By Molly Igoe
The Goldstein Program in Public Affairs at Washington College and the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College hosted the first annual college women’s candidate training workshop called Training Ms. President. Selected students from WC and Goucher College participated in a daylong candidate-training workshop that covered campaign messaging, candidate recruitment, social media, and perspectives on running for office. Panelists included elected representatives from the state of Maryland as well as government appointees and journalists.
The conference is the brainchild of Dr. Melissa Deckman, Louis L. Goldstein professor of Public Affairs and chair of the Political Science Department at WC, Dr. Christine Wade, associate professor of political science and international studies, curator of Louis L. Goldstein ’35 Program in Public Affairs, faculty advisor for the Peace and Conflict Studies Concentration, and Latin American Studies Concentration, and Dr. Mileah Kromer, assistant professor of political science and international relations at Goucher College.
As a participant in the conference, I learned a lot about how to brand yourself effectively as a candidate, how to use social media to your advantage when running for office, and many other tips useful for young women like myself interested in running for political office or staffing a campaign.
The conference took place Thursday, Nov. 5 and Friday, Nov. 6 for most of the day. Thursday consisted of getting to know the women from Goucher College and watching the documentary “Training Ms. President,” which encourages young women to run for public office.
On Friday, 14 panelists shared their various experiences and backgrounds in campaigning and running for office. All the women emphasized the importance of women helping out other women, regardless of party affiliation, and the need for passion and dedication for an issue or issues to base your campaign around.
The first panel spoke about presentation of self and use of social media during a campaign. The first speaker was Jennifer Gilbert, anchor for Fox 45 News in Baltimore. She became interested in journalism in high school as she said, “journalism allows you to be a student of every subject, and you are constantly learning and striving to become an expert in many different fields.”
Gilbert warned against saying “no comment” as a candidate in response to a controversial question and instead to focus on making the responses conversational and unstaged. One piece of advice she shared with us was the importance of being ourselves. She ended her discussion with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do something everyday that scares you.”
Hannah Marr, a 2012 graduate of WC, who now works as Gov. Larry Hogan’s deputy press secretary, spoke about using social media effectively to campaign and what to avoid on social media.
She reiterated that your message as a candidate is your brand and that your brand can be improved by using social media to humanize yourself as a candidate. Marr used the example of a recent post she shared on Facebook on Halloween of Gov. Hogan’s face photoshopped onto Mr. Clean’s body, which was a way for the Hogan administration to portray some humor in his current battle with cancer. She warned those of us who post frequently on social media to be wary of what we post and who can see what we post because nothing on the Internet ever goes away.
The next panelist to speak was Alexandra M. Hughes, chief of staff to Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates Michael E. Busch. Hughes discussed the importance of cultivating an assertive handshake in a “man’s environment” and the conundrum that many women who hold political positions face in being far more outnumbered by men.
Above all she emphasized why it is so crucial to build a thick skin in the world of politics: “People will be mean and obnoxious, but you can’t cry or let them see you sweat. You can cry when you’re alone in your room.” That being said, she said that most people in the House of Delegates are friends with one another, regardless of political party, and that one crucial step in maintaining your sanity while in political office is to avoid taking things too personally.
Donna Victoria, the president and founder of Victoria Research and Consulting, then led a panel about campaign marketing. She spoke about her role as a pollster in crafting a candidate’s message and the importance of language in making sure that message resonates.
At only 24, Liz Richardsserves a political consultant for the Democratic media firm McKenna Pihlaja. She discussed how she got her current job by running four campaigns throughout college. Her job entails creating radio ads, digital ads, and TV ads to get the word out about a campaign.
Business consultant and former Lt. Gov. Lois Burke Shepard began by saying that you have to be passionate about something as a candidate, so whatever that may be can be made into your platform. She said, “When you’re running for office, you’re asking for people to give you power. Many people don’t understand the difference between power and influence, and you need to have passion to influence change.”
Audra Harrison, director of Public Information for the Office of Housing and Community Development, emphasized the importance of doing the “grunt work” to make it to where you eventually want to go, which means as an intern and a lower assistant doing things that no one else necessarily wants to do. The two rules to follow during a campaign are, as she described, to define yourself before your opponent can define you and to stay on message, which sometimes entails rephrasing questions into what you want them to say.
All of the women agreed that more women have to run for office, and that as women, we cannot doubt one another or ourselves.
The third panel of the day discussed candidate recruitment in greater detail. President of the Maryland Federation of Republican Women Carol Randall shared her experiences with sexism and ageism in the political field. She said, “There are clear differences between recruiting for women and men, and there is a huge ambition gap between men and women that sets women back.”
Kelly Schulz, secretary for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, began by saying, “Be exactly who you are and who God intended you to be.” She also said that as women, we tend to be our own worst enemies, which makes women more likely than men to doubt our qualifications and abilities.
She said, “We are strong, and we as a gender are the majority; we make up 56 percent of the electorate. The only thing holding us back is other women.”
Valerie Ervin, executive director for the Center for Working Families, became involved in her local PTA after her son was placed in a much lower reading level than he was actually able to read at. She ran for the school board, won, and served for two years. She ended up changing certain testing policies in Montgomery County schools that set back students like her son who were deemed not good learners.
Ervin said that the CWF looks for candidates with authenticity, relatibility, and passion. They work to recruit and help women and people of color who are ready to run for office.
Diane Fink is the executive director of Emerge Maryland, an organization dedicated to helping women attain public office in Maryland, which has trained 50 women, half of who are women of color. Fink shared some statistics that show the unequal representation of men and women in positions of political office.
There are no women under 40 in the Maryland senate, and only seven women in the House and two women on county council. Fink said it is important to keep inequalities in mind during recruitment and that Emerge Maryland recruits diverse women who range from age 22 to 65, some with disabilities, some with no kids, and all have different jobs.
She said, “We want to recruit strong leaders who are motivated, committed, ethical, who have instances of prior leadership, who can inspire others, and also build connections and leadership.” She ended by saying, “Just go for it.”
The last panel explored what it is like running for office from a candidate’s perspective. Laura Neumann, former county executive of Anne Arundel County, had a unique perspective growing up in a poor family of five in a row house in Baltimore, was a highschool and college dropout, and was raped at the age of 18. She decided to go into public service after 9/11 and said, “It is gratifying to know that your work makes a difference in people’s lives.”
Former Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson became involved in her child’s school board, much like Valerie Ervin, and became interested in helping the county build new schools and changing current laws. She ran for county council in a very tight race, won, and served for eight years. Watson spoke about the gender bias that is subtle but still present in many political fields. She said, “Women must look out for other women.”
Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the Office of the Governor, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio was the youngest woman at the time of her election to be elected to state office, which she held for 11 years, and then became the minority whip for the Maryland House of Delegates. She said, “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing on a campaign because you’re working 24/7, and you have to be able to look past the negative things and remember why you’re running.”
The diversity of the panelist’s backgrounds was inspiring and eye-opening because I see clearly now that strong passion and convictions can lead you to go places you may not have planned to go, whether that be in public office or somewhere else. All the women who spoke agreed that young women need to run for office to bring a different dynamic to a field so heavily dominated by men.