On a recent Saturday this summer, I joined a diverse group of 20 Maryland women who gathered for 5 hours in a windowless suburban conference room to learn how to run for political office. They included a disabilities rights activist, an African American prosecutor, and an Indian-American immigrant who emerged from her local PTA as an outspoken voice on education issues. They had come for "A Taste of Emerge," a day-long boot camp organized by the non-profit political group "Emerge Maryland," which was created five years ago to recruit women to the electoral process.
As Hillary Clinton claims her Democratic party nomination in Philadelphia this week, there is hard work going on at the grassroots level to make sure the pipeline of women in politics is being fed with new talent. Over the 2016 summer, Emerge Maryland will hold 5 of these sessions to entice women to jump into the political arena. Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the organization is doubling down on its mission to train Democratic women to run for office.
Maryland was once a leader in political gender equality, with half of the House and Senate seats held by women. But at the end of this year, the state will have no Democratic women in its 10-person congressional delegation when Senator Barbara Mikulski retires and Congresswoman Donna Edwards step down.
As a recent candidate for US Congress in Maryland's 8th Congressional District, I am keenly aware of this imbalance and the challenges facing women office seekers, and that's why I joined the board of directors of Emerge Maryland. Observing my first session, I was impressed by the caliber of women who signed up to sample the program, many of whom will apply to be one of 20 members in the Emerge Class of 2017 during a nominations process that will take place in the shadows of the 2016 Presidential election.
"Make sure your family is onboard," said Jessica Fitzwater, an Emerge Maryland alumna who is a full-time school teacher, new mom, and won election to the Frederick County County Council.
"You will need to do one thing everyday to advance your campaign or political career, even if you have a full-time job," said Emerge Maryland director Diane Fink. "If you want to run, you will need to start doing things regularly that make a difference in your community."
Adding a political career to a full plate of work and family responsibilities is oftentimes more than many women are willing to swallow. It takes time, money, and sacrifice from husbands, partners, and children. But unless more women run for office, they will not be represented in Congress, state legislatures, county or municipal councils commensurate with their numbers in society.
This lack of gender equality muffles women's voices and erodes the contribution women can make in politics, whether it's issues like equal pay, reproductive freedom, or their capacity for consensus-building. Today, fewer than 1 in 5 members of Congress are women, and in the Maryland legislature, the numbers have been declining. Studies show that any institution, whether it's business was or politics, benefits mightily from gender diversity.
How does Emerge Maryland hope to improve the outlook for women's representation? They will replicate the "old boys' network" with a "new girls' network." In this new "smokeless room," they will strategically map political seats that may be opening on school boards, city and county councils, in the legislature and Congress, and recruit and train women candidates to run for them.
A good example of their early success is Delegate Pamela Queen, an African American woman who had been through the Emerge program and was preparing to run in 2018. However an earlier opportunity emerged in 2016 when Maryland Delegate Jennie Forehand stepped down. Emerge members on the state central committee organized the votes for Pam quickly and locked down her appointment for the empty seat in a matter of days.
Gaining gender parity requires women with guts who are willing to run, and lose, and run again. I learned this in my election when consoling friends and supporters pointed out that President Obama had lost his first race for Congress, as did President Clinton. Meeting with a group of women Members of Congress who supported my candidacy, I heard the campaign war stories of their losses and eventual victories. "When are you running again," they asked.
The women behind Emerge Maryland include Delegate Jocelyne Pena Melnyk, political consultants like Martha McKenna and Molly Byron, and Democratic activists who are no longer willing to stand on the sidelines. Together, we are rolling up our sleeves to help more women to run in Maryland, and emerge victorious. Hopefully we'll accelerate the gender parity in Maryland's legislature, federal delegation, and the feed the country's pipeline for the Presidency in the tradition of Hillary Clinton.