Women starting in politics get tough warnings
The guest instructor in a Philadelphia University classroom got right to the point: You can do what you're thinking of doing, and you can make a difference. Just be prepared for the brutality.
"It is a dirty business, there is no doubt," Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said. "It is distasteful. They call you every name in the book. They try and put you down as much as they possibly can - and sometimes that's your own party, just to get you out of the race so their buddy can run."
Kane was speaking to several dozen women gathered to learn the basics of building a political campaign from scratch during a daylong training session put on by Emily's List, the national political action committee dedicated to electing more Democratic women who support abortion rights.
Who better than Kane to teach the class? She made history last fall as the first woman, and first Democrat, elected attorney general in the state.
Along the way, she had to reckon with a hostile Democratic Party establishment that supported a rival candidate in the primary, withstand ads accusing her of lying about her experience as a prosecutor, figure out child care for her two sons - and avoid boiling over in rage at people who told her they hated her lipstick or said she ought to wear panty hose.
"You need to be able to rebound quickly," Kane said. "The biggest lesson I think I learned from my campaign is to move on, to never let anyone get you down. That's the game. That's the whole game."
Since 2001, Emily's List has trained nearly 8,000 women in 36 states to run for office or become campaign staffers in its Political Opportunity Program.
"We need to build the pipeline of women from the local level to the highest levels," said Heather Kashner, regional director of the program and leader of the recent Philadelphia session. "If you want to see 'Madame President,' we also have to be able to see 'Madame Mayor.' "
Emily's List leaders are focusing on Pennsylvania because of its low rate of female representation in elective office.
For example: The state ranks 39th in the nation for percentage of women in its legislature, at just under 18 percent, according to this year's annual report from the Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University. (New Jersey's legislature is 29 percent female; 26 percent of lawmakers in Delaware are women.)
A big race
The group also sees potential in Pennsylvania, with Kane's breakthrough and the emergence of U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, a longtime Emily's List endorsee, as a leading Democratic candidate for governor in 2014. It plans to host training sessions later this year in Allegheny and Bucks Counties and in the Lehigh Valley.
Beyond any issues of sexism, decades of political science research have shown that women tend to be more hesitant to run for office, wanting to assure themselves that they are qualified and weighing personal considerations. And as Emily's List likes to say, they need to be asked.
The students at the June 6 session came from all walks of life and several states. Some wanted to hone skills as campaign volunteers or staffers. Others were mulling possible races for town council, legislature, or Congress.
Kashner broke the decision-making process down: Police your Facebook page. Investigate yourself. What kind of investments lurk in your retirement accounts? Ever been sued? If you run a business, any problem employees who might want to smear you?
And of course, she said, it is "mission critical" to figure out what it is you offer the voters. What is your story?
It also pays to pick a reasonable target.
"One of the things we talk about is the Democratic performance of the district," Kashner told the women. "Is this actually a winnable race? . . . All this means is, when you're looking at the recent electoral performance, what is the best that we can expect a Democrat to get in this seat?
"If it's below 45 [percent], folks, you need to understand that it is going to be a very, very, very bad slog. And Emily's List would even go so far as to say if it's below 48, you need to prepare yourself for a multicycle effort."
The session at the East Falls campus offered a rare look at how Emily's List readies its recruits - and perhaps a glimpse at the next generation of Democratic women in politics.
Maureen Madden of Coolbaugh, Pa., in the Poconos, is preparing for a second run at the state House in 2014. She challenged an entrenched Republican incumbent last year and lost. This time she will be running for an open seat - in a newly drawn district that leans Democratic.
"When I started out, I'd tell people who I was running against, and they'd laugh at me and say, 'Good luck,' " Madden, 53, recalled. But she knocked on doors (2,000, by her count), was endorsed by the Pocono Record, got union support, and came within about 2,500 votes of an upset - despite having raised and spent just $35,000.
"We sparked a conversation in the district no one had ever had," she said.
Madden had been active in politics since her early 20s, when she helped her Queens congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro - who in 1984 became the first woman on a major ticket as Democratic nominee for vice president. Later, Madden, a communications consultant and teacher, volunteered in campaigns in northeastern Pennsylvania and was regional field coordinator for the Democrats in 2010. Monroe County's Democratic chairwoman, amazed at her stamina on a phone bank, asked Madden to run for state House.
Madden said she found the Emily's List seminar's advice on fund-raising helpful. "Bundling - I thought that was when you had your phone service, your Internet, and your TV with the same company," she joked.
One of her classmates, Loree Jones of Philadelphia, works as chief of staff to the School Reform Commission and is considering a run for city or state office. She worked in the managing director's office under then-Mayor John F. Street.
"Seeing the campaign plans laid out over the course of the day made the whole process seem doable," Jones, 44, said. "Now I can move on other to other questions, such as: 'Is this the right time in my life? What position? Do I think my candidacy can be viable?' "
Kate Leitch, a structural engineer, is switching careers. She is studying for a master's in public policy at Columbia University, working for a member of the New York City Council, and hoping to become a campaign professional.
"I worked on large-scale buildings," said Leitch, 31. "You feel the world is going on around you while you work on this one project for a couple of years. I wanted to work on the bigger picture."
Shaughnessy Naughton of Bucks County, who is running for Congress in the Eighth District and attended the session to get time-management tips, knows about being snubbed by party elders. The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has recruited its own candidate, Kevin Strouse, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who grew up in Delaware County and had not previously lived in the district.
"As far as the DCCC goes, pretty much I'm still waiting for them to return my call," said Naughton, 34, a biochemist who worked in the pharmaceutical industry before taking over her family's printing business.
Already, she has absorbed Kane's lesson about cultivating an imperviousness to insults. Naughton has been in business meetings where people talked about her as if she weren't in the room.
"I come from a big Irish Catholic family with lots of loud brothers," she said. "I know what to do."
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald