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Democrats build the numbers for women in office

New party group seeks to prepare women to run for, and win, political office

BRATTLEBORO—Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin says she is tired of being the sole member of an exclusive club.

She remains the only woman to be elected as governor in this state. And although Vermont has the nation’s greatest number of female members in its Legislature — 41 percent — it remains one of four states that has never elected a female U.S. Senator or member of Congress.

Kunin says she’s “a little tired of hearing people brag about New Hampshire,” which has an all-female Congressional delegation (Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, and Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster), a female governor (Maggie Hassan, the state’s second), and a female speaker of the house (Terie Norelli).

She said she is not seeking to replace the current office holders, but when the day comes that Patrick Leahy, Peter Welch, Bernie Sanders, or Peter Shumlin decide they will not seek re-election, she wants to see women ready, willing, and able to run for their positions.

“We have to be primed, so that the minute there is an opening, somebody is ready to run,” said Kunin. “That’s what Emerge [Vermont] is about: to be ready to run. Women are starting to recognize that if we don’t have a seat at the table, we’re on the menu. And we want more than just a seat at the table; we want to be able to change the menu.”

Kunin was in Brattleboro at the Catherine Dianich Gallery on Dec. 5 for a local kickoff rally for Emerge Vermont (www.emergevt.org), a local offshoot of a national Democratic Party political action group that prepares women to run and win in local, state, and Congressional elections.

The event was hosted by Becca Balint, Ann Braden, and Catherine Dianich Gruver. About 50 people attended, including state Reps. Mollie Burke, Valerie Stuart, and Mike Mrowicki.

Emerge was founded in 2002 and now, with Vermont in the fold, has 14 states participating in its network. It has trained more than 1,000 women to run for elective office and has had a pretty good batting average for its candidates: Of the 43 percent of women who — after taking the 70-hour training program — decided to run for public office, 60 percent won their elections.

“It’s beyond the nuts and bolts of running a campaign,” said Emerge Vermont Executive Director Sarah McCall. “It’s about building confidence.”

Included in the curriculum are classes in public speaking, networking, developing a campaign message and how to publicize it, building a field operation, and fundraising. Training is done by teams of consultants, advisors, and staffers who have experience in all the various aspects of political campaigning.

Brattleboro Selectboard member Donna Macomber took the training in Massachusetts last year. The co-executive director of the Women’s Freedom Center narrowly lost her first race for the Selectboard in March, but was unanimously appointed to the board in June to fill the unexpired term of Ken Schneck, who resigned to take a teaching job in Ohio.

“The average woman needs to be told by at least 10 women that she trusts that she should run for office,” Macomber said. “[Emerge] really gave us the tools we needed to succeed. It demystified the process and made it real.”

She admitted that her first campaign was unsuccessful because “I don’t like self-promotion,” but the experience made her better prepared to accept the Selectboard appointment when the vacancy came up. “The moment I got that call was such an honor,” she said.

Kunin has long been an advocate for getting more women involved in politics, and she remembers how bad it used to be. She spoke of her first trip to Montpelier, in the early 1960s, to testify before the Legislature on a fair housing bill. “It was a sea of old men,” she said.

Women in office were still a novelty when Kunin won her first House race in 1972. Now, she said, women make a majority of the House Democratic Caucus, with 49 seats.

“I couldn’t have envisioned a majority of women on the Democratic side,” Kunin said. “So much has changed, and the impact of these women has been visible.“

Women are at the forefront of so many important issues — from early childhood education and workplace equity to health care reform and climate change — in Montpelier and in Washington, she said, because of the life experiences that shaped them.

“Stories matter. Life experience matters. And telling these stories and sharing our experiences helps create change,” she said. “Politics shapes everything we do, and we have a job to do, at the local level and at the legislative level. We can’t be satisfied until we reach 50 percent.”

McCall said Emerge Vermont is taking applications in January 2014 for its first training class in March. The six-month program will be open to 15 women. Scholarships will be made available for those who cannot afford the tuition.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #233 (Wednesday, December 11, 2013). This story appeared on page A1.

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