BUFFALO, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Bea Gonzalez never planned to be a politician.
The long time Syracuse University administrator was handed a surprise appointment to the Syracuse School Board after a board member retired. That was in the summer of 1991 after she had paid her dues through years of parent activism within her son’s district.
She handily won re-election the following November, becoming the first Latina elected to such a post in Syracuse. But it wasn’t long before the balance between devoted parent and political career shifted out of whack.
“My son Nick was an ‘ok’ student, but I saw his grades faltering because of the lack of attention. The school board took up a fair amount of time,” Gonzalez remembers. She bowed out of public life for a while but re-entered four years ago, when her son entered university.
With the encouragement of Democrats, she ran for president of the Syracuse Common Council and won 54 percent of the vote. The campaign was easy she says, because the opponents were so different. It wasn’t so much an issue difference as a persona one – Bea was new to politics, a woman known to be a devoted parent activist in the community, while her opponent was a long-time politician. People wanted change.
But that was then and this is now. This coming November, she’s facing Otis Jennings. An African-American who has similar political views as hers, Jennings is a motivational speaker by profession and has already adopted aggressive campaign moves.
So now, almost 15 years after stumbling into political life, the 50-year-old Syracuse Common Council president has opted to take formal campaign training offered by women’s groups just in time for a November re-election campaign.
“Honestly, I’ve been more lucky than anything. I never had a real campaign structure but now the stakes are higher,” says Gonzalez.
Trained to win, Gonzalez, in the three weeks since, has written 110 letters to union members asking for support, engaged her closest friends and colleagues in her campaign, and begun planning public fundraising events.
She is determined for a reason. Of particular concern to Gonzalez is improving the status of minority communities in the Syracuse area. On top of having the second highest level of poverty among Latinos in the country, Syracuse–alongside Buffalo–has the highest high school dropout rate for all students in New York. Among Syracuse Latinos the dropout rate is a staggering 82 percent.
During Gonzalez’s tenure the Council increased aid to schools by 20 percent, presided over the induction of Syracuse’s most diverse batch of police and fire department recruits to date and helped introduce a joint school construction project worth $600 million over the next 10 years.
“I want to continue being the voice at the table that asks the sensitive questions, pushing the non-trendy issues and solidify the changes we’ve previously implemented,” she says.
To do that, Gonzalez realized, meant acquiring the kind of political campaign savvy that few women have in what remains an aspect of American life still overwhelmingly dominated by men.
The proportion of women in state legislatures has changed little in recent years, from 21 percent in 1996 to 23 percent in 2004. Sixteen percent of state governors are females. At the national level, women make up 13 percent of the Senate and 14 percent of the House of Representatives.
Of the 11,744 people elected to serve in Congress in American history, 233 have been women.
“We get into politics because we want to try and fix things, and there is always something that needs to be fixed,” says Gonzalez. “But even after all this time, I still lacked the basic campaign skills to battle this challenge.”
Gonzalez turned to a program offered by Washington, D.C.-based Emily’s List, set up in 1985 as a political resource for Democratic women, and The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy, a non-profit group raising funds for female candidates in New York State.
She joined 35 other women at a training held in Buffalo in June.
Strong Growth Since 2001
Emily’s List, in collaboration with state partners, began the campaign trainings in 2001 running a handful across the entire country. As of this year, the group has run 79 trainings involving 3,000 participants from New York to Iowa, New Mexico, and Florida.
“The response has been positively inspiring,” says Bob Kearney, national director of Emily’s List’s Political Opportunity Program. “For every training we run, there are requests for three more.”
Other groups, like Vote, Run, Lead, an initiative of the White House Project, are also running similar programs. Nevertheless, the need is far from met.
“There simply are not enough resources out there for women, not enough trainings, campaign grants,” said Brette McSweeney, programs coordinator for New York-based Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy. “At the same time, there is no doubt, women are ready to push the barriers and there are voters out there ready to vote them in.”
Telephone Trees and Persuasion Mailings
Sessions focus on the basic mechanics of making voter contact, such as setting up door-to-door canvassing efforts and telephone trees for volunteers to call supporters. From there it advances to fund-raising, working with news media and preparing “persuasion” mailings.
Like any good marketing campaign, persuasion mailings take into account the projected mailing list and incentives–such as like lower taxes, better school systems–to support the candidate, delivered in an attractive manner that will catch voters’ attention. Persuasion mail can also be negative and directed at shortcomings or policy stands of other candidates.
Women leave the session trained to distinguish a campaign slogan from a message. While a slogan is, hopefully, a memorable catchy phrase or short sentence, a message is a more detailed, sometimes a paragraph-long, description of a candidate’s goals for her term of office.
They learn the importance of producing a message that taps into voters’ mindset by carefully studying voting trends and opinion polls data. Participants go through five-pages of hands-on worksheets designed to help them craft a message, including definition of a campaign message, components, dos and don’ts, and how to synthesize information.
The message is not to be a list of individual achievements. Nor is it a dissertation on the wrongs of the world they plan to right.
A good message, they learn, is a short, tight statement of goals for the office that they seek that differentiates them from their opponent.
Gonzalez and four other participants followed the training with a networking meeting among themselves to develop key points and message prompt cards for their individual campaigns. While Gonzalez is still fine tuning her message, she’s already adopted her slogan: “Serving by listening to you.”
“We’re helping give them the skills to run and win,” said McSweeney from Eleanor’s Legacy. Out of the 340 women in New York that have gotten the trainings sponsored by the organization, 156 have gone on to win their election.
Talk About Barriers
The training also offers discussions on some of the barriers women face in deciding to step forward into political life. Prime among them is the conflict that Gonzalez faced, between work and family.
“Being a candidate takes away from personal time, costs money, and in bigger races might even mean quitting ones’ present job, and for women – especially those with children, can present daunting barriers,” said McSweeney.
McSweeney said another barrier is the special dose of pep that women need to go after jobs for which the competition is mostly male.
“Women do not tend to self-select as much as men, in part because we grow up with ingrained gender roles, and women need to be encouraged,” McSweeney said.
For many women running for office, fund-raising is the biggest hurdle, one that Gonzalez is now believes she is ready to confront.
“My biggest fear had always being asking people for money,” she admits. “The training gave me the tools, and with them the confidence, to go out and there and do it.”
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia.
For more information:
Center for American Women and Politics:
The White House Project–
Advancing Women’s Leadership: