By the May 19 candidate filing deadline for the August primary election, 31 women put in their names to run for public office in King County. By contrast, 55 men filed in the races. Of the women who submitted their candidacy, less than half of them were women of color.
Political action committee EMILY's List, which helps train and support pro-choice Democratic women running for office, wants to change that.
Just 48 out of 400 women from Washington State were selected to attend a Seattle training on July 8, which is part of a national recruitment effort to get more women to run for government seats. Since Donald Trump was elected last November, more than 15,000 women interested in running for office reached out to EMILY’s List for advice. Many of those women were under 35 years old, said Vanessa Cardenas, the PAC’s director of strategic communications.
“As a woman of color, it’s exciting because I'm seeing a long of young women involved in their communities and active in so many of these movements,” she said. “They see themselves as agents of change.”
The women participating in these trainings are already running for or interested in running for offices at every level of government, which is important “for an organization that's really invested in creating a pipeline of leaders,” Cardenas said.
Training attendees Carolanne Sanders and Carol Morris told The Stranger they began considering getting into politics because of the impacts state and federal officials’ decisions had on their workplaces.
Morris, 47, expressed frustration with budgeting in Olympia and said she was “disappointed at the non-passing of vital bills that affect us child care providers.” Although she believes the capital needs more progressive voices, Morris is setting her sights on running for political office in her community in Lakewood.
“I noticed the city council and the school board [doesn’t] have a lot of people that reflect us in the community,” she said. “We're a melting pot here in Lakewood. School board and city council should reflect that. It shouldn't be just one particular group or one color.”
Given her experience as a child care worker, Morris said she would be interested in running for a seat on her district’s school board. She said she wanted to spend more time learning about the political process before running.
Sanders, 26, said she hopes to work at the state level. While working at a health clinic in Tennessee, she said she saw clients struggle to get adequate healthcare because of a lack of access to Medicaid.
“The things keeping them from keeping up with their health problems were a lack of high quality transportation systems, an inability to take time off from work, a lack of access to comprehensive health coverage,” she said. “[Their] ability to live the healthiest lives… was ultimately shaped by public policy.”
She continued: “I find myself often thinking, who thought this would be a good policy? A lot of time it’s older, white, privileged, independently wealthy men. By default, they have a limited understanding of the diverse experiences that people have across this country.”
Although she knew her work as a community health provider was important, Sanders said she realized she “could really have the most impact if I got involved in politics and decision-making.”
Sanders said she would consider running for the Washington state House or Senate—but not for a few years, at least.
At the training, the women were given tips on choosing an office to run for, fundraising strategies, and the importance of sharing their lived experiences, among other topics.
Teaching women, particularly those who haven’t previously pursued a political path, to run for office is important “because we have a different set of lived experiences than other people,” said González, who spoke at the training.
“Those lived experiences really shaped not just who we are, but what we seek to prioritize as policymakers,” she said.
Given her experiences growing up in poverty and taking care of her aging mother, González said her background allows her to bring a unique perspective to address city policies regarding paid family and medical leave and gender equity.
“Our lived experiences are personal experiences being denied opportunities and overcoming those challenges,” she said. “That's not something to be embarrassed about. It's not a tertiary qualification—that’s exactly why were are qualified to be in that position.”
This can be an uncomfortable aspect of the political world for newcomers. Morris said a chunk of their training discussed “how a lot of us are afraid to step forward because of our past, of our lives becoming an open book.” But ultimately, she said, “You can't make a difference if you don't step forward.”
Sanders believed it’s key to elect an intersectional group of women to represent constituents.
“For me, it's not so much about getting young, progressive women into office,” she said. “It's about getting women, period, into office—getting women of color, getting trans women into office.”
She said she was particularly excited about the state Senate race in the 45th Legislative District between Manka Dhingra, a Democrat, and Jinyoung Lee Englund, a Republican.
“I'm still thrilled that we have two women of color to choose from to represent that district and I think that no matter who wins... they are going to be an asset to our state government because of the diversity of perspective that they bring,” she said.
As communities of color grow and racial demographics shift across the U.S., it’s critical that systems of power within our state and federal governments evolve to address changing community concerns. Women and women of color are “grossly underrepresented” in political offices, Cardenas said.
As of 2017, women hold just 83 of 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Just 38 of those members are women of color, according to a report from the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Last November, Washington State Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal became the first Indian American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Jayapal’s victory “speaks to the power of seeing yourself reflected,” Cardenas said.
The congresswoman, who also spoke at the EMILY’s List training, said she wanted to “bust the myth that there's some prescribed path” to winning elected office. Jayapal, who described her own path as non-traditional, founded Hate Free Zone, now OneAmerica before being elected to the state legislature in 2015. While working at OneAmerica, Jayapal said she and other women of color in the office would say a prayer every morning: “God, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man” as a reminder that they didn’t need to “cede” their power to move forward.
“A lot of women of color have not been involved in what you may call traditional politics, but they have been very involved in their communities,” she said. “It's really helping people to understand that their experience is relevant and not saying ‘You don't have the credentials because you don't have a graduate degree.’”
Jayapal also acknowledged that being able to run for office comes with some privilege, given the financial investment and time required to campaign and fundraise. To overcome financial hurdles, Sanders and Morris said they and other EMILY’s List training attendees learned they must rely on their networks—family, friends, work, and volunteer outlets—to support them when they launch their political careers.
Even more difficult is overcoming the barriers of institutional racism and sexism embedded in our society.
“I don't know if people are really ready or accepting of us [as women of color],” Morris said. “We need to break stereotypes out there concerning women of color. We have positive insights of what's going on in our community and we want to help.”