The 19th News: What it takes to build a nonpartisan pipeline for women candidates
By Barbara Rodriguez
When Amy Kroll was 6, she was on a tour of the White House and spotted two books in the gift shop: One on U.S. presidents and the other on first ladies.
“I remember being upset that one book was full of boys and one book was full of girls,” she said. “And I knew that this was a problem from just that very young age.”
It was her first lesson on the disproportionate power of men in politics. Kroll, now 30, is the founder and executive director of the LBJ Women’s Campaign School at the University of Texas at Austin. This year’s inaugural class features 50 women from different ideological backgrounds who aspire to either run for office or manage a campaign.
Despite making up more than half of the U.S. population, women represent just under 30 percent of lawmakers in statehouses, and just below 24 percent of those in Congress. The LBJ program wants to close that gap. Women who lead campaigns is in itself a growing reality.
“We want to get to gender parity,” Kroll explained. “Everybody needs to work together. It needs to transcend party lines.”
Kroll said she reached out to more than 200 organizations across the country to recruit the inaugural class — chambers of commerce, community groups, bar associations and organizations that elevate people underrepresented in politics.
Her efforts paid off in key ways: More than half of the inaugural class — 58 percent — is a person of color. But the program’s goal to recruit and train women from across the political spectrum proved trickier. This first class is made up of 33 Democrats, 12 Republicans, 4 independents and one person who identifies as other.
“The bottom line is that center right women are underrepresented in elected office,” Kroll said. “Our program is still addressing that problem by serving the center right women who we do serve, and championing them and encouraging them, and helping them to feel welcome. I’m hopeful that we will move towards that 50 percent number. But I do also feel very proud of where we’re at right out of the gate.”
Kroll emphasized that her goal to include women of all political backgrounds is more important than ever as people increasingly identify as not just Democrat or Republican but independent, left leaning, right leaning and other terms in between.
“The focus is on building a more diverse democracy and lifting up women’s voices,” she said.
But there is a real struggle to recruit enough conservative women to nonpartisan candidate training programs, said Larissa Martinez. She is the co-founder and executive director of Women’s Public Leadership Network, an organization that works to encourage center-right women to get involved in politics.
“They may not always understand or be able to have the most welcoming environment to someone on the right, especially given the divisiveness right now,” Martinez said. “That’s why we actually think it’s important to have an option for women who self identify as center right. To feel like they are welcome. To feel like they can find a support network. That they’re not alone out there in the world of all these different women’s groups.”
Martinez is optimistic that the LBJ program can be part of a more inclusive space. On Wednesday, her organization announced it had awarded $500,000 to organizations in 10 states. The program is one of the recipients.
“She really does have this desire to be as nonpartisan as possible,” Martinez said of Kroll. “We’re looking at that and trying to fund specifically her efforts to get more women on the right to engage in her programming. So that she really can have it be both 50-50, and then from that point, really try and continue to keep this balance.”
A space dominated by Democrats
When the LBJ program was first announced, organizers planned to hold it over one weekend in June. Because of the pandemic, the programming is now taking place on Zoom, in multiple sessions spread over several months.
In one ongoing component to the program, Kroll divides the cohort into groups of five. They are placed in chat rooms with people involved in real-world politics — elected officials, community leaders and political operatives — who share their experiences and offer support. Kroll designed the groups to be diverse in politics, race and ethnicity, age, experience and geographic location.
“I’m trying to maximize, in these small groups, the possibility that people are going to have different points of view,” she said.
For Kroll, her mission to focus on nonpartisanship in the curriculum was underscored by a student’s feedback in a recent internal survey.
“Often conservative women like myself can feel as if our voices, perspective and policy ideas are not welcome in a woman-centered area,” the note said. “This is a refreshing opportunity to be heard and learn without having to hide our views.”
Although nonpartisan programs have existed for decades, Democrats have traditionally dominated the women’s candidate training space. Through groups like EMILYs List, Democrats have built out candidate recruitment, development and financial support for women in their party to make the largest gains in legislatures and on Capitol Hill.
And though Republicans are trying to catch up with organizations like Maggie’s List and E-PAC — the latter formed by U.S. Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik after the 2018 midterm election — the data reflects the gaps. In Congress, there are 105 Democratic women. That’s compared to just 22 Republican women, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The number of Republican women in the U.S. House, 13, is the lowest in a quarter century.
Of the 2,145 women serving in state legislatures in 2020, just 670 — or a little over 30 percent — are Republican women, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s a drop from 705 in 2018.
“Even states with Republican majorities [in statehouses] still lag behind on the number of women,” said Abbie Hodgson, director of the Ascend Fund, which pools philanthropic money to support nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations. Among its key benefactors is Pivotal Ventures, an investment company led by Melinda Gates that has also supported the Women’s Public Leadership Network. Gates has pushed publicly for more investment in groups that will help achieve gender parity.
Hodgson concluded: “There does need to be a concerted effort at the state level. To find, recruit, and train those Republican women to run.”
“It’s this deep, vast infrastructure on the left and there is nothing on the right,” added Anne Moses, the founder and president of IGNITE, a nonpartisan group that engages young women politically with chapters at college campuses and lesson planning for K-12 classrooms. “To the extent that there’s anything, it’s all new.”
Tiffany Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS, a coalition of nine organizations trying to work in a nonpartisan manner to expand representation, according to its website, across “the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.” Both Women’s Public Leadership Network and IGNITE are a part of the coalition.
Gardner puts all women’s candidate training programs and their different approaches under the umbrella of “the women’s representation movement.”
“Within that movement, we’re all trying to figure out, ‘OK, how can we get it right? How can we work better? How can we move this needle a lot farther, a lot faster? Because we’ve been at this, for what, 100 years now? Since women got the right to vote? And look where we are.”
‘Empowering women isn’t partisan’
Jennifer Pierotti Lim is co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, a group that works to help GOP women run for office. She believes the Republican Party hasn’t had a strategy in electing women to office, and her group works independently from the party to encourage GOP women to run, supporting them in the primary process.
“Obviously this year is an exciting year for Republican women,” Pierotti Lim said, noting that a record number of them are seeking congressional office. “But it’s not just that we need more Republican women running, which that’s happening slowly. We also need more Republican women to actually win. The infrastructure is not in place to help them win.”
Shannon McQueen, a doctoral candidate at George Washington University, has researched Republican women’s groups including political actions committees. She concluded that Republican women’s groups tend to split their support between men and women candidates, while Democratic women’s groups more often support more women.
“I call it organizational ambivalence,” she said. “…It’s the idea that the Republican women’s groups are torn between kind of gender blind party culture, and their desire to support women.”
Kim Healy, a 51-year-old accountant in Connecticut, has attended several campaign training events, including online, as she runs for the state Senate this year. She faces a primary later this month.
Healy said she would have liked a more structured network of women candidates available for help navigating the ups and downs of running for office. She relies heavily on her family for that emotional support. Healy hasn’t always felt like there were a lot of Republican women in the candidate training events she’s participated in, including those billed as nonpartisan.
“I don’t think it’s their fault,” Healy said about one event last fall. “I just don’t think there’s that many of us. There’s not enough of us.”
There are signs that the culture is shifting, at least for the Republican women who are seeking resources. Over the past two years, Republican Women for Progress has partnered with the nonpartisan Campaign School at Yale University for training events. In 2019, nearly 65 Republican women from about 14 states registered for the inaugural one-day event hosted by the two groups. This year, for a mid-July training — virtual, of course — about 150 individuals from 25 states registered for similar training.
Victoria Whitehead didn’t think twice about applying for the LBJ program this year. The 31-year-old Texas attorney previously participated in a handful of local Republican-based training programs in her community. She is considering a run for office in the future, and she wanted to make sure she was as prepared as possible.
“Empowering women isn’t partisan,” she said. “And women need opportunities and programs like this to have someone in their world say, ‘You can do this.’”
The effects of more women in office
Gardner, with ReflectUS, said the effects of the pandemic has shaped the women’s representation movement and how groups are working together to get more women into office. She noted how female leaders in other countries have had more success in containing the virus.
“I mean this is a global pandemic that no one could actually get right, in that sense … but still, more right than what a lot of the male counterparts did,” she said. “I think that put a very, very stark highlight on female political leadership.”
Researchers repeatedly point to what happens when more women are in office: They are considered, compared to men, among the most effective in Congress.
A 2017 report from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University highlighted that among members of Congress, women lawmakers are perceived as more collaborative than male lawmakers.
The research is mixed on whether that’s true or anecdotal.
“To be sure, women’s presence in Congress promotes democratic legitimacy, but it does little to reduce gridlock and stalemate on Capitol Hill,” according to an abstract of a piece published in 2018.
Still, as Kelly Dittmar and Debbie Walsh at the CAWP point out in a recent op-ed published in USA Today, women “have been among the most prudent leaders of major cities and states through current crises, and continue to demonstrate the value of their distinct perspectives on politics and policy-making.”
Kroll said trying to decipher why gender parity is important isn’t the only approach.
“Women are 51 percent of the population. It’s the morally right thing to do to support women to becoming 51 percent of elected officials,” she said.
The racial injustices underscored by the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans has also pushed more women to elevate their political voices, Gardner added.
“I think everything was on the table from that point,” she said. “We’re kind of doing a real critical analysis of what we call the American experiment.”
There are ramifications to a political system that does not reflect all women, said Martinez with the Women’s Public Leadership Network.
“To us it’s more than just parity. We actually want better policy discussions and better policy outcomes for the most amount of Americans, and the best way to do that is to have a variety of voices and backgrounds at the decision making tables, which includes a diversity of thought,” she said.