Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock on women in politics

February 10, 2020

MinnPost: Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock on women in politics, Klobuchar’s campaign and her political roots in Minnesota
By Gabe Schneider

Stephanie Schriock is the President of Emily’s List, the largest political action committee supporting pro-choice Democratic female candidates for office. This year, the organization plans to spend $20 million of 500 state legislative races around the country, including in Minnesota, aiming to have an impact on the upcoming redistricting process.

Schriock is one of the more well-known Democratic operatives in D.C., having run Sen. John Tester’s Senate campaign, managed former Sen. Al Franken’s close 2008 Senate win, and served as Howard Dean’s finance director in 2004.

What’s less well known: Schriock’s roots are in Minnesota. She grew up in Montana, but her father is from South Central Minnesota, in Mountain Lake. Most of her family is still there, she told MinnPost. “When the Schriock’s get together, we all go to Minnesota.” She attended Minnesota State Mankato where she got her first bit of experience with politics. And Minnesota’s where she had her first job in politics: working for a congressional campaign in the First District.

MinnPost talked to Schriock about her roots in DFL politics, as well as how the lessons she learned then have informed her political experience today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MinnPost: I’m really curious about your background in Minnesota and how it’s informed your current role. I’ll just let you talk, but I have a lot of questions about when you worked for the DFL in the 1996 congressional race in Minnesota’s First. When you were a scheduler and then finance director. Is that right?

Stephanie Schriock: I was scheduler for like a day. I was scheduler until I actually got to Rochester, Minnesota in ’96. And they had fired the Finance Director. And because I’d done an internship at an organization here in Washington that doesn’t even exist anymore, the Democratic Leadership Council, in the development department and the finance department, they thought I could be the finance director for Mary Rieder. And I was like, uh, okay. My 23-year-old self. Okay, I can, sure, do you have somebody who can teach me how to do that?

The beautiful thing with that situation and how it all worked out in a really wonderful way is Mary was running against then sitting Congressman Gil Gutknecht in the First. The First was very different. It was at the time still just sort of just the Southeast corner of the state. And she was seeking Emily’s List’s endorsement, so she hadn’t gotten the endorsement yet. But what Emily’s List did, and still does today, is they send staff out, both on the political front and on the finance front, to assess how the campaigns are doing and to help train them. And so Emily’s List sent out Mary Jane Volk, who was the finance advisor then for Emily’s List. And she literally sat me down and taught me how to set up a fundraising program for a congressional candidate in Minnesota.

I learned about call time and putting together call sheets and spreadsheets. How do you track all this? How do you keep a candidate on the phone? In Mary’s case, I finally figured out she liked to knit, so I got her knitting. I guess I haven’t had many candidates who knit. We have them every once in awhile, but she was a very good knitter. Unfortunately, she’s no longer with us. She was just a really wonderful woman.

But that’s how I got started really in Democratic politics. Though I was a super engaged in student politics at Mankato, what was then Mankato state university.

MP: What sort of student politics did you do?

SS: So we had student senators. And it sounds so funny now in hindsight.

When I became a freshman, now I’m going to age myself, really truly. When I became a freshman in ’91, they had decided that they were going to have two freshmen senators for the first time. And I applied and ended up being one of two first ever freshman senators on the student senate. Which was awesome.

I did student government in high school too, so I was really into it and I didn’t even know that first year sort of a blur. But I really liked it cause we dealt with all of the student organizations and who got some resources of our minimal budget. But we also did some lobbying of the legislature about getting buildings or extra funding or Pell grants, student loans, all that kind of stuff. And I was just fascinated. It was really a huge opportunity.

I’m very grateful to Mankato State. I know it’s Minnesota State now, but it was made, it was Mankato State then. I’m very grateful for that opportunity. And so my sophomore year, I somehow successfully ran a campaign inside of the Senate to become the speaker. So I ended up being the one who ran the student Senate meetings. And I gotta be honest, my gavel is literally sitting on my coffee table in my office right now.

MP: Would you ever consider running for office again?

SS: You know, I tell enough women every week to never say never. I say like, “I’m asking you to run, think about it. Do not say no. Just don’t say never.” And so I would never say never. Though I really do really feel like much of my calling has been supporting and backing up great candidates for office. And I’ve enjoyed it. Right now, being at Emily’s List, I literally have the, I think I have the best job in American politics, to be honest.

MP: Jumping back a bit, I wonder sort of how you feel about the First District now, with Rep. Jim Hagedorn representing it. And sort of more broadly, what do you think of Minnesota congressional politics?

SS: Well you can see a little bit of the realignment we’re seeing in the nation in Minnesota, where you’ve got more and more Democratic votes coming out of the suburban areas. And unfortunately, fewer Democratic votes coming from the rural areas. And I think for states like Minnesota, it’s a big change. I don’t give up on engaging those rural voters. Again, I think we’ve got a good argument to make, particularly on economic opportunity, you know, for folks are up on the range up in the Iron Range or on the western side of the state and in AG country. But it’s definitely been a transition over my years since that first race in ‘96 until now, watching Angie Craig’s election, which Emily’s list was very involved in. Watching Tina Smith’s reelection. Seeing just how this is evolving.

The one thing about Minnesota that I have always deeply, deeply appreciated is that these are folks you know, and my family included here, that are very civic minded and understand the importance of being engaged. You know, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. Which is why Minnesota has almost always the highest voter turnout in the country. They like to get involved. They like to be volunteers and activists. I used to just stand in awe of late Senator Wellstones’s organization. That his legacy even now, you know, continues. The continuation of young people rising up and engaging in these races. So, so Minnesota is a unique place because of that long history of civic engagement over decades.

And I’ve always loved working in Minnesota politics because it just has these deep roots in populism and the merger of the Farmer Party and the Labor Party with the Democrats. I believe in that coalition and we’ve got to find a way to bring it all back together. You know, somebody, frankly, like Amy Klobuchar has done a great job building that coalition is to me what makes Minnesota unique, that you can, for a Democrat, still build that coalition.

MP: Sen. Klobuchar’s currently in the middle of a presidential run. How closely are you following the race? 

SS: She just… She’s been practicing since the day she got into the U.S. Senate, because that’s what she does in Minnesota. I mean she travels nonstop. I mean that’s just who she is. She’s like truly extraordinary.

MP: But there’s a visiting all of the Minnesota counties and then there’s visiting all of the counties in Iowa while being a U.S. Senator and flying back to D.C. and also going back to Minnesota.

SS: I was the National Finance Director and part of the senior team for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign back in 2003 and four. And so I’ve been in it. And know the pain and the ups and downs of the presidential.

And so when, particularly the four women senators, as they were getting ready to run, I chatted with them, I said, “I just need you to know you are brilliant. You have won your races, you’re U.S. Senators… [But] you have no idea what you’re walking into. The presidential campaign is a different animal. It’s so crazy. It’s so different and you’re just not going to be prepared. So I always say the process of the primary prepares a person to be president. You have to survive the chaos of that to even have a chance at becoming president because then you have to survive the chaos of being president, which has gotta be the worst thing possible.”

MP: Any news on the endorsement process in Minnesota, in terms of seats in the state legislature? 

SS: We’re still in the recruitment phase. We got to see sort of where we land with all of the candidates and then we’ll be making financial decisions or legislative specific financial decisions.

MP: What’s the most significant change since you first started in politics? Since you worked for Mary Rieder in the First? 

SS: She was the only woman I worked for directly before I got to Emily’s List. So I, you know, I’d worked for her. And then I worked for all these, I worked for Bill Luther and Howard Dean and all these men. And then I did work at the committee and I worked with women and men there, at a committee structure. So she’s really the only woman candidate that I’d worked for. It was interesting to me to realize how much we thought about how she was always presenting herself because she was always being judged about how she was presenting herself. [People would say] her hair wasn’t right, her clothes weren’t right. She should get rid of her glasses, she should keep her glasses, she looks too much like a professor.

And I remember just like having moments of being really frustrated about that. Like, “God, I can’t believe we’re having these conversations all the time.” Little did I know it was happening all over the country. And I will say it still happens today, it’s different though. These women and our candidates, though it has gotten better and better, they still have to go through a lot of obstacles to be seen as prepared and qualified.

I think that’s all gotten a little bit easier, particularly in the last couple election cycles cause we’ve elected so many great women and they’re seen as super capable and good. And so I think that that bar is easier whereas people just assume men are qualified. I want to get to a place where people just assume women are qualified, too. So then we can decide is this the type of leader I want? Is this a type of set of policies I want? That’s what we got to get to.

I think we’re in a really phenomenal moment for women’s leadership in this country. And that’s not just elected women. It is those of us who have chosen to stand behind those brave women and men who run for office. In my mind, it’s not just about electing women all across the country, but we really, really need an equal number of women’s voices as chiefs of staff, as communications directors, as campaign managers. The diversity of voices at every single table matters because you end up with better decisions. And so I just say to all of those women who are either working on the Hill or working on campaigns, we need you to stick with it, keep moving up, because that’s how we’re going to truly get to the government that we all deserve.

MP: Where does Minnesota fit into that picture? 

SS: It was in a state where their first woman elected got asked by her husband to come home, “Cora Come Home,” that we now have Senator Amy Klobuchar getting the New York times endorsement for president. That’s a pretty cool situation. You’ve got Angie Craig, you’ve got Betty McCollum, you’ve got Ilhan Omar. I mean this is a state that didn’t have very many women for a long time. Joan Growe was the only woman we’d ever talk about for so long. And she broke down so many ceilings for us when she was Secretary of State and now look. We are looking at a woman running in the Eighth Now. And Tina Smith. I mean, look at the state.

There’s women everywhere. Peggy Flanagan, Lieutenant Governor. I mean, watch out for her. She’s super talented. I just feel really honored to, even as the president of Emily’s List, to be part of, you know, a little part of Peggy Flanagan’s race. Emily’s List was there fighting for Betty McCollum in her first election. We’ve been with Angie Craig every step of the way. We endorsed Amy Klobuchar for U.S. Senate, even over another woman, which was not an easy thing for us to do. And we’re on the phone with Tina Smith getting her to say yes, which I’m so grateful for. And, and so I just feel like the Emily’s List and Minnesota story is tied together and it goes all the way into the legislature and it’s going to continue for a long time.