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. 
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Lucia Graves
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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.”

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