'Unprecedented' Numbers Of Pa. Women From Both Parties Looking To Run For Office

Jan 27, 2017

 

Natasha Taylor-Smith from Montgomery County (center) listens to Anne Wakabayashi, the executive director of EmergePA. EmergePA is a democratic organization designed to prepare women who want to run for public office.
Credit Emily Cohen / Newsworks

At 5:30 in the morning of November 9, 2016, Natasha Taylor-Smith crept into her 13-year-old daughter's bedroom. 

She picked up her daughter's smartphone, typed "CNN.com" into the browser and saw a large picture of now-President Donald Trump.

Taylor-Smith put down the phone and woke her daughter up.

"As soon as she opened her eyes, she says, 'Did Hillary win?' and I said, 'No,'" Taylor-Smith recalled. 

Her daughter gave her a confused look. 

"'Donald Trump's going to be our president?" she asked.

"Yes," Taylor-Smith replied.

Then, her daughter, who had been expecting to hear that overnight, the country had elected its first woman president, simply said, "Hmm," and walked out of the room. 

It wasn't the first political setback for Taylor-Smith, an attorney who'd spent the fall making phone calls and knocking on doors for the Clinton campaign in suburban Montgomery County. 

In 2015, she ran to be a judge on the Court of Common Pleas and lost.

But she says she has not felt a temptation to disengage from the political process. In fact, ever since then, Taylor-Smith says she's been ready to dive back in. 

"I feel like sometimes like a fire is welling up inside me and if I don't have a constructive outlet for it, I might go crazy," she said. 

'This is completely unprecedented'

For Taylor-Smith, that constructive outlet is doing whatever she can to support progressive causes and candidates, including herself. 

She is one of 25 women who recently spent their weekend sitting around long tables in a plumber's union hall in Northeast Philadelphia, listening to back-to-back presentations about the ins and outs of running for office. 

These women are the second class brought together by Emerge Pennsylvania, the state chapter of a national organization devoted to helping Democratic women run.  It offers an intense, six-month training in every aspect of campaigning from door-knocking to fundraising.

Executive Director Anne Wakabayashi said more than 100 women applied to this year's program and the timing was notable.

"My email comes to my phone and it was just buzzing constantly the day after Election Day with people signing up for our email list," she said. "We saw a bunch of likes on our Facebook page, we saw all this interest and so I checked our applications status and I noticed we had a couple applications started and it just kept going up and up and up."

Truscha Quatrone, Wakabayashi's counterpart in New Jersey, has also seen a rise in demand.

"Since the women's march, my inbox is full with women wanting to take training to run for office," Quatrone said in an e-mail. 

This is not what Dana Brown expected at all. 

Brown heads up the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.  She and her colleagues believed Clinton's loss and the divisive 2016 election cycle would turn women off. 

"Many of us thought that if she lost the presidency then that would have a chilling effect for women, that women would see perhaps how she was treated negatively by the press or by other outlets... and that is just the complete opposite," she said. 

In fact, Brown has been flooded with inquiries for the university's bi-partisan "Ready To Run" program coming up next month. Normally, she has to create demand for the training. For the first time, she had to create a waitlist for the day-long session in Pitsburgh.

"This is completely unprecedented for this program," she said. "The room literally is at capacity. We could be breaking fire codes if we allow any more women in."

Despite the fact women make up 51 percent of Pennsylvania's population, they make up just 18.6 percent of the state legislature. In New Jersey, it's 30 percent

Studies have shown women face several barriers to running, including fears about asking for money and lack of support from party leadership. Balancing political careers with family obligations are towards the bottom of that list. 

Brown says this new trend is being driven by Democrats — many of them members of the pro-Clinton group Pantsuit Nation, which has been sharing opportunities for civic engagement, such as Ready to Run, on social media. 

But Brown and her counterparts at the Center For Women and Politics at Rutgers University are also seeing an uptick in the number of Republican women interested in running for office for the first time.

'Maybe politics isn't as scary'

On a recent weeknight, Michelle Rupp was among the crowd women at a restaurant in a strip mall in Landsdale, eating Mediterranean food, drinking wine and talking politics. 

It was the monthly gathering of the Montgomery County Republican Women's Leadership group.

Rupp was brought here by a friend who's recruited her to run for the North Penn school board.

She has come to the meetings for years to advocate for her 11-year-old daughter, who has an uncommon birth defect that causes many challenges for her in school. 

But Rupp is feeling rather uneasy about being a first-time candidate. 

"Scared to death," she said with a laugh. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm in for."

Rupp was an early supporter of President Trump and thinks his surprise victory played a hand, albeit a subconscious one, in her decision to run.

"I really thought about how different he was as a candidate and he's not that classic politician — he's a businessman," said Roop, who runs her own veterinary practice.

"It really got me thinking that maybe politics isn't as scary or as difficult as what I thought it was... and maybe you really can keep your soul and still run and be an elected official," she said. 

Rupp said having guidance and support from other Republican women who are energized by their party's big win is making her journey to the ballot easier.

'Women... are those new faces'

So what will it take to turn this influx of interest into election wins?

The number of women in Congress has been stuck around 19 percent for more than a decade, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. In statehouses across the country, she said the average is only slightly higher at 24.8 percent. 

"The pace of progress has been glacially slow," said Walsh.

Walsh thinks that's because leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties — many of them men — have not focused enough attention and resources on getting women to run.

But after the so-called "year of the outsider" and the historic women's marches that took place across the country and across the world last Saturday, Walsh believes they just might.

"If voters are looking for outsiders or new faces...women in fact, in many cases, are those new faces," she said.