Getting Women to See Themselves as Candidates

Getting women to see themselves as potential candidates.

This illustration can only be used with the Lucia Graves piece that ran in the 7/26/2014 issue of National Journal magazine. 
National Journal
Lucia Graves
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Lucia Graves
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

On a hot Wed­nes­day in May, in a hotel ball­room in down­town At­lanta, Hat­tie Adams is ex­plain­ing why she doesn’t want to run for of­fice. An an­im­ated wo­man in her 40s, with a pol­ished look and a strong, con­fid­ent voice, Adams is treas­urer of her loc­al uni­on chapter. She has long har­bored an in­terest in polit­ics and has had friends en­cour­age her to run, she says. Once she even ser­i­ously con­sidered jump­ing in­to a race for the board of trust­ees of Port Chester in Westchester County, New York, but de­cided against it after her hus­band ex­pressed in­terest in the job. She didn’t want polit­ics to in­ter­fere with her roles as a moth­er and a wife. Be­sides, she adds, her hus­band was “more know­ledge­able.” (He wound up win­ning the seat.)

This is not what Jes­sica Byrd wants to hear. “It’s great that someone in your fam­ily is run­ning for of­fice,” Byrd tells Adams and the two dozen oth­er wo­men in the room. “But we want you to run.”

Byrd works for EMILY’s List, a Wash­ing­ton-based Demo­crat­ic or­gan­iz­a­tion foun­ded in 1985 to build a fun­drais­ing net­work for fe­male can­did­ates who sup­port abor­tion rights (the name is an ac­ronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast”). In 2001, the group launched a can­did­ate-train­ing pro­gram, with daylong in­struc­tion ses­sions and bind­ers full of tips for nav­ig­at­ing the male-dom­in­ated world of polit­ics. Then the or­gan­iz­a­tion began work­ing to max­im­ize con­tri­bu­tions and voter turnout. Today, Byrd is here to try to do something new: to train and en­cour­age wo­men who say they don’t want to run.

“At this point, when Demo­crat­ic wo­men run, they tend to win,” Jess McIn­tosh, EMILY’s List’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, tells me later. “They do really well. The reas­on we don’t have more wo­men in of­fice is that there aren’t more run­ning.”

One wo­man says she feels that, at 61, she’s too old to run for of­fice. An­oth­er says she simply prefers to be be­hind the scenes. At best, they have thought about think­ing about run­ning.

The ses­sion in At­lanta is part of an ef­fort aimed at chal­len­ging con­cep­tions about what the face of lead­er­ship should look like, and who is qual­i­fied to lead. Billed as “a pipeline to the pipeline,” it is presen­ted as an op­por­tun­ity for at­tendees to learn how to identi­fy po­ten­tial can­did­ates in their com­munit­ies, but Byrd, the bright, con­geni­al wo­man who is spear­head­ing the pro­gram in 10 pi­lot states, cer­tainly wouldn’t mind if par­ti­cipants wound up identi­fy­ing po­ten­tial can­did­ates in the room — or even in their own chairs.

The train­ees are all mem­bers of the Co­ali­tion of Black Trade Uni­on­ists, who have come to At­lanta for the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s an­nu­al event, and many are at the EMILY’s List ses­sion mainly be­cause they were en­cour­aged by their uni­on to at­tend. (Adams tells me later that she had ori­gin­ally planned to put in an ap­pear­ance and then leave at lunch, but the day turned out to be more in­ter­est­ing than she’d ex­pec­ted.) One wo­man says she feels that, at 61, she’s too old to run for of­fice. An­oth­er says she simply prefers to be be­hind the scenes. At best, like Adams, they have thought about think­ing about run­ning for of­fice. Un­der oth­er cir­cum­stances, few of them would be likely to show up for a train­ing ses­sion on how to re­cruit can­did­ates, and Byrd ex­presses ex­cite­ment at the op­por­tun­ity to reach this par­tic­u­lar slice of the pop­u­la­tion: “A thou­sand black work­ers com­ing to­geth­er is just too good to be true,” she says.

Part in­struct­or, part life coach, Byrd stands at the front of the room with a slide pro­ject­or and her step-by-step les­son plan, os­cil­lat­ing between group dis­cus­sions and Power­Point slides. “We wanted to keep this dia­logue-heavy,” Byrd says of her cur­riculum. “To really in­spire people who leave to think about their com­munit­ies dif­fer­ently.” She primes the semi­circle of wo­men be­fore her on what to look for in a can­did­ate, where to find prom­ising pro­spects, and how to sur­mount their own bar­ri­ers and fears. She asks them to flip through their men­tal con­tact lists, to help her build a data­base of names of po­ten­tial can­did­ates.

Then she moves on to the activ­it­ies. In the first, the wo­men set about cre­at­ing their own help-wanted ads for can­did­ates. An ac­com­pa­ny­ing slide en­cour­ages the train­ees to really get to know any po­ten­tial re­cruits. What mo­tiv­ates this per­son? Does she con­sider her­self “polit­ic­al,” and if not, why not? An­oth­er slide warns to watch out for “red flags”: Bet­ter to steer clear of any­one who re­fuses to ask people for money; any­one who says “you’ll have to do most of the work” be­cause their job and fam­ily take a lot of their time; and any­one with a sick re­l­at­ive.

EMILY’s List Pres­id­ent Stephanie Schriock (Amy Suss­man/Getty Im­ages for Glam­our)Byrd tells me after the ses­sion that cre­at­ing the help-wanted ad is her fa­vor­ite part of the train­ing, be­cause “it starts to get them through some of the bar­ri­ers in their own minds about who should have power and who shouldn’t.” She says she typ­ic­ally asks her train­ees to con­sider what qual­it­ies they think a per­son must have to be a can­did­ate. Does she have to have good cred­it, or own a home? Does she have to be mar­ried, wealthy, or highly edu­cated? Does she have to be con­nec­ted or con­ven­tion­ally at­tract­ive? If a wo­men thinks she has to check all of those boxes just to throw her hat in­to the ring, Byrd says, “that’s keep­ing people out of the sys­tem.”

But doesn’t she have to check some boxes? And pre­sum­ably not check oth­ers? For ex­ample, Lynette Gail­ord, a train­ee in her early 60s, tells me about a young­er wo­man she’d been think­ing about ment­or­ing who is a “good orator” but “not re­spons­ible on Face­book.” What ex­actly are the deal-break­ers?

Bey­ond the “red flags” list, Byrd won’t get spe­cif­ic, but work­shop at­tendees are en­cour­aged to put pro­spect­ive can­did­ates to this test: When you meet with someone you’re in­ter­ested in, ask her 1) to bring a list of five people she knows would com­mit time to the cam­paign and 2) bring a list of 10 people she knows would con­trib­ute. (Fail­ure to meet either of these min­im­um tasks is con­sidered a bad sign.)

Byrd says she is hon­est with wo­men, ac­know­ledging that there can be real bar­ri­ers to run­ning, but she also tells them that with hard work and the right sup­port, those bar­ri­ers can be over­come. It is her job, she says, to think about where people are and how to get them “to a place of yes.” Her goal is to bring “as many people in­to our polit­ic­al sys­tem as pos­sible, to make sure that every­one is truly be­ing rep­res­en­ted in the most di­verse way so that we truly have a rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy.” And that means, she says, “that we have to ask every­one.”

After the want-ad ex­er­cise, par­ti­cipants break up in­to small groups to brain­storm about where they might find po­ten­tial re­cruits. Armed with rolls of white butcher pa­per and mark­ers, they make bul­let-point lists of loc­a­tions — churches, buses, nail salons — while Byrd circles the room like a school­teach­er. Then the groups role-play how to re­spond to any an­ti­cip­ated con­cerns from pro­spect­ive can­did­ates they might ap­proach (the for­mula: af­firm, an­swer, then re­dir­ect). The first po­ten­tial ob­jec­tion Adams’s group dis­cusses is, “I don’t have time to run for of­fice”; un­der that head­ing, Adams writes in big let­ters with a red mark­er, “I’m a mom, too.” Then the wo­men talk through ways to ac­know­ledge the vari­ous con­cerns while also push­ing back against them. They are look­ing for ways to con­vince oth­ers that the bar­ri­ers are sur­mount­able, but also con­vin­cing them­selves.

Adams later tells me that the ses­sion changed her mind-set: “One thing I learned to do is stop fight­ing pro­gress, and if something should come up in the next year or so, I would really take a look at it this time and not just say, ‘Oh, no, I’ll help you, but no.’ I feel I’m ma­ture enough in fam­ily and in com­munity and in a lot of dif­fer­ent areas. I’m ready.”

In most cases, however, the in­tern­al evol­u­tion re­quired won’t hap­pen in one con­ver­sa­tion, or even in one day. “Can­did­ates may not beready at this time,” Byrd re­minds the group, “but we’re play­ing the long game.”

What We're Following See More »
REPEATS CONTROVERSIAL CLAIM
Trump: Clinton “Doesn’t Have The Stamina” to be President
1 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

At the end of the debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Donald Trump if he stands by his statement that Hillary Clinton didn't have the look of a president. Trump responded by saying Holt misquoted him, instead saying that Clinton "doesn't have the stamina." Clinton responded by saying that when Trump visits 112 countries as secretary of state, he can talk to her about stamina.

WIDELY DEBUNKED CLAIM
Trump: Clinton Camp Started Birtherism
1 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump, when pressed by Lester Holt on why he finally admitted that President Obama was born in America, repeated his widely debunked claim that it was started by Hillary Clinton.

“AFRICAN AMERICANS” ARE “LIVING IN HELL”
Conversation Shifts to Race
2 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Hillary Clinton went point by point on how race can so often determine the treatment that people receive, mentioning recent shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte, calling for restored trust between communities and police, and demanding criminal justice reform. Trump responded by calling for law and order and touting his endorsements from police unions. He then said that “African Americans are living in hell,” saying they are just walking down the street and getting “shot ... being decimated by crime."

JUST AS CLINTON INVITES VIEWERS TO VISIT HER SITE
During Debate, Trump Site Appears to Be Down
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

Just as Hillary Clinton was inviting debate viewers to visit her site for real-time fact checking, there appeared to be a problem with Donald Trump's own campaign website. For about a 15-minute period, a blank page or an error message appeared when we tried to load the Trump site.

INTERRUPTS CLINTON MULTIPLE TIMES
Trump Comes Out Swinging
2 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump has come out in the first segment of this debate raring to go. Trump has interrupted nearly every answer being given by Hillary Clinton, talking over her time and again. Clinton is sticking to her guns, smiling while Trump speaks and then calling on people to go to her website and see the fact checking being done.

×