You can’t scan social media right now without seeing headlines about women running for office, a phenomenon known as the “Trump bump.” And it couldn’t happen a minute too soon. Women remain dramatically underrepresented in elected offices across every level of government. According to Pew Research Center data, women comprise just 19.4 percent of the U.S. Congress. A corresponding report from Pew notes, “While this share is nearly nine times higher than it was in 1965, it remains well below the 51.4 percent of women in the overall U.S. adult population.” Plus, with Trump in the White House, not only is getting involved more important than ever, but it also goes to show that apparently political office—even the highest in the land — requires very few qualifications.
Thankfully, the election lit a fire under our collective ass. Less than 24 hours after the January 21 Women’s March on Washington, 500 women gathered at a D.C. hotel and participated in a “Getting Ready to Run” training program. Andrea Dew Steele, the president and founder of Emerge America, an organization that offers running-for-office training courses for Democratic women, says applications for their sessions increased 87 percent after Election Day. And according to The Washington Post, more than 11,000 women have reached out to women’s candidate training program Emily’s List this year saying they are interested in running for office.
The general understanding among organizations striving to get more women in office, is that men wake up and say, “Hmm, I think I’ll run for office today,” while women say, “I’m not experienced enough, I don’t have the right education, I can’t raise the money,” and a bunch of other excuses. But chances are, like many women, you’ve already been advocating successfully for yourself, for issues, and probably for others without ever realizing that those proclivities and that experience make you a viable candidate to run for office.
As a 46-year-old, freelance-writing mother of three school-aged kids involved in a variety of causes and my kids’ schools, I didn’t see it either. Then I realized my city, an east side suburb of Cleveland, OH, had an unconstitutional ordinance about political yard signs. I got them to repeal it, and a local weekly paper named me “the most influential person in town.” “Ha!” I replied, but my husband urged me to stop emailing the mayor about what I thought he should be doing, and instead, run for office so I could do it myself. Although I didn’t go for the mayor’s job, nine months later, I won a seat on the City Council. Since then, I’ve run against an incumbent in a primary for the Ohio statehouse, and then ran the state senate general election campaign for a first-timer, a full-time working mother of two young kids. In other words, you can run for office, too. And you should. What better way to have your voice heard by our government, than by being in government yourself? Plus, for many offices, besides citizenship, voter registration, and residency requirements, the main qualification is passion. So once you’re adequately encouraged, how do you begin? Here are answers to give you a good start. Because when women run, women win.
Office Space: What Kinds of Positions Are Out There?
Once you’ve made the decision to survey election opportunities, you need to ask yourself how much time you want to spend in the job once you win, and how much time you’re willing to carve out in order to do so. Whether you’re running for a school board or Congress, the only difference is a matter of scale: How much money can you raise, and how many volunteers can you attract? Additionally, are you ready to give up your day job, or are you planning on keeping a hand in your career outside of elected office? You’ll want to settle these questions at the start, so voters can tell whether as a candidate, you have a fire in your belly. If you truly don’t, and aren’t willing to make some sacrifices, don’t run yet.
According to U.S. Census data from 2012, there are around 90,000 state and local governments, with more than 511,000 elected offices. Barely two percent of Americans ever run for these seats, and those aren’t bad odds, if you think about it. The options range from the local level (school board, city council, and county commissioner), to the state (treasurer, auditor, attorney general, and governor), and federal (senator, representative, and, of course, president). The “everything in between” can also vary by location, with advisory neighborhood commission seats in Washington, D.C., township supervisors in Pennsylvania, and even dogcatcher positions in Vermont.
Start your research at runforoffice.org: type in your address and up pops a full list of elected seats in your area. Each one is hyperlinked to a description, complete with information about the seat’s next election, the dates for filing your declaration of candidacy, “application guidelines” or rules for eligibility, and more. It’s critical to spend time reviewing these rules and deadlines. Challenging a candidate’s filings or eligibility is one of the first ways opponents will try to knock you off before the game has even begun. Do you live in the right location for the office you’ve selected? Have you lived there long enough? Are you running with your legal name or have you changed it to maximize recognition, a move that might draw attempts to disqualify you? People get thrown off ballots for these and other reasons. Make sure you’re not one of them.
You should also gather info about whether a position has a salary or stipend, how much it might be, how many hours it takes to do the job, whether the time commitment is defined by a city ordinance or simply past practice, how many committees you’ll have to be on (and their time commitments), and so on. Often, thanks to a lot of open data on public sector salaries and positions, an internet search will turn up this information. But two other quick ways to get answers are to attend meetings of the political body you hope to join and ask current officeholders questions, and to check the entity’s charter or ordinances, especially the sections that describe the responsibilities. My city’s finance director jokingly told people that I spent 100 hours per week working for the city council in my first year. While that’s not entirely true, I did often wake up in the middle of the night and write emails to him with all sorts of questions and ideas because the first year is the toughest, thanks to the learning curve. In reality, very few local elected jobs are full-time, unless the relevant law says so. The National Conference of State Legislatures (ncsl.org) has a great map that highlights how dramatically different states are when it comes to their legislature’s work hours. California, New York, and Pennsylvania are among the few states that employ full-time, well-paid staffs. However, statewide offices like treasurer, attorney general, and auditor are usually full-time.
Matters of pay vary just as widely. In New Hampshire, state legislators make $200 (!) per two-year term. Meanwhile, in Ohio, state legislators’ base salaries are around $60,000, while the city of Cleveland’s council members earn $74,000. My experience in a small suburb? From 2010 through 2013, my annual council salary was $8,200. So it really can range from pennies on the hour to having five-figure expense accounts.
You should verify any info you find with a visit to your county board of elections and your state’s secretary of state websites. Other options include contacting your local or state political party. They usually maintain lists of elected individuals, though they’re not always posted on their websites, many of which are outdated and challenging to scour for information. In many cases, you’ll need to go retro and pick up the phone—much of running for office still relies on people and paper.
As you browse the titles and timeframes, remember that there is never a perfect time or perfect seat. Winning elected office is about making your own luck and remembering that people who want to see you in office also want to see you do the things you need to do in order to get into office: maybe you want to start with an appointment to a nonpaying local, county, regional, or state board or commission. These positions won’t require the time or money needed to run for larger office and are usually posted on your local government’s website either through open calls for applicants or in a listing of open spots. Often times there are forms online that you can submit to show your interest once something comes up. If you don’t hear back, call. This advice is going to apply to every step along the way to becoming president: you will have to be the aggressor. You cannot wait for people to call you back because you’re worried about pestering or nudging someone.
Real Advice From Real Candidates
NICKIE J. ANTONIO – MINORITY WHIP, ?OHIO STATE REPRESENTATIVE
“Make peace with fundraising. You are not asking for a handout. You are asking for a partnership because you’re asking someone to help you help the community. You’re asking someone to participate in their democracy through their sharing of resources and that includes financial resources.”
JANINE BOYD – OHIO STATE REPRESENTATIVE
“No matter what, take care of yourself. Yoga, running, walking, cooking, spending time with loved ones or girlfriends or guyfriends, writing, reading, joining a choir—whatever it is that helps you stay innovative. Focus, refocus, stay on course, think outside the box, and remain diligent, while also keeping healthy and sane.”
ALEJANDRA CAMPOVERDI? – FORMER CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE AND WOMEN’S HEALTH ADVOCATE
“Make sure that you do the introspective work on the front end. Why are you running? What’s important to you? Where does [your desire to run] come from? Getting crystal clear on your motivations is going to make your campaign visceral and authentic at a time when that’s what people are looking for.”
SARA SPOCK CARLSON – CANDIDATE FOR FERGUSON TOWNSHIP SUPERVISOR, ?WARD 3, PENNSLYVANIA
“If you’re feeling tentative, start small. Meet your neighbors, find out about the issues on their minds. Attend council and township meetings to learn more about your community and the inner-workings of local government. Know your strengths and passions, and get involved in local chapters of organizations supporting those causes.”
STEPHANIE HOWSE – OHIO STATE REPRESENTATIVE
“Stop waiting to be invited to the table because if you’re waiting for an invitation, you are never going to get it. Show up, pay attention, do your homework. Have a full understanding of what’s going on so that when you do show up, people will know you have a valuable voice.”
EMILIA STRONG SYKES – ASSISTANT MINORITY WHIP, ?OHIO STATE REPRESENTATIVE
“As a woman of color, people do not expect me to be the legislator when I walk into the room and that often leads to some very uncomfortable conversations for the person who assumed I was an intern, page, staff person, wanderer, or vagabond. But it’s not my duty to make them realize that there are women of color in positions of power.”
FAITH WINTER – COLORADO STATE REPRESENTATIVE
“I hate when people say you need thick skin to be in politics. I don’t have thick skin. In fact, I want people to run who feel the hurts, pains, joys, celebrations, and struggles of their community. I tell women, ‘You don’t need thick skin. You can be like me and have resilient skin.’”
Prep Talk: What to Do Before Throwing Your Hat in the Ring
As you become familiar with the options, there are a number of questions to keep in mind. What do you like to do, and what’s required of the role? What area would you have to represent and who lives in those communities? Is an incumbent going to be running or will it be an open seat (which can be easier to win)? Who might your opponents be? How do you feel about asking people for money to help you win? What does your schedule look like and are you willing to be realistic about planning your time around a campaign? How will entering the campaign affect a significant other, your children if you have them, or other people you might take care of?
You can answer some of these questions on your own, but for many of them, you are going to want to speak to people with experience—either in elected office, helping people run for office, or both. Talk with these folks early on, but don’t let them scare you. You want them to tell it like it is and help you put together the best plan possible.
Another preparation basic includes assessing your networks. You are going to need lists of people who you will ask for money (most of which will go toward voter outreach, like mailers and ads), who you will ask to volunteer, and who will walk across fire for you. Do you have contact information collected already, or do you need to do a lot of information gathering? Be prepared to make these lists as complete as possible as early as possible, because you will find yourself going back to them repeatedly throughout your run. This advice was given to me about three months before I announced my run for city council, and the time put in then literally helped me raise tens of thousands of dollars, and earn tens of thousands of votes.
This litany of considerations may seem overwhelming, but no single response to any of these questions should make you consider yourself disqualified. Instead, they are factors to be taken into account from the outset. Whatever aspects might cause you anxiety, anticipating and planning ahead for them is the key to making it all work and leading you to a win.
Trail Blazing: Launching a Political Campaign
The most important step to complete before you launch your campaign will be developing your campaign plan. The elements of that plan should be, at a minimum: a budget, a fundraising plan, a messaging plan, a campaign team, research on yourself and your opponent, and a voter contact plan. A running-for-office training program (see our resource sidebar for options) will inevitably cover each of these elements and I highly recommend finding one suited to your needs, whether it’s just to get an idea of this life, or for hands-on skill training.
I attended three different programs before I won my city council seat, and completed two others while I ran for the Ohio statehouse. The costs will vary from free (for some webinars) to a few hundred dollars. But scholarships do exist and many programs are aggressively seeking women, people of color, and millennials. State and local political parties, women’s caucuses, and higher education institutions are increasing their offerings as well.
Books and online resources, like downloadable handbooks and manuals, are helpful, too. One paperback I keep by my bedside (really) is How to Win a Local Election by former Ohio judge (an elected position), Lawrence Grey. His style is informal yet complete and the book’s full of examples and samples of communications to constituents, calculations for determining the viability of a candidacy, and checklists to make sure you stay on track.
One adage you will often hear throughout your research is that if you don’t write down your campaign plan, you don’t have one. In my experience, that is true. And the reason is that your opponent is going to do everything she can to keep you from sticking to your plan. If you don’t have it written down, it is far easier to get thrown.
As you pull together your strategy and effort, keep in mind that running for office involves making hundreds of decisions, often one right after the other. It’s not for the faint of heart. But what will keep you going is one simple question that is especially important now: If you don’t run, are you ready to accept the alternative?
Get Your Learn On
Who: All genders, Progressives
What: Support and training programs
Rutgers University’s Center for ?American Women in Politics
Who: Women, Nonpartisan
What: Voluminous information on women and politics, training programs
Who: Women, Democrats, Pro-Choice
What: Support, training, and funding for candidates nationally and locally
Higher Heights Leadership Fund
Who: Black women, Progressive
What: Support and networking opportunities
Who: High school and college women, Nonpartisan
What: Training and support to increase civic engagement and service in public office
Latino Victory Project
Who: Latino men and women, Nonpartisan
What: Supports and trains candidates
New American Leaders Project
Who: All genders, Nonpartisan, Focus on first- and second-generation Americans
What: Training program (“Ready to Lead”)
Run for Something
Who: Under-35-year-olds, Progressives
What: Will direct people to trainings by other organizations; some campaign contributions forthcoming; networking, advice, support
She Should Run
Who: Women, Nonpartisan
What: Portal to nominate women to run for office; support and training; new online program “She Should Run Incubator” targets girls, their parents, and women at the “thinking about it” stage
Who: Openly LGBTQ, Nonpartisan
What: Support and training
Vote Run Lead
Who: Women, Nonpartisan
What: Support and training; free webinars
Who: All genders, Nonpartisan (leans progressive)
What: Widely considered one of the best training programs and support organizations
By Jill Miller Zimon
Illustration by Camila Rosa
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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