When 28-year-old Halei Watkins ran for a seat on the Seattle City Council last year, she was met with a flood of enthusiasm. But that interest quickly rang hollow.
"Everyone was so excited to see me run for the 'experience,'" she says, "but not to open their checkbooks." Watkins says that even people she knew for years from organizing and advocacy work treated her running for office like she was a kid playing house: a cute practice run, but not a serious attempt to win.
On the campaign trail, she was asked whether she was married, whether she had kids, whether she was even old enough to run for office. She struggled to raise money from big progressive groups and individuals. Last August, when Watkins lost in the primary, one of her opponents had raised four times the money she did; another had raised three times the cash.
"There's a lot of talk about electing nontraditional candidates—young women, women of color, queer and trans people," Watkins says. "And then when it actually comes time to get down to it, people get really scared and fall back on traditional wisdom."
Watkins thinks it doesn't have to be that way. That's why she and a crew of other young, politically active Seattle women have formed a political action committee (PAC) to raise money for the specific purpose of donating it to young women who've never run for office before.
Watkins and her two cofounders—Eileen Pollet and Anita Yandle, both 25—formally launched Feminist Progress PAC, or FemPAC, on August 20. The PAC will donate to progressive, non-incumbent women under 40 with a particular emphasis on local and state government and women of color—a sort of hyperlocal, millennial-focused EMILY's List.
All three of the founders have experience organizing and working on campaigns. Yandle currently works at the Washington State Association for Justice, and Watkins and Pollet are both with the political consulting firm WinPower Strategies and previously worked as organizers for pro-choice groups. They started talking about the PAC after last year's Seattle City Council elections. While there is now a women majority on the council for the first time since 1998, most of the youngest candidates, like Watkins, lost in the primary.
"There was a lot of success for women in general," Yandle says, "but the struggles young women faced were not the same as established women in politics."
At a launch party on the roof of a Capitol Hill tequila bar, a small crowd sipped margaritas and filled out donation slips. The PAC raised about $1,500 that night and had raised another $1,000 elsewhere. The founders say they're hoping to first solicit small-dollar donations from young people who may not feel comfortable at other deeper-pocketed political insider events. They're aiming to raise $10,000 by the November election, involving women not just in receiving the cash but in donating it, too. While women are more likely than men to vote, they make up only 30 percent of campaign donors (perhaps because they are not as flush with cash).
"As much as we'd like to think money doesn't mean a voice in politics," Pollet says, "we have PACs and lobbyists, and money does matter. We need to make sure women's voices are being heard as donors, not just as voters and constituents."
Government at all levels is dominated by white men. Today, women hold just 19 percent of seats in Congress, according to Rutgers's Center for American Women and Politics. Only 24 percent of statewide elected officials, like governor and lieutenant governor, are women, and women hold just a quarter of state legislative seats. Across all cities of more than 30,000 people, 19 percent of mayors are women. Women of color make up 6 percent of Congress, 3 percent of statewide elected offices, and 5 percent of state legislators.
Put another way: 51 percent of the population has somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the representation in their government.
Washington's state legislature does better than many states, but is still only 34 percent women. Seattle representative Noel Frame, 36, says she's the youngest Democratic woman in the state legislature and only one other woman, Puyallup Republican Melanie Stambaugh, is younger. State senator Pramila Jayapal, who is now running for Congress, is the only woman of color in the state senate.
Research has shown that women are less likely to run or be recruited to run for office, and even once they run and are elected, fundraising is their top barrier to running for higher office. And with few women in local government, there are even fewer of them in the "pipeline" to run for higher offices like Congress. Electing women in lower offices helps build that pipeline, so that eventually all levels of government are less dominated by swinging dicks.
FemPAC's specific goal is unique, but they're not the only group focused on changing the face of state and local government. The National Women's Political Caucus of Washington recruits women across the state to run and supports women on all sides of the political spectrum. EJ Juárez is executive director of Amplify, a new organization that will focus on recruiting and electing women, people of color, and LGBTQ people under 35. The work is "very much about making mirrors," Juárez says, so that underrepresented people begin to see themselves in government. Amplify will search out candidates, convince them to run, donate to their campaigns, and then support them once they're in office. "I think of my own experience," Juárez says. "Growing up in Central Washington, I never saw any representatives with a name like mine." And when you don't see people like you in government, Juárez says, you're less likely to imagine yourself in government someday.
"The system that has been in place has favored everyone but young women and particularly everyone but young women of color," says Heather Weiner, a political consultant at Moxie Media. "To have an actual organized effort to say, at the very least, 'We see you; we encourage you to run,' is invaluable."
Brianna Thomas, a 34-year-old minimum-wage organizer who ran for Seattle City Council in West Seattle last year, says she faced the same fundraising challenges Watkins described. Thomas describes the dilemma young candidates often find themselves in: To be taken seriously and considered viable, they need significant money. But without an incumbent's deep Rolodex, they struggle to raise that money, and in turn struggle to be taken seriously.
Thomas says she's excited about the potential of FemPAC but hopes the group focuses on "finding women of color in communities of color to represent those communities. I would hate to see it turn into just another level of the same system."
Watkins, Pollet, and Yandle, who filed the paperwork for the PAC, are white, but say underrepresentation of women of color in government is a priority. They plan to endorse women of color who are running and recruit women of color to their organization's board.
FemPAC has yet to officially choose its candidates (that will happen with the help of a larger advisory group in the coming weeks), but it is likely to support three Democratic legislative candidates running this year: Michelle Chatterton in Puyallup's District 25, Kristine Reeves in Federal Way's District 30, and Sharlaine LaClair in Lynden's District 42. (Two of the three candidates have received consulting from WinPower, where two FemPAC founders work, but the efforts are unrelated.)
The group hopes to donate to several candidates this year and then get an earlier start next year so they can be involved in races at the beginning of the cycle, helping candidates address the viability problem.
If they're successful, FemPAC could help build a pipeline of women to run for offices across Washington State in the coming decades. And that could change both the representation women see in local and state government and the policies politicians are paying attention to, hopefully placing a sharper focus on issues like abortion rights and paid family leave.
"I think candidates sometimes get afraid to talk about those issues," Pollet says, and Watkins jumps in: "Yeah, well, when all of your donors are old dudes. Like, they want talk about the [Sonics] arena. I want to be able to talk about women taking time off of work to have a family."
"The boys' club is really on its way out," Watkins adds. "And young women are poised to take that place."