An Oakland nonprofit gets women ready to run for office.
As her daughters, ages 10 and 3, swirl in and out of their Oakland kitchen, looking for Ovaltine and peanut butter, Joanne Karchmer says of the recent spate of attacks on women’s rights, “It’s been so astounding lately. I don’t ever remember a time in my life where I felt quite as challenged and looked forward and said, ‘What is this going to look like for my daughters?’”
Rather than merely rant at the dinner table, Karchmer, a 44-year-old mother of three who works as an aide to Oakland City Councilmember Pat Kernighan, embraced the slogan, “Don’t get mad, get elected.” (This twist on that other popular saying was coined by the 2012 Project in Palo Alto, a national, nonpartisan campaign to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures.)
But running for office can be daunting, even for someone like Karchmer, who knows her way around city government. So last December, partly inspired by the so-called War on Women, she enrolled in a crash course for future Democratic women candidates—a seven-month training program run by a nonprofit Oakland-based program called Emerge California.
She is one of 24 women, including many from the East Bay, who graduate June 9, armed with the skills to run a—hopefully, successful—campaign.
“It is going to be women who . . . lead the charge and lead the discussion on our place in society,” says Kimberly Ellis, Emerge California’s executive director and a 2007 graduate of the program. A Richmond resident and a commissioner for Richmond’s Community Development Commission, Ellis is gearing up for her own campaign soon.
“It’s important for women to hold elected office because it just changes the conversation around so many social issues,” says Karchmer, who considered running this fall for the City Council seat being vacated by Jane Brunner, now a candidate for Oakland City Attorney. Due to a shift in family obligations, Karchmer postponed her plans, but says she’ll definitely run for office in the future.
“When women are at the table, the policies across the board about social issues are more equitable for everyone,” she says. “Our democracy . . . should not be tipped towards one gender or another—that’s not my idea of representative democracy.”
Two years ago, when Annette Walker heard that the schools in Hayward, where she currently lives, ranked dead last in test scores in Alameda County, she was outraged. Then she ran for school board. The 49-year-old Cal State East Bay enrollment services specialist had never run for anything before, yet missed toppling an incumbent by a paltry 599 votes.
“I had no money, I was questioning my own sanity,” says the Oakland native, who graduated from Oakland Technical High School. “I wasn’t ‘in it to win it.’ I was showing my community that I care and that I am willing to give back.”
Women like Walker and Karchmer—motivated and frustrated—are exactly the sort that Emerge California is looking to recruit. Because, as Walker, who joined the group last December, quickly admits, there’s a lot more to running a successful campaign than relying on gut instinct. “If I am going to do this again,” she realized, “I have to know what I’m doing.”
The group searches for electable Democratic women like Walker—who is, in fact, running for school board again this fall—across the state, and then trains them via intensive monthly meetings from December through June. The program amounts to a campaign boot camp that covers topics like social media, fundraising, public speaking, and networking, with women politicians, campaign organizers, and experts in relevant fields providing instruction.
Each participant pays $1,000 for 70 hours of training (scholarships are available) and is required to volunteer for at least 10 hours on a political campaign of her choice. The women in this year’s class are considering running—or actually running—for everything from city council to board of supervisors to school board, and many hail from East Bay cities like Oakland, Hayward, and Dublin.
And what a year for women to run—many believe women could win a lot of races this election season. Some voters are more engaged, because of recent threats to long-standing women’s rights—like limiting access to contraception and redefining rape—which have infuriated women and men alike. More head to the polls in a presidential election year. And there are many open seats because of redistricting following the 2010 census—newcomers, including women, tend to have more success winning these seats, according to the 2012 Project.
Founded 10 years ago, Emerge California—the first of 10 Emerge programs in different states—was created by Bay Area women to address the scarcity of Democratic women holding elected office.
“We need to develop a pipeline,” Ellis says, explaining the impulse that led those politically-minded women to launch the program. “We need to equip these women with the tools and the knowledge to put together a grassroots campaign.”
Emerge affiliates across the country have collectively prepared 800 women to run a campaign; 40 percent have run for office and half have won. Locally, these Emerge success stories include Libby Schaff, Oakland City Council; Margaret Fujioka, Piedmont City Council; Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, Berkeley School Board; Cecilia Valdez, San Pablo City Council; and Malia Cohen, San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Organizations to train Republican women exist as well. Similar to Emerge, the Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series, based in Orange County, offers monthly training sessions to potential Republican women candidates from January to May. And the California Federation of Republican Women, a Sacramento organization that works to educate and elect Republicans across the state, hosts regular three-day campaign management schools, including one in San Jose last month, where both women and men learn the ins and outs of running for office.
Right now, California women are more fairly represented than those in most other states, with two female U.S. senators, 19 female U.S. representatives (out of 53), and two women in statewide office in Sacramento—Attorney General Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Debra Bowen. And, of course, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi recently served as the first female Speaker of the House in U.S. history.
Women candidates look to these elected women for guidance and inspiration. Walker met former California State Superintendent of Instruction Delaine Eastin at a recent Emerge event—“I want to be the first African-American superintendent of instruction,” she said by way of introduction—and she also talked privately with Pelosi at the state Democratic convention.
“For me to come from Oakland and to get this kind of support from all over the nation—to someone who’s just a local girl, it’s pretty powerful,” Walker says.
That support isn’t just empowering, though—it’s also essential in today’s political climate. In 2010, the number of U.S. women in office declined for the first time in 30 years, according to studies by the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. Women make up 51 percent of the nation’s population, and 56 percent of all voters, yet Congress is only 17 percent female. Overall, the United States ranks 71st in the world, behind Mexico, China, Pakistan, and even Turkmenistan in terms of what percentage of elected officials are women.
American women are equally represented in terms of voting—women here have been able to vote since 1920, and since 1911 in California—but across the Atlantic, women make up a far greater percentage of officeholders, due to a combination of suggested and legally required quotas. In Finland and Sweden, for example, where quotas are voluntary, women comprise, respectively, 40 percent and 47 percent of parliament, according to a 2011 European Commission study. In Belgium, where diversity is legislated, the female percentage is 40 percent.
On a March weekend, Karchmer, Walker, and their 22 classmates hole up in an Embassy Suites Hotel in Walnut Creek for two days, where they receive a crash course in topics like using Twitter, Facebook, and direct mail, and how to handle meetings with newspaper editorial staff.
This Sunday morning finds the group animatedly asking questions as they sit around a horseshoe-shaped table, name placards facing out, their work spaces filled with papers, notebooks, coffee cups, and muffins. Chase Mohney and Steve Olson of Trilogy Interactive field questions about hashtags, switching Twitter accounts from personal to political, and how to name a website. (Hint: Do not give it a specific year or position in case you want to run for something else later on. WalkerforSchoolBoard2012.com won’t help Walker if she runs for city council in 2014. Also, when meeting with a newspaper editorial board to ask for endorsements, know the budget thoroughly. Be able to joke about it.)
After Mohney and Olson finish unloading this dizzying amount of technical information, former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber stands up, smiling as she scans the room.
“If everyone here ran for office, we would kick butt on policy,” says Lieber, who was only the third woman since 1849 to serve as the Assembly’s Speaker Pro Tempore, and is now running for state Senate. She proceeds to recount how many times other women helped her career and promises to do the same for this group. “Please contact me even if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. There’s really no secret to social media. What’s going to win it for you is you.”
During their brief lunch, the potential candidates chat while balancing plates of sandwiches and salad on their laps. Lori Wilson, an ordained pastor and mother of two, who also works full time as a financial analyst for a publicly traded homebuilder, ran for Suisun City Council in 2010 and came in third by just 308 votes. She expected to come in last. Now armed with political savvy from Emerge, Wilson, who is gearing up to run again this fall, says she is confident in how well her natural instincts work. She advises, “Be who you are on your best day.”
Sitting next to Wilson is Amy Miller, who became the only female Democrat on the Dublin School Board when she was appointed in 2010. The mother of two school-age children, Miller is running for a full four-year school board term this fall, and calls her sessions with Emerge and her strong connection with her classmates “a gift.”
Other local women in this year’s class include Christine Bronstein, founder of A Band of Wives, a social and information website for women; Nyeisha DeWitt, an Oakland public school parent who serves on the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee; Treva Reid, currently president of the Alameda County Recycling Board; Sarah Swanbeck, who led a student campaign in 2010 to support Proposition 25, which restored majority rule to pass the California state budget; and Oaklander Julie Waters, who works with the city of Richmond on smoke-free housing.
Adding more women to the ballot, say experts at Emerge and the Center for American Women and Politics, requires active recruitment: Men are much more likely to think of running on their own, whereas women need someone to ask and encourage them.
“There are a lot of women who would be fabulous, that have all the skills,” Karchmer says, “but it’s not an idea that naturally occurs to them—‘I should run for office.’”
Typically, says Ellis, a mother of two, a woman “will take herself out of the running before she even gets started. As women we are our own worst critic.” She urges women to “[get] past the voice that’s in your head, that will always find fault.”
Female candidates also need continued support from both their political party and a specific organization, studies have found. Lucky for this year’s class, veteran politicians like Lieber and Emerge alums have their backs.
But, participants agree, the most crucial support comes from each other.
“When I met those other women in that workshop it was just like, ‘Wow, there are other people who are as crazy as I am. Why are you running for office?” says Walker, whose 24-year-old daughter, Alana, is handling all her campaign’s social media.
“One of the big values of Emerge is to be part of such a growing and supportive group of politically engaged and capable women,” agrees Karchmer.
There is little doubt that women politicians—regardless of political party—bring unique qualities to government, according to statistical and anecdotal evidence.
The difference often begins with women’s initial reasons for running for office. Like Walker—galvanized by her local school district’s abysmal test scores—women tend to be motivated by specific problems they want to fix.
“[For] men, [the motivation is] because they are attracted to perceived power and authority, and for women it’s oftentimes because they are pissed off or upset about an issue,” says Emerge director Ellis. This, of course, is not true for every female nor every male politician, but does show up as a regular pattern.
Differing reasons for running often lead to a difference in governing style and focus. “Women have a more collaborative and cooperative way of governing. They are less concerned with who gets the credit. More and more government bodies are recognizing that,” Ellis says.
Also, studies show that women focus more on issues like health care, education, social services, the environment, and gender discrimination. “Women public officials . . . are more likely to give priority to women’s rights policies; they are also more likely to give priority to public policies related to women’s traditional roles as caregivers,” according to “The Impact of Women in Public Office,” a 2008 report by the Center for American Women and Politics.
“We tend to agree with our male counterparts on solutions but we approach it differently,” says Allison Olson, an advocate at the California Federation of Republican Women. “As women, we are closer to the issues because our women manage their homes, they manage schools as teachers, they manage their own businesses, and so they are closer to the issues of your everyday California voter.”
Just like men, though, women are suffering from the ailing economy, high unemployment, and diminishing public funding for their children’s schools; with this unusual confluence of factors this election season, women could win multiple seats in November, and perhaps force a shift in government focus.
As Sally Lieber, the former California Congresswoman, says to the class of 2012 at the March training session, “Go as high as you can go. If you don’t bring it, then it’s never going to be there.”
The 24 women packed into the conference room nod and scribble notes, socking away this veteran’s tips for their political futures.
Once the class graduates this month, it’s time for Ellis to recruit a new crop. “One of the charges I give to each woman as they are leaving is to go out in the community and find their own replacement,” Ellis says.
“I would encourage women, even if they’ve never ever thought of running for office or have never considered themselves as an elected official, now is the time we really need their voices and perspective. And if not them, to find another woman in their lives to run for office.”
Sarah Weld is co-editor of The Monthly and lives in Oakland.