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First-time candidates train at Women’s campaign school at Yale

June 17, 2018 GMT

Seated shoulder to shoulder, women of all ages scribble furiously on legal pads, the glow of Macbooks illuminating their faces. They pause, focused on a montage of video clips playing at the front of a classroom where Hillary Clinton once sat as a student at Yale Law School.

Some gasp, others laugh, as the clips show one combative interview after another between national TV news anchors and politicians.

“This is what you’re about to throw yourself into,” says Joel Silberman, a progressive media and message strategist who’s trained politicians from U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren to Democratic candidate for governor Ned Lamont, and is currently working with the student survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. “Are you ready?”

It’s day four of a five-day intensive boot camp at the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, which brings speakers and guests from across the political spectrum. Nearly 100 women from around the globe, many of whom are making their first foray into politics, nod in agreement.

They’re ready.

Easton Democrat Anne Hughes who is running for the 135th state House district, said she has been interested in politics for some time, but it wasn’t until 2016 when friends urged her to run for office that she decided to do so.

“I’m part of the women phenomenon in some ways that we have to be asked a lot and we don’t see ourselves at the table very easily,” Hughes said. “It’s interesting that, I guess, I fall into that same category that we have to be encouraged, supported and, frankly, trained.”

Hughes has been to campaign school before. She was in the first class of Emerge Connecticut, a program that trains Democratic women to run for office.

Unlike that group, Yale’s program is non-partisan. Patti Russo, director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, declined to give the enrollment breakdown by party, but said the women who attend are overwhelmingly Democratic. The school has made a concerted effort to involve Republican women, she said, but in these divisive times, it has not been easy.

“I think that that really speaks to the two cultures of the parties, which are very different,” Russo said. “We spend a lot of time at the school reaching out to a variety of different Republican groups to talk about the importance of investing in more Republican women to run for office.”

The school has seen a surge in applicants registered as independent or unaffiliated voters.

“I’m wondering if some of those women used to be Republican,” Russo said.

A newfound interest

A year and a half after Clinton failed to win the highest executive office, women have come out in droves to run for office. While these women were frustrated and looking to get involved, Russo said, they were woefully unprepared to do so.

“We were flooded with calls from women who were mad, but I discovered that of all the women that had reached out, one-third weren’t even registered to vote, and two-thirds of the women who reached out to us really were not ready to run for office at all,” she said. “So we raised money and created a whole new level of our training expressly for the women who have a newly founded interest in politics.”

Some have found their way without benefit of the school’s training.

Laura Kostin, a Greenwich Democrat whose first involvement in politics was her election to the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting last year, learned that firsthand when she was attacked by a local blogger who encouraged his followers to vote for anyone except women. She said she believes he’s an outlier, but she’s also noticed a difference in the way she’s treated on the campaign trail. Kostin is now challenging incumbent Republican Fred Camillo for his seat representing Greenwich in the state House.

“People have said, ‘You have four kids how are you going to do this?’ and nobody ever asks that of a man that has four kids,” Kostin said. “I find that amusing.”

Lucy Dathan, a Democrat from New Canaan, moved to Connecticut from Silicon Valley three years ago with her husband and three children. Though she’s long been a follower of politics, it wasn’t until she felt her representatives didn’t represent her at all that she decided to get involved.

“The initial first spark of it is what’s happening in our national government,”she said of her decision to run for the 142nd district seat in the state House of Representatives. “It was starting to trickle into our own state and that upset me and I think many people are losing their voice in government.”

Red, Blue, Purple and Pink

While the surge in new female candidates might appear at first to be a blue wave, J.R. Romano, chairman of the state Republican party, said he’s also seen a significant increase in political newcomers, particularly minority and women candidates, during the last two legislative election cycles.

“We’ve seen a massive increase,” Romano said. “We have some tremendous new candidates on our side of the aisle who are looking to lead. Republicans are looking to lead, they’re not looking to resist.”

In the 1970s, Connecticut was a leader in electing women to office — it was one of the first states to elect five women to the state Senate. The state’s rank for gender parity in elected office has steadily dropped since 2010 when the state was eighth in the nation and had 32 percent of its elected seats filled by women — the most in state history, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics.

The state has dropped to 21st in the nation with just 27 percent of its elected seats filled by women. In the state Senate, nine seats are filled by women — seven Democrats and two Republicans - and in the state House, 42 of 151 seats are filled by women with exactly half representing each major party.

But 2018 could be the year women fill more seats in the state legislature than ever before as more women step out of the shadows to run for office.

“I find it to be tremendously empowering and I can only hope that we are the change that we’ve been waiting for. I can only hope,” Kostin said. “Hartford can be a dysfunctional place but let’s hope some good sense will prevail.”

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt