The Women’s Hour

Susan Platt campaign

Political consultant Susan Platt, who is running for the state's open lieutenant governor seat, at the Women's March on Washington. 

For New York lawyer Alessandra Biaggi, the moment of truth came on election night, as she gathered with fellow Hillary Clinton campaign workers in a room beneath the stage of Manhattan’s Javits Center, and watched her young, female interns cry their eyes out.

“I just remember looking at them,” recalls Biaggi, 30, and thinking: “I am going to run for office.”

For New Jersey businesswoman Christine Chen, the tipping point came after Election Day, when she was struggling to explain to her two young children that a man she considered a bully would now be president. “It wasn’t congruent with everything I was teaching, and I really asked myself if there was more that I could do,” recalls Chen, 36. Soon afterward, she says, “I sent an email to my entire family and said: I’m going to run for office.”

Virginia consultant Susan Platt has devoted much of her career convincing women run for public office, but never thought she would do so herself. But when Platt realized that no Democratic woman was going to run for this year’s open lieutenant governor seat, she took it upon herself to enter the race. “It was time for me to finally stand up and say: I’m going to do this,” says Platt, 62.

Biaggi, Chen, and Platt are just three among thousands of American women who have decided to seek public office this year for the first time. Women have been flocking in record numbers to political training sessions run by universities, political groups, and nonprofits with names like Ignite, Running Start, She Should Run, and VoteRunLead. Interviews with organizers training female candidates around the country suggest that a staggering 16,000 women have sought professional advice on how to run for office since Donald Trump’s was elected president.

“These are historic numbers,” says Jessica O’Connell, executive director of the Democratic women’s PAC EMILY’s List, which has heard from no fewer than 10,000 women seeking campaign advice since Election Day. That’s ten times more than the number who asked for campaign counseling between January 1 and November 8 of 2016. An EMILY’s List training the day after the January Women’s March drew 500 women, and 500 more were turned away. Now the group is doubling its “Run to Win” recruitment and training program, thanks to surging contributions.

Not all these women will follow through and actually run, of course, and not all who do seek office will win. A century after the first woman took her seat in Congress, American women still trail much of the world when it comes to political representation. Women hold only 19.4 percent of congressional seats, 24.8 percent of state legislative seats, and a paltry four governorships, ranking the United States 104th internationally—a record low.

The recent female candidate surge is unlike anything seen since the “Year of the Woman” in 1991, when lawyer Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas ushered a record crop of women into Congress the following year. Many women were outraged not just by Hill’s testimony, but by the all-white, all-male composition of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This year’s outpouring is not strictly a reaction to Trump—though his anti-woman declarations and policies have certainly galvanized many women. Republican women, too, are seeking campaign advice, says Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, a nonpartisan women’s political training group where more than 6,000 women have signed up to learn how to run for office since Election Day. GOP women have been inspired, in part, by their party’s recent winning streak.

But Democrats dominate the ranks of both women now in office and those eyeing political runs. And women are playing a leading role in the progressive resistance to Trump in protests and town halls. When millions took to the streets the day after Trump’s inauguration, it was for a march organized by women. At a rash of new organizations that have cropped up to mobilize progressives, such as Indivisible, Flippable and SwingLeft, women are key players. One of Senate Democrats’ top fundraisers right now is Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, who donates much of her money to women.

“Much [as] we saw with the Women’s March, there has been a particularly gendered reaction to the election of Donald Trump, and a particularly strong gender component to the resistance,” says Leah Greenberg, coauthor of the Indivisible Guide, the popular new grassroots organizing handbook, and a board member of the Indivisible Project.

It’s easy to see why. Trump not only defeated the first woman nominated by a major party to run for president. He also was captured on tape boasting that he loved to kiss and grab women without permission, he ran on a platform of overturning Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, which vastly expanded women’s health care access, and his attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and the disabled hit women particularly hard. As president, he has left women largely out of his cabinet, slashed international family planning funding, and continued to take aim at the health care law and at immigrants and refugees.

“A lot of women were reeling after the election—not so much that Hillary Clinton lost, but that a man who would say the kinds of things he said about women … could get elected president of the United States,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “That really rocked women. And they really felt it as a personal attack.”

At the Rutgers center’s annual “Ready to Run” women’s political training last month, attendance maxed out at 250—well over the 150 to 180 who usually attend, says Walsh. About 100 women had already registered for the two-day training conference by December 31 of last year, recalls Walsh, a stage in the sign-up process when she can usually count registrants on the fingers of one hand.

It’s been the same at “Ready to Run” affiliates in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. At these trainings, as at EMILY’s List and at such nonprofit programs as VoteRunLead, women are learning the nuts and bolts of how to raise money, identify when and where to run, win political party backing, leverage social media tools, contact voters, and do interviews on TV.

 

THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE to women winning political office is not raising money or running a strong campaign, political scientists say—though many women fear they will fall short in both. It’s convincing women that they are sufficiently qualified to serve. Women tend to shy away from running unless they are actively recruited, studies show. And women already juggling careers and kids tend to enter politics at a later stage, if they do at all. That’s why this year’s crop of politically impassioned women, many of them already committed to running in 2018 or 2020, represents such a breakthrough, women campaign trainers say.

“I really have to make, usually, a hard sell to women—that women need to be running for office, and here are the reasons why,” says Dana Brown, executive director at the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics, which saw double its normal turnout at its political trainings in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh this year. “It’s been a flip of the script because of this election. It’s really exciting for those of us who care about women in politics that this is happening without the hard sell.”

Ironically, the election of Trump, who had never held public office and whose style as both a candidate and as president has been chaotic at best, has also encouraged many women to see themselves as qualified for politics. “With the election of Trump, for better or worse, women are looking around and saying: If he can be president, I can run for city council,” says Vilardi, of VoteRunLead.

Most women who follow through with actual candidacies will probably run for down-ballot races. While unseating an incumbent—and in most cases male—member of Congress, governor, or even state legislator could strike many women as a tall order, say female political organizers, picking up a seat on a city council, utility commission, or school board is eminently doable. There are some 3,000 counties, 19,000 cities and towns and an estimated 519,682 elective offices in the United States for the political novice to choose from.

Some women, like Biaggi, are still picking their targets. Since leaving the Clinton campaign, where she served as deputy national operations director, Biaggi has attended campaign trainings at Rutgers and Yale University, accepted several speaking engagements, and created a map of state legislative and congressional seats.

“I’m not afraid to challenge an incumbent,” says Biaggi. “I just want to make sure that I am choosing the right seat for my level of experience right now.”

Others, like Chen and Platt, live in states where elections will take place this year, and have already hit the campaign trail.  Chen is challenging GOP state Senator Mike Doherty in New Jersey’s strongly Republican 23rd district. A health-care industry executive, Chen’s first move was to make sure everyone in her family, including her children—ages six and three—was on board.

“As a working mother, I needed the support of my parents and my in-laws, because they are helping take care of the kids,” says Chen. “My children understand that this is important to Mommy. My husband had to be supportive. Everybody had to be a part of this.”

Chen attended last month’s “Ready to Run” training at Rutgers, and is relying heavily on volunteers, who are helping her with everything from fundraising to videography. If elected, she would be the first Asian American woman to serve in the New Jersey state senate. “I did not run because I am a woman,” says Chen. “I ran because I fear for my children, and I felt like I needed to do something.”

For Platt, by contrast, gender is a defining theme of her campaign. Platt’s decades-long career in business and politics includes founding two Virginia organizations, the Farm Team and EmergeVA, to help women run for public office. She lists her number one priority as creating a state cabinet-level position to help children and families. Having lost a step-daughter to drug addition, she frequently speaks to voters about the state’s opioid crisis. She recently won a surprise endorsement from comedian and Trump critic Rosie O’Donnell.

Platt led a recent poll of the Democratic lieutenant governor candidates facing off in the June primary, among whom are Justin Fairfax and Gene Rossi, both former federal prosecutors. The current lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, is running for governor, competing with former House member Tom Perriello for the Democratic nomination.

Platt led a delegation of women across the Arlington Memorial Bridge from Virginia to Washington for the January Women’s March, and is running a “100 for $100” fundraising program that aims to convince 100 women to raise $100 each. The idea is to invite each woman to tap ten donors at $10 each. If elected, Platt would be Virginia’s first female lieutenant governor.

“I think part of being a woman is, you want to stand up for those who are being bullied,” says Platt, who also went to Dulles airport to protest Trump’s now-blocked travel ban.

 

THE BIG UNANSWERED question, of course, is whether Platt and other women who have set their sights on public office can sustain the energy of today’s marches and protests to actually win elections. One difference between the Trump effect on women in 2017 and the “Year of the Woman” in 1991 is that the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings took place just 13 months before the 1992 elections. By contrast, most of the women outraged by Trump today won’t actually face election until the fall of 2018 or 2020.

“I think one of the challenges right now is sustaining this energy over potentially not just two years, but maybe four years,” says Cindy Simon Rosenthal, a professor of political science and women’s studies at the University of Oklahoma. “That is a tall hill to climb.”

Virginia Beach public school teacher Cheryl Turpin, who decided to enter politics after Trump’s election, knows that such forays don’t always end happily. Turpin lost a January 10 special election for a House of Delegates seat in Virginia Beach to Norman “Rocky” Holcomb, a sheriff’s deputy and former Marine. Turpin was the first candidate supported by Flippable, a new group launched by former Clinton campaign aides who have set out to flip state legislative seats from red to blue.

But another Flippable candidate, environmental attorney Stephanie Hansen, won a special election in Delaware in February that enabled Democrats to retain control of the state senate. “If this had happened a year ago, I don’t think we would have been able to raise the level of attention and funds and volunteers for her,” says Flippable CEO Catherine Vaughan of the Hansen contest.

Brown, at the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics, argues that there are two reasons why the energy helping elect women like Hansen might well be sustainable. First, maintains Brown, in the world of politics, “two years goes by actually quite quickly.” The second, more important reason, she says, is that Trump will (presumably) remain president between now and the next election: “That will be a constant reminder—at least for Democratic women—why they are running.”

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