In 2019, I ran for the Virginia State Senate. It was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. As a first-time candidate, I was also balancing being a mom of two elementary school-aged children, being a wife, serving as a deacon in my church, serving as the National President of Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Inc., and working full-time (while also teaching graduate classes part-time). Every day after work, I spent hours on the phone calling potential donors, most of whom I had never met, and every weekend, I walked the district knocking on doors of voters to talk to them about the issues. I am not sure how I would have managed this without the support of my family and friends. Looking back, it sometimes feels as if that was another woman who managed all those priorities and responsibilities.
I ran a competitive primary, working to gain traction against a long-standing incumbent. I succeeded in raising the profile of my district and cutting the vote spread by nearly 19 points from the previous election. Even though I did not ultimately win the race, I had a core group of people who supported my family and me. In fact, one friend constantly reminded me, “You can do hard things.” – a motto my family embraced during long canvassing days in 2019 and has carried forward into the global pandemic of 2020.
Thinking about it now, “doing hard things” feels like the central theme of 2020. In 2020, my kids are struggling to figure out virtual school and all their assignments while missing the in-person connection with friends and family. We’ve had severe illnesses and deaths in my family this year. I know it’s not just my family – families everywhere are feeling the pain, some much more than others due to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on different communities. As I consider that 2019 was a year of instability for my family as we all worked to accomplish an enormous feat, I am in absolute awe of the women who are running for office in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, and knocking it out of the park!
Current candidates Alexsis Rodgers and Dianne Morales, for instance, are running to be the next mayors of their cities, both served as directors of nonprofit organizations. Recently both spoke to ReflectUS on what it’s like to run for office during the pandemic. Their insights are reflected in our issue brief “Lessons from Campaigning in the Time of Covid-19: Women Candidates and the Challenges They Face.” These women see 2020 as a historic year for campaigns and are embracing campaigning amid a global pandemic as the “new” normal. ReflectUS also spoke with city council candidates Vanessa Fuentes and Esmerelda Cortez and state legislative candidates Jasmine Crockett (who recently won her campaign and is now representative-elect) and Jessica González-Rojas (who recently won her five-way primary). All the women we interviewed are emblematic of the countless women around the country on both sides of the aisle running in the era of COVID-19. They have a similar, unifying message:
They knew they needed to step up and run for political leadership, and they are up for the challenges that COVID-19 presents because their communities need compassionate, strong leaders, now more than ever.
Women candidates are “doing the hard things” in campaigning so they can change systems and policies to improve the lives of their families, friends, and communities – which some would say is the greatest challenge of all.
The challenges I faced in running for office – finding childcare for my kids while I made calls, raising money, getting volunteers active and energized for change, managing a full team, and doing it all while continuing my “normal” work life – are amplified in the COVID-19 pandemic. There are few, if any, childcare options available right now for those women seeking public office, but even if childcare were available, many states still do not have rules or allowances for campaign fund use for these expenses. It was only through the work of Liuba Gretchen Shirley, a candidate for Congress in 2018 who now supports moms running for office through her organization VoteMama, that federal candidates can use their campaign funds for this purpose. During this time of health crisis, familial support is even more complicated. Reliance on grandparents and other family members, for instance, can no longer be assumed as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable doing these times. Hence, the support systems I relied upon to be able to survive the “hard times”are just not there for women running in 2020. The days when I had no help, when I had to make fundraising calls while trying to keep my kids occupied and on track with their school work, were the hardest. If a candidate has kids who are in virtual school now, that’s an additional barrier – how can you parent, campaign, and fundraise all at the same time? To say it’s exhausting is an understatement.
Campaigning in 2020 is also fundamentally different. Most candidates are not knocking on doors in the community or holding large fundraising events. In 2019, if I gave a particularly moving speech at an event, it was reflected in donations from those who heard me. The more money I raised, the less time I had to be on the phones asking for money and the more time I could spend talking directly to voters. While my team valued digital organizing and it was well-integrated into the campaign, it was not the foundation of our organizing plan. In 2020, digital organizing is considered the primary way (and in some instances, the only way) to reach voters. Texting and phone call programs are more active now than ever before.
Recently, ReflectUS had an excellent conversation with Dr. Anne Moses, ReflectUS Board member and CEO and Founder of IGNITE National during our Fireside Chat Series. We learned that younger women are running for office up and down the ballot now more than ever before. They are having success in the time of COVID-19 because they are experts in digital organizing. Young women have been doing digital organizing their entire lives, and know how to get people engaged. Young women are fired up this year and are leaning into their own power. Yet, they also face crushing economic instability with an unstable job market. Consequently, they’re figuring out how to navigate the political world while grappling with harsh economic realities.
Prior to the pandemic, campaign life for women was hard. Now, the intensity has only increased. Thankfully there are organizations and groups of committed women addressing the myriad of hardships women candidates face. Consequently, we’re still seeing women run up and down the ballot – across party lines – persevering towards the goal. The words of my friend still rings true, “[Women] can do hard things.” I’m confident that we will solve the problems of systems designed to shut out most people from government power – and build a path for others to follow. Yes, we can do hard things…but maybe it won’t always be this hard.
Amanda Pohl is the Programs Director for ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.