Opinion

We Can Get More Women and People of Color Involved In Politics

We’re just doing it wrong.

Luke Squire is the co-founder and co-Director of LaunchProgress, a group working to recruit, train, and supporting young progressive candidates running for their first state or local office.  
National Journal
Luke Squire
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Luke Squire
April 1, 2014, 6:03 a.m.

It’s been 22 years since voters elec­ted a re­cord five wo­men to the U.S. Sen­ate in a single year. Put­ting five wo­men in the Sen­ate was so mo­ment­ous that 1992 was dubbed “The Year of the Wo­man.” Two dec­ades later, we saw sim­il­ar head­lines as the fe­male head­count in the Sen­ate reached 20. Re­flect­ing on that his­tory, The Wash­ing­ton Post said the 1992 elec­tion “was sup­posed to change everything. But it didn’t — not on the scale once ex­pec­ted.”

One would think young wo­men rep­res­ent the solu­tion to this prob­lem. But in March, a month in which we cel­eb­rated wo­men’s his­tory, Chelsea Clin­ton told an audi­ence at South by South­w­est that she does not have a single fe­male friend with any in­terest in run­ning for of­fice. With a Sen­ate that is 80 per­cent male and 95 per­cent white, this is a ser­i­ous con­cern. From state­houses to your loc­al school board, wo­men are un­der­rep­res­en­ted. Al­though they are 51 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, wo­men are just 24 per­cent of state le­gis­lat­ors. It’s even worse for wo­men of col­or. By 2050, wo­men of col­or will to­geth­er com­prise a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­an wo­men. But right now, they hold just 5 per­cent of the coun­try’s state law­maker seats.

There’s a sur­pris­ingly simple solu­tion to elect­ing people to of­fice who bet­ter rep­res­ent the Amer­ica we live in: re­cruit, train, and sup­port these can­did­ates when they first enter pub­lic ser­vice — and re­search shows this is es­pe­cially ap­plic­able to elect­ing wo­men.

That’s ex­actly what Launch­Pro­gress PAC, an or­gan­iz­a­tion I cofoun­ded, did this week when we en­dorsed four young, pro­gress­ive can­did­ates — in­clud­ing two wo­men of col­or — run­ning for Michigan’s State­house. By in­vest­ing in the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion now, we can build the hu­man in­fra­struc­ture likely to cre­ate a bet­ter fu­ture for all Amer­ic­ans. Here’s how.

Stra­tegic Polit­ic­al In­vest­ing. Un­deni­ably, fed­er­al races mat­ter and de­serve at­ten­tion. The is­sues be­fore Con­gress are co­lossal, and the in­di­vidu­als we elect to those seats are crit­ic­al. However, the in­creas­ing role of big money in polit­ics — $5.3 bil­lion was spent on fed­er­al elec­tions in 2008, and $7 bil­lion in 2012 — means pro­gress­ives need a dif­fer­ent strategy. Re­cruit­ing strong ad­voc­ates and strong cam­paign­ers ready and will­ing to seek lower-level of­fices is crit­ic­al if we want to build the num­ber of these can­did­ates who run for high­er of­fice.

Some people think the solu­tion is big money. If you have a lot of it, it’s easi­er to spend a few mil­lion on mes­saging and me­dia than on can­did­ate train­ing and re­cruit­ment. The no­tori­ous and con­ser­vat­ive Koch broth­ers drop money bombs in states and try to in­flu­ence fed­er­al elec­tions every day with their su­per PAC Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity. (Of course, Demo­crats and lib­er­als do this, too.)

But the Koch broth­ers also re­cog­nize how im­port­ant loc­al elec­tions are. Last year, they brought their big-money ap­proach to loc­al races in small cit­ies in Iowa. The res­ults were dis­mal (and hil­ari­ous). No one likes people com­ing in­to their com­munit­ies and telling them what to do.

Like most things in life, throw­ing money at a prob­lem doesn’t solve it. And when look­ing at loc­al elec­tions, it can of­ten make it worse.

Don’t Spend, In­vest. Sen. Kirsten Gilibrand, D-N.Y., is an ex­ample of a pro­gress­ive who has used her fun­drais­ing prowess to do more than just dole out money. She has act­ively worked to identi­fy, re­cruit, and sup­port new fe­male can­did­ates, such as young power­house Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard, D-Hawaii. Not long after Gab­bard’s elec­tion, she, in turn, foun­ded the Fu­ture Caucus, a group fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing long-term solu­tions to is­sues that face Amer­ica’s next gen­er­a­tion.

Just like in any pro­fes­sion, people in polit­ics climb the lad­der. This usu­ally hap­pens when a polit­ic­al party re­cruits a lower-level of­fice­hold­er to run for high­er of­fice. If you fol­low that lad­der down, from Con­gress to statewide elec­ted po­s­i­tions and from there to state­house and city-coun­cil seats, you reach the point of entry for new can­did­ates. By re­cruit­ing, train­ing, and sup­port­ing young pro­gress­ive can­did­ates run­ning for their first state or loc­al of­fice, we can change our coun­try.

That’s what Launch­Pro­gress PAC is try­ing to do in Michigan. Right now, just 20 per­cent of state le­gis­lat­ors are wo­men. To change that, we en­dorsed Stephanie Chang, Kristy Pa­gan, and Re­becca Thompson, three in­cred­ible young wo­men run­ning in the De­troit area. Elect­ing them would not only bring more wo­men in­to state of­fice, it would also nearly double the num­ber of wo­men of col­or in the Le­gis­lature. If elec­ted, Chang would be the first Asi­an-Amer­ic­an wo­man to serve in the Le­gis­lature. And Jon Hoad­ley, an­oth­er can­did­ate we en­dorsed, would be­come the only LGBT law­maker in the state­house.

Back­ing the right people early and bring­ing new voices from un­der­rep­res­en­ted back­grounds in­to elec­tions will cre­ate pro­gress­ive cham­pi­ons and strong pub­lic ser­vants.

The Launch­Pro­gress vis­ion is one where we find great people first, of­fer them the sup­port they need and his­tor­ic­ally have been denied, and then in­vest in their abil­ity to serve the pub­lic by pur­su­ing elec­ted of­fice. It’s a vis­ion where Chelsea Clin­ton’s friends, maybe even Chelsea her­self, and oth­er young wo­men across the coun­try see elec­ted of­fice as a real op­por­tun­ity to change and im­prove lives.

This is a tough mod­el to ex­pand, but if we are ser­i­ous about rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy, it is the mod­el that will best em­power and en­able Amer­ica’s would-be pub­lic ser­vants.

Luke Squire is the cofounder and co­dir­ect­or of Launch­Pro­gress, a group work­ing to re­cruit, train, and sup­port young pro­gress­ive can­did­ates run­ning for their first state or loc­al of­fice.

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The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial ef­fects of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force, and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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