Political boot camp trains future women office-holders
DENVER – Mary Walsh, a single mother of three and a student at the University of Wyoming, lives off loans and grants so she can spend evenings with her children. The 28-year-old wondered about how she could make the jump into politics _ running for city council in Laramie _ because the prime time for knocking on doors soliciting votes was family time.
She got her answer at a Denver political boot camp for women when Pam Anderson, clerk and recorder of suburban Jefferson County, explained how as a graduate student she canvassed neighborhoods with her two children in a little red wagon.
“Hearing they can come with me was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I can make it work,” said Walsh, who expects her children to be riding bikes by the time she runs in 2008 or 2010.
The weekend training for would-be candidates was sponsored by the White House Project, a nonpartisan group that promotes women’s leadership in politics, right up to the nation’s top job, as well as in the business world.
Founded by Marie Wilson, a president of the Ms. Foundation and co-creator of Take our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, its aim is to get so many women into office that they’re leading on a range of issues along with men.
Wilson said women don’t run because they don’t see many other women in office and because the culture is ambivalent about women’s ambitions. But she said research shows they’ll consider it if they’re asked to and, right now, women stand to benefit from voters’ distrust of politics as usual.
“It is a great time for women to enter public life,” she said.
Over the last three years, the program has trained 1,000 women in four states _ Colorado, Georgia, Washington and Minnesota _ and is set to expand to Arizona, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and Rhode Island. In Colorado, 24 participants have run for office and 11 have been elected, including four state legislators. Other boot camp veterans have managed women’s political campaigns.
The group’s “Go Run” training in Denver this month attracted about 120 women. It was a mixture of networking and a primer on the nitty gritty of politics, covering everything from distributing yard signs and simulating cold calls to campaign contributors to finding out how much can fit into a 10-second sound bite.
Most of the advice political consultant Sheila MacDonald gave Walsh and about 30 other women during a “Pounding the Pavement” class would help anyone trying to break into local politics.
MacDonald, who helped manage Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s campaign, stressed the importance of figuring out how many votes the would-be candidates needed to win, then focusing on “persuadable voters” who can push them over the top _ and ignoring voters who will never agree with them.
Paying someone to maintain a database of supporters is worth it, MacDonald said. But she told her audience to be stingy about shelling out for expensive T-shirts and buttons.
A single mailing? “It’s like spitting in the wind,” MacDonald said, if it can’t be followed up with a phone call or a door-to-door visit by the candidate.
“It’s touches in bunches. That way you get something for it,” she said.
Before she sent her students on to classes on fundraising and dealing with the media, MacDonald, a former teacher, noted how female interns she worked with on the Ritter campaign were more reluctant to speak out than the males. She said she thought women sometimes keep quiet until they think they’ve mastered something _ but she said that won’t work in the “boys club” of politics.
“The men could care less if they know enough about it. … You have got to be strong and say what you think,” she said.
Women who have been elected said they thought their gender helped them.
Democratic State Rep. Morgan Carroll told attendees she thought women appeal to the “anti-status quo voters” who are upset about corruption. Lola Spradley, a Republican and the first woman to serve as Colorado’s House speaker, said women can appeal to voters because of a “lack of arrogance.”
Eva Henry’s road to politics started when Judy Solano knocked on her door as Solano campaigned for the state legislature. The 45-year-old, who had just learned her son was supposed to deploy to Iraq, said she bonded with Solano, who also had a son in the military. She ended up serving as Solano’s volunteer coordinator twice.
Henry, a loan officer who struggled to find time to be a school volunteer while raising her two children alone, and that she sometimes went to bed hungry to make ends meet. She decided to run for the suburban Thornton city council when Solano asked her, saying she was inspired by Solano’s door-to-door style of grass-roots campaigning.
Until then, she said the biggest block in her mind wasn’t being a woman but thinking you had to be rich to get involved in politics.
“Whose ever door I knock on, I’ve gone through it all. … I should be able to relate,” said Henry, who missed part of the training to head back home to campaign at an arts festival.
Constance Simon, a corporate lawyer in Littleton, came into the training thinking she would like to run for office someday but wasn’t sure when since her fiance is due out of the Army soon. After learning about how to plan for a campaign and assemble a list of friends and relatives to ask for donations, Simon said she will volunteer on other campaigns and for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver. After the 2008 election, she’ll decide what she’ll run for herself.
Simon, 44, said she never doubted that women could run but, as a black woman, she said she’s seen that women and minorities seem to be treated differently by society.
“I knew for a long time that you’ve got to help each other,” she said.
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