Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
On the first election day after Trump’s win, many new pledges to run for office have actually materialized. And yes, lots of them are women.
Kathy Tran wasn’t the only mother at the political training boot-camp, but she was the only one who brought her baby. Elise Minh Khanh, Tran’s daughter, was born four days after Inauguration Day, and when the course began, she was one month old. It wasn’t the most convenient time for Tran to start a new life in public office—but Elise was the reason Tran was running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates at all.
“[The name] Elise was inspired by Ellis Island, and Minh Khanh is Vietnamese for ‘bright bell,’” says Tran. Together, her daughter’s name means, “to ring the bells of liberty and champion opportunity for all.” Tran is a Vietnamese immigrant, who fled to the United States as a child. “I made the decision to run…with the realization that I had given Elise this aspirational name, and I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and leave her with this responsibility,” Tran recalls. “The time was now for me to stand up and fight hard for my kids.”
Tran is one of the thousands of first-time candidates who have decided to run in the wake of last year’s presidential election, many from groups that have been historically underrepresented.
Last November, even before the electoral college results came in, the tail of Trump and Clinton’s ugly two-year battle galvanized new pledges to run in local elections, especially amongst the young, LGBT, people of color, and women. New organizations sprung up for the express purpose of training candidates. Existing organizations doubled down to recruit and energize a new generation of leaders.
Did that momentum materialize into a wave of new candidates? While available measures are imprecise, organizations and PACs that are working to champion first-time and underrepresented political hopefuls all say they observed record levels of participation—doubled or tripled training class sizes; new state affiliates; and triple-digit growth in numbers of candidates who end up on the ballot—especially at the local level.
“What we’re seeing are women in red states as well as blue states are up in arms,” says Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of Emerge America, an organization that provides political boot-camps for democratic woman candidates.
“There are close to 520,000 elected offices in the United States and so much of our focus as a country is on that really small slice that operate on the highest level—federal government, state government,” says Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, a non-partisan organization that provides trainings and resources for women and girls to run for office. “But the reality is that the majority of those elected roles are at the local level—over 500,000 of that larger number.” If these new candidates are going to make a dent in the political conversation, it’s there.
All the ladies
As the January 2017 filing deadline for Anchorage’s city council election drew closer, Suzanne LaFrance felt the pressure mount. “Forrest [Dunbar] kept texting me, have you filed the paperwork? Have you filed?” she recalls. “And I kept thinking, surely someone more competitive will sign up.” No one did. Finally, the Wednesday before filing was due, LaFrance submitted her candidacy. Three months later, on April 18, she was elected to city council. Now, she’s one of only two women on the council, and the only progressive.
LaFrance says she ran because of encouragement by people like Dunbar, who ran for U.S. Congress and serves on the Anchorage assembly, and because of the polarization the November 2016 election wrought. “It seemed that on the local level, when we talk to neighbors and we talk about streetlights and potholes, that’s when we can work together and not have these ugly differences. I wanted to be a part of a productive conversation that doesn’t pull people apart,” she says. “And then the other part of it was the candidate who had signed up was running unopposed, and he represented a lot of what was polarizing.”
“She is someone who decided after November 7, screw it, I’m doing something—and she won,” says Chris Constant, one of two men who became Alaska’s first openly LGBTQ candidates this year. “She’s literally a woman who said, ‘I cannot let this happen,’ because of that election.”
LaFrance came into the political system cold, supported by friends and family and her partner, but not by any national organization. For other women, institutional training is key to following through on a run.
Kathy Tran is one of 330 first-time woman candidates running in 2017 and 2018 who trained with Emerge America. Ninety-four of the women they championed are campaigning for a state office or U.S. Congress; and the almost 250 others are focusing on local offices. Some states’ Emerge class sizes have more than doubled, and they’ve had to open six new affiliates in states across the country (three red, three blue). Of the 134 races that have already been completed this year in which candidates were trained through Emerge, 95 of their women have won. In Wisconsin, 14 out of 21 candidates won in the spring election: women swept up seats on Racine and Madison city councils; and Anissa Welch became the mayor of Milton. 14 out of 21 Emerge candidates won in Oregon, and 16 out of 18 won in New Mexico.
She Should Run, a non-partisan organization that provides trainings and resources for women and girls to run for office, had 15,000 new women apply to participate in their programs post-November. Most have expressed interest in running at the local level.
EMILY’s List, which works to get pro-choice women in government and has a much longer history in recruiting women candidates, provides a statistical comparison to demonstrate the surge in sustained interest.
During the entire two-year 2016 election cycle, they say, 920 women expressed interest in launching a campaign. Since election day, they have heard from almost 20,000 new ones. Roughly half of those women are under 45 years old, and the majority of them will run on the state and local level. “Not all of these women will run in [in 2017 or] 2018, of course, but the fact that they have come forward to run in the future is incredibly exciting,” wrote Alexandra DeLuca, an EMILY’s list spokesperson, in an email.
As DeLuca observes, entering into a political training program (identity-specific or otherwise) doesn’t guarantee every trainee will run this year, or the next; or that they will win when they do. But the number of people spending time and money on campaign school suggests it’s more than a passing fad.
Women are gravely underrepresented in United States political office: they make up about 19 percent of both the Senate and the House and hold 24 percent of the 312 statewide elective executive offices in the country, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Of the 100 largest cities in the US, only 20 had women mayors, and that ratio holds for smaller cities.
“At our current rate of growth we are not expected to see equity for women in elected office for over 150 years,” says Cutraro, who aims to accelerate this race towards equity. In the more than 40 years since 1975, the number of women in U.S. Congress, Statewide Elective, and State legislatures only grew by 15, 13, and 17 percent, respectively.
The numbers are even starker when filtering by race: Four of the 20 United States woman mayors are Black; one is Latina; and two are Asian Pacific Islander. Ninety percent of elected officials nation-wide are white, according to the Who Leads Us. Seventy-one percent are men; and 65 percent are white men.
It’s not just women
On November 7, Minneapolis could elect its first trans man, Philippe Cunningham, and its first trans woman, Andrea Jenkins, to serve on a major city’s council. They’re people of color, and LGBTQ: A win for either or both would reflect a city-wide shift of power. Cunningham has already blocked his incumbent challenger from winning the Democratic party’s endorsement in April. Jenkins was endorsed by the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor party: she is the first transgender candidate the DFL has backed.
In Atlanta’s city council race, 29-year-old Liliana Bakhtiari is running to become the first openly LGBTQ and Muslim woman elected in the entire United States. She’s on the city ballot below Cathy Woolard, who could end up the first LGBTQ mayor of Atlanta. In Seattle, two women are running against each other to become the city’s first woman mayor in 92 years—and if Jenny Durkan wins, Seattle will also elect its first mayor who is openly lesbian. In the small city of Berwyn, Illinois, three LGBTQ candidates are running for an eight-seat city council.
Utah, a traditionally red and socially conservative state, has also seen a wave of unprecedented first-time, female candidacies: in Provo, home to the Mormon Brigham Young University, it’s all but a foregone conclusion that they will elect their first woman mayor; and in Midvale, mayoral candidate Sophia Hawes-Tingey is running to be the first transgender elected official in the state.
There’s also the 16-year-old who launched a write-in campaign for mayor of the small New York town of Ardsley (backed by a campaign staff of 15 high school volunteers); a 26-year-old Muslim woman running for Raleigh city council; and the socialist, Palestinian-American Christian who ran for Brooklyn city council (but lost in the primary).
The fact that these individuals are running in the city doesn’t mean that come November 8, they’ll run the city. But some historic candidates already do. In Alaska, in addition to Suzanne LaFrance, Christopher Constant and Felix Rivera seized positions on the Anchorage downtown assembly in April to become the first openly LGBTQ people elected in the state of Alaska. Dallas and Harrisburg elected their first and second openly LGBTQ City Council members, the Dallas winner unseating an incumbent. And Jackson and Birmingham just elected two Bernie Sanders-backed, black mayors: “radical activist” Chokwe Antar Lumumba and 36-year-old Randall Woodfin, respectively.
E.J. Juarez, Executive Director of Amplify, a political organization based in the Northwest that recruits, trains, and elects primarily people of color, women, young people and LGBTQ candidates, critiques some other candidate organizations focused on women for “training and speaking to dominant culture.”
“There is a really strong narrative about women running—but we know from our experience, it’s actually more specific than just women,” says Juarez. “It’s women of color that are really seeing their leadership embraced by typically mainstream organizations now.”
Amplify usually serves 300-400 people in their trainings each year. In the first six months of 2017, however, the group saw over 1,000 people come to its day-long trainings. 78% of all program participants in its Oregon and Washington state programs identified as women, 61% of whom identified as women of color. The most common offices they sought were city council, school board, and port commission.
The Victory Fund and its sister organization, the Victory Institute, work to train LGBTQ people to run for office and later endorse LGBTQ candidates. The number they’ve trained (260) has tripled over the previous year. And on Tuesday, 61 of the LGBTQ candidates they endorsed will be on the ballot across the country—including many of the candidates listed above.
Young people, too, are finding new outlets for political participation. Run for Something, a new organization co-founded by a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer to champion young candidates in local races, has endorsed 121 young candidates across 20 states. This November, founder Amanda Litman estimates that more than 400 young people they partner with are on a ballot across the country.
Litman started the organization in December 2016 after hearing from people just in her own social circle that they couldn’t find any resources about running for office.“I started hearing from a couple of folks I’d gone to high school and college with saying, ‘Hey I’ve been thinking about getting engaged in politics, I want to run for office, you’ve been posting on Facebook about politics for the last five years, who do I ask for help?” she recalled. “I didn’t have a good answer for them because if you’re a young person who’s never run for office before and you don’t have a lot of money there isn’t a clear entry point for you.”
Within the first week, 1,000 young people had signed up to run for office. By October 2018, more than 10,000 others had joined them.
“We see spikes every time Trump does something awful,” Litman says. “Around health care, Around the Muslim ban, around some of the cabinet appointments. Each one of those tended to come with a respective spike.”
It’s not just liberals
While many of this year’s first-time candidates are impassioned by protest, not all new or aspiring contenders are Democrats.
“While I absolutely see that there is a leaning in this surge of women who have stepped up to run for office, I reject the theory that this is about progressive women,” says Cutraro, whose organization is by nature non-partisan. “I think it’s about women.”
The National Federation of Republican Women noted a different kind of Trumpian motivation behind first-time Republican women candidates: “Women saw that Donald Trump was putting women in high places in the government,” says Carrie Almond, president of the NFRW, naming Kellyanne Conway and Nikki Haley as particularly inspirational. (Most of Trump’s other advisors and those in his cabinet are men.) They were also energized by congressional leaders like Karen Handel, who won Georgia’s House of Representative seat in a special election this summer.
“For some women, it’s a reaction to the current president and the policies that they’re seeing; for others it’s this idea you have to get involved in democracy because it’s a participatory thing,” Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics says. “There’s a realization, a sort of a dawning of, I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore and watch what happens. I need to be involved. That’s sort of filtering down their world view to what’s going on in their area.”
How is all of this going to unfold in the next few years? “Obviously challenging incumbents is hard, and there aren’t that many open seats,” says Sinzdak. “So there are going to be losses before there are gains; politics is a cyclical thing. Will people stay with it in the long term? I’m curious.”