My First Race: What I Learned as a First-Time Political Candidate

With the November 4 general election around the corner and recent articles detailing the low number of women running for office, stories like mine need to be told. I am a woman. I ran for office. I will run again.

The June 3rd primary election in California was a record-setter. It was the first top-two primary for a non-presidential election since California Proposition 14 passed in 2010. The State Senate District 26 race had gender parity: four women and four men ran for the seat representing west Los Angeles. Almost half of the candidates, including the top two vote getters, Ben Allen and Sandra Fluke, are under 40 years old. It was a crowded field and I was honored to have my seat at the debate table.

In February 2014, I decided to run for public office. With two elected officials, one former elected official, and one national celebrity in the race, why did I join the race? I knew that I had the skills and a unique voice for policy-making, as an attorney, a former law professor, a leader on nonprofit boards, a cancer survivor, a mother to a school-aged child, a child of an Army veteran, and a long-time resident of my community. Although I was ambitious, I knew that winning the race would be a long shot. As the new comer, I had very little political capital. A race for the state legislature is not a race for student council; not many individuals considered my first elected position as President of the Junior Future Business Leaders of America in 8th grade at Patch Barracks American High School in Stuttgart, Germany on the HQ-EUCOM military base. But clearly, I knew early on that I wanted a life in public service. Little did I know that it would take over 25 years before I would enter a race.

I was a stay-at-home mom for the first three years of my daughter's life and, like many women who think about entering politics, I had a relatively small war chest. As an attorney and graduate student who was concurrently completing my Masters in Public Policy and actively campaigning for State Senate, I scheduled my time to fundraise and attend meet-and-greets around client meetings, grad school finals, and playdates with my now six-year-old.

Too often, the media features stories about all the reasons (read: excuses) women do not run for office. As the candidate pool in District 26 grew from two confirmed candidates to nine (the ninth candidate did not eventually qualify), I decided to run - and to see my campaign through. I wanted to represent the voice of the many women who balance childrearing, career, marriage, and civic engagement. I ran to push into the public debate the issues that impact working families in my district, including the California Film/Television Tax Credit and Universal Preschool. I ran as a cancer survivor because I learned at age 34 that I shouldn't wait to fight for the things I care about.

I had high aspirations, but realistic expectations. Although I didn't place in the general, I did develop great relationships with community leaders across the political spectrum and learned valuable lessons about running as a female candidate in a competitive district.

  1. Expect old stereotypes to be pervasive, even among progressive candidates in a progressive area of the country. I was told by both men and women, unlike my male contemporaries who had not run for public office, that I should start small, like running for PTA or school board. I was asked whether or not my prior cancer diagnoses and treatment would impact my health going forward. One of the most liberal female candidates assumed I had brought my daughter to an event because I did not arrange for childcare. I was later informed that this concern was then shared to possible endorsers as a sign that I was distracted as a parent, instead of my intention -- to show my daughter first-hand what it means to run for office.
  2. You need serious financial capital and political capital to place in a crowded race. First-time candidates, female or male, need to dig deep into their pockets to amass the necessary financial capital to establish themselves as "serious" players. The most successful female candidate in my race put in over $100,000 of her own money to start and has received almost $50,000 of capital from her family.
  3. As a woman, don't rely on women's organizations to support you when many women are running. I was one of four women in this State Senate race; an embarrassment of riches. But the women's vote was divided and well-respected women political organizations, like the National Women's Political Caucus, California List, and Emily's List, did not endorse in the primary. Other women's organizations, including NOW, Planned Parenthood, & NARAL, endorsed different women in this race -- without including me in the interview process. The lesson? To be seriously considered by these types of organizations, you need financial capital. It doesn't matter if you have been a volunteer or a donor for over a decade or whether you sit on an organization's board. Money talks.
These lessons were hard pills to swallow, but there were also many bright spots to my campaign.
  • I found a community with other parents in my race and in other races across California, and watched as we juggled parenthood with our campaigns, trying to show our children that running for office isn't easy and requires sacrifice, but you still have to give it your all. As a mom running for office, I had to balance days with my daughter by my side while I shook hands at town halls. She worked on posters or made buttons in our campaign headquarters while I made calls. And, yes, there were nights when I missed bedtime stories and goodnight kisses, but those sacrifices pale in comparison to giving my daughter a first-hand look at how I am trying to make a difference in our community.
  • I learned that men can be feminists, too. Along with the four Democratic women, three Democratic men and one No Party Preference man ran for this seat. During public forums, the three Democratic men all supported the progressive idea of feminism as equality of the sexes, proffered policies to end the gender wage gap, and were appalled with the recent efforts to reduce access to women's reproductive health care. These men are allies in the fight for gender equality.
  • I also found a mentor in the process in one of my fellow candidates, who is a successful councilmember, former Mayor, and former school board member. Amy Howorth also happens to be a mom. When we first met, at the California Democratic Party Convention at the beginning of the race, she was more of a collaborator than a competitor. She introduced me to California Women LEAD and encouraged me to apply for state and local commissions, so that by my next race, I have political capital to contribute to the process. In addition to her mentorship, I am becoming more involved in a leadership capacity with organizations like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to increase gender balance in film/television for our children and EmergeCA to increase the number of women running for public office.

I will run again. But next time, I will run with a bigger war chest and more time to garner political support. I hope my experience serves as an example for moms to see that it is possible to have your voice heard and balance your toughest job with one that might also make a difference for so many.

These comments are an excerpt from a presentation given at The F-Word Event on July 29, 2014, hosted by Asha Dahya, founder of Girl Talk HQ, and Sarah Moshman, producer of The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things.