Maryland Democrats Aim To 'Build The Pipeline' For Women In Office

Mar 19, 2017
Originally published on March 19, 2017 3:20 pm

This past November was a wake-up call for the Democratic Party. Many Democratic women, in particular, are feeling a strong need to answer that call.

Less than a quarter of elected positions are filled by women in the U.S. There are many reasons for that, but Democratic activist Diane Fink says women are often discouraged somewhere along the way. She runs Emerge Maryland, a group that helps Democratic women run for office.

"What we've learned is that the women, their ambition is crushed by somebody in their life. Oftentimes they'll say, 'I mentioned this to my family and they just laughed,' or, 'I went to a community leader or party leader and they told me, 'Well, no, that probably isn't for you.' "

Democrats are now figuring out how to rebuild their party — and capitalize on the energy in progressive circles, shown in demonstrations like the Women's March, where millions of women took to the streets the day after the inauguration.

In Maryland, Fink says, her group's aim is to have at least half of Maryland's political power belong to females. "And to build the pipeline," she adds. "We have no female delegates to Congress."

We sat down with some of these women in the training program to talk about how they got here, and what sparked their political ambitions.


Interview Highlights

Ciara Robinson, 29, running for Town Council in Capitol Heights, Md.

Robinson grew up under extremely difficult circumstances. She was raised by her single mom, while her father was in and out of prison.

"My sister had a daughter when she was 15, so a lot of the things in my family influence my interest in politics."

She was the only one of her siblings to graduate high school and the first and only in her entire family to go to college. She has three degrees, including a master's in public policy.

"I knew from my master's degree that I was interested and ready" to get into politics, she says.

But it was the 2016 election that drove her to apply for the program.

"When [Hillary Clinton] lost, it made me want to help other women get into office but kind of set the bar for me. I was originally thinking I'd run for local government, but now I'm doing research about running for higher offices."

Christiana Rigby, 32, running for Howard County Council, District 3.

"I get asked a lot, 'Why now?' mostly because I just had a baby," Rigby says, holding her 3-month-old son, Arlo, on her lap.

"For me it really was, 'If not now, then when?' Because otherwise you just keep going to those County Council meetings and you get your three minutes to testify and then the vote happens without you anyway."

When women get elected, Rigby says, it's a win for all women. "It's having those representatives, having those faces and those experiences.

"I remember hearing a speaker say that a man will run and lose, and run again and lose, and run again and win. And that women often don't run again. And that really made me feel like, well, if that happens I should think about running again. I shouldn't count myself out."

Lenora Dawson, 51, running for clerk of court in Baltimore, Md.

Dawson agrees.

"I know I would certainly run again because, for me, it's about being of service and not running for office. So that can have many different faces for many different aspects. And I think that we have to be relentless and continue to push forward."

Lesley Lopez, 33, running to represent District 39 in the Maryland General Assembly

Lopez became interested in politics while working with immigrant families.

In 2008, she worked as a press secretary for Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, then became head of communications of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and later, worked for the National Immigration Forum.

"I had a great eye-opening experience and it gave me an opportunity to feel like I impacted families like my own."

She says she figured she'd run for office at one point, but took time away from Washington to focus on family.

"But then this past election cycle happened and my heart took a drop kick," she says. "I realized that no matter how qualified you were, there are double standards for women. But at the end of the day, if you don't have women in positions of power, women's perspectives just aren't being heard.

"If you look at what's happening in Maryland, they're still talking about parental rights for rapists. And this state is supposed to be progressive. So the realization of putting all these pieces together ... we need to be represented more."

Marisol Johnson, 37, running for Baltimore County Council, District 2.

"My identity is one of a cultural melting pot," Johnson says, "but ultimately, I am a proud Latina woman. I say all of that, because I have the gift and blessing to be able to work in communities of different faiths, sexual orientations and races. In today's landscape a good public servant must be able to navigate the ever-changing world. My background gives me that ability."

When the mother of four children joined the school board, she saw a new side of politics, she says. "I realize politics doesn't belong in the school system but it's there. And I'm aware now of disparities."

The catalyst that launched her political engagement was the November election. When ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, carried out two raids in her neighborhood, she felt she had a responsibility to take action.

"I realized that women who are not documented are putting themselves beyond the limb to empower and teach other immigrants. So if I'm a documented successful businesswoman, I have to help now."

But, Johnson argues, not all elected female politicians are necessarily serving all women. "If you're on the wrong side of the aisle, voting for things against funding Planned Parenthood and those sort of things, it is not a win for women," she says.

"Having something for our little girls to look up to is challenging and it is heartbreaking sometimes, but it is a job that we have to continue to fight through and fight for our future little girls' leaders."

Producer Lucy Perkins contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Last November was a wakeup call for the Democratic Party.

DIANE FINK: On November 9, literally at 4 a.m., I was woken up. My phone was buzzing off the nightstand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Diane Fink. She's a Democratic activist and the executive director of Emerge Maryland, a group that helps Democratic women run for office.

FINK: I picked it up because I was - I thought somebody was calling me, and it was hundreds of text messages and emails from women who said they wanted to get involved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Democrats are now figuring out how to rebuild their party and capitalize on the energy in progressive circles shown in demonstrations like the Women's March, where millions of women took to the streets the day after the inauguration. I traveled to a community center in Maryland where an effort is underway to train Democratic women to run for local office. The organization sponsoring the event is Emerge Maryland, and the aim is...

FINK: At least 50-plus percent of the political power in Maryland and to build the pipeline. We have no female delegates to Congress.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Less than a quarter of elected positions are filled by women in the United States. There are many reasons for that, but Diane Fink, who runs Emerge, says women are often discouraged somewhere along the way.

FINK: What we've learned is that the women - their ambition is crushed by somebody in their life. Oftentimes, they'll say, you know, I mentioned this to my family, and they just laughed. Or I went to a community leader or a party leader, and they told me, well, now, that really probably isn't for you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I sat down with some of the women in the class to talk about how they got here.

LENORA DAWSON: Hi. My name is Lenora Dawson, and I am running for clerk of court - Baltimore City, 2018.

CIARA ROBINSON: Hello. My name is Ciara Robinson. I'm running for town council in Capitol Heights, Maryland.

MARISOL JOHNSON: My name is Marisol Johnson, and I'm running for Baltimore County County Council District 2.

CHRISTIANA RIGBY: I'm Christiana Rigby, and I'm running to represent Howard County Council's District 3.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I just need to add that you've got a gorgeous baby on your lap (laughter).

RIGBY: Thank you. I just had a baby.

(LAUGHTER)

RIGBY: For me, it really was - if not now, then when? - because otherwise you just keep going to those county council meetings. And you get your three minutes to testify, and then the vote happens without you anyway.

JOHNSON: The question I get is, well, how are you going to be able to do it all? Who's going to take care of the kids? Well, I have a partner. I have a husband that can take care of the kids, and my kids - I've taught my kids to be self-sufficient. And if he - who is in office right now - can do it all, why can't I do it all?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it important for women to participate, or is it important for Democratic women to participate? How do you feel about Republican women showing up and also being part of the process?

ROBINSON: I think it's important for all women, but I also think that it's really important for Democratic women to step up because they are invested in those values.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But is it a win for women overall if Republican women run for office? Or is it now - or are we in such a partisan era that really that isn't the case?

RIGBY: So the research shows that women, regardless of party, are incredibly effective legislators. They're better at bringing money back to their district. They're better at collaboration. That's what all the evidence is shown. So I think that it is a win for all women when women are elected. It's having those representatives, having those faces, those experiences, and I think it's important for all women.

JOHNSON: I think it's important for all women, but if you're on the wrong side of the aisle voting for things against funding Planned Parenthood and those sort of things, it is not a win for women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So different opinions here on that. When you're looking forward now and you're looking at the political landscape, do you think that your voices will be amplified at this particular point in time?

DAWSON: I am certainly hopeful that this will continue. I don't think that this energy is going to dissipate. The most recent experience with the 2016 presidential election, I think, called a lot of people to task, especially Democrats, to do a lot of self-reflection and to understand that we can't take anything for granted. We cannot take voters for granted. We have to get in and do the work. This is an exciting time for us. We have a 2018 mid-term election coming up, and we have to be serious about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If it's hard for women, it's harder for women of color. I mean, that's just true across the board. How do you - how have you felt that? How have you dealt with that?

JOHNSON: I sit as the vice-chair of the Baltimore County School Board. And I unfortunately was reading some Facebook posts of a meeting that I was - that I had attended, and I was called Jenny from the block. I was told on the same Facebook feed that I should have - might as well have had fruit in my hair because I look like Carmen Miranda. So those sort of personal attacks and racist comments are easier, I think, thrown towards women than towards men because they think that women aren't going to say anything back.

So a woman of color - I am - do see myself as a trailblazer because we are relationship builders, so we bring people along with us. So if they are showing up to the PTA meetings or running for PTA, us being leaders and having something for our little girls to look up to - it's challenging, but it is a job that we have to continue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What would you like to see happen after you come out of this process, and you're going to start your campaigns? And is this now a career in politics?

RIGBY: I would love to see all of us win...

(LAUGHTER)

RIGBY: ...And all of us create a bench of women to follow us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what happens if you lose, though? What happens if you don't win the first time? Are you committed to staying in the race?

DAWSON: I know I certainly would run again because for me it's about being of service and not holding office. So that can have many different faces from many different aspects. And I think that we have to be relentless and continue to push forward, so absolutely, yes, I would run again.

RIGBY: I remember hearing a speaker say that men will run and lose and run again and lose and run again and win and that women tend to...

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

RIGBY: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

RIGBY: He agrees.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

RIGBY: Sorry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, no - not at all.

RIGBY: But that women often don't run again. And that really made me feel like, OK, well, if that happens, then I should think about running again. I shouldn't - I shouldn't count myself out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Thank you so, so much. I really appreciate your time.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Inaudible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Christiana Rigby, along with Ciara Robinson, Lenora Dawson and Marisol Johnson in Kensington, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.