Donald Trump has motivated women to consider throwing their hats in the ring to run for public office in Connecticut — though not necessarily on his side of the aisle.
Twenty women and two men showed up in the conference room of mActivity Fitness Center on Nicoll Street Wednesday night to consider pursuing that quest, at the urging of a new statewide organization called Emerge Connecticut, an affiliate of a national group called Emerge America.
The constant controversies swirling around the president, including his son’s email concerning Russian interference with last fall’s elections, troubled New Haven resident Stacey Fraoili. “I just wonder what is the breaking point? What scares me is we’re starting to get used to this — what is becoming the new normal?” said the 32-year-old donor relations manager.
Following the Jan. 21, 2017 Women’s March, Fraolili began looking for opportunities to get involved in politics in Connecticut, contemplating running for public office. Listening to The Ezra Klein Show podcast, she learned about Emerge America and was impressed by the organization and the training it provides. She came to her first meeting on Wednesday night at mActivity.
Emerge America recruits and trains Democratic women to run for political office at federal, state and local levels. Now, the organization is officially establishing an affiliate in Connecticut, as state organizers have raised the threshold amount of $30,000. This money will go towards the first few months of salary for Emerge Connecticut’s executive director and operating costs.
“You should run for office!” “No, you should run for office!”: Laila Mohib, the Emerge America expansion director from Washington D.C. repeated this all-too-common conversation between women when asked to enter politics. She told the audience that a woman must be asked on average seven times before she will run for office, and a woman of color requires more than double that number.
“Research shows that women are more collaborative. They sponsor and cosponsor more legislation. They bring home more money to their districts, and they’re more trusted by voters,” said the organization’s co-founder Marya Stark, in a recent interview with WNHH radio. She added that research shows more diverse bodies reach better decisions.
Yet women are more likely to question their qualifications. Citing research by the director of the Women & Politics Institute, Jennifer Lawless, Mohib noted that women are less likely to have ambition to run for public office or to be recruited to run. The gap between men’s and women’s interest in running for office remains the same as it was 10 years ago. Emerge cites the statistic that the U.S. ranks 100th internationally in terms of women’s representation in government, with women holding less than 20 percent of elected offices. Mohib came to New Haven to urge women to run for office and to join the Emerge network.
In a separate telephone conversation, New Haven Republican Party Chair Jonathan Wharton said he was unfamiliar with Emerge’s program but thought it sounded interesting.
“Any initiative there is to get more candidates in office, more voters to vote, I’m clearly in support of, and clearly women are underrepresented. That’s no secret,” he said.
Wharton, who said he did not support or vote for Trump, nonetheless said he remains a firm believer in certain traditionally Republican positions, such as less government and a more Libertarian approach to social policy. He also said he believes in and supports a competitive electoral process. He noted in the November 2017 New Haven municipal elections, there will likely be three Republican candidates, two for the Board of Alders and one female candidate for the board of education. The party’s official nomination meeting is scheduled for July 20.
“We are super partisan, and I sleep just fine at night,” said Mohib with a smile. As a 527 non-profit organization, Emerge has tax-exempt status as a political committee which influences elections and policy debates but does not explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates. It provides 70 hours of training to prepare women to run for office, to give them the confidence, skills and a network of support needed for a successful campaign. “We don’t have a litmus test outside of being a Democrat,” said Mohib. The program does not endorse candidates or train on issue advocacy. The organization aspires to be active in all 50 states, and is currently established in 21 states, with affiliate chapters in the pipeline in six states. When Emerge’s redesigned website is launched later this summer, all new state affiliates including Emerge Connecticut will have their own pages.
In building its programs, Emerge is state-based, responsive to local nuances, demographics and differences. Mohib held similar meetings earlier in the week in Bridgeport, Storrs and New London, and plans to host additional sessions in Danbury and New Britain on Friday.
Even with differences tailored to the separate states, the curriculum covers general topics such as campaigning, public speaking, diversity, the media and fundraising. Allison Molkenthin, the chair of the Emerge Connecticut organizing committee, summed up the programs by saying, “We’re about the nuts and bolts, teaching women what it really takes to run.”
Emalee Thitthavong, a communications consultant who lives in Fairfield, referred to Emerge as an inspiring resource. She called political activism a “great way of to mobilize people’s frustrations right now, instead of feeling helpless and caught up in their emotions, and not able to turn that into strategic action.” She said the organization offers an inclusive, deliberate, flushed-out infrastructure.
Mohib emphasized Emerge’s commitment to diversity; 39 percent of its alumnae are women of color.
For Thitthavong, having government reflect the diversity of people it represents is important. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Thailand following the Vietnam War. She said she hopes to bring her perspectives and experiences to public service. Turning 26 years old next month, she is interested in learning what the community wants and what is important to people. She is considering a future run for a Fairfield representative town meeting position.
Mohib highlighted Emerge’s success rate: In 2017, 188 alumnae were on the ballot; 72 of the 91 (or 79 percent) of Emerge women who have already run for office this year have won their races.
After showing videos of Emerge alumnae discussing their experiences pursuing careers in public office, Mohib highlighted examples the organization’s trailblazers from across the country. This included Mara Elliot, the first woman of color to be elected San Diego city attorney. A legally blind advocate for the disabled, Yolanda Avila, won a city council seat in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in an upset victory over a conservative incumbent.
For its next steps, Emerge Connecticut plans to hire an executive director. The job description will be posted on Emerge America’s website. Once the executive director is in place, a board will be selected. Mohib anticipated this will occur this fall. After Emerge Connecticut is officially launched, Jill Barkley, the affiliate director, will take over working with the state’s new executive director and board as part of the Emerge America network.
Mohib showed an image of Democratic California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris. With her mother from India and her father a Jamaican American, the former California attorney general serves as one of the highest profile role models for the organization. Harris and Emerge America President and founder Andrea Dew Steele were friends when they both became involved in politics. Seeing no political infrastructure in place for women in California, along with Emerge America cofounder Marya Stark, the beginnings of the organization’s establishment in 2005 took root. Changing norms and gender expectations is necessary to bring about the change women want to create said Mohib. She added, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Click on or download the above audio file to listen to the full WNHH radio interview with Emerge’s Marya Stark and Allison Molkenthin.