It is possible that election night 2018 will feel different from election night 2016, especially to, and for, women. The ascent of Donald Trump — the genital-grabbing, body-shaming and debate stage-stalking candidate — to the White House has pushed millions of women over the line into activism, and it’s nudged thousands of them toward running for office. A number of groups prepare women for the rough and tumble world of campaigning American-style, grooming them to run for mayor and Congress, governor and school boards.
One such group is Emerge California. Since 2005, it’s been a linchpin of the national Emerge organization. California’s executive director is Maimuna Syed. For her, the numbers — from county supervisors to the U.S. Senate — have been too low for too long, and she bailed on a career in medicine to help cure this American political ailment.
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Emerge California has been around for a long time, but this year is different. How?
This year has been magical, in a way. We saw an 87% increase in applications to the program.
Emily’s List, the original recruiting and fundraising group for pro-choice Democratic female candidates, reports that the number of inquiries from women interested in running for office has risen from about 900 in the year 2015-2016 to more than 26,000 since November 2016. Those numbers are phenomenal. Your numbers are phenomenal. What’s motivating that?
As part of the application, we ask women what their motivation was to apply to the program this year. And the top three responses we received were the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. So I think what we’re seeing is that as a result of the 2016 election and the misogyny and the sexism that was brought to the surface as part of our national dialogue, we saw a lot of women finally say, enough is enough — I’m throwing my hat in the ring.
What kind of training do you offer women to run for office?
Our training includes everything from how to run an effective field program, how to do fundraising, how to hire staff, how to structure your campaign, how to ground yourself in the community before you decide to run for office and as you run for office, and then everything from public presentation to on-camera presence.
We spend a lot of our time really helping our program members identify why they’re running and coming up with the message for what they hope to achieve.
What offices are these women running for?
This year, we do have four members who are planning to run as Assembly candidates. But our focus is local office — mayors, city councils, county boards of supervisors, school boards and then water boards, which since the drought have actually become a very important office.
Why is your emphasis on local office?
To be honest, it’s very hard to break into California politics if you haven’t already run for another office or hold a position of leadership within the Democratic Party or within your labor union, or you’re not somehow otherwise connected to your community. We ask each program member when they apply to our program to declare an office they’re looking to run for because we want to get them in the habit of setting that goal of being in elected office. And upon graduation, we expect women to run for office within 18 to 20 months of completing our program.
The organization She Should Run gets backing from Democrats and Republicans. Why is your group just about Democrats?
A lot of the issues that are important to women are issues that are being addressed on the Democratic side. We also don’t have gender parity when it comes to elected offices in the state of California, and even within our Democratic Party. So that was a sliver of the pie that Emerge wanted to go after and help address.
Emerge is a national group. How is the California organization different?
Emerge America now exists in about 22 states, and we were created before Emerge America was created, so I think they tried the model here, it worked and they replicated it nationally. Now they’re going into states in the South and areas that tend to be redder or purple and not necessarily what we could consider traditional blue states.
Growing up in our culture, women aren’t really trained to see themselves as leaders.
One of our biggest strengths is the participation of minority women in our classes — 55% of all of our graduates here in the state have been women of color, and we’re very committed to amplifying diversity in elected office because we feel very strongly that the people we elect to represent the community should be reflective of the community.
When they start their training, what fears and concerns do they express about running for office?
A lot of women who go through our program are worried about whether or not they’re going to be taken seriously when they do decide to run for office. I think their other big concern is how to navigate institutions and gain the support of those institutions and organizations and to get endorsements to validate their runs.
You mean like unions and businesses and political parties and law enforcement?
Exactly. Traditional organizations that play in politics.
Over the years, people have noted that there’s an “ambition gap” between men and women when it comes to running for office. Are you seeing that changing?
I would actually challenge that. I don’t know if there’s been an ambition gap. I think that what we’ve been lacking are opportunities for women to step into the political sphere.
Even if I were to argue the other side, on the side of the enthusiasm gap, that has been flipped completely upside down since the 2016 election. I think this is a reaction to our national environment and to the 2016 election as a whole. And that includes just the treatment of women during that campaign.
I’ve been reading studies over the last 15 or 20 years about some of the factors that are a deterrent for women. Here are a few of them: that women see the electoral environment as competitive and biased against female candidates; women also question their own qualifications more than men do, and that may make them less confident and more risk-averse; and maybe at the top, that women still have to take care of the kids and the house more than men do. Can you speak to some of those obstacles?
Absolutely, and I’d like to add one more: that is the growing cost of campaigns, and what it really means to run as a working woman for an elected office, needing to take time away from work or having to quit your job and still needing to bring in income while you’re running your campaign, to be able to take care of your finances at home.
I think all of those are real legitimate concerns that often dissuade women. Growing up in our culture, women aren’t really trained to see themselves as leaders. We get to it with these women and say, no, you are qualified to run for this office, and you absolutely should run for this office. How do we create a plan to remove some of those barriers?
When Emerge started out, we were not just a training program for Democratic women candidates. We were also a training program for women who wanted to serve in staff roles in political campaigns. What we actually saw is that we were creating an opportunity for women who were more than qualified to run for office to opt out, and say that they wanted to support the next woman running for office.
I’m a big football fan. The analogy that I used for that is if we’re all blocking and tackling for each other, who’s actually making it across the finish line to score the touchdown? I think that really encapsulates this idea that we are so comfortable supporting each other, but when it comes time for women to declare themselves as the leader and as a candidate, there’s this hesitation of, maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’m not qualified enough. And through our program, we change that entirely.
What political background do you bring to this?
I actually have no business in politics because if I were to flash back about 10 years, I was taking all of my premed courses and getting ready to go to med school. I interned with Secretary [of State] Clinton in New Hampshire in 2007, just as I’m about to graduate from college [and thought] I’ve always wanted to do this, let me try it.
That one internship changed my life. I then went on to work in labor over the past eight years. And the first 48 hours after that 2016 presidential election, I sat back and I was, like, what is happening? Why can we not elect the first woman president? She is significantly more qualified than the person the country has decided to elect. I realized if we don’t have enough women elected at a local level, then we’re not creating opportunities for the next Kamala Harris, and the next Elizabeth Warren and the next Hillary Clinton, and then we’re never going to truly see the progress and hopefully one day break that final glass ceiling.
So I decided to come over to Emerge to focus on that mission, to find good women who we can train to run effective campaigns, get them elected to office and help build the bench for tomorrow’s leaders.
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