Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Access to money is often the greatest hurdle for non-establishment candidates. But local female politicians say the excitement of a non-traditional candidate is not only motivating voters, but in some cases, opening pockets.
This week, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley set herself en route to making history—again.
After winning the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ District 7, she’s virtually assured to become the first African-American woman to represent the state in Congress. But Pressley had already become a first a decade ago when, in 2009, she became the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. Two years later she worked successfully to fight off a comeback campaign from a veteran Boston politician, and finished atop a crowded field.
Pressley’s rise began with local ambition and king-slaying, and races from Phoenix to Rochester, New York, seem to be following her trajectory: In recent and upcoming 2018 elections, first-time candidates, women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates are running and winning more than ever, especially at the local and state-house level. In the past, the high price tag of a campaign, even on the local level, has made the cost of running a rising hurdle, one that compounded the other challenges for non-establishment candidates.
Pressley herself faced a competitor who had raised $1.7 million to Pressley’s $900,000 by August. But after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked people by winning the primary for U.S. representative in New York’s District 14 over a 10-term Congressional incumbent who raised over $2 million to her $860,000, people noticed a tide shift. As Walter Shapiro wrote after her win: “Money is not destiny.”
Women candidates, especially, are realizing that the promise of infusing new blood into a city’s leadership can make an election winnable without a big war chest. And for some, it can even encourage more donations.
In Phoenix, mayoral candidate Kate Gallego was once considered the underdog by political watchers. Now she’s the woman to beat. How did she manage it?
Well, there are a lot of reasons, she’ll tell you. There are her credentials (she got an environmental science degree from Harvard) and her vision (she wants to push Phoenix into the Fourth Industrial Revolution). But there’s also the fact that, if elected, she’d be Phoenix’s second woman mayor. “None of the ten largest cities have a female elected mayor,” she said. “There are a lot of people who would love to see more balance.”
After the former city councilor announced her run in October, political pundits identified Daniel Valenzuela as the front-runner, endorsed by three former mayors and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo. But by August, Gallego had out-raised not only Valenzuela, but all five of her competitors combined. The rapid ascent has inspired stupefied op-eds: “Kate Gallego wasn't supposed to be this far ahead in the Phoenix mayor race. How did she raise $1 million?”
She, like many of the female candidates who have exceeded conventional fundraising expectations, told CityLab that even though their gender or lack of incumbency generated doubt from the establishment, it made local donors’ support more impassioned.
To pull off a fundraising coup—or to win without one—though, political observers say that members of these underrepresented political groups often have to work twice as hard to get half as far.
Lindsay Crete, deputy director of state and local campaign communications at Emily’s List, which raises money and builds support for pro-choice Democratic women candidates, said “A lot of women candidates, especially those who are running for the first time, can face a lack of support: Because state party structures and in-state groups are used to throwing their weight behind well-known men, and are skeptical of women candidates, or [will only support] them if and when an incumbent man steps aside.”
It took Joyce Craig, the first female mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, two tries to win the position: For her first run, in 2015, she raised less money than her opponent, a three-term incumbent, and lost by 64 votes. In 2017, she won.
“It was definitely harder to raise money against an incumbent when I first ran for mayor in 2015,” she wrote in an email. “In my second run for mayor in 2017, there were still people who wouldn't contribute to my campaign because I was running against the incumbent.”
However, Craig says, because of the closeness of the first race; and because of the “very palpable desire for change in Manchester,” she was able to raise more, and win. “Our campaign set very aggressive fundraising goals,” she said. “By the end, we aimed to raise $500,000, a goal which we surpassed.” It was the most money any mayoral candidate had raised in Manchester, and in the entire state of New Hampshire.
Craig spent almost the same amount as her opponent in radio spots and mailings, she said, but still felt she had to knock “a record amount of doors and [talk] to a record amount of Manchester voters.”
If non-establishment candidates do get more funding, there’s a chance that other challenges will fall away. “The unfortunate part of our political process is if you’re able to raise money, the other issues that come along with being a candidate get easier,” said Ross Morales Rocketto, the co-founder of Run for Something. “Folks will be more willing to line up behind you if you’re viable, and viability is often a money test, to be perfectly blunt.”
Last November, Seattle elected Jenny Durkan, the city’s first female mayor in over 100 years, and the first gay woman to be mayor. Durkan did it partly by out-raising her fellow woman competitor, Cary Moon, 5-1, earning more than $1 million from 4,327 donors. It was the largest group of people to contribute to any Seattle mayoral candidate ever.
And the victor of San Francisco’s recent contentious mayoral race was London Breed, who became the city’s first black woman mayor—beating opponents who could have become the first Asian-American woman mayor or gay mayor, respectively. Breed was branded the big-money candidate after independent expenditure groups raised about $1.3 million to support her, compared to other groups that raised around $100,000 to $400,000 for the other candidates. But the money also earned Breed a sleeker, and ultimately successful, campaign.
When Lovely Warren campaigned to be the first woman mayor of Rochester, New York in 2010, her opponent was a male incumbent who had spent years entrenched in city politics. At the time, Warren had already served as Rochester’s city council president for three years; and Rochester, the third largest city in New York, had elected several women to other leadership positions. But still, Warren found it hard to convince people to donate the money she needed to print mailers and fund radio ads.
Warren had what many considered a triple handicap: She was young (36 at the time), black, and a woman. “To the status quo; to the powers that be, none of those [characteristics] check their boxes,” Warren said. “They thought my opponent was going to win the election. So I think what was more of a challenge for me than anything: Getting people to give me money for the race.”
Even though her incumbent opponent out-raised her by thousands, and outspent her two-and-a-half to one, Warren won. “The first time I challenged the status quo and I won and they thought it was an anomaly,” she said. Now, she is well into her second term, after another contentious campaign against a former (male) police chief.
She says her success suggests that money doesn’t always tip the ballot, especially at the local level. “I think that in mayoral races, because we are the ones that are on the ground, we are the ones that people develop relationships with and we’re seeing in the community on a daily basis,” Warren said. “If you can get this message out there by knocking on doors and having volunteers out there, then that beats having a whole lot of money any day.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, Jenny Durkan was identified as the first gay mayor of Seattle rather than the first gay woman mayor.