It's been 22 years since voters elected a record five women to the U.S. Senate in a single year. Putting five women in the Senate was so momentous that 1992 was dubbed "The Year of the Woman." Two decades later, we saw similar headlines as the female headcount in the Senate reached 20. Reflecting on that history, The Washington Post said the 1992 election "was supposed to change everything. But it didn't — not on the scale once expected."
One would think young women represent the solution to this problem. But in March, a month in which we celebrated women's history, Chelsea Clinton told an audience at South by Southwest that she does not have a single female friend with any interest in running for office. With a Senate that is 80 percent male and 95 percent white, this is a serious concern. From statehouses to your local school board, women are underrepresented. Although they are 51 percent of the U.S. population, women are just 24 percent of state legislators. It's even worse for women of color. By 2050, women of color will together comprise a majority of American women. But right now, they hold just 5 percent of the country's state lawmaker seats.
There's a surprisingly simple solution to electing people to office who better represent the America we live in: recruit, train, and support these candidates when they first enter public service — and research shows this is especially applicable to electing women.
That's exactly what LaunchProgress PAC, an organization I cofounded, did this week when we endorsed four young, progressive candidates — including two women of color — running for Michigan's Statehouse. By investing in the millennial generation now, we can build the human infrastructure likely to create a better future for all Americans. Here's how.
Strategic Political Investing. Undeniably, federal races matter and deserve attention. The issues before Congress are colossal, and the individuals we elect to those seats are critical. However, the increasing role of big money in politics — $5.3 billion was spent on federal elections in 2008, and $7 billion in 2012 — means progressives need a different strategy. Recruiting strong advocates and strong campaigners ready and willing to seek lower-level offices is critical if we want to build the number of these candidates who run for higher office.
Some people think the solution is big money. If you have a lot of it, it's easier to spend a few million on messaging and media than on candidate training and recruitment. The notorious and conservative Koch brothers drop money bombs in states and try to influence federal elections every day with their super PAC Americans for Prosperity. (Of course, Democrats and liberals do this, too.)
But the Koch brothers also recognize how important local elections are. Last year, they brought their big-money approach to local races in small cities in Iowa. The results were dismal (and hilarious). No one likes people coming into their communities and telling them what to do.
Like most things in life, throwing money at a problem doesn't solve it. And when looking at local elections, it can often make it worse.
Don't Spend, Invest. Sen. Kirsten Gilibrand, D-N.Y., is an example of a progressive who has used her fundraising prowess to do more than just dole out money. She has actively worked to identify, recruit, and support new female candidates, such as young powerhouse Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. Not long after Gabbard's election, she, in turn, founded the Future Caucus, a group focused on developing long-term solutions to issues that face America's next generation.
Just like in any profession, people in politics climb the ladder. This usually happens when a political party recruits a lower-level officeholder to run for higher office. If you follow that ladder down, from Congress to statewide elected positions and from there to statehouse and city-council seats, you reach the point of entry for new candidates. By recruiting, training, and supporting young progressive candidates running for their first state or local office, we can change our country.
That's what LaunchProgress PAC is trying to do in Michigan. Right now, just 20 percent of state legislators are women. To change that, we endorsed Stephanie Chang, Kristy Pagan, and Rebecca Thompson, three incredible young women running in the Detroit area. Electing them would not only bring more women into state office, it would also nearly double the number of women of color in the Legislature. If elected, Chang would be the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Legislature. And Jon Hoadley, another candidate we endorsed, would become the only LGBT lawmaker in the statehouse.
Backing the right people early and bringing new voices from underrepresented backgrounds into elections will create progressive champions and strong public servants.
The LaunchProgress vision is one where we find great people first, offer them the support they need and historically have been denied, and then invest in their ability to serve the public by pursuing elected office. It's a vision where Chelsea Clinton's friends, maybe even Chelsea herself, and other young women across the country see elected office as a real opportunity to change and improve lives.
This is a tough model to expand, but if we are serious about representative democracy, it is the model that will best empower and enable America's would-be public servants.
Luke Squire is the cofounder and codirector of LaunchProgress, a group working to recruit, train, and support young progressive candidates running for their first state or local office.
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This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.