(WOMENSENEWS)–Norma Chavez had just found her desk as a freshman member of the Texas state legislature, when an appeal crossed her desk from La Mujer Obrera. The workers’ rights group she’d known for years was seeking help for displaced women workers, laid off from closed garment factories. The group claimed their members were facing discrimination from the temporary employment agencies, the new hiring halls in El Paso, under the guise of educational requirements.
That was back in 1997 and Chavez sponsored a bill to prohibit firms from requiring a Graduate Equivalency Degree for manual labor and saw it passed.
“That’s why I ran!” says Chavez, a self-described “community-based legislator.” And in her third term she keeps working for the community.
Rebecca Goff, a young attorney in New Jersey’s conservative Somerset County, gave up her dreams of elective office after her husband died in the middle of her 1999 campaign. Then she found out who else was running–a deeply anti-choice county legislator. “He succeeded in cutting all funding to Planned Parenthood,” she said.
It was, then that she knew she had to run again. This time around, she’s doing it with some help from Yale’s Campaign School for Women and from the Center for American Women and Politics and its program called what Rebecca now feels: “Ready to Run.”
All over the country and in both parties, advocates are working hard to help capable pro-choice women defy male-dominated party establishments and achieve elective office. They’re already answering the question posed by Mary Hawkesworth, director of the American Institute for Women and Politics. “Will this serve as a wake-up call to get women to come forward: to vote for women and to run themselves?”
Roselyn O’Connell, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, says what’s most important is for women to run in state and local races. “We don’t have enough women running for city council, city commissioner. … It’s important for women to start thinking of themselves in the political arena.”
Bypassing the Boys in the Back Room, Women Tap Grassroots Base
With the “back rooms” dominated by largely male party establishments, women like Chavez are finding it necessary to work from a larger, grassroots political base. They argue that this makes them more responsive as legislators.
Chavez was elected after a career as an organizer with the United Farm Workers and wide-ranging experience with a network of largely Hispanic family-owned businesses. “The Democratic Party in El Paso is a male-dominated club,” she said in an interview. “They kept saying ‘Norma, you’re not ready.’ They didn’t know how much of a base we had!”
Once she won her election, Chavez attended a “boot camp” for newly elected legislators, run by the National Association of Latino/a Elected Officials, known as NALEO. “That was the only mentoring I got before the legislative sessions. It was so empowering, Latino and Latina elected officials from across the country because we become the elected leadership of a community.”
Strengthening grassroots bases of support is also the emphasis of Oakland, Calif.,-based Black Women Organized for Political Action. They have formed a coalition with a wide range of African-American women’s social and professional organizations to engage them in the political process. They’ve also set up a training institute for leadership enrichment, for nitty-gritty campaign skills.
Republican women’s initiatives draw on the resources of local donors to design year-long training programs for women considering becoming candidates. These include the Lugar Series in Indiana, named for Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the Lincoln Series in Illinois and the Whitman Series in New Jersey, named for former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, now head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Classes in Political Table Manners, Dress, TV Makeup, Speech Making
“We work with anything from correct political table manners to dress and makeup for TV,” says Mary Lou Crane, director of the Lincoln Initiative. “Of course, skills in fund raising are important. And there’s also a day and a half of speech coaching.”
The coaching covers the basics, such as the importance of eye contact and not swiveling one’s head in the middle of a sentence as well as how to speak assertively without coming off aggressive or brassy. “You know how it is, men are seen as energetic, women aggressive,” Crane says.
The Lincoln Series, one of the longest running such initiatives, has managed to prevent a loss of women’s representation in Illinois, despite term limits. Its most famous graduate is from the class of 1996: Corrine Wood, now lieutenant governor of Illinois.
The Republican pro-choice WISH List is now drawing up plans for its own campaign training schools.
“Those others don’t address the issue of choice, but we will,” says WISH director Karen Raye. “You know, how do you address the issue of choice and address it in a 30-second sound bite, so it doesn’t hurt you?”
Pro-choice women like Chavez and Goff are needed more than ever in state legislatures, political observers say. This year, women’s representation in state legislatures has declined for the first time and the new administration is inclined to defer ever more to the states in the areas of choice, violence against women, affirmative action and hate crimes against lesbian, gay and transgender people.
Growing Anti-Choice Trend in Statehouses, Only Six States Fully Pro-Choice
“The fall 2000 elections reflect the checkerboard quality of our lives,” said David Elliott of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “In New York, you have hate crimes laws and domestic partnership–and neither of them in Maine.” He added, “It’s just as true for women and reproductive choice.”
NARAL, the national political arm of the reproductive rights movement, has just issued its annual report on state legislatures, “Who Decides?” It documents an accelerating anti-choice trend since last year, with only six legislatures rated fully pro-choice: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The rest of the states have passed limits on women’s reproductive choice, such as parental consent laws or bans on so-called “partial birth” abortion.
Norma Chavez emphasizes that male party establishments “don’t take us seriously until we win.” She finds the fund-raising training offered by groups especially important, given the inherent inequity even in donations to elected officials. “What happens is: a male candidate gets $500, then the woman gets $250. Even lobbyists and business leaders don’t invest as much in women.”
Rebecca Goff doesn’t underestimate the barriers. “I live in a very conservative area, and 90 percent of the people I talk to don’t know what the state assembly is,” she says.
She is not daunted, however. When she quit two years ago, she knew that New Jersey’s Democrats were unwilling to support her campaign enough to defeat her opponent, but she has now rethought her analysis. “Even when I wasn’t campaigning, I got 12,000 votes,” she says now. “Just wait till I hit the streets, this time around!”
Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer in New York, writing about women, politics and international human rights.