Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a series on women-founded and -led organizations working to expand female political representation in the U.S. by recruiting, training and funding women candidates.
Back in 2002, George W. Bush was in the second year of his presidency, and opportunities looked slim in Washington, D.C., for Democratic operatives like Andrea Dew Steele who were itching to make things happen.
Dew Steele had spent most of her career in Washington working for the likes of Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Party’s 1988 presidential nominee, and Carol Moseley Braun, who became the country’s first female African-American senator in 1993. So during what seemed to her then like “a pretty dark time,” she had moved to San Francisco to become an advisor to Democratic activist and philanthropist Susie Tompkins Buell, the co-founder of Esprit Clothing. Meanwhile, “I thought, on a personal level, I’m going to get involved locally,” she says.
Then, a friend who Dew Steele had been encouraging to run for office — “an amazing woman of color” — decided to become a candidate for district attorney of San Francisco and asked for advice. “She was not a political animal,” Dew Steele says, but Kamala Harris beat a two-term incumbent to win that 2003 election. Today, Harris is California’s junior senator and a rising Democratic star talked about as a potential future presidential candidate.
That tough election showed Dew Steele just how paltry the resources and training opportunities were for women like Harris — far too few of whom were seeking office. And she began asking: “Do we really make every woman running at the state and local level be an entrepreneur?” With no road map, “you have to figure it out, and it’s not easy to figure it out, particularly if you’re not a political animal.”
At around that time, Dew Steele read a paper by the academic Jennifer Lawless arguing that improving poor levels of female political representation required efforts to recruit and train women candidates. She was also watching a Republican National Committee initiative called Winning Women work to bring more women into the GOP orbit and leadership.
Dew Steele felt sure that, “If we leave women out of the equation, we’re never going to get back in power,” she says. “I tried to do what Republicans were doing.” She began building a structure to train and support Democratic women candidates and called it Emerge California. By 2005, two colleagues took the model to Arizona and New Mexico, and Emerge America was born.
Surprise Growth, Driven by Trump Antipathy
As of the 2016 general elections, Emerge America had a presence in 17 states. That year, 214 of its alumnae were on ballots around the country, and 150 of them won, for a 70 percent success rate. Even in deep-red Kentucky, it won 60 percent if its races and elected the first African-American to serve in 20 years. (Some 39 percent of Emerge graduates are women color.)
But Donald Trump’s victory and presidency has shaken Democratic women, and many women who have never been active in politics before are jumping in. They feel “they can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, which pioneered nonpartisan 20-state network of candidate training programs called Ready to Run that has also seen a surge in participants. “In this administration, their issues are on the chopping block.”
Amid the post-Trump upsurge in Democratic activism, Emerge mobilized quickly to add operations in six new states, for a total of 23.
Emerge is known for providing comprehensive in-person training — each annual “class” meets for 70 hours during 6 weekends over 6 months — though in some states it now offers 3-day boot camps. It has at least one staff member on the ground in each state, and works to cultivate local party allies, recruit quality candidates and develop local support networks. Those networks are anchored by training alumnae, who can be tapped for campaign staff, volunteers and other resources. Emerge partners with Emily’s List on fundraising, particularly in federal races. It says just over half of it trainees eventually run for office.
“We’re building an old girls club,” said A’Shanti Gholar, Emerge America’s political director, during a panel she hosted at the Women’s Convention in Detroit.
Emerge training provides an important confidence boost, said Michigan congressional candidate Fayrouz Saad, speaking on the panel. Saad would become the first Muslim-American woman in Congress, if she wins her race for an open seat in the House of Representatives. She has faced “certain assumptions made because of my name,” she told the audience. “We have to embrace who we are and own it, and that’s how we change the game.”
Declaring her candidacy took gumption. Initially, Saad was running against Republican Dave Trott, an incumbent white male multi-millionaire, though he later dropped out. “I’m running in a majority white district, and I believe I can represent everyone,” she said. “As soon as you see yourself as viable, people will see you as viable.”
The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Saad formerly worked in the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security and as director of immigrant affairs for the city of Detroit. After Trump’s win, she came to believe Congress was where she could have the greatest impact.
“I decided I have to fight for my values,” she said. “I saw something in this district. People want change, and I’m ready to be that change.”
Building a Bench in the States
Emerge has always wanted to expand. But prior to 2016, it had a fairly modest goal of reaching 20 states by 2020. Now, it aims to be in all 50 states by then, Dew Steele says, thanks to a new wave of support.
“Building a bench had not been a priority” of the Democratic Party, she says. “That really changed right after the election when we saw this increasing demand and willingness by funders to support” efforts to elect state and local candidates. Among the beneficiaries is Emerge, which relies heavily on individual donors to fund its operations. It says it raised $2.03 million in the first half of 2017, quadruple the $500,219 it raised in the same period of 2016, a much higher-profile presidential election year.
Dew Steele is among a growing chorus of influential Democrats who argue the party can no longer sit out elections in red states and must compete aggressively. Winning state and local offices is especially important, they say, because it’s where a lot of important policy is made, redistricting is controlled and political talent is groomed.
“We need a 50-state strategy” to take the country back, she says. There are “a lot of offices the Democrats could win, if we at least tried.”
Thanks in part to recently launched operations in the red states of Alabama, South Carolina and Louisiana, Emerge is now active in 10 states where Republicans control the state legislature. It plans to quickly build up these new programs, hoping to make inroads during the 2018 elections.
“This year, we’re definitely focused on getting women running in all levels in every state,” Dew Steele says.
Creating a Reflective Democracy
Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win was viewed by many Democratic women as a threat to everything from equity in the workplace to affordable healthcare to environmental protection. As a result, Dew Steele says, “we are responding to tremendous demand” for assistance from would-be candidates. In the 2 months after the election, applications to its programs soared 87 percent, and 336 alumnae have declared candidacies for 2017 and 2018 races.
In Tuesday’s off-year 2017 general election, 129 Emerge-trained women were on the ballot for local and state offices in nine states, and 85 won their races. In the closely watched Virginia House of Delegates election, 11 of 18 Emerge alumnae won — and out the 15 seats that flipped from red to blue, alumnae won nine. Among the victors were Danica Roem, the first out transgender state legislator in the country; Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala, the first two Latinas to join Virginia’s legislature; and Kathy Tran, the body’s first Asian American woman.
Those results could give Emerge a further boost as is moves through the fall, its prime recruitment period for 2018. Already, 103 Emerge alumnae have declared 2018 candidacies, even though many filing deadlines are not until spring.
All this is good news to Dew Steele, who has made it her life’s work to inch closer to parity for female representation in the country’s many elected bodies. Women are 52 percent of the population, but only 20 percent of Congress, 25 percent of state legislators and 21 percent of mayors, according CAWP.
Adding more women is “really about building a reflective democracy,” Dew Steele says. “We’re so grossly under-represented… We have so much talent to bring to the table, it just makes no sense to me.”
In fact, research shows women political leaders have proven more productive, often more ethical and more apt to work across party lines to address problems, she says. “If we get more women in positions of power, we will improve the lives and conditions of people in our country.”
Dew Steele’s near-term goal is to achieve at least 30 percent female representation in government, a level that studies suggest creates a critical mass able to effect institutional change. But, of course, 50 percent is her ultimate objective.
“I want to keep the good men,” she says. “I just want to get rid of the mediocre ones and get some good women in.”