not qualified. You are qualified. STOP feeling guilty. Your kids are OK if you run for office.”
Howard received some advice when she first ran for the legislature, but it wasn’t all helpful.
“Ultimately, I’ve found that the public appreciates authenticity, but the structure of campaigns makes it very hard to stay true to yourself. Especially when surrounded by so many others telling you how you should do things, how you should dress, how you should speak, etc. When I first ran for the legislature, several supporters (mainly men) told me I needed to straighten and cut my hair. I didn’t. And I doubt many men had similar ‘advice.’”
Some suggestions help, but she needed to be true to herself.
“Being authentic in who you are will allow you to pick and choose which suggestions are ones you want to incorporate. Voters and constituents recognize and appreciate authenticity, whether they agree with you or not; and you as the candidate/elected official will experience less internal conflict if you’re being true to yourself.”
So what should you wear? And how can you afford it?
“It can be pretty expensive to dress for the campaign trail. One helpful program is Ready to Run from MM.Lafleur. For a limited time period, they provide complimentary clothing rental for candidates,” Howard said.
Donors and volunteers
“Fundraising challenges and the question of electability remain for women,” Cattanach said.
“We have a willing donor base here and one that is active. Know who is on your side. You’ll learn pretty quickly who is not.”
When asked how she started phone banking from the ground up, Cattanach wrote, “You need to know who you are phoning and why and with what message before you pick up the phone and ask for a vote or contribution. I have a database I use, and there are specific candidate trainings that will get you started including those offered by the [Texas Democratic Party] and local parties and PACs. Working with experienced volunteers and staff will help.”
Hegar has been trying to get more people involved.
“In my campaign, we’re opening the doors for everyday Texans to participate and become part of our movement. We’ve made our resources and training materials accessible online so Texans have the tools they need to organize in their own communities,” Hegar wrote. “It’s important to us that folks can get involved on their own schedules and in their own way — from knocking on doors to sending texts to hosting their own local events — so people who usually might not have time to volunteer, like working women and moms, can be engaged.”
Several organizations have had big impacts in recent years, said Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston.
“EMILY’s List and Maggie’s List have been the two largest, for each party respectively,” he wrote in an email to Reform Austin. “Also She Should Run and IGNITE.”
Yet if you lack political experience, you may not know these organizations exist until you do some digging and researching online, Rottinghaus added, “Primarily these are word-of-mouth, but most candidates do some basic research on their own or through their parties and find these opportunities.”
“There are a number of political organizations specifically to promote women candidates. Annie’s List has been tremendous in these efforts in Texas, but there are many others.” Howard said.
Many new candidates need financial backing.
“Campaigns are expensive, especially larger districts and when the candidate is a challenger. Adding 40 percent to the cost of the campaign for emerging digital trends, campaign worker health care, and advertising costs is more common now in modern campaigns,” Rottinghaus wrote.
It takes enormous confidence to push the issues and maintain the campaign agenda, it takes plenty of know-how, and in Texas there are organizations and workshops that can help to learn the ropes on creating grassroots fundraisers, building community awareness, starting a membership drive, gathering supporters to knock on doors and get your name out there, and master phone banking and the list goes on.
Annie’s List is one of the most effective political organizations in Texas that provides a full range of support to women seeking office. It’s all about a leadership journey. Their Candidate 101 class is only fifteen dollars. You can find their events in seven cities. The class includes all the basic information about running for state or local offices, how to run a successful campaign and the resources and support you’ll need when considering running for office and becoming your own movement.
“Despite the fact that we haven’t broken the highest glass ceiling of the presidency, when women are on the ballot, they get elected at about the same rates as men. But women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office, and less likely to receive institutional support once they do decide to run,” said Royce Brooks, executive director at Annie’s List, in an email.
“Since our founding, Annie’s List has raised and invested more than 19 million dollars to help women run winning campaigns at the state and local level,” she said. “We invest funds directly in the campaigns of our endorsed candidates, and, importantly, we provide the strategic support necessary to build a winning campaign, including research and polling; fundraising support; voter universe creation and data analysis; voter contact support; and even campaign staff.”
These days, success also takes being digitally savvy, but a digital presence can be a target, too.
“Social media is a double-edged sword: Candidates can communicate with so many people at very little cost. But women, in particular, are targets for personal attacks,stalking, shaming and doxxing,” Bocskor wrote in an email.
“As a consultant, I always worked to prepare families for the reality of campaigning—that people were going to say terrible things about your mom or dad.”
“Now, it’s amplified. Look no further than former Congresswoman Katie Hill whose vindictive ex-husband released nude photos. I ‘lecture’ young women to be careful about oversharing — that nothing on the internet is safe—and today’s boyfriend can be tomorrow’s malevolent ex.”
Beyond Party Lines
Bocskor has a few suggestions for nonpartisan training programs, such as the Women’s Campaign School at Yale. The Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy at TWU provides educational opportunities, and the LBJ School at UT plans to launch its inaugural Women’s Campaign School in July (now cancelled for 2020 because of COVID-19). It is based on the Yale program. ReflectUS has a strong presence in Dallas, and they hold many nonpartisan trainings to prepare women for public service. LBJ Women’s Campaign School is moving to webinars this year — and will be live in early 2021.
“I always recommend that candidates, no matter the gender, learn as much as they can about running for office,” she wrote.
EMILY’s List, one of the nation’s largest resources for women in politics, strives to put women into office who can make significant contributions to education, health care, voting rights and economic equality.
“We are excited and inspired by the number of women running for office and winning in Texas and throughout the country. Democratic women candidates flipped the U.S. House in 2018 by running on the strengths of their own personal experiences: as mothers, doctors, teachers — all driven by a desire to improve their communities,” Kristen Hernandez, spokesperson for EMILY’s List, wrote in an email.
“At EMILY’s List, we’ve had over 50,000 women reach out to us since Election Day 2016 and express interest in running now or in the future. We are proud to offer free candidate resources and trainings in person or online at emilyslist.org/runtowin for Democratic women who would like to run for any elected office.”
EMILY’s List endorsed MJ Hegar for Congress in 2018.
Women are voting in larger numbers, and parties are recruiting women to run to appeal to women voters, said Rottinghaus.
“You must have a campaign organized for canvassers to be successful. Volunteers need to feel comfortable and informed and need to connect with your message and staff. Keep that in mind as you hire. You cannot campaign alone,” wrote Cattanach.
When it comes to what has worked and the effort to stay with it after facing an upset, Cattanach wrote, “Running again and being persistent has been to my advantage. Many women are running again. The advantage women have today is that there are more men and women willing to support female candidates. The more women who run help normalize the presence of a woman on the ballot and in office.