A Conversation with Mini Timmaraju, National Women's Vote Director of Hillary for America

11/05/2016 09:04 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2016
<em>From right: Mini Timmaraju, her mom Chaya, and Hillary Clinton</em>
From right: Mini Timmaraju, her mom Chaya, and Hillary Clinton

No matter where you stand on the political spectrum or the outcome of the election on Tuesday, there’s no denying that this campaign represents a historic milestone in our nation’s history as we mark the first time we have had a female presidential nominee of a major political party on the ballot. As such, there will be many valuable takeaways from Hillary’s campaign about what dynamics emerge when a woman runs for president, what role gender plays in a campaign, and how we perceive women leaders. (I explored some of these dynamics in my book of interviews, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power, which came out before Secretary Clinton announced her second run and had many reflections about lessons learned from her 2008 campaign.) All of these insights and lessons will surely affect the campaigns of female candidates in the future. With that type of learning in mind, I decided to reach out to a woman who has been in the front seat of this campaign when it comes to outreach to women and representing a female presidential candidate, Mini Timmaraju, National Women's Vote Director of Hillary for America, to get her important thoughts and perspective on how gender has factored into this campaign.

Everyone has been talking about the pivotal role women have played in this heated and turbulent presidential election. According to polls, Clinton holds a decisive 20-percentage-point lead over Trump with women, which speaks to the important contributions Timmaraju has made to galvanize and activate women voters. Timmaraju and her team have been a vital force in the presidential campaign, in her work forming diverse coalitions and engaging women voters, female elected officials, and national women’s groups, as well as building volunteer networks across the country.

A longtime political activist and lawyer by training, Timmaraju has held prior leadership positions with Planned Parenthood, the US House of Representatives, and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, all of which she says provided a range of skills and experience that helped inform her current role and responsibilities.

In the following interview, she shares her wisdom and insights as we discuss a range of topics around this unpredictable and often shocking campaign season, including some of the most exciting moments of Hillary’s campaign, what it would mean to women of the younger as well as older generations to have a woman in the White House, and how she feels about being an integral part of this moment in history to help elect our first female president.

Marianne Schnall: Just to get a sense of your background, what first inspired you to take on this position and be a part of this campaign?

Mini Timmaraju: I’ve spent most of my career in and out of the women’s space. Early on, during and after law school, I worked in the domestic violence movement, and then later in my political career, I spent about five years working for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and running Planned Parenthood’s PAC and C4 in Houston, Texas. And it’s given me insight into the nexus between women’s rights, the law, public policy and politics. I graduated from law school in a state where you elected your judges, and it was an immediate lesson that elections have consequences. I was part of a team representing low-income women in these pretty tough situations, and we could tell—if it was in a county with very conservative judges—our clients had specific outcomes that you could predict. That was an early lesson that political engagement is going to be important if you want to be an advocate for women and girls and children.

So that was part of my interest a long time ago in the late nineties, and I’ve always been an admirer of Hillary. I was in college when I first started paying attention to her when she gave her famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech. It was definitely one of those moments for a lot of young feminists of that time like, oh, this is fascinating that this first lady is able to take this aggressive political stance. I‘ll also confess that my mother is a big influence on my feminism and my politics, and there’s not a bigger Hillary Clinton fan. And in 2008, she was so heartbroken about the outcome of the election. Watching the election through my mother’s eyes was really eye opening for me. I saw that this meant something very significant to women of her generation.

This time around when I had the chance to talk to the campaign, it was a no-brainer. We’ve had eight incredible years under Barack Obama as president, and I don’t think there’s anyone better suited to carry on his legacy than Hillary Clinton. But also, my own background, my own evolution as a young feminist, in the nineties to a little bit more seasoned feminist in my forties, I feel the urgency more than ever to elect the first woman president. For me when I got the opportunity this time, I felt like I have to do this no matter what.

MS: I know you have had this very distinguished 20-year career, and I remember you talking when you were on my Women's Leadership panel, about moving back and forth from all these various sectors, in and out of politics and government and then non-profits and you are also a lawyer by training. How did your wide-range of experience and background guide your approach to organizing, coalition building and engagement?

MT: The campaign has really been exceptional in recruiting very diverse talent, not just in terms of ethnicity, but also socioeconomic, political, professional experience, so I have colleagues who come from a more activist perspective, and I have other colleagues that come from a government perspective. I think my diverse background has been really useful in the women’s space because one thing with the women’s space is it’s so broad. What I like about the way the campaign approached this is we weren’t just approaching women as one monolithic groups; we created a coalition of women’s organizations and women leaders that allowed us to take advantage of the diversity of women who support Hillary Clinton.

I think the fact that I’ve been able to work—but I also was pretty deeply steeped in the activist space—I understand how women in government and business think from prior roles, and that has allowed me to be a good intermediary between those different groups of women.

I’ve also spent a significant part of my career working with communities of color, and I think it’s really interesting: intersectionality is a huge thing in the feminist movement right now but also in the way the women’s movement organizes itself. I think Hilary Clinton gets this more than anybody. She’s been working with communities of color her entire career—her mentors are women of color, Marian Wright Edelman, the women she surrounds herself with, like Donna Brazile, Maggie Williams, Minyon Moore are women of color—and she gets this work intrinsically.

MS: That is so critical. I have definitely been struck by how much more “women’s issues” have been up front and center this time around than in 2008. I was thinking back to one of the most iconic moments after Donald Trump accused Secretary Clinton of “playing the woman card” and her response, which of course went viral, was, “If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman’s card, then deal me in.” That was such a perfect response and throughout the campaign, she has seemed so comfortable with no apologies, talking about “women’s issues,” because as you said at my panel, these issues like equal pay and paid family leave are issues that are economic drivers that affect us all. Do you think that there has been some progress that these issues were so much more visible and that playing the “woman card” is not only seen as positive but actually essential?

MT: You know, her entire career she has fought for these same issues and they didn’t get the same amount of attention. I think if we look back at the 2008 race, she was talking about the same issues. I just read a piece Liz Plank wrote in Vox, where she said this isn’t really an election about women; it is still an election about men! It’s just an interesting observation. I think that what’s been more exacerbated this cycle has been the attacks from the right on her for pushing so-called “women’s issues” and her response, and as a result, I think that we’re seeing stronger, more active women’s political engagement from organizations and leaders in this cycle.

When she did the “woman card” and the “deal me in,” it was because she got attacked twice—first by Mitch McConnell, and then later by Donald Trump. Our incredibly smart campaign team on the digital side, came up with the actual “woman card,” and it blew up—I mean, the response to it was huge! Everywhere I go across the country, if I ask women if they have a woman card, they whip it right out of their wallet. It’s been exciting and fun to watch, and everywhere the Secretary goes, she talks about that “woman card” moment. Women in the audience will shout, “Deal me in!” at her—like a call and response you would see at a concert or a rallying cry.

But I think a lot of this came about because of the way the GOP has responded to these issues. I think there’s been rising political power of women, thanks to groups like EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, NARAL. You know, we’ve elected more women to office, we’re going to have a record-setting year of women in the Senate this time, we’ve got more women of color being elected to office, and I think you’re seeing a rising strength of women at the ballot box, but also women in politics. And I think it’s been transformative and it’s empowered and emboldened our supporters but also frustrated and created an anxiety within the leaders on the other side of the aisle.

I think this anxiety is manifested in the constant attacks on Secretary Clinton and her women supporters and that has ratcheted up this cycle to a level we’ve never seen before. It’s beyond Donald Trump’s appalling behavior toward women, and it’s now entrenched in the GOPs appalling behavior towards women, characterized, for example, by the aggressiveness in 2008 on efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and to roll back access to reproductive rights. All of these attacks need to be seen contextually together. I don’t think you can separate one catch phrase from a campaign from the overall attack on women in this country and the surge and support from women.

MS: I have been thinking about this kind of unsettling juxtaposition of this historic milestone for women, and then all of the stuff that has been unearthed in these past few weeks—all these disturbing comments and attitudes toward women and charges of sexual assault, and threats to rollback reproductive rights—and what that says about the overall status of women and how it is connected. I think that is a point of reflection for sure.

MT: Remember Claire McCaskill and Todd Aiken and the “legitimate rape” incident. I think all of these moments were key to informing the way we now think about “women’s issues.” I think it’s so critically important and smart that Hillary Clinton herself refuses to concede that they’re just women’s issues. She really believes that these are America’s issues and that we as a nation can make that transformative next step to elect the first woman president. But at the same time, that’s threatening to the GOP and the extreme right.

MS: On the flipside, are you surprised that there hasn’t been more excitement and awareness of the historic nature of her candidacy as we approach the prospect of breaking through this ultimate glass ceiling? Has that been a delicate dance to do, so that it’s not just “vote for Hillary because she’d be the first female president,” but at the same time this is an amazing opportunity when you have somebody as qualified and prepared as she is to break that barrier.

MT: So that’s interesting—this was a much more frequent question in the primary than the general. But I think because of my unique role in the campaign, I have never—I am not naïve, I know that there’s been a lot of reporting that people aren’t excited—but I have never seen this. I’ve only seen excitement from women’s supporters about the prospect of a first woman president. In the past two months I have been to about 10 to 11 states, and in the primaries I had been to 6 or 7—wherever I go and talk to women or undecided voters, there is an emotional reaction and a very palpable excitement and enthusiasm about electing the first woman president. And as we are getting closer and closer and closer to the election, people are emailing me their photograph with their “I voted” sticker.

We just had a conference call on Friday with women leaders and Stephanie Schriock, the head of EMILY’s List, was on the call. She was talking about her grandmother who was in Iowa, who was born before women had the right to vote, voting for the first woman president, and several people emailed me and said, “I started crying when Stephanie was talking about her grandmother.” I mean, we have these series of videos we put together, of women who were born before they had the right to vote, and it’s very emotional. I think that there’s a lot of misrepresentation that we don’t have enthusiasm on our side, but think of it this way: what an incredibly long and grueling election cycle this has been, and if we did not have enthusiasm on our side, we would not have filled – I was just reading Robby Mook’s campaign memo to our volunteers - I believe we filled seventy thousand volunteer shifts this past weekend. That’s more than President Obama did on similar a weekend in 2008 and 2012. So it’s like, I know that there’s a feeling that there’s a narrative out there that there’s no excitement around this, but that’s not what we’re seeing. That’s not what I see.

MS: Trump’s offensive comments have triggered a lot of women to come forward with their stories of sexual assault, whether specifically by Trump or all of the countless women on the Internet opening up with their own personal stories reminding us of how pervasive this problem is. His comments uncovered this whole “locker room talk” conversation, which I know is so connected to issues that Secretary Clinton has worked on for many years, for example, consent on college campuses. I think this serves to remind us how important it is that we elect a president who is going to have policies and plans to create awareness and take action on issues like sexual assault.

MT: Completely. When she rolled out that policy last year in the primary, it was because she was visiting college campuses and she was hearing these horrible stories. It wasn’t any intention in her mind that, “I’m going to be working against a candidate who himself has been accused of sexual assault!” But that’s a great example. I’ve been in multiple states since the third debate with Donald Trump and the “nasty woman” comment, and this has been one of the most fascinating things…. Like when people say there’s no energy, there is no enthusiasm—everywhere I go, I see women with their own self-made nasty woman T-shirt or nasty woman button or nasty woman meme or on their Facebook. It just took off virally. It’s the definition of excitement and enthusiasm. Spotify said there were 250 percent more streams of Janet Jackson’s song “Nasty”! [laughs]

I don’t think it would be so transformative if he wasn’t tapping into the work that you do, and that many of your colleagues have been doing for so long, which is making sure women feel empowered. The reason this is all flipping on its head the way it is, is because feminists and others have been building this movement for so long. Women feel empowered to say no or to re-appropriate terms that are terms that are supposed to be derogatory and say “Sure, if that’s what a nasty woman is, I’m a nasty woman too, and I’m going to vote for her.” That’s been really fun to watch—that out of all this darkness, something really kind of fun and exciting has happened, which is that women are taking back their power, and saying no, we’re not going to let you define us. We’re not going to let you define her either, which has been awesome. It’s really exciting.

MS: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think it’s waking up and energizing women. I remember when Donald Trump said that comment about how Secretary Clinton didn’t have “a presidential look.” And of course in the interviews in my book What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? about the obstacles to women’s leadership, there was a lot of conversation about unconscious biases we have toward female leaders. How aware has Secretary Clinton had to be about the kind of biases and scrutiny there are toward women leaders, for example, this line between showing she’s tough enough to be commander-in-chief, yet also perceived as likable—all of these comments that she has weathered about her not smiling or her shouting, which are obviously not applied to her male counterparts. Is there a conscious effort to be aware of those perceptions, or is it just something that at this point she doesn’t worry about?

MT: You know, if there is a consciousness about that, I am not aware of it. I think she’s been doing this for so long and navigating that line for so long. And if anything now, our society has sort of caught up with her, you know? I think, like what, 8 years ago when she was in the Senate, people were like why does she wear so many pantsuits? And now there’s a pantsuit parade in Manhattan that went to Brooklyn in front of our office where people are celebrating the pantsuit! I mean, I think we’ve caught up to her. I think she’s the original revolutionary and we finally figured it out.

MS: What lessons have you learned from this campaign that you think have been useful about engaging women and also about representing a female candidate that could help inform future campaigns? Obviously we are hoping to have more women presidents and more women in all positions of political leadership.

MT: You know, this felt like the longest primary ever, but in the end, because we had such a robust primary with such a thoughtful and skilled opponent, we were so much more ready for this general election. For example, just the infrastructure we’ve been able to build in all these states, we’ve got an incredibly smart and strategic team that is always thinking about next steps, building the campaign infrastructure—which is like majority based on volunteers—so I think that while it was exhausting for a lot of our supporters that worked on our primary, we’re sharper and better and stronger. So I think one lesson learned is continuing to keep volunteer recruitment and engagement. I mean, most of my job has been volunteer engagement and recruitment and working with our groups to make sure their volunteers and their supporters are plugged into our operation, and I don’t think they can ever start that too early. It’s got to be a 24/7 campaign, it can’t just be on on-years, it has to be on off-years, right?

And I think this campaign has built something really special, the way President Obama did with millennials and communities of color. We’ve done an amazing job with doing that with women and there’s something there, particularly in outreach to women who are hard to reach. And also, a slight historical fact, we’ll see how it plays out on November 8, we’re pulling ahead with white women, like college educated white women, that went to Mitt Romney in 2012. It will be by continuing to build a coalition between college educated, republican women, progressive women and women of color, then we will really be able to build a movement that’s going to be able to pass equal pay, paid family leave, and stop rolling back restrictions on access to healthcare.

And I think women get that. As the secretary said, we are the ones who roll up our sleeves, we get to work every day on new things, but how do we make it more continuous? I think people are ready for that.

MS: I definitely think there will be a lot that we can take away and learn from. You probably remember that my book was inspired by then 8-year-old daughter Lotus asking why we never had a woman president. And actually while I was writing down questions for this interview, she was reading a biography of Susan B. Anthony—it wasn’t so long ago women didn’t even have the right to vote. Do you ever stop and feel the enormous significance of this moment and milestone? You were talking earlier about the huge significance that this candidacy and campaign has had for older generations of women, but in terms of inspiring young girls, I remember you talking during the panel about how even fathers were so grateful for this transformative opportunity. Do you ever stop and feel the significance of this campaign, and was that as sort of this additional opportunity and responsibility, getting all these letters from these young girls and just taking in the symbolism?

MT: Yeah, so there are actually a couple of people on our team in Brooklyn who have been collecting the letters and just making sure the secretary gets to see them. There’s sort of a subgroup of campaign staff, including myself, who are really into reading these letters from young girls. And I think you may have seen, we actually cut an ad during the primary of “44 Boys is Too Many”—little girls reading letters to Hillary Clinton. And wherever we go, there’s always a couple of little girls in the campaign office who are knocking doors and making calls because they are super fans of Hillary.

MS: How you hope this time in history is remembered?

MT: I want it to be remembered as an empowering, exciting, positive time for women and the women’s movement. We’re not going to win because Donald Trump is a complete disaster. We’re going to win because the coalition of Americans stood up to that but also coalesced around a really amazing, brilliant leader, Hillary Clinton, who’s the most qualified person to ever run for president, even according to Barack Obama. That when we get past November 8th, we’re going to move forward, and she’s got a remarkable talent of working across the aisle and then bringing people together. I’m hopeful that that’s what folks will remember looking back.

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Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, CNN.com, AOL Build, the Women’s Media Center and The Huffington Post. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women’s website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice and What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.

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