(WOMENSENEWS)–I had lost the Governor’s race just a few weeks earlier and was reacquainting myself with the art of driving alone. As I headed to a meeting in the North Country, I stopped at a small corner store in Woodsville, New Hampshire.
Woodsville is a struggling rural community whose claims to fame include Al “I am in control here” Haig once acting as the Parade Marshall for their big Fourth of July celebration, and the Barge Inn, a favorite eating establishment that hosts a monthly meeting of “The Good Ol’ Boys.”
I had just grabbed a coffee and sandwich when a guy standing by the meat counter, sporting a hunter orange vest over his Perry Oil Service work shirt, looked up and blurted out: You Arnesen?
Yes sir, I am.
Well there is somethin’ you need to know.
You’re the first broad I ever voted for.
I immediately went over and gave him a hug.
Honored to be your first.
‘I Had Won’
I could hardly contain myself for the rest of the ride to Colebrook. I had won! I had won! I had convinced this conservative, sexist, North Country guy to take a risk . . . to trust me with his state, his taxes and his future. I knew my quixotic campaign had gotten more votes than any other Democrat had ever received running for governor, but those numbers were nameless, faceless things . . .this was huge.
This liberal democratic “broad” who had preached tax fairness and education equity for nearly two years to anyone who would listen, had been heard by an oil furnace repairman from Woodsville . . . eat your heart out Al Haig. Being the first woman to run for statewide office in 1992 had more than its share of amazing moments, but it also carried with it a gnawing fear not shared by my male competition. How I performed on the campaign trail and, of course, if I lost, could cast a shadow on women candidates for years to come. My Woodsville guy had confirmed: candidate Arnie had lost, not female Arnesen.
There are thousands of practical reasons not to run. You could lose. You have to establish your career. You have family responsibilities. You are not rich, so how the hell are you going to raise the requisite cash. It is too soon. There is another woman already running . . . I can’t possibly run against her. There are so many other more qualified people out there . . . you know like a party chairman or a congressman. And the reasons go on and on . . . by the time you are done making up the impressive list of WHY NOTS? you have convinced yourself that you should have pursued a career in litigation.
Having said that, I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t weigh your experience, determine your unique qualities, know your issues and evaluate the competition. Naivete is charming, but highly overrated.
Running means that, from the get go, you must fully appreciate that politics is a very public business. You must be willing to embrace risk, come to terms with your own personal failures and be prepared to test your theories and your communication skills. But, perhaps, hardest to grasp, is that the running itself is part of a continuum. It is not only about the electoral success of the moment. Effective campaigns lay the foundation for future wins, even if it is not your own.
‘That Regular Woman Problem’
I know. Four years after I ran for governor, the second woman to run found a very different political environment. No one asked her if she ever held a job. No one asked her who would care for her children. No one came up to her after a Rotary speech and told her, that despite her outstanding knowledge of the economic challenges facing his state, he could not vote for her because of “that woman problem . . . you know that regular woman problem.” No one tried to make her cry. And the rumor mill didn’t massage the theory that this woman must be gay because what other kind of female would challenge the male dominated political field.
No, four years later the second woman ran a smart, focused political campaign and won. Being female was not perceived to be a liability. I happened to be sitting up in the legislative balcony on the day of her swearing in.
A political writer for the most conservative paper in the state was sitting next to me during the history-making ceremony. I remember thinking that, no matter what happened, I should not emote. At the end of the ceremony he quietly turned and asked me how hard it was to watch her take the oath of office. As I held back the tears I admitted that it was harder than I thought . . . but I had come to accept the fact that politics is like life . . . some of us get to open doors and others get the chance to walk through them.
Losing is a bitch. Trust me. I have done it more than once. But on the way to loss you have thousands of small, remarkable wins . . . wins that inspire you, change voters, touch lives and build new networks for future campaigns.
I wish I could end with the story of winning and the amazing opportunity it presented to effect change and redirect priorities. But I can’t. My fate, like most women that run, follows the losing path. Losing well, however, has its virtue.
A week after the election I read the following in my local paper–the paper, by the way, that had the toughest time imagining that the young state representative, who had begun her career by breastfeeding her 5 week old baby on the floor of the House and lived in a remote part of the state where you had to travel 15 miles to experience a traffic light, could take on the party chairman and the five term congressman, beat them in the largest primary turnout in state history and then go on to give the smooth talking Attorney General a run for his money:
Here’s an except from an editorial in the Valley News from November 10, 1992.
“. . . And in stark contrast to the many voters who express revulsion toward politics and politicians, it was interesting to learn that Arnesen’s campaign not only earned her votes but moved and inspired voters. People wanted to touch her, clap her on the back or simply connect with her; they wanted Arnesen to know that her campaign was important to their state and their lives.”
Who can be cynical about a process that, when properly practiced, allows people to express hope.
Arnie Arnesen is the host of her own, nationally-syndicated radio talk show, “The Arnie Arnesen Show” as well as her own TV political talk show, “Capital Ideas” on the independent television station in New England (WNDS). She has served as a New Hampshire elected official and community activist for over 15 years. In 1996, she was a Democratic candidate for congress from New Hampshire’s second district. In 1992, she was the first woman to be nominated by a major party to run for governor of New Hampshire and she garnered more votes in this race than any other Democratic candidate in state history. Prior to her gubernatorial bid, she was a four-term New Hampshire state representative and has served on the boards of Common Cause, Leadership New Hampshire, and the New Hampshire Sierra Club.
For more information about the women who won–and lost–on Nov. 2, go to:
Decision 2004: Our Candidates, Our Choice: