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New York Times: Women’s Rising Influence in Politics, Tinted Green

May 7, 2016

New York Times: Women’s Rising Influence in Politics, Tinted Green

By Nicholas Confessore

Women are bankrolling political campaigns this year more than ever, driven by their rising rank in the workplace, boosts in women’s wealth, and networks set up to gather their donations and bolster their influence.

In an election year when women could be a decisive force, the transformation is occurring at every level of political giving and in both parties, from grass-roots supporters sending in a few hundred dollars to the rarefied ranks of ultrawealthy donors who fund “super PACs.”

Forty-three percent of all reported contributions to federal candidates for this election have come from women, according to an analysis ofFederal Election Commission data by Crowdpac, a political crowdfunding website, higher than any election cycle on record. Women have also provided a fifth of all individual contributions to super PACs for this election, compared with just 1 percent in 2010, the year the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision paved the way for new levels of giving to outside groups.

The increase is especially pronounced on the left, with the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton galvanizing female donors. She has counted on women to help propel her toward the Democratic nomination, and could count on them even more in a general election race againstDonald J. Trump.

And she has counted on them to fuel her huge fund-raising operation, which already relies more on women than had any presidential candidate before her.

Close to half of Mrs. Clinton’s “bundlers” — the volunteer fund-raisers who solicit checks from friends and business associates — are women, compared with about a third of President Obama’s 2012 bundlers. Nearly 60 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s reported contributions, totaling $70 million, have come from women, according to Crowdpac, the most of any presidential candidate by far. (The tally does not include contributions too small to be itemized in election commission reports.)

In interviews, female donors in both parties described cascading cultural and economic changes that were driving their participation in political giving, long among the most exclusive men’s clubs in American culture. More women are founding their own companies or rising to lead family businesses, or have already sold or retired from them, a common springboard to the upper reaches of political fund-raising. Within marriages, they said, women now had more authority to steer family decisions about political giving.

“I think women have more money, and even those who don’t, they have more power within their relationships to give to causes they care about,” said Fran Rodgers, a board member of the Democracy Alliance, a network of some of the biggest liberal donors. Ms. Rodgers said she began contributing sizable sums after selling her workplace benefits company.

“I was always interested in politics and policy,” Ms. Rodgers said. “But only in the last 15 years have I been able to do it as a donor.”

The rise of women in business is providing not just the discretionary income required for large contributions, but the kind of personal networks that power presidential and congressional fund-raising.

“The fund-raisers I went to in the late 1990s, it was mostly men writing the checks,” said Amy Rao, the chief executive of a Silicon Valley data-management firm and a prominent Democratic donor. “Now it’s mostly women. And a lot of these women are younger. They work full time. They are writing their own checks.”

Democrats like Mrs. Clinton have benefited from groups like Emily’s List, which was founded in the mid-1980s to elect Democratic women who are abortion rights advocates, and in the process has helped build a growing network of female donors in the party. Emily’s List alone has bundled more than $37 million for Democrats in this election cycle, a record pace for the organization and far more than any fund-raising effort on the right for female candidates.

But even among Republicans, female donors are playing a more significant role. Some of the largest contributors to super PACs in the Republican primary have been women, including Diane Hendricks, the billionaire chief executive of a Wisconsin-based roofing and building supplies company, and Karen Buchwald Wright, the head of an Ohio company that makes compressors for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Ms. Hendricks was the biggest donor to the super PAC that backed the presidential bid of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Both women are involved with Freedom Partners, the free-market group founded by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch; membership dues start at $100,000. A Freedom Partners official said that about 40 percent of the attendees at the group’s annual donor “seminar” were women, a proportion that had risen in recent years.

“In a very short period of time, the landscape has changed for women,” said Christine Toretti, a longtime Republican donor in Pennsylvania, who headed her family’s oil-drilling company and has given more than $400,000 to candidates since retiring in 2010.

Ms. Toretti, Mrs. Rao and other prominent bundlers in both parties said their networks of potential donors, almost exclusively men until just a few years ago, were now composed mostly of other women. And more of them had earned their wealth on their own, in contrast to times when women were more likely to wield their spouses’ wealth or inherited money.

But while women are making more contributions than ever, they still significantly trail men in the magnitude of their giving, with about two-thirds of all the money raised by federal candidates in 2016 coming from men, according to Crowdpac data. Most of the largest overall contributors in the country are men, many of them in fields like energy and finance, where women are still exceedingly rare in corporate boardrooms and executive suites.

Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist in North Carolina who has donated close to $300,000 for Republicans in recent years, described arriving at a gathering for top Mitt Romney fund-raisers in the summer of 2012 at the Deer Valley resort in Utah. The young woman who escorted her to her room, Ms. Kostrzewa recalled, asked her what she did on Mr. Romney’s staff.

“There’s an expectation even among women that other women are not donors,” Ms. Kostrzewa said. “We’re still that much of an anomaly.”

Less visible than the economic inequality that hampers giving by women are the cultural barriers that remain. Some research, for example, suggests that women are more comfortable giving to causes than to candidates, whether out of a sense that politics is grubby or because nonprofit groups will have more impact on the issues they care about.

“If you care about social issues, you may not think that politics is the place to invest your money,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “You’d rather give to an activist group or a nonprofit.”

Even when women assume senior posts at their companies, they are more reluctant to ask their colleagues for contributions to candidates. Several donors described a familiar worry among their female friends about rocking the boat among male colleagues, or offending people with different political views.

“Women needed to be convinced that they were allowed to write those checks, that they were needed,” said Naomi Aberly, a major Democratic donor and a Clinton bundler.

When Ms. Aberly moved from Texas to Boston several years ago, she said, women were very active in raising money for local Democrats. But when out-of-town candidates came to Boston — a major stop on the national fund-raising circuit — the events were usually hosted by “the same four or five very lovely, white older gentlemen,” as Ms. Aberly put it.

She worked to persuade women in the city to become more active in raising money for Democrats outside the Massachusetts delegation, particularly senators. She is now part of a group of around 60 donors that has contributed $500,000 to Democratic candidates since last June.

Many of the women in her group are lawyers or worked in finance, Ms. Aberly said, and they typically hold events at night, after working hours.

“Women are more tentative about coming out in the workplace about their political views, whatever they are,” Ms. Aberly added. “But then you have a conversation with them and point out that their male partners are doing it.”