October 2017 Column: Encouraging Less Establishment Candidates to Run
Early in 2017 I was at an event which is known as one of the best-attended local legislative events, where even those legislators who don’t often come to things will show up – almost all the Reps and Senators from the Pioneer Valley were there. They called us up one by one, and that was the moment when something I’d known as a statistic hit me in person: there were 15 or so legislators present; exactly 1 was female.
Now, the MA legislature as a whole is about one-quarter female, which is still a long way from where it should be. At the same time, you’ve all heard me talk about how young people are also wildly underrepresented, 18-29-year-olds being 20% of eligible MA voters and back then only 2% of the legislature (now about 4%).
Here’s the interesting thing: I believe there is some prejudice against candidates that are in any way not older white men, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in MA legislative elections. In 2016, a third of the elected class of new Reps was female, a third was under 30, and a quarter was non-white.
I looked at all the candidates I could find (Ballotpedia keeps a decent list with data from the MA secretary of state), and in 2016 of all the people running in a primary or general election, 27% were female and 73% were male. We elected similar percentages to the legislature as a whole, with the new faces who were elected being 33% female.
So the problem is not that when women run they are disproportionately not elected, but that not enough women run. (It is much harder to estimate people’s ages or races and impossible to know their religions without a list being available, so I have not done a similar calculation of candidates with other non-establishment identities, but again looking at the class of new Reps it seems we are electing them when they run.)
One organization which has been saying this for a while now is Emerge, which trains female Democrats to run for office all over the country. I am on the Men’s Leadership Council of Emerge-Massachusetts, and they can tell you the amazing results we see in our state: about half of their alumnae have run for office so far (mostly town-level), and of those, 76% won their campaigns. As they’ve said and I calculated, when women run, they win at the same rates as men (or better if they’ve had a training program and network like Emerge!) but it takes more to get a proportional number of women running.
Emerge will be doing various trainings and workshops over the next year, including in Western Mass, so look them up or contact me if you are interested or have someone to recommend. At the same time, I will be setting up for the first time a Political Leadership Institute to run a 2-day training for young candidates at the beginning of this coming February in Amherst. This will be expanding on the communications trainings I’ve done with local youth and will be open to 20-25-year-olds from anywhere; this one is nonpartisan.
The point of these trainings is to make up for the structural barriers that lead to disproportionate demographics in candidates running. For instance, young folks often aren’t as connected to the local players in the political establishment; learning communications skills to approach those people can be valuable. I’ve heard from a number of young people that a major barrier to them choosing to run is the prospect of fundraising: young people don’t have a network of wealthy professionals to call on, and asking for money means putting yourself out there in a way that young people (and women and many others) are taught not to do. The national organization Run for Something is addressing that problem financially by having both a network with mentoring, and a real PAC, to support young progressives. The Political Leadership Institute will address it by giving young candidates the skills – not ones usually taught in college – about who to ask for money and how to speak when doing so. We’ll also delve into the nuts and bolts of forming an organization, collecting signatures, and much more.
So, if you know either a young person or a Democratic woman (or both!) from Massachusetts, please ask if they would consider running, or at least being trained to run. Often the biggest step is being asked in the first place.