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Winning Women Candidates, Know These 5 Truths

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Across the country filing deadlines are passing and political campaigns are underway. With women at such a deficit in every state legislature (24 percent) and in Congress (18 percent), we need good women candidates running their best races. So perhaps a few reminders are in order:

1. Reflexive modesty undercuts voters' perceptions of your strength and competence. From an early age, many women learn to share credit and to make everyone a proud part of a successful enterprise. Perhaps moms are passing down the quality they believe make them good family managers and peacekeepers. Unfortunately, elections are singular pursuits resulting in winners and losers. Speaking plainly about achievements is essential to conveying readiness to lead.

Too often, women use language like "We organized" or "I helped build..." or "My team succeeded..." when in fact, they were the brains, drive and direction that led to success. No one likes a braggart, but a forthright description of ingenuity and hard work doesn't need to be offensive. Giving voters a true picture of what a candidate has accomplished is critical to success.

2. Raising money is about making a case for the cause. Recent research confirms that asking for money is a standard requirement of candidates for public office. The anxiety, avoidance and fear of failure that often accompany fundraising stem from a misunderstanding: That soliciting financial support means risking personal rejection. Not so. The best fundraisers enlist supporters in a cause rooted in their shared values. They ask for funding to achieve a policy goal, solve a problem of common concern and provide potential donors with proof of viability and a roadmap for success.

Raising issues that other candidates have not -- poverty, access to health care, early childhood education -- can be powerful. For many donors, keeping their issues visible and well argued is enough to prompt them to give. A candidate's personal qualities and political viability are factors in a donor's assessment, but not the only ones. And a donor who declines today may reconsider tomorrow.

3. Career "time-outs" are not a political liability. Few women start work and continue on uninterrupted over the course of a lifetime. Many start and stop several times; some switch from full to part-time work to accommodate family responsibilities. Other change jobs or careers.

Rather than see this pattern as debilitating, embrace it for the wisdom accumulated and the political base built. The very activities required of moms and caregivers expand their political networks and give women experiences that deepen their understanding of what's needed in public policy. Consider it a competitive advantage.

The neighborhood cobbler and dry cleaner, doctor and dentist, teacher and coach, recycling center volunteer and hospital staff can form a powerful base from which to launch a candidacy. Instead of worrying over conclusions that voters may draw about employment "gaps," women do well to mine those gaps for community ties and experiences that tell voters, "I'm like you. I get your life."

4. Women ignore gender-biased media coverage at their own peril. Many women believe it is a sign of sophistication to brush off gender-biased press coverage. Those who aspire to high office are not whiners, right? But what does it say about a candidate if she will not stand up for herself? How will she be able to stand up for the voters?

If a news story, column or comment derives from a woman's gender and the net effect is to make her "less than..." it must be addressed. According to "Name It, Change It," a study commissioned by the Women's Campaign Fund and Women's Media Center, it is necessary to identify the offense in order to change the practice.

Whether the conversation is between a candidate and a reporter, or a press conference demand for a wholesale change in editorial policy depends on the particulars. The point is: Women can't let sexism go. When voters hear the debate, they make fair judgments, but they can't be fair if they don't get the facts. Belittling press coverage is an opportunity for candidates to show how really big they are.

5. "Vote for me. We need more women" is not a winning appeal. Voters want to select the best person for the job. Asking them to make a judgment based on an immutable characteristic -- race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc. -- isn't making the best case. Accomplishment and character; vision, problem-solving and diligence rank high among qualities voters are looking for.

Recent research concludes that working together women and men get better results than teams of only one gender. There is more and more evidence that women in legislative bodies change the agenda, procedures, content and outcomes of policy debates. And there are other benefits of having women in office. In other words, women elected officials act differently and make a difference. But that is a conversation and message to be delivered by advocacy groups.

Winning candidates focus on what they can do for the people they hope to represent.
How they do that signals the kind of leader they will be. Some questions for candidates:

• What will you do to lighten their load? (Purposeful)
• How will you make government solutions work for everyone? (Knowledgeable)
• What are the specific, realistic changes you can make? (Practical)
• What have you done before that demonstrates you can do this now? (Accomplished)
• What can you share that communicates: "I am like you. I am for you?" (Connected)
• Will voters always be proud that they chose you? (Honorable)