“You Can Change Politics For Good“ is a four-page spread featuring inspiring stories,
- Kansas Representative, Stephanie Sawyer Clayton, tells her journey to leadership. You might remember her from VRL’s National Go Run or her web class Dealing with the Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the Campaign Trail.
- TOP TIPS from VoteRunLead, like Big 4 Resource Guide that demystifies local government and How To Power Map a Plan for Your Future!
No matter how you’re voting this November, you probably agree it’s been the kind of exhausting election season we’ll all be glad to see the back of. But if we want our communities to be as great as they can be, there’s only one thing to do: Get involved. You can make politics what it needs to be, and it’s easier than you think.
Growing up in leafy Shawnee, KS, a suburb nestled southwest of Kansas City, Stephanie Sawyer Clayton adored school. Her teachers were hands-on and accessible; her district boasted some of the state’s highest graduation and college placement rates. So when it came time to put down roots with her husband, Ben, in 2001, it was an easy choice to settle in nearby Overland Park, where the schools had always been just as exceptional.
But by the time Stephanie’s daughter, Stella, was ready to enter kindergarten in 2009, much in the school district had changed. After years of funding cuts, class sizes had ballooned, extracurriculars were disappearing, and librarians couldn’t replenish bookshelves. “I’d heard complaints from friends with older kids, but now it was like, All right, this is getting real,” she says. When she found out that her PTA was seeking a volunteer to keep tabs on developments at the capitol having to do with education, she raised her hand.
Through a PTA-sponsored training program, she figured out how to follow legislation, and over the course of a year, she developed a deep reserve of knowledge. So much so that by the following year, she had decided to take her involvement further by running for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives on a platform focused on schools. She had support — but lost the election in a landslide. “I think I got 23 or 24 percent of the vote. It was embarrassing, really bad,” Stephanie says, a cringe in her voice. Still, the race ignited something within her. Two years later, she tried again and won. Now she’s running for a third term, with a list of bipartisan accomplishments to her name.
Stephanie, now 39, found her calling in elected office, but stories like hers are dispiritingly rare. Of the nearly 520,000 elected seats in this country, women hold just over 20 percent. “Something is fundamentally wrong with a political system where 50 percent of the population are women and only about 20 percent of our elected officials are,” says Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University and coauthor of the new book Women on the Run.
It’s also bad for our quality of life. Studies have shown that female lawmakers are more likely to fight for policies that aid women, children, and families — and are just as crucial when it comes to things that aren’t traditional “women’s issues” at all, from national security to the safety of our bridges and roads, says Anne Moses, founder and president of the political nonprofit IGNITE, who also teaches public policy at Mills College.
“You need a range of voices and experiences around the table,” she says. “That’s what democracy is.”
Women in office also seem to get more done. Over the past eight years, female senators sponsored or cosponsored more pieces of legislation and were more likely to reach across the aisle, data from the political analytics start-up Quorum shows. “This level of consensus-building is not because women think, Oh, Kumbaya, we all want to get along. It’s more like, We’re busy,” says Moses. “We don’t have time for posturing.”
So if women can do so much — and you know we can — why aren’t more of us running? In large part it’s because we’re busy getting everything else done. More than 70 percent of women ages 25 to 54 are employed, yet caregiving responsibilities still fall disproportionately onto our shoulders. That raises legitimate logistical concerns about the time it takes to campaign, and then do the job. There are mental barriers, too.
Women don’t see themselves in politics and too often doubt that they’re capable of being the candidate themselves. “We still have this ‘Why would someone vote for me? Why would someone invest in me?’ feeling that men just don’t have,” says Erin Vilardi, founder of the political recruitment and training platform for women VoteRunLead (voterunlead.org). “But women have so many transferrable skills,” she says. “We negotiate every day of our lives. And we have a finely tuned ability to listen. Making people feel heard is a core skill for leadership.”
While all politicians fret about fund-raising, women believe it’s harder for them to raise money than it is for their male colleagues, a 2008 study showed. The reality is women raise as much money and win elections just as often as men do. Then there’s the issue of how appalling politics can get; the last year and a half feels like proof of that. However, research shows that mudslinging usually doesn’t migrate off the national stage.
There’s one simple solution to the negativity that’s such a turnoff: you. You’re not like that. And neither are thousands of other women who are as smart and organized and passionate as you are. At a time when many women and men are wishing there were more choices up and down the ticket, it’s important to remember that the part of politics that’s so visible — harsh campaign tactics, a recalcitrant Congress — doesn’t mirror the good work being done on city councils and in statehouses around the country. The women who are working there now can’t wait for more to serve with them.
What Getting Involved Looks Like
Shona Huffman, 46, a mom of two and a current member of the Frisco, TX, city council, had been a government teacher, then started working part-time at her chamber of commerce. She’d been attending council meetings for years, so when several leadership positions in her town were up for election last year, she worried. “I kept saying to colleagues, ‘We need to make sure we’ve got good people in place,'” she says. One day a friend, who happened to be a city council member, stopped her: “You’re doing a whole lot of searching for other people,” he said. “Why aren’t you looking at yourself?” The comment caught Shona off guard, and made her think. “I had been asking myself over and over, Who is going to represent me?” she says. “But if there wasn’t somebody who was going to represent what I believed, I needed to step up.”
Shona had never been at the center of a campaign, and the learning curve was steep. “When you’re campaigning, you have to be ‘on’ all the time, which is exhausting,” she says. Fund-raising, too, felt daunting. “A lot of us have done charity work or supported other campaigns and been fine talking up someone else,” Shona says. “It’s much harder to sell yourself, much harder to say, ‘I’m better than everyone.’ There’s a mental block.”
Moses hears this from women all the time. “There’s this misconception that men like fund-raising and women don’t. Nobody likes fund-raising!” she says. “Women tend to be reared to think that discussing money is rude, while men tend to be more transactional. One of the things I tell women is, ‘You’re not asking for money for yourself. You’re asking for the issues. You are the vessel for the values you hold.'” Shona got used to framing her fund-raising efforts that way, and became better at it. “It takes practice,” she says, “but eventually you realize the worst thing that can happen is someone says no.”
Another challenge is fitting the demands of a campaign onto an already full plate. Miyoko Hikiji, 39, a single mom of two and an Iraq war veteran who served in both the Army and the Iowa National Guard, is running for a state senate seat in her district. She hadn’t imagined a life in public office until, two and a half years ago, she was asked by a veterans’ nonprofit to help lobby through a Senate bill that would regulate the way the Iowa National Guard reported incidents of sexual assault. For months she emailed, called, and met with senators to discuss the importance of the legislation, learning about the policymaking process as she went. When the bill became law in the spring of 2014, she felt triumphant — and soon launched her own campaign.
The mental health instructor (who still works a 40-hour week) enlists friends and family members to help shuttle her daughters, ages 6 and 5, to and from school and her campaign commitments. Her “headquarters,” she explains, is her kitchen table. To make it to fund-raisers, she often takes her girls along. She held one event at a local play place so parents could attend with their kids. “The process isn’t always set up so families can be involved,” says Miyoko, who will focus, in part, on expanding mental health care access for veterans and all Iowans. “The Army taught me that we’re all the same: We all want to live our lives, raise our families, watch our children grow. The Army also taught me that life is short. The time to take action, to make the world a better place, is now. And I feel like it’s my responsibility to do something.”
When Women Are Leaders
Beyond the rigors of the campaign trail is the terrifying prospect of actually winning. “Women often want to know, ‘How will this fit into my busy life?'” Vilardi says. What you may not realize, she says, is that many roles are extremely doable. “Most positions on school boards and city councils are part-time,” she says, which means members often keep their regular jobs. Shona’s hours allow her the flexibility to carve out time to meet frequently with constituents. Additionally, she says, she does about an hour of reading each night to keep up with the issues in her community.
Stacey Armato, 36, was able to make the leap to public life thanks to a network of support. The Hermosa Beach, CA, lawyer and mom of three led a campaign last year to block an oil company’s bid to drill nearby. After that, local officials encouraged her to run for city council when a seat opened up. It was the help at home, though, that really convinced her: Her husband told her to go for it, and both of their families offered to pitch in — which is so needed, as her youngest child, now 17 months, has cystic fibrosis. This past spring, Stacey won the city council seat resoundingly, with 73 percent of the vote. Maintaining her 9-to-5 job while working on the council has required some shuffling. A few times a week, she squeezes in meetings with constituents or city staffers after work, and she’ll also occasionally duck out of the office for important events. “I think a lot of people write off local government, thinking they don’t have enough time. They may be surprised,” she says.
The higher the office, of course, the more intense the time commitment becomes. Traveling is often required for state representatives and senators, who must be on-site in their capitals for voting, meetings, and events when their legislatures are in session. In Kansas, where Stephanie Sawyer Clayton lives, the House of Representatives meets from January through sometime in May. Stephanie experimented with daily commuting — an hour and 15 minutes each way — during her first term, but quickly wore herself out. “I’d get home at 10:30 and everyone would be sleep- ing, then I’d leave the next day before anyone was awake. I never got to see my family and I was exhausted,” she remembers. Now when the House is in session she spends weeknights in a home she rents with another female legislator. “I don’t see my kids a lot when we’re in session, it’s true. But FaceTime is the best invention ever.”
Before setting foot in the statehouse for orientation, Stephanie didn’t know much about the legislative process beyond what she’d observed at city council meetings, but that changed quickly. For example, “when you have an idea for a bill, you go to the legal counsel’s office at the statehouse and say, ‘I want a bill that does this, this, and this.’ Then they write you a draft,” she says. “I didn’t know that before I started! It really is that easy.”
Stephanie has worked on more than two dozen pieces of legislation, but her favorite accomplishment is an act she drew up requiring a live stream of proceedings in four subcommittee rooms at the statehouse. A version of her proposal became law this year. “We can’t all drive to Topeka to attend these meetings,” she explains. “Getting that act signed was a proud moment.”
She thrives on that feeling. And the kind of woman she thinks can join her in making communities — and, yes, the country — safer, happier, better, might sound like someone you know very well. “If you’re going to show up, if you’re willing to work, if you have a modicum of skill, you can figure it out. I wasn’t a specialist when I started. I was just a really hard worker,” she says. “I got into politics because I wanted to fix something.” Chances are you know what needs to be fixed. So the next step is believing that you’re someone capable of doing the fixing — and if your already full life is any indication, you absolutely are.