Too many women who want to seek and hold public office are afraid to dive in. Some think merely jumping in is corrupting. Others think you have to be an insider to win. Some will only enter with an invitation, after someone else decides they’ve earned it.
But when you jump in the political pool on your own and assert your right to be there, whether you’re fighting a righteous cause or because you want to be a political somebody, don’t assume the competition will be fair. To choose another metaphor, take the hits, go back to your corner, wipe the sweat off your brow, and come back swinging.
Of course, the bigger the contest, the bigger you look. It’s counterintuitive, but when you volunteer to swim with the big fish, rather than coming off as small fry, you announce yourself as a big fish, too.
When you set your sights on Election Day, this perception of being a big fish yourself will allow you to swim in the pond with other, better-known contenders. Don’t let modesty get in the way of your ambitions. You may step up and speak up because you deserve the position you want and you know you’ll do a good job.
Barack Obama is an excellent role model in this department: two years in the Senate, no foreign policy experience, and no executive experience, yet he presumed to believe that he could be president of the United States. He didn’t let his short resumé deter him, nor was he deterred by the fear that others would accuse him of hubris. He simply stated he wanted the job and was willing to enter the ring to fight for it. He knew that undertaking big battles would render him actually important, positioning him for the big win. Soon enough, that short resumé was forgotten, and people were more interested in watching how he did in the fights. And we all know how that turned out. He held his own. He looked and acted like an equal. He knew as much about the issues as his opposition. No one doubted his viability. He won. And won again.
Sarah Palin is another person who didn’t let modest qualifications deter her: small-town mayor, governor of a state with very few people, no federal experience, but, apparently, no compunctions about running for vice president. Modesty was not going to be useful to her either. She knew that the sooner she dove in with the big boys, the sooner her big Election Day would be at hand.
You don’t have to like these folks or agree with their political views to appreciate their strategic brilliance: they knew that picking a fight with the big guy could help in the effort to beat him. Louisiana governor Huey Long, my favorite example of this truism, knew it too. Before he was governor, Long was twenty-five and running as an unknown for a seat on the Louisiana Public Service Commission. But he didn’t spend his time writing position papers or trying to get the big boys to like him: he picked a fight about rate increases with Standard Oil, the biggest boy in Louisiana at the time. He said this huge company was his enemy, criticizing it vociferously and constantly making speeches to people struggling to pay their utility bills. Because he was its singular opposition, Huey Long became its equal.
The path all three of these candidates took to the big ring was the same: declare your big ambition unabashedly, directly take on the biggest opposition to your achieving it, stand in the ring, and duke it out.
Debbie Stabenow is one of only thirty women ever elected to the US Senate, and she’s been reelected twice. Stabenow was in her mid-twenties when she first ran for office in Michigan, beating an older and more established candidate. Before that, she managed her husband’s campaign for election to the county board of commissioners. When he lost, he said to her, “You should run. You’re the one who likes campaigning and talking to people.” She is still proud of that first race: “Every other house had a yard sign.”
Stabenow’s opponent was an incumbent with deeper roots in the community. He had more political experience, but Stabenow ignored his advantages and moved ahead with belief in herself and her cause: keeping the local nursing home open to low-income senior citizens in the county who depended on it.
Stabenow did not know the minutiae of health-care policy, nor did she know all the ins and outs of nursing home operations. But she knew if she won, nursing home residents could use Medicaid to pay their bills. Her opponent led the effort to close the nursing home. During the campaign, he referred to Stabenow as “that young broad.”
Stabenow knew she was young. But she knew she could and would learn more. “All of your experiences are valuable in public service,” Stabenow says. “You don’t need a political science degree.”
Bottom line: She knew that kicking those poor seniors out of the nursing home was wrong. Hers was a righteous cause, and that was enough. Her place was on the Board of Commissioners if she was to do anything about it. Time to get in the ring, she thought. However, she waited to be asked. She’s glad her husband encouraged her, but she also says about waiting, “Don’t.” (Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards also said, “Don’t wait to be asked. You won’t be.”) That’s the last time Stabenow waited to be asked. She beat incumbents to become a state representative and US congresswoman, and in 2000 became the first woman to beat a sitting US senator in a general election.
And don’t wait for a mentor, either. He or she may not come along. Stabenow says, “Older male politicians at the time were pretty threatened by a young woman.” They still are. The sooner you beat them, the sooner they will respect you. You’ll be mentoring them.
Once Stabenow became a county commissioner, her opportunity to rise came up with the opportunity to be chair two years later. “I was interested in seeing the board change. It came to me as I went along that there were enough people here who would vote for me. The opportunity was there and I took it. Have enough confidence in yourself, if the opportunity presents itself; be willing to take the risk.”
Stabenow grew up in a working family in a small town in northern Michigan. She says her parents were supportive of whatever she did and had high expectations for her, and her father never suggested she limit where she set her sights simply because she was a girl.
Lots of American girls grow up in this kind of family. But not every American girl, no matter how supportive her father is, wants to be a big political girl. If you do, and you also recognize that no matter how smart you are or how hard you work or how supportive your parents are, the odds of getting to the top are slim, there is great value in learning the Stabenow way of getting ahead of the competition: get in early, and take them on where they live.
The alternative is that your (likely male) opponent is inside the ring, on a platform above your head. He’s in a circumscribed area where the action is, an insider, while you’re outside climbing slippery, sweat-soaked ropes, just trying to get in the ring. Being different and being an outsider has its merits, as does distinguishing yourself as a caring person. At the same time, people fear outsiders, regardless of how good their ideas are, just because they are different. So once you’ve decided to campaign for public office, you need to work from the inside.
When you meet Senator Stabenow, you’re struck by the modesty of her appearance, her pleasant personality, and her all-around niceness. When you meet Barack Obama, you feel the same way. Neither has that over-the-top bluster we associate with the concept of “taking on the big boys.” But nice people are tough, too, and, yes, even immodest—immodest in their ambition to be somebody in order to benefit others. So, if you don’t have the outsized personality you associate with winning candidates, no problem. Have outsized ambition. Understand that to realize that outsized ambition, you have to fight the big boys on their own turf to acquire the power to do things for the rest of us.
Strategic imperatives once you dive in:
• Be clear on your agenda and its righteousness.
• Be willing to declare its righteousness to anyone who will listen.
• Be willing to buttonhole anyone who resists.
• Learn as soon as you can the mechanics of winning small elections—they’ll make the case for your right to win bigger ones.
• Don’t wait until you know every policy nuance to make the decision to run. Your competition will be winning by then.
• Don’t ever wait to be asked to run.
Note: Excerpted with permission from Every Day is Election Day: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House by Rebecca Sive, published by Chicago Review Press.
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Rebecca Sive is a Lecturer at University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, a Huffington Post contributor, former business executive, and member of the Illinois Human Rights Commission. Rebecca co-founded one of the nation’s first women’s centers, was among organizers of women’s issues agendas for Presidents Clinton and Obama, and is listed in Feminists Who Changed America. To learn more about Rebecca’s work, go to rebeccasive.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org