State elections see infusion of first-time women candidates
Christine Lui Chen, a 36-year-old health care executive in New Jersey and mother of two small children, had never considered entering politics, focusing instead on her family, her career and her community.
That all changed in January, 13 hours after she attended the Women’s March on Washington. She emailed Democratic officials: “Here’s my resume. I want to get involved.”
Less than five months later, Chen’s name will be on the ballot, unopposed, in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. She hopes to become her district’s first Democratic state senator in more than 30 years, the first-ever Asian-American woman in her state’s legislature — and a spear-point for legions of enthusiastic, mainly liberal-leaning women inspired by the election of President Donald Trump to get into politics.
“I just never thought politics was in the cards,” says Chen, whose parents immigrated to the United States with almost nothing to their name. “But I don’t want to be the one who didn’t do anything, when we’re at this moment in history where we need to stand up and say, ‘This is what it means to be an American.’”
New Jersey is one of two states holding general legislative elections this year; the other is Virginia. Political analysts will be watching closely to see if there’s a shift in the red-blue balance, but the newfound enthusiasm for politics among women — particularly young women like Chen — is also drawing attention. Like her, a number of them say they were inspired by Barack Obama’s suggestion, in his farewell speech, to “grab a clipboard” and collect signatures to run for office themselves, if they were disappointed with their elected officials.
“This moment is unprecedented,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which works to recruit and elect pro-choice Democratic women. “We’ve never seen anything like it.” She says since Election Day, her organization has heard from over 13,000 women from all 50 states interested in running for office.
To compare: In 2015 and 2016 combined, about 920 women contacted the group. “And that was a good year!” she notes.
The vast majority, Schriock adds, are running in their local communities or on the state level. “They realize, ‘I’ve got to start local.’ It’s our responsibility to try to guide them into a race and that may be 2018, or it may be 2022. It’s a huge pipeline.”
In New Jersey, the Center for American Women and Politics holds an annual, non-partisan campaign training program, Ready to Run, each March at Rutgers University. Typically, only four or five women sign up by December, says Debbie Walsh, who heads the center. This year, 100 women had done so. Running out of space, organizers had to limit registration to 250.
“I’ve never felt that kind of energy,” says Walsh of the recent session, where Chen was among the trainees. “I think it’s this universal moment for a lot of women — more on the middle-of-the-road to progressive end of the spectrum — who didn’t really pay that much attention to politics, kind of thought this was a world that they didn’t need to really participate in. This idea that you could be on the sidelines and that that was OK — no longer feels OK.”
Also among this year’s trainees was Lacey Rzeszowski, 42, a registered Republican until January, when she officially switched to the Democratic side. Rzeszowski is running for New Jersey Assembly; like Chen, she hoping to turn a longtime red district blue.
Rzeszowski, who in recent years has been a fulltime mother to her three sons, says she made her final decision to run during the bus ride home from the women’s march. All day, she’d been awed by the crowd — “the scale, enormity and beauty of it,” she says. “Women standing up for women.”
And so, when her seatmate fell asleep on the way home, she found herself staring out the window. “I knew that when I got home, I was going to discuss it with my husband,” she says.
Like Chen and Rzeszowski, Lisa Mandelblatt, an attorney and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, found her career plans changing quickly after the march. She recalls feeling “stunned and horrified” after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, but newly hopeful after encountering the thousands of women — a sea of pink hats — who converged on Washington with her. “I started to feel, ‘OK, we’ve got this,’” says Mandelblatt, 53, referring to the country at large. “We’re gonna be OK.”
Perhaps because she’s a teacher, Mandelblatt already owned a clipboard. “But I grabbed it,” she laughs. She’s now preparing to run for U.S. Congress in 2018, challenging for the seat held by Rep. Leonard Lance, a Republican.
In Virginia, Danica Roem faces a June 13 primary for the House of Delegates. Roem, 32, says she was motivated less by feelings about Trump than about the longtime incumbent she seeks to unseat, Bob Marshall, a conservative Republican who Roem contends has been “for 25 years, the most anti-LGBT legislator not just in Virginia, but in the entire South.”
But Roem, a journalist and transgender woman, doesn’t plan to spend a cent on opposition research. She covered Marshall for nearly a decade for several Virginia news outlets.
On the day Roem announced her candidacy, Marshall introduced his bathroom bill, prohibiting people from entering restrooms designated for use by members of the opposite sex. “His legislative priorities are more concerned with where I go to the bathroom than how his constituents get to work,” she says, referring to a major quality-of-life issue in her district: traffic.
Roem hopes to become what she says will be the first out transgender person ever seated in a state legislature. She’s confident: Asked why her opponent has remained in his seat so long, she replies: “Because he’s never run against me before.”
Also facing a primary for a Virginia legislative seat is Jennifer Carroll Foy, a public defender. Foy never thought politics would be her thing. But her shock over the election — she’d gone to bed at 7 p.m., certain of a Clinton victory, and thought her husband was joking in the morning — spurred her to action.
“It’s true what they say,” she says about women in politics. “Men have to be told NOT to do it, while women need to be told, yes, you CAN do it.”
It took the 35-year-old attorney, who was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute, about six weeks to resolve to run. By then, she says, she had gone through various stages of grief: denial, anger. She decided not to be angry anymore.
“I realized that I can either wait for someone else to do it, or I can be that change that I’d like to see,” she says.
It’s that same realization, says Chen, that has led her to knock on hundreds of doors since resolving to oppose incumbent Michael Doherty, who she says was the first New Jersey elected official to back Trump.
For Chen, a chief motivating factor was Trump’s immigration policies, a subject close to her heart. “Are we less American because we don’t look like Donald Trump?” she asks, referring to her family. Chen says she is also motivated by the fact that her husband is a cancer survivor.
“Life is short,” she says. “Too much is at stake.”