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How Do We Get More Women in Office? Ask Them To Run

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A VoteRunLead training in Minneapolis in the mid-2000s (Photo courtesy Erin Vilardi)

Think about it. You probably know at least few women who would be incredible in political or civic office — whether on a local council, state senate or heck, POTUS.

But let’s slow our roll.  Baby steps.

I easily rattled around a few in my brain and sent three “Invitation Nation” postcards — a campaign to encourage 500,000 women to run and lead by 2016.

Took me five minutes.

As I was writing this piece, one of them responded. First she wrote, “Are you crazy? I can barely surface for air.” And then the next day, she sent me another email. “You know, maybe you’re not crazy.”

Ask a woman to run for office? As simple as sending a postcard — that’s one of the promises of VoteRunLead, a national, nonpartisan organization that “unleashes the power of women leaders in democracy through training, technology and community.”

Simply put, if you’re interested, they’ll get you there.

Originally, VoteRunLead was the training arm of The White House Project, a program which prepared over 15,000 women for civic and political leadership from 2004-2012 with face-to-face training. Citing the poor economic climate, The White House Project folded last year, but a new, rebranded VoteRunLead just relaunched this past month.

TueNight spoke with Erin Vilardi, founder and executive director of VoteRunLead, about what it takes to get more women to run.

Tell me about the ratio of men to women in office.
At the end of the day, we do not have volume. There are 500,000 plus elected seats across the country and roughly 80% filled with men. You look at the photos and they look like they’re from 1985, the City Council filled with thick mustaches from a Tom Selleck era. It’s also about encouraging young people and diversity. [VoteRunLead] is focused on people who actually live in these towns, and really getting them involved in the community from a political leadership standpoint. We want to encourage women that they can be a decision maker right in their own community. The county stuff is where the big federal dollars come in.

Ok, maybe you’re preaching to the choir, but why do you think women so well-suited for leadership?
The welfare and health of the country would be better if more women ran for office. We know women take care and that should be valued as a leadership quality. Women think long term. We want to bolster women candidates and remind them that their gender is not a weakness, that we can keep a lot of our values.

Why has it been so hard to convince women to run?
I still think we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg. Feminism is having a day but culturally, we still see women’s primary roles as wife, mother — and, that we work, of course. Seeing us as a leader of the free world isn’t there yet. We still haven’t changed the cultural norm. Gerrymandering matters and we don’t talk enough about that around feminist leadership. The current structure is keeping diverse people out. We’ve also focused too much on federal-level stuff. It’s time to really get local – go after the party chairs who have been there for 10 or 20 years We need 10 Democrat Emily’s Lists and 10 Republican Emily’s Lists.

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Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead (Photo: VoteRunLead)

How did you end up rebooting VoteRunLead?
I started out in 2003 as an intern at The White House Project; they hired me after my senior year of college. A year later, I was part of the team that started VoteRunLead within TWHP. In 2005 we had VRL offices all around country…

When TWHP founder Marie Wilson retired, several of us who had worked together for 10 years, left… and when TWHP eventually shut down for financial reasons, we said, “This is coming back to us.”

What were the financial issues with running a program like TWHP?
The face-to-face [training] was a heavy lift — and by itself, it’s expensive. VRL still does in-person training, and value it highly, but now we do both online and in person. So it’s still a heavy lift financially and logistically, but now we supplement it with online and keep overhead costs lower.

And you’ve got some big backers, like Target?
Yeah, we got a 501(c)(3), convinced people we could do it, got the backing of companies like Target, the Omidyar Network, and some great leading feminist philanthropists like Barbara Dobkin, and met new, awesome women in tech. We said this is how we’re going to do this, this is how we’ll change the number of women in office by using technology to go to scale.

In addition to Invitation Nation, what are some of the tactics you’ve used so far?
We know our face-to-face training works. Many of these women were ready to run before they came to our training. They’ve already been siting on councils. They just want to improve their public speaking or get a better sense of budgeting. [Laughs] But they know how to do this stuff already. They just need the encouragement. Once they get in our room, they see that they’re not the only person who left their kids for three days to come and learn how to run for office. They were thinking, “I thought there would 10 people here and there’s 100.” We like to tell them, “You were ready before you got here.”

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Who are some of VRL’s  success stories?
There are so many. A few off the top of my head: JoCasta Zamarripa — she’s a 38-year-old state rep in Wisconsin, she went through a couple of our workshops. She’s done great legislation in Wisconsin and was the first Latina to win a seat in her state and is openly bisexual. In all of her elections she’s won over 80% of the vote. She’d been a community organizer, had worked for Planned Parenthood — she’s a great example of someone who just needed a push. We have the first and 2nd Latinas in the state senate for Minnesota, both went through VoteRunLead; and then Jill Miller Zimon in Ohio. She was a blogger, married with two kids, working in corporate America. She ran for City Council and won. She lost a recent election for State representative, but she’s not gone — she has more political capital. And she loves it. She’s like a cool mom, and running for office.

Erin, what’s your story — how did you get involved in all of this?
I always had the notion that if women were in power, the world would be a better place. It was kind of in the way I was raised. I had three brothers and one sister — my mom had the opinion that the world will take care of boys, so she focused on me and my sister. Funny thing, both my sister and I turned out to be activists. I was reading MS Magazine when I was 10 years old, starting a petition in my school. I was in tune with feminist issues, reading about sex trafficking and domestic violence… I remember being 12 years old and asking my Dad if I could sit at the head of the table and carve the turkey. My family was really into it. Of course I did the good old gender studies double major in politics and gender studies. Gender studies should be a required course. It introduces you to this invisible layer. When you talk about GDP in economics class, there’s actually an entire market that’s often not being counted.

What about the moment feminism is having — what do you attribute that to?
Well, number one, culture matters. You can’t discount the celebrity stuff. It gives us the opportunity to have a dialogue — watching Lena Dunham getting Taylor Swift to come out as a feminist is awesome. Even the influence of Joan Rivers, Tina Fey getting her own show. When Beyoncé holds up a big feminist sign at the VMAs —pop culture matters. Number two, it took us a little while as a feminist community, but we got online. When you Google “feminism,” you find a collective of voices who are fighting back the trolls. You can find the facts.

It’s also not about a party, it’s about unleashing thousands of American women.

Jessica Haak was this pro-choice 28-year-old woman who finally had had enough, she went through and now she’s a State Representative from North Dakota. Her story is like, “I didn’t get angry, I got elected.”

In our workshops we walk you through every angle, the campaign plan, the research. Case studies — here are five women and here are their strategies. We prepare you for how gender manifests itself on the campaign trail. When Jessica was on the campaign trail she was asked, “Why aren’t you married?” Her opponent was never asked that. You’ve got to be prepared for that.

What’s the best way we can contribute?
Go to Voterunlead.org/invite and invite three women to run. You might say, “I don’t know three women who would be interested.” But many women are thinking about it and just waiting to be asked. Just sent it to three women who are kick ass. Ask them to think about it and tell them, you know, you could do that.

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