Electing change

In 2018, record numbers of women candidates are tapping into a network of political support, in Sacramento and across the U.S.

Tamika L’Ecluse is challenging incumbent jay schenirer for the district 5 seat in city council.

Tamika L’Ecluse is challenging incumbent jay schenirer for the district 5 seat in city council.

Photo by Nicole Fowler

Gabriell Garcia wanted to run for office, but the political newbie didn’t know where to start.

So, Garcia did the logical thing: She turned to the internet.

“Google,” she says with a laugh, remembering her on-the-fly political schooling. “I Googled: ’How to run for office.’”

She’d thought about running for years. In 2010, Garcia considered a bid for City Council, but as the mother of two and owner of the Blue Lamp nightclub near downtown, she didn’t have the time, much less political savvy, to devote to a campaign.

“Fast forward eight years and my kids are teenagers, the time is now,” says Garcia, who just launched a campaign for City Council’s District 1 seat. “I want to teach my daughters to stand up and run for things.”

Garcia’s not in it alone. She’s one of many women running for office this year, not just in California but across the United States. Call it a political sea change, fueled in part by President Donald Trump’s win and the rise of the #MeToo movement. This year, 437 women are running or are expected to run for the House of Representatives, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. In California, there are currently 53 bids for the House. And, the majority of them are Democrats: 47 compared to 6 Republicans.

Garcia’s also not alone at another fundamental level: In 2018, women everywhere are leveling up their support to maximize their political resources and impact.

From long-established groups like Emily’s List and Emerge California to relative upstarts such as Fem Dems Sacramento and groups founded post-election, like the New York-based Get Her Elected, women and nonbinary candidates are being aided via a vast network aimed at electing more women to office—not just in this year’s critical midterm elections, but in 2020 and beyond.

Denise Tugade, Fem Dems president, says there’s a tangible sense of urgency and action.

“We’ve seen an unprecedented number of first-time candidates,” she says. “There’s definitely movement.”

Election night 2016: Tugade watched the numbers and worried. Trump was winning the most brutal presidential race in modern history.

Like countless others around the country that night, Tugade texted her friends. Gutted, they commiserated and consoled one another.

They also plotted change.

“We were so down in the dumps that night, so we turned around and planned a meeting for two days after the election,” Tugade remembers.

More than 300 people showed up to that Fem Dems gathering, held on Veterans Day at the Sierra 2 Center in Curtis Park. The show of support was heartening, but more importantly, Tugade says, she knew they had to capitalize on that momentum.

“We talked about, ’What does this mean for us now to move forward?’” she says.

What it meant was taking that post-election depression, anxiety and fear and propelling it into change via feminist candidates capable of winning elections.

More than a year later, Fem Dems, founded in 2009, boasts hundreds of members—the group doubled its numbers in the months after the election and birthed a new group, too, Organize Win Legislate Sacramento, a grassroots coalition focused on field organizing.

Now, Fem Dems’ board is in the process of deciding upon endorsements for numerous candidates across a spectrum of races at the local and regional level. One of the group’s primary functions is to engage and equip those who want to get involved in politics, but lack the experience or are intimidated by the process.

Tugade’s own journey stemmed from her exasperation working within the political system, including a stint in Washington, D.C.

“I was out there, feeling frustrated by the lack of progress [in my work],” she says. “I felt like I was buried in the details of policies that maybe didn’t reflect reality on the ground.”

Denise Tugade, president of Sacramento Fem Dems.

Photo by Nicole Fowler

Tugade ended up in Sacramento, working at the Capitol as a communications director and legislative aide, when she found herself at a bar one night, chatting with some women who told her about Fem Dems. Tugade joined and said she found not just a political gateway for herself but for those “who have not traditionally been engaged in this process.”

“A lot of party politics can be opaque—very technical, parliamentary procedure-driven,” says Tugade, who was elected president in March 2017. “We try to be accessible; we try to focus on the issues that really matter.”

Fem Dems does the usual political organizing things—fundraising, candidate endorsements—but it also offers hands-on learning for those who’ve maybe never toted a clipboard or walked neighborhoods to get the vote out.

The Advocacy Academy, for example, instructs on things such as lobbying and fundraising basics.

“We want to be able to hand folks the tools to go off and do something big,” Tugade says.

When it comes to endorsements, Fem Dems adheres to its mission, focusing on intersectional feminist policy and candidates.

“That means representation, equity and inclusion,” she says.

Not all Fem Dem-approved candidates are necessarily women. Past endorsements include senator Richard Pan and City Council-member Jeff Harris, both in 2014, and Mayor Darrell Steinberg in 2016. Other nods have gone to Sacramento County District Attorney candidate Maggy Krell and Sacramento Charter Commission candidate Tamika L’Ecluse, the latter of whom just launched a bid for the City Council District 5 seat, challenging incumbent Jay Schenirer.

L’Ecluse, a member of the Women Democrats of Sacramento County, calls support from such groups critical.

“It’s already challenging for a women to run for office,” she says. “Having groups to mobilize the younger generation to run for office—to build that pipeline, that is a core value.”

Historically, women have not been encouraged to run, she adds.

“We have to be convinced, we have to put so many things in place, so having a group that says, ’You’re enough,’ having groups that say, ’We believe in you and will be with you until the end,’ that’s big. It’s so important to have that sisterhood.”

That sisterhood engages at all stages of a campaign, too—from big-picture policy to the day-to-day details. After the 2016 election, for example, freelance writer Lily Herman founded Get Her Elected. The New York-based initiative connects candidates with people who work pro bono with progressive women candidates at every level of U.S. government. That means anything from writing press releases and graphic design to data analysis and fundraising strategy.

With more than 2,000 volunteers, Herman says Get Her Elected’s goal is to make politics accessible for everyone.

“By having people with these backgrounds fill in these gaps for no charge, we level the playing field and allow progressive women candidates to focus on bigger issues,” she says.

Bridging the gap doesn’t start and end with formal organizations and channels, though. Sometimes it just takes a coffee date, an email, a phone call.

For example, when L’Ecluse learned that Garcia, the District 1 candidate, had launched her campaign, the more seasoned candidate reached out to offer advice.

“I’m here to lift people up around me,” L’Ecluse says.

For Garcia, the gesture was big, symbolizing the support and strength she says she’s always received from other women. As the founder of the Sacred City Roller Derby Girls squad, Garcia is used to relying on a strong network.

Now, she says, she’s ready to channel that support into something tangible.

“The time is now for women to take on some of those more powerful positions,” she says. “This is not a time to be complacent in order to make change within a community.”

Entering politics may be an unnerving process, she says, but it’s not impossible.

“I want to make it clear that you don’t have to be politician to run for office,” Garcia says. “It’s not as scary as you think.”