Under the crystal chandeliers of the Washington Athletic Club’s Seattle ballroom, women from across Washington state gathered Saturday morning to find inspiration and guidance from the nation’s largest resource for women in politics.
EMILY's List is a political action committee founded in 1985, dedicated to electing female Democrat candidates to office — specifically those in favor of abortion rights. Since 2001, the organization has placed a greater focus on state and local elections, and has trained candidates across the United States through its “Run to Win” program.
A Seattle visit was the sixth stop for Run to Win, with 19 more cities scheduled for 2017. Guest speakers included emily’s List alumni U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Seattle Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez.
Muthoni Wambu Kraal, vice-president of national outreach and training, hosted the event and set the tone of encouragement that pervaded most of the day. With more than two decades of experience working in political campaigns, Kraal joined EMILY's List in 2009 and has since been heavily involved in training candidates — including Jayapal.
“Running for office is a team sport,” Kraal said. “Our goal is to get women to help other women run.”
Kraal credits the 2016 presidential election with bringing more potential candidates to the forefront, and said that participation in the “Run to Win” training sessions has increased from 900 last year to more than 15,000 women signed up this year, more than half of whom are women of color.
One of the major themes of the morning was a need to change public expectations regarding political candidates. Kraal and other speakers emphasized that law degrees were not as important as human qualities like integrity, energy and passion.
“We have to shift our thinking about who’s qualified, who should step forward,” Kraal said. “Résumé, less important. Lived experience, more important.”
The “Run to Win” program identifies practicing one’s “personal story” as a key takeaway of the training session. Kraal said there is no “perfect candidate,” and it is in fact personal struggles that can sometimes make a candidate most compelling.
Personal hardship overlapped with the PAC’s motif of teamwork and solidarity. When one audience member asked whether her disability would hinder her ability to campaign, Kraal was quick to argue that a successful political team works to accommodate their candidate — not the other way around.
In a brief speech at the podium, Gonzalez spoke not only to the personal hardships of candidates, but of those faced by ancestors. Gonzalez said her desire to serve in public office stems from the sacrifices of her parents, who slept in cars and in the cold fields of central Washington to avoid raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
While Gonzalez stressed that she was fortunate enough not to experience the challenges of her parents, she said it is important not to downplay the difficulty many women face in running for office.
“It’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to sit here and be overwhelmed,” Gonzalez said. “It’s important to go through these struggles.”
When it was Jayapal’s turn to take to the floor, the congresswoman spoke largely about the importance of diversity in political representation. The refrain of personal stories continued through Jayapal’s voice, which reassured attendants that private life should affect public office.
“We as women of color are socialized and trained to talk about our qualifications,” she said. “The key thing is to tell them who you are in your heart.”
One of only five naturalized citizens in Congress, Jayapal said that those who hold public office must speak for voices not represented, and advised aspiring candidates to go knock on doors and listen to the stories citizens have to share.
“Our country is built by very diverse voices and very diverse hands,” Jayapal said. “Your job, in addition to telling your own story, is telling other people’s stories, because that’s what public policy is.”
One of EMILY's List’s recurring messages is that public policy currently fails to represent the diverse cast of characters in the United states. Kraal said that she sees Washington State as one rich with opportunity, but there is a lot of work to be done.
While Washington ranks fifth among state legislatures for proportion of women, there are only two female senators and only three female representatives in the congressional delegation.
“We need more pro-choice Democratic women elected, period,” Kraal said. “Would birth control even be a discussion if over 50 percent of Congress were women?”
Kraal bookended the day’s podium discussions with sentiments of encouragement and reassurance. Wearing a T-shirt reading “Nasty Women Unite,” the host seemed to perfectly encapsulate the frustrations and insecurities of audience members.
Kraal brought the crowd to a rise when she said that most women who think about running for office do so because they are angry or wanting to fix something. When Kraal asked how many women in the audience were both, a chorus of affirmation resounded throughout the ballroom.
“You are not crazy for thinking you should run for office,” Kraal repeatedly told those in attendance. “Just as we know buying local is important, electing local is important.”
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