Popaganda: The Blue Wave

As we go into the 2018 midterm election season, we’ve got a lot of unknowns to think about. What can we expect to change this time around? Will there be more political upsets, like we’ve seen during the Democratic primaries in New York with the ascendancy of first-timer Alexandria Ocasio Cortez? One thing’s for sure: this year, more women, especially women of color, are running for public office than have ever before. Today, I’ll talk to two people with unique insight into how this all happened and what we can look forward to in November.

First, I talk to Erin Vilardi, the founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, an organization that trains women to run for office. Then I speak to Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray, who is seeking her party’s nomination for a Congressional seat in a few weeks, about why she’s running.

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TRANSCRIPT

SOLEIL HO: Hello! You’re listening to Popaganda, a podcast by Bitch Media. This is Soleil Ho. On this episode, I talk about politics. Yeah, right, you’re probably thinking. Doesn’t she always talk about how everything is political? Ok, yes, but on this episode I’ll be talking about capital-P, West Wing-ass, suits and ties and gerrymandering politics. 

As we go into the 2018 midterm election season, we’ve got a lot of unknowns to think about. What can we expect to change this time around? Will there be more political upsets, like we’ve seen during the Democratic primaries in New York with the ascendancy of first-timer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? One thing’s for sure: this year, more women, especially women of color, are running for public office than have ever before. Today, I’ll talk to two people with unique insight into how this all happened and what we can look forward to in November. 

We’re also soliciting reader ideas for topics we could cover on future shows, so please email your ideas for topics or even people you’d like to hear on the show if you’ve got ‘em! Thanks to everyone who’s submitted ideas so far. 

[theme music] 

A lot of pundits have called 2018 the year of the woman. Which is…kind of sad, since there have been women in the United States pretty much the whole time, right? [aggravated sigh] Anyway, analysts and your run-of-the-mill political commentators have cited the many horrors of the Trump administration and the consciousness-raising efforts of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement as catalysts for this. It feels like this rush of women into political office is the end result of a collective roar. And many analysts predict, voters are going to join the chorus. 

[recorded clip from YouTube plays] 

CROWD: [all chanting in unison] The truth, the truth, the truth is on fire! Donald Trump is a mother-fucking liar! The, the truth, the truth…. 

SOLEIL: According to a report from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 476 women are running for Congressional seats this year, up from the last peak of close to 300 back in 1992. It’s a diverse crowd, also. In November, Bitch ran a story on women of color who are now running for office, including Dr. Mai Khanh Tran in California, Debra Haaland in New Mexico, and Lucy McBath in Georgia. McBath, the mother of shooting victim Jordan Davis, just won the Democratic Congressional primary. And so did Haaland. So far, a lot of the women have been winning their primaries, even against longtime incumbents. 

So today, I’ll talk to two people who have insider info on how we’ve gotten such a dramatic turnout. First, I talk to Erin Vilardi, the founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, an organization that trains women to run for office. Then I speak to Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray, who is seeking her party’s nomination for a Congressional seat in a few weeks, about why she’s running. I hope you enjoy the show! 

[heavy metal Bull Mice cover of Suffragette City] 

♪ Hey man, ah leave me alone you know 

Hey man, well Henry, get off the phone, I gotta 

Hey man, I gotta straighten my face 

This mellow black chick just put my spine out of place 

Hey man, my school day’s insane 

Hey man, my work’s down the drain 

Hey man, well she’s a total blam-blam 

She said she had to squeeze it but she… then she… 

Ah don’t lean on me man, cause you can’t afford the ticket 

I’m back from Suffragette City 

Oh don’t lean on me man…. ♪ 

 

SOLEIL: How do you turn activist energy into action? To many of us, the leap from arguing with strangers and relatives on social media and calling our representatives to actually becoming those representatives seems really intimidating. It’s a thing that other people do, right? Erin Vilardi and her organization, VoteRunLead, are working to help women get over that mental hurdle, to actually get out there and run. 

ERIN VILARDI: VoteRunLead is a national training organization that teaches women how to run for office and win. We specialize in training women on local and state office. There are over 519,000 local and state offices across the country, and we are the largest and most diverse training program for women in the United States. 

SOLEIL: So on your website—I found this really fascinating—was 70% of your first-time candidates actually won their races. That’s amazing. 

ERIN: Absolutely. In 2017, we saw a ton of first-time candidates. Like many of the other organizations that are sort of endorsing or helping folks get elected, the win rate was phenomenal. And as we’re looking at the 2018 primary season, we’re seeing about 65% of our alumni win their primaries as well, which is fantastic. Because in some cases, we have women who are going against the Democratic Party system in Chicago, for example. In others, we have women running in rural America who will be, probably, the first woman to sit on that City Council. And we have places where women who maybe are gonna win their primary but not make it past the general, but that no one has ran against this guy in 30 years. So at least she’s changing the dialogue for right now. 

And part of that is, after the 2016 election, when tens of thousands of women were saying, “Hey, I might wanna run for office,” we really had to look at our curriculum and the message that we were putting out and assessed this new wave of women who were running, many of whom were newcomers to politics. So we knew we had to sort of ramp up the political education piece in kind of a quicker way. And that they thus didn’t have the same kind of political capital. So we had to really change some of our curriculum to how do you build political capital really quickly?  

But the most critical piece, I think, of the curriculum change was the message around it, and it’s called Run As You Are. Run As You Are is exactly what it sounds like. You don’t have to have worked in the party system for 25 years to run for City Council. You are qualified to do it, and we will help you figure out how to transfer the skills of your unique life experiences and what that means, how you transfer them to public life. And it’s been highly resonant for women who thought they’d have to sort of change their personalities or put on a hideous suit [laughing] in order to run for office. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

ERIN: And part of it, what we heard in 2017 is, from the women who won, was that that was a really freeing way for them to think about their election. And it allowed them to connect with their neighbors and to tell a real story about who they were and why they were running and why they were qualified that got them elected. 

SOLEIL: Yeah! That Run As You Are idea seems so, it feels so resonant, especially after watching just 2016 and the way that Hillary Clinton was criticized for every single thing that she did. And so, it’s kind of scary. You know, you think like, if I’m not perfect or perfectly poised, or my social media is like completely clean, there’s no chance. 

ERIN: Mmhmm. You know, and there’s definitely some of this, you have to be a professional. Going for any job, whether it’s a job inside of the private sector, or you want people to invest in your small business or your side hustle, you know, you need a level of professionalism. Some critics have said, “Oh, not anybody can just run for office.” I was like, “Well, you can’t.” But [laughs] most of the women who are coming through our program understand that the message isn’t just this, come as you are, right? It’s the willingness to sort of remain in your principles and remain in your values and not sell yourself as something that you can’t deliver or as something that you’re not. And it says, “I’m not gonna change my full outward appearance in order to fit into some sort of political mold. I’m actually here to break the political mold, and I’m gonna do it in a professional manner. And I’m gonna do it with a great team around me, and I’m gonna do it with kickass messages and graphics from my 21 year-old kid sister. But I’m gonna do it the way I wanna do it. I’m not gonna do it following a traditional mold that has been built predominantly by and for men of a certain age and of a certain background. 

SOLEIL: So you mentioned that your organization has critics. What do you imagine their sorts of goals or ideas are? 

ERIN: One of my—and I wouldn’t say maybe this is a criticism—but one of the most interesting questions I get: we’re a non-partisan organization, which blows people’s minds on all sides of the, sort of all areas of the spectrum. And even just two nights ago, we were hosting an event, and a woman in the front row asked me, you know, “So, are you saying all women?” [chuckles] And I’m like, “Hell, yes I’m saying all women.” There are half a million seats in this country, and we have never said there could only be a certain type and a certain belief of man who could run for office. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. 

ERIN: And there’s no reason for us to do that to women and to sort of hide our resources and hide our knowledge and sort of cluster this political information because we believe that we’re the arbiters of who gets to decide who runs for office. We’ve gotta stop that sort of like policing of who gets to lead on the women’s leadership front. And but yes, we’re sticking these women in a room with a really diverse group of other women. So the woman from corporate America is sitting next to the young woman wearing hijab. The small business owner is sitting next to the social justice advocate, and we’re talking about taxes, right, and why we need your small business to pay taxes so that social services can happen. We’re having this dialogue because women actually listen to each other. 

SOLEIL: Hmm. 

ERIN: And at the scale that VoteRunLead is trying to do this work, if I get 5,000 crazies in there, that’s great. I’ve got 495,000 awesome, kickass, radical women infiltrating government from the inside. And so I’m willing to take that bargain. 

And then finally, the sort of last reason that we remain non-partisan is because at the heart of our feminist principles is that we trust women. We trust them to make up their own minds about what issues are most important to them. We trust them to understand their constituents in the regions that they live in and what Party label may or may not work for them in order to get elected. We trust their political savvy. And you know, we do it rooted in feminist principles and intersectional feminist principles. But we do, our door is open. We wanna see as many educated women on civic engagement and political life and running for office as we see men. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. Yeah. I would imagine at a certain point too, there’d be a bit of self-filtering that happens. 

ERIN: Totally. 

SOLEIL: Because I’m just imagining like perhaps a white nationalist woman would see your stated commitment to women in color in office and just be like, “Oh, that’s probably not the organization for me,” right? 

ERIN: [laughs] Right. And Ilhan Omar, our sort of most famous and amazing alumni, a Muslim-American woman, mom of three, age 34, refugee from Somalia right on our website when you first get on. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] Right. 

ERIN: There’s some self-filtering. Yeah, that definitely happens. And this is a pro-women’s agenda. You know, this is about if we’re gonna have women step up to leadership, the conditions around her, right, you have to be able to walk safely in the world. You have to be able to have economic independence. You have to make choices about your body and your state of health in order for, these are conditions that are necessary for women to lead. And these are the conditions that men have had in order for them to lead and to step out publicly. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. Yeah. So what I’m curious too, because I think you’re saying “women” a lot. But I am curious: is there any sort of specific outreach for transwomen in your organization or non-binary people? Or is this— 

ERIN: Absolutely, yeah. 

SOLEIL: OK. 

ERIN: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve got some great alumni from the trans community: Gerri Cannon up in New Hampshire, who’s the first transwoman, I think, elected to her school board, now running for City Council. Andrea Jenkins, first woman of color, transwoman on the Minneapolis City Council. And we’ve been including the trans community since, I think, 2005, 2006, when we first started this work under another organization. And it’s definitely something I have to get better at language-wise that has long-been part of the values of VoteRunLead. And I think that comes from our co-founders. If you look at our co-founder community, we’re from all over the country. We are various different ages and half women of color community activists and have had a long history of being one of the first women’s organizations to put marginalized communities front and center. 

SOLEIL: While it might be easy to brush off this kind of advocacy as a coastal, big city thing—that it would never play in the American Heartland—it’s proving to be effective in rural areas too. 

ERIN: [chuckles] When we first went up to the Iron Range in Minnesota, it was all these radical feminists, lesbians that were getting all this critique that was like, “There’s a lesbian takeover of our City Council!” 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

ERIN: And we were like, “Hell, yeah! Let’s do this,” right? They came from the mining community, they worked in economic development, and they were getting elected. And you know, it definitely shook some power structures, but there’s different things we have to know when stepping into rural communities. One, these have been your neighbors since you were a baby. Probably you’re knocking on someone’s door who used to change your diaper, right? They know who you are. There’s a smaller number of constituents that you have to reach. So the whisper campaigns can be even stronger within a rural community. There’s this sort of acceptance that like, Jim has had this job for 30 years, and his son, Jim Jr.’s, gonna get the job next, right? 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. 

ERIN: So there’s like this kind of baked-in like, “He’s just the guy to do it.” And so you know, there’s a different level of barrier setting. You have a difference in economic advantages and disadvantages for women. So when we’re doing work in rural communities, we have to be using experts from rural communities; we have to be bringing in women who’ve run. Because it’s a different beast. 

SOLEIL: One thing I wondered, though, because I can’t allow myself any unbridled joy, was whether all of the positivity around women running for office and getting stuff done was steeped in gender essentialism. Is it totally positive for women to bank on these stereotypes to gain power? 

ERIN: A lot of the qualities that you actually see women leaders bring is because they have been at the foot of the table. We have been at the foot. Because we have been outside of power, you don’t have traditional hierarchical systems to say, “Oh, look. You’re the decision maker. You’re the kingmaker. I’m putting you at the top.” So the collaborative nature, I’m not sure if it’s, I don’t think there’s a little piece in our DNA that’s like, “We’re collaborators.” 

BOTH: [chuckle] 

ERIN: I actually think it has to do with the fact that we could get only so much done going through traditional power structures, that we had to look at other relational mechanisms to build power. And that required collaboration across a diverse group of stakeholders, across other non-traditional players. You had to build power in numbers. And so I think part of the sort of collaborative nature, if you will, is actually a nurture response because we’ve been outside of power for so long. And the world is now sort of catching up to us around relational leadership that it turns out that yes, we need a mix of hierarchical and flat relationship in order to have successful leadership. That the one size fits all cannot work, right? 

And especially if you’re looking at a legislative body, like your state legislature is 45 people or 145 people. You have to get 17 people to sign on your bill. You have to get your five-man committee to put it out to the House floor, right? So the majority of legislative government jobs actually require collaboration across people who have different interests. And so it fits also the mold of sort of what government is. Yeah, we want sort of political entrepreneurs to get in there who are gonna take risks and do innovative things. But it turns out in order for a bill to become a law, you need a bunch of other people to sign onto your bill. And so that require negotiation. That requires a level of political savvy, relationship building that is skills that women have honed from being outside of these systems of power. 

SOLEIL: I think that’s really interesting how like we’re able to turn what feels like a negative, right, like the personalities that we develop because of living into a patriarchy into something that might be a positive, [chuckles] at least within this very specific world. 

ERIN: Mmhmm. Totally. But then we need you to be the Mayor and the Governor and the President. 

BOTH: [laugh] 

[mellow music] 

SOLEIL: Next, I wanted to talk to someone who was actually running for office this year. After Keith Ellison, the former House Rep for my home district, announced that he’d be vacating his seat, it essentially got bum rushed. Among the five hopefuls, the three frontrunners are women: Minnesota House Rep Ilhan Omar, Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray, and former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Two weeks before the primaries, I sat down with Senator Torres Ray to get her impressions of the ways the political landscape has evolved. 

SENATOR PATRICIA TORRES RAY: Well, you know, I think that when I ran for the Senate in 2006, there was a lot of frustration out there, issues around disparities. You know, I have been dealing with, I have been working on disparities issues for the last 27 years of my career. So disparities and inequality have been part of the conversation in politics in Minnesota and the nation for some time. And so, many of us really started this conversation and really been watching what was happening in politics and really being frustrated with the lack of representation of particularly communities of color and Native people in government. And that was what was really my inspiration in 2006, that I thought we needed to do more; we needed to run. We really needed to be part of this political system. 

I think what is different today is that more and more, we’re talking about really this inequality that is creating this huge gap between people who have a ton of money and people who have so little. And it used to be that this group that had so little was viewed as only people of color, people who didn’t have education, people who didn’t have access. But now, it’s all of us! 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

PATRICIA: Even students, young people who finish college and end up in debt and don’t have money to pay their bills. So it’s truly the 99%. And that is really what is so exciting about this moment in politics, that everybody’s truly engaged, and the conversation is very deep because it involves a coalition that is so big. 

SOLEIL: Yeah. Along that route, a lot of people, I think, who are Millennials or just people who are politically engaged to some degree, especially now, they’re feeling very pessimistic. 

PATRICIA: Mmhmm. 

SOLEIL: They’re not having kids, they just don’t know what to look forward to in politics, they think it’s too late to change anything. Obviously, you’re running for Congress, so you don’t think that, right? [laughs] 

PATRICIA: Absolutely not! And actually, that is the reason I’m running for Congress, because I believe very strongly: You see, when you have been in the trenches for so long, like I have for 27 years, you know that there are things that can happen and that these opportunities are the opportunities that you really want in order to just really move policies forward, to move the conversation forward, to get excited about what is next for us. So I think that I am very optimistic about the future. And what I want, especially our young generation to know, all of us really, is that when people tell us, “You know, I don’t think we can afford to have free college in this country,” really? Really? Yes, we can. In fact, we know how to, right? When we say, we have, in this country, we have decided that 55% of the budget that taxpayers pay for—because that’s our budget, we pay for it, right? That’s the nation’s budget—55% goes to the Feds. If we were to cut that particular budget by 5%, we will be able to relieve the debt of every student in this nation. 

SOLEIL: 5%? 

PATRICIA: That simple. 5%. 5%. And Bernie Sanders had been saying that, right? We have the money to pay for our kids’ education. We have the money to actually restructure our healthcare system. We have the numbers; they are very compelling. It’s just a mathematical equation, right? So that’s the hope that I have, that we will be fighting for that because it makes sense, and it puts our economy, our communities, our neighborhoods, our social, our life in a different path. That we go in a different path. And that’s what this generation is asking, and I’m looking forward to that day. And I’m gonna fight for that day with everything I have. 

SOLEIL: Wonderful. So I’m sure you’re paying a lot of attention, then, to the race coming up, the midterms. There might be a lot of flipped seats, there might not, across the nation. So what do you feel like are the chances of enacting that sort of sweeping change within the House? Do you think there’s any chance of Democrats taking the majority [laughs] in the next four years? 

PATRICIA: Yes. I think there is a very strong possibility. 

SOLEIL: Hmm. 

PATRICIA: I think one thing that I will add to the current approach and strategy that Democrats are pursuing in particular: I think that this rhetoric and this talk about fighting Trump, fighting Trump is important. And we need to do that, of course, because we need to get rid of Trump, and that’s why we’re doing all of this work to engage people. I think that the message is incomplete in many of these campaign. Yeah, I’m gonna go to Washington, and I’m going to fight Trump. OK. And then what, right? What is it that I am going to accomplish, and how do I accomplish that? That’s when I get a little frustrated, that we just have put all of this emphasis on this message against Trump. And I think that Millennials and the voters are smarter than that because they are asking the question. Yeah, well, you go to Washington, you pick a fight with the president, and then we do that. And so let’s think of a scenario where you are the majority. So what are you gonna do? You know, how do you get there? And I think that is really the question that we need to keep asking. 

What is inspiring is not the fight against Trump. What is inspiring is what comes next. What comes after the fight with Trump, right? How do we decide the priorities of a budget that actually put priorities on education? How do we formulate free college for students? How do we really move into universal single payer? How do we provide incentives for young people own a home? What is that we need to do with private sector, with affordable housing? All of these things are things that I hope we get more into the details so people really begin to understand: oh, this is what will happen to me after you fight Trump. [chuckles] 

SOLEIL: Right. 

PATRICIA: This is the direct result of that process of getting you in the majority. And I wanna really continue to talk about what that is. What are really the alternatives that we’re offering, and how do we execute that? 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. Yeah. Speaking of execution too, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of criticism from people on the really far Left—which you know, it’s interesting to track—of party leadership in the Democrat side, just how full of compromise they are or just how willing they are to sort of sell out DACA for instance or just people for whom, you know, who are very much like political bargaining chips. 

PATRICIA: Mmhmm, mmhmm. 

SOLEIL: And so I guess especially as a junior Representative in Congress, how much power could you have to effect change when it kind of pushes party leadership in a direction that they’ve been really resistant to? 

PATRICIA: Yeah. And I think that’s precisely where the activist voice and the push, the hard push that is happening outside of these political circles inside of Washington is just so absolutely critical. As a Senator, I live that in the Minnesota Senate where you have members that represent areas that are more conservative. And those representatives, although they hold these values and these principles very dearly and very seriously, they have to compromise. And many times, they just have to make decisions that are against their own personal values. And so if you don’t have the pressure from the outside to really support these members and tell them, “We have your back. You have to move in this direction because it is the solution.” And I think that that’s where we really need to take this movement in support of the people who are willing to take these risks and who are willing to do this work. And challenging those who, you know, in theory wanna do it but are afraid to do it because they are so attached to their job that they’re not willing to take that risk, right? 

SOLEIL: Right. 

PATRICIA: ‘Cause it’s like, we have to remember the reason we run for office, right? 

SOLEIL: I was thinking about Alexandra Ocasio and just how much she was up against and how much work and the walking around and knocking on doors. [laughs] It just seems really overwhelming. But you have to be so powered by emotion and drive and desire to change things to do that. 

PATRICIA: Exactly. 

SOLEIL: Because I don’t think the people with tons of money are doing that, personally, right? 

PATRICIA: Right. 

SOLEIL: The really rich, rich, rich people like Dick Cheney probably [laughing] never knocked on any doors? 

PATRICIA: No. No, they won’t. I mean, they won’t. They will print a lot of material, send it out, and people will throw it in the garbage. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

PATRICIA: So that’s a bad use of a ton of money. So I am in the streets, and I love being in the streets. And I’m very inspired by the stories of people, and I think people appreciate it. I do that every day. And I feel that people not only need that connection, but they are hungry for using their own power or their own voice. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do in this campaign. You know, I have said time and time again, “I’m going to Washington, but you’re coming with me.” And that’s what I’ve done as a Senator, you know? 

People in my office, there are many people who come to my office, and they are like, “You know, Senator Torres Ray? I went to visit my Senator, but they’re busy. They just, I couldn’t make an appointment with my own Senator. And so I came to talk to you.” 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

PATRICIA: And it’s just like, “OK. Come on! Thank you for that visit, and let’s talk about the issue. But you are going to insist that your Senator meets with you, OK? And if you don’t get it, I want you to write a letter. And if you don’t get a response to that letter, I want you to write a Letter to the Editor. And you’re going to expose that because we work for you.” And I take that very seriously. I have so many people who have come to my office with that story time and time again: “Oh well. My Senator is So and So, and he or she doesn’t have the time to meet with me.” That’s just absolutely outrageous. 

And we resolve a lot of issues in my office. A lot of the work that I do in policies is really driven by the stories of my constituents. ‘Cause when a constituent come to my office and say, you know, “Senator, I have a problem,” then I go like, “OK. What is the problem? Is it the county? Is it housing?” Whatever it is, then I get to talk about the policy. What created that problem for you? Because that same problem is repeating, right, somewhere for other individuals. So then we get to talk about policy and how we correct the policy issue. I just believe in that model, and I feel very strongly that that’s the solution. That people need to feel the power of their voices at the legislative level, at the federal level. And then together, we find solutions. 

[loungey music] 

SOLEIL: Good luck, Senator. Thanks to Erin Vilardi and Senator Patricia Torres Ray for speaking with me for today’s show. 

And thanks to you for listening. This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Bull Mice for their cover of Suffragette City. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Or as always, you can just review us on iTunes! 

You can help make Popaganda possible. Become a pollinator. Pollinators receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, and other great benefits. Become a pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators. 

[theme music]

Soleil Ho
by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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