As a fan of the wildly popular bad movie podcast How Did This Get Made? it was difficult for me to miss June Diane Raphael (one of its co-hosts) talking about the book she recently co-authored with Kate Black called Represent: A Woman’s Guide to Running for Office & Changing the World.
The idea for the book was born from the fact that June, much like a great deal of us, felt powerless, frustrated and angry and wanted to be a tool for change. What better way to make a difference than running for office? Okay, how do you run for office.
Through a mutual friend June was connected with Kate Black, a policy advisor in the federal government. In a former life Kate was the Chief of Staff and Vice President of Research at EMILY’s List, the largest resource for women in politics as well as Executive Director of American Women, a nonpartisan research organization working to uplift the voices of women and the issues they care about. Who better to help June, and by extension all women, figure out how to run for office.
I chatted with Kate about her book and the somewhat daunting task (but not anymore!) of running for office. Tomorrow night Kate will be in conversation with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley about their journeys to office. Tickets are currently on sale.
Brightest Young Things: Before we begin there is something I wanted to tell you that is completely off-topic. In high school the first fake ID I ever had, and to be clear it was a real ID it just wasn’t mine, belonged to a girl named Kate Black.
Kate Black: You’re joking! That is so random. My maiden name is something else so I married someone with that last name. It’s a great author name but also a great name for fake ID’s.
BYT: Looks like the name Kate Black will continue to serve me in my adult life. You and June Diane Raphael start the book off with a text conversation you had wherein June brings up a valid question: “What about all the boob pics I might have sent out into the world?” I think this question is especially important given what just happened with Katie Hill, for example.
KB: It was one of the things that June and I first talked about and I think as this generation ages and decides to run for office…so much of our lives are online right now and it’s important that we do the inventory not just about what’s online or of what we’ve put out there. That could include those pesky nudes but it also could include public records or the friend that continuously posts photos from high school on your Facebook page. I think it’s important that for women we understand what’s in our control, what we can put out into the world about ourselves whether we’re running for office or not we should all practice good social media cyber hygiene.
The Katie Hill situation is one that for a lot of women really stoked some real fears that exist about why they don’t want to run for office because of that public scrutiny because of the fear that something in their past is gonna come out and with this book we want to tell women that certainly if you have a past we all have a past. There are ways in which we can look to women-elected leaders who have done this, who have acknowledged something about their past and have connected that story with voters. Whether it’s Katie Hill’s story or Stacey Abrams acknowledging she had personal debt and shared in a way that said we all have probably taken on debt for healthcare costs or family costs. That shouldn’t disqualify any of us from being leaders in fact it should make us more qualified because we understand that burden.
BYT: Women sure do have to go through an alarming amount of mental gymnastics before we make any decisions.
KB: I think women are held to different standards.
BYT: It feels like we’re held to standards. Period.
KB: Yes, certainly. We definitely don’t want to fall into some sort of essentialist trap where we want to believe that women are always going to vote and lead and live certain lives because we know that’s not true. We also have to acknowledge the kind of different standards that men and women, especially in elected offices, are held to and what voters, especially female voters, are willing to forgive or not forgive.
In this book we wanted the reader to have a full understanding of that research whether it’s from polls that have been taken of women and men, looking at female candidates and male candidates and preparing them or understanding some of the academic research of why it matters to be in office. We wanted people to understand the full landscape so they come in eyes wide open.
BYT: This book is an excellent reminder about all the available offices one can run for. It’s not just Congress or governor, there are many smaller jobs before those that are equally as helpful and important. Figuring out how to get there that can be daunting. One example you included was of a woman who opened up a “What You Need” guide on a website and it was a 143 page pdf. I would have immediately shut my laptop. That’s too much.
KB: I think you’re exactly right. First and foremost there are over 500,000 offices you can run for in this country and we want women to know that certainly as we’re hearing so much about Congress and Washington and what’s happening in the White House…those offices are available but also down ballot whether it’s city council or comptroller or sheriff or judge. There are things that you can run for that match your passion and commitment to your community.
Also, there are real structural ways in which political life has been kept from people and really dense, legalistic candidate guides that are available online can be really a deterrent in some ways. It can keep people from wanting to learn more or do more. One of the things the book does a really good job of is breaking some of those things down, making it into digestible chunks, giving a checklist. Who doesn’t love a good checklist? I put things on my checklist just to check them off.
BYT: Checklists are very satisfying.
KB: It’s very satisfying to say “Okay I understand where I’m running. Check. I understand what I’m running for. Check. I understand how much money I need to raise. Check.” That’s very satisfying and makes the whole process seem a little more doable. We wanted the book to be a companion, whether you’re taking it with in your diaper bag, in your bookbag, in your tote bag…you’re taking us with you on this journey and we wanted it to feel like a friend who is encouraging you along the way. You can do a chapter and put it back on the shelf and maybe a year from now you pick it back up and think “Okay maybe I’m ready now.” This is something that’s meant to be carried and worked through.
BYT: I didn’t finish college and I think about that often. I feel basically fine about it. What about things of that nature, a lot of people for various reasons might also feel less than qualified in that respect.
KB: We hear a lot about women feeling under qualified running for office. We want women to feel like their experience is their expertise, whether or not that means they have a lot of degrees on the wall it does not matter. There are certain requirements, and we use the words requirements and qualifications differently. There are requirements to run for some offices. You have to be over the age of 35 to run for federal office. You might have to be over the age of 18 to run for your local city council. You might have to be a resident of your state for a certain amount of time before you can run. I’ve never seen a requirement that says you have to have a Bachelor’s Degree or an Associate’s Degree or a PhD or a legal degree. In fact there have been male governors…Scott Walker the governor of Wisconsin never graduated college. There are men who have certainly run for office without finishing their college degree and have been successful why can’t it be you as well.
To that end we want women to see some of the occupations and careers and experiences people had before they came into office. We looked at the 115th Congress, the last Congress that was in session, and we went through the jobs they had. Surely there are lawyers and former state legislators but there are also teachers, students, nurses, farmers, ranchers, car salesman and radio show hosts. There are people who are just like us who have not only run for office but they have won. The reader who is picking up this book and thinking “Do I have the qualifications?” The answer is yes.
BYT: What could disqualify you from running for office?
KB: It does vary from office to office. In terms of disqualifications there aren’t that many to run for office. I think your real question is how do voters look at you?
BYT: That is it! This is coming from a place of a person who has made a lot of mistakes in her life.
KB: I think this is important. We’ve seen candidates running for office who have had a litany of parking tickers or speeding tickets or a lot of lawsuits or divorces…other sticky legal issues. I think it does matter to voters. They want to know about your past. They want to know the work you’ve done and your experience. It’s also important that you, before you’ve put that out into the world, you’ve gathered all the information. You have all the facts at your disposal, all the requisite documents. And you also know your own story. It’s really important to know you are the owner of your own narrative here. You know exactly what your past is. It’s very empowering going into that conversation. You don’t want to let anyone else co-opt it.
BYT: Should someone put that information out there first?
KB: I think it can be very powerful. Again, voters want to see someone who is very up front about their history. Again, Stacy Abrams’ op-ed in Fortune is a great example. She acknowledged her personal debt and talked about it in a way that connected with voters who probably also experienced that. Another example is Katie Porter, a congresswoman from California who was a victim of domestic abuse, and when her opponents came out and attacked her for that she talked about her story openly in a way that not only empowered her but brought that discussion to the campaign that elevated it to policy discussion.
Our politics do not always show our best selves and research shows that women are more likely to work together and pass bills that help people and families. I think when we elect more women our politics will improve. It is women who are putting forth ideas about affordable childcare and healthcare that works, and educational programs that help everyone and if we had more of that it would be good.
BYT: What was the thing that most surprised you while writing this book.
KB: I think the thing that surprised me the most was some of the biases I held myself about women candidates. One of the things June said when she first started talking to me about running for office…at the time she had two small children and I had not yet become a mother and she said “I want to be there for when they wake up and bedtime and after school and dinner.” And I said that would be really hard. Those are hours you’re not talking to voters or raising money or doing breakfast events or happy hours but your opponent will be. It really took June pushing me to understand and for me to do some more research and talk to more people about the value proposition that comes with centering our whole lives in our campaigns. Not just as a candidate in protecting time we need but also the trickle down affect that can have not only on our campaign but at politics at large.
Imagine if a candidate with young children said “I want to protect these times for my family.” That allows for other people to think about the time they need. I think if we had more of that in our campaigns and politics we’d all be better off.