Getting Women to See Themselves as Candidates

Getting women to see themselves as potential candidates.

This illustration can only be used with the Lucia Graves piece that ran in the 7/26/2014 issue of National Journal magazine.  (National Journal)

On a hot Wednesday in May, in a hotel ballroom in downtown Atlanta, Hattie Adams is explaining why she doesn't want to run for office. An animated woman in her 40s, with a polished look and a strong, confident voice, Adams is treasurer of her local union chapter. She has long harbored an interest in politics and has had friends encourage her to run, she says. Once she even seriously considered jumping into a race for the board of trustees of Port Chester in Westchester County, New York, but decided against it after her husband expressed interest in the job. She didn't want politics to interfere with her roles as a mother and a wife. Besides, she adds, her husband was "more knowledgeable." (He wound up winning the seat.)

This is not what Jessica Byrd wants to hear. "It's great that someone in your family is running for office," Byrd tells Adams and the two dozen other women in the room. "But we want you to run."

Byrd works for EMILY's List, a Washington-based Democratic organization founded in 1985 to build a fundraising network for female candidates who support abortion rights (the name is an acronym for "Early Money Is Like Yeast"). In 2001, the group launched a candidate-training program, with daylong instruction sessions and binders full of tips for navigating the male-dominated world of politics. Then the organization began working to maximize contributions and voter turnout. Today, Byrd is here to try to do something new: to train and encourage women who say they don't want to run.

"At this point, when Democratic women run, they tend to win," Jess McIntosh, EMILY's List's communications director, tells me later. "They do really well. The reason we don't have more women in office is that there aren't more running."

One woman says she feels that, at 61, she's too old to run for office. Another says she simply prefers to be behind the scenes. At best, they have thought about thinking about running.

The session in Atlanta is part of an effort aimed at challenging conceptions about what the face of leadership should look like, and who is qualified to lead. Billed as "a pipeline to the pipeline," it is presented as an opportunity for attendees to learn how to identify potential candidates in their communities, but Byrd, the bright, congenial woman who is spearheading the program in 10 pilot states, certainly wouldn't mind if participants wound up identifying potential candidates in the room — or even in their own chairs.

The trainees are all members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, who have come to Atlanta for the organization's annual event, and many are at the EMILY's List session mainly because they were encouraged by their union to attend. (Adams tells me later that she had originally planned to put in an appearance and then leave at lunch, but the day turned out to be more interesting than she'd expected.) One woman says she feels that, at 61, she's too old to run for office. Another says she simply prefers to be behind the scenes. At best, like Adams, they have thought about thinking about running for office. Under other circumstances, few of them would be likely to show up for a training session on how to recruit candidates, and Byrd expresses excitement at the opportunity to reach this particular slice of the population: "A thousand black workers coming together is just too good to be true," she says.

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Part instructor, part life coach, Byrd stands at the front of the room with a slide projector and her step-by-step lesson plan, oscillating between group discussions and PowerPoint slides. "We wanted to keep this dialogue-heavy," Byrd says of her curriculum. "To really inspire people who leave to think about their communities differently." She primes the semicircle of women before her on what to look for in a candidate, where to find promising prospects, and how to surmount their own barriers and fears. She asks them to flip through their mental contact lists, to help her build a database of names of potential candidates.

Then she moves on to the activities. In the first, the women set about creating their own help-wanted ads for candidates. An accompanying slide encourages the trainees to really get to know any potential recruits. What motivates this person? Does she consider herself "political," and if not, why not? Another slide warns to watch out for "red flags": Better to steer clear of anyone who refuses to ask people for money; anyone who says "you'll have to do most of the work" because their job and family take a lot of their time; and anyone with a sick relative.

EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock (Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Glamour)Byrd tells me after the session that creating the help-wanted ad is her favorite part of the training, because "it starts to get them through some of the barriers in their own minds about who should have power and who shouldn't." She says she typically asks her trainees to consider what qualities they think a person must have to be a candidate. Does she have to have good credit, or own a home? Does she have to be married, wealthy, or highly educated? Does she have to be connected or conventionally attractive? If a women thinks she has to check all of those boxes just to throw her hat into the ring, Byrd says, "that's keeping people out of the system."

But doesn't she have to check some boxes? And presumably not check others? For example, Lynette Gailord, a trainee in her early 60s, tells me about a younger woman she'd been thinking about mentoring who is a "good orator" but "not responsible on Facebook." What exactly are the deal-breakers?

Beyond the "red flags" list, Byrd won't get specific, but workshop attendees are encouraged to put prospective candidates to this test: When you meet with someone you're interested in, ask her 1) to bring a list of five people she knows would commit time to the campaign and 2) bring a list of 10 people she knows would contribute. (Failure to meet either of these minimum tasks is considered a bad sign.)

Byrd says she is honest with women, acknowledging that there can be real barriers to running, but she also tells them that with hard work and the right support, those barriers can be overcome. It is her job, she says, to think about where people are and how to get them "to a place of yes." Her goal is to bring "as many people into our political system as possible, to make sure that everyone is truly being represented in the most diverse way so that we truly have a representative democracy." And that means, she says, "that we have to ask everyone."

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After the want-ad exercise, participants break up into small groups to brainstorm about where they might find potential recruits. Armed with rolls of white butcher paper and markers, they make bullet-point lists of locations — churches, buses, nail salons — while Byrd circles the room like a schoolteacher. Then the groups role-play how to respond to any anticipated concerns from prospective candidates they might approach (the formula: affirm, answer, then redirect). The first potential objection Adams's group discusses is, "I don't have time to run for office"; under that heading, Adams writes in big letters with a red marker, "I'm a mom, too." Then the women talk through ways to acknowledge the various concerns while also pushing back against them. They are looking for ways to convince others that the barriers are surmountable, but also convincing themselves.

Adams later tells me that the session changed her mind-set: "One thing I learned to do is stop fighting progress, and if something should come up in the next year or so, I would really take a look at it this time and not just say, 'Oh, no, I'll help you, but no.' I feel I'm mature enough in family and in community and in a lot of different areas. I'm ready."

In most cases, however, the internal evolution required won't happen in one conversation, or even in one day. "Candidates may not beready at this time," Byrd reminds the group, "but we're playing the long game."