Sex can no longer be tolerated as the entry price some women must pay for civic engagement. #MeTooPolitics.
Of Running Women and Wandering Wives
When I announced my inaugural run for office, attorneys, campaign consultants and major donors extended their services and resources to me. I was grateful because these men were among a short list of political gatekeepers in my town; their support would overwhelmingly determine my chances of winning. But the greatest offers usually came with a price I was unwilling to pay.
The most effusive of these offers of assistance tended to be followed up with a text or voicemail message that, “their wives happened to be out of town that day” and “they wanted to know if I was “available”.” It’s comical how unoriginal this line is and yet so many of them used it. And why would they need a different lure?
Politics is a sport in which women are easy prey. Women who run for office have no sexual harassment protections. They work for free, they aren’t employees and 90% of their time is spent asking for money. Men in politics know this and freely take advantage of it. It’s a feeding frenzy.
It’s amazing how many wives wandered. Who knew history’s homemakers were such a bedouin tribe? Mere days into my run, I was reminded I wasn’t the typical candidate. I was a somewhat attractive female with intellectual pedigree. So I was playing a different game. If this isn’t how you would describe yourself and you think this is an advantage, read on and count your blessings. Our strengths and weaknesses in life are always intertwined.
The Question Every Political Gatekeeper Needs to Hear in the Era of #MeTooPolitics
For female aspiring leaders there are three main roles a man with any political or economic power will assume: the opportunist, the separatist and the ally. Women would be wise to ask which one she is working with.
First is the opportunist: he presents a woman with a pyrrhic bind: he is the man who loves having a woman to “help” and will promise you the world for an age-old entry fee. This man is often driven by his ego. He is the one who aspires to have the diversified portfolio of beautiful women, fine automobiles and bragging rights about docking his yacht in the most prominent marina — literally and metaphorically. #MeTooPolitics seeks to out political opportunism system-wide. Submitting to sexual advances can no longer be tolerated as the entry price some women must pay for civic engagement.
The opportunist often uses either subtle or overt ways to put sex on the negotiating table. This is a personal and regional power move that forces a woman into a pyrrhic bind and odds are she will lose. If she wins, her victory will be at some cost to herself that can make winning barely worth it. In my region the men with the most power who were not elected officials, sometimes assumed this role. There are but a handful of political and economic gatekeepers in any one region. Most are men and this is what they expect because they make the rules of the game.
For as many men who rushed in to “help” me there were just as many men who would have nothing to do with me because they either didn’t regard women as highly as their male colleagues or because they didn’t want there to be even a remote appearance of impropriety.
This is the separatist. And yes, on its face “separatist” is a strong and somewhat shocking word but times have changed (if not regressed) in shocking ways. We live at a time where extremists groups have emerged with a self-proclaimed agenda that is exclusively white and male, with a goal to maintain a political status quo that slants in their favor.
Our nation’s last Vice President, Mike Pence is emblematic of the sex-separatist. Pence once professed to refuse one-on-one meetings with any woman who wasn’t his wife. He considers this practice a testament to his religious faith. He adheres to what Conservatives often call the “Billy Graham rule” so strictly that even aides who stayed after work late to help him were required to be male. Under this rule no man is to eat, travel or meet alone with anyone who isn’t his wife. If the bro code caught religion and went into politics it might look something like our former veep. According to brocode.org, Rule #1 of the bro code is, “Bros before hoes — A “hoe” is defined as any woman that is not your wife or direct family.”
Whether called separatism, the Billy Graham rule, the bro code or good-ole’-fashioned patriarchy, this thinking reduces women to what Freud called the Madonna-Whore complex nearly a century ago. If we are not busy bearing a man’s children we are sluts who shouldn’t be trusted. Forget that seat at the political table. Women can’t even get in the room.
Just as more of the opportunists tended to be gatekeepers, in my experience, the separatists were more likely to be elected officials. Unlike the opportunist, who is motivated by expressing his ego, the separatist is motivated by protecting it and hiding any appearance of ethical or religious impropriety or shame.
Political media knows this all too well. Political figures know that being scandalized in any way can destroy their power, reputation, career and family. They understand that one of the easiest ways to fall prey to the wrong media spin is to be seen in the wrong place with the wrong gender. If these men do give women a seat at the table, it will be at arm’s length. They will meet you only in the presence of their political aide and the exchange will be exceptionally cryptic. If this kind of man endorses or supports a female candidate they won’t be the first to do so, they will follow the party line and there will be no succession of power. This is where new candidates need female gatekeepers most, as we will discuss below.
Outing the Opportunists Isn’t Enough
If you’re reading this with a tinge of guilt, fear or anger, rest assured. You’re safe. I have no illusions that I could die for naming the names. So there will be none. American politics has been strained enough lately by coup attempts, narcissists and other diseases. We can all use a little more peace of mind, so there will be no names here.
Besides, outing the Harvey Weinsteins of politics might bring survivors fleeting validation but we are barely scratching the surface of the real issue.
The reality is we have a systemic problem that currently has no systematic or restorative solution. It is absurd to expect individual survivors to bear the monumental burden of taking on a system-wide failure. Relying on survivors to fire the first shots can further harm women who are already carrying trauma.
First, not every woman has the privilege of stepping forward and having a forum to fairly hear her. If a woman does take the tremendous leap of faith and finally names the names, there is no net to catch her when the fickle hold of the headlines fade and then she runs the risk of being doubted, smeared and blacklisted. If the story goes public, her identity becomes synonymous with her trauma, a role in which she will be typecast for the rest of her life.
She also has the option of doing nothing and carrying her repressed pain and injustice for the rest of her life. She will be asked why she passed up the opportunities she’s had, why she no longer associates with the well-known man or business or party and she will never have the dignity of speaking her truth.
The current options fail women. Whether she steps forward or not she is harmed for being harmed, another pyrrhic bind. We need a better process but women do not have enough collective political power to resolve this issue on our own. We need male allies.
In reality, even the most powerful women in politics do not yet have the capacity to protect female public servants. They have barely been protected themselves. Until the #MeToo movement occurred in 2018, Congressional employees who encountered harassment were forced to undergo confidential mediation before their complaints could move forward and victims could face serious sanctions if they spoke out. There was no sexual harassment training even though one in six Congressional staffers has encountered sexual harassment. Victims still have to hire their own legal counsel while the accused gets one for free, on the taxpayer’s dime. Even the most powerful women in the US are kneecapped for refusing to live on their knees.
To truly protect women in politics our solutions will need to be policy-driven, resource-focused, institutionalized, enforced and strategic. We will have the votes and resources soon, but we just aren’t there yet. We need to follow the long game here. My narrative goal is that of the strategist.
The Importance of Allies
So if some of the men seek to sexually exploit female leaders and if others want nothing to do with them what else do women have? Allyship.
President Biden exemplifies what underrepresented leaders need in white, male allies. To be sure, Biden doesn’t have a perfect record on sexual harassment or going to the proper lengths to protect survivors. Holding out for perfect allies is not only unrealistic, it is self-defeating. Rather, we need to hold men accountable by expecting them to do better. Biden has made a commitment to right his wrongs in the name of allyship and it should be acknowledged as a starting point.
Biden has extended his privilege in furtherance of historic firsts for women and people of color more than most of his colleagues. He was Vice President to our nation’s first African-American President, Barrack Obama. Then, in his own 2020 run for President, Biden selected Kamala Harris to be our nation’s first female, East-Asian and black Vice President. Additionally Biden has insisted that Harris be given more leadership opportunities in her role than veeps typically have.
Allies embrace opportunities for growth and understand that sometimes the greatest exhibit of strength is egalitarian humility. Allyship is the hallmark of a person who has truly examined their ego as one’s greatest enemy. Allies seek not just to give new leaders a seat at the table but they encourage them to lead and set a new agenda that reflects their own unique, life-experience and sense of justice. Allies know that when this happens it makes all of us stronger.
Of the opportunist, separatist and ally trichotomy, each person in politics should be asking which best describes them and those around them. These terms are not limited to a patriarchal dynamic. People who are female, gay, trans; those with differing abilities or people of color can be allies just as they can be opportunists but in ways that are as unique or as powerful as they are. In truth, we each embody this trichotomy in our own way. No one is perfect. Confronting our own self-interested opportunism and separatism allows us to grow as allies.
When Ramana Maharshi was once asked how we are to treat “others” he answered that there are none. In this spirit, my aim is not to vilify the separatists or the opportunists. Indeed, we each have the capacity to do what is wrong or what is right. This is a call for all of us to examine ourselves and the structures in which we live and then to commit to transformation. Much like the concept of “love” allyship is best demonstrated though deeds and results, not mere sentiment. We each need to do the deep shadow work of exploring our ego and our capacity for allyship and ask ourselves how we can be active participants in building a new, intersectional justice.
The Mechanics of the Opportunist: How Men Sexually Exploit Women in Public Service
When I ran for office one of the men who eagerly extended his “services” was a big developer who offered to donate $100,000 to my campaign (let’s call him Romo). I was taking on a well-connected, career candidate who was so formidable that she almost ran unopposed. Romo’s single donation would be at least 40% of the total amount of money I would need to raise for my campaign just to stay competitive.
For a first-time candidate, angel donors like Romo can be everything. It would have been the substantial windfall early in my run that would have encouraged other major donations and substantially determined my chances of winning. The first questions anyone asks of a new candidate are “who’s on their team?” and “who are their backers?” They want to know whether a candidate is backed by strategists who can win and whether they have the resources to protect themselves and prevail over their opponent.
The male candidate who introduced me to Romo told me that he helped him get his start in politics and that he was a great guy. Over the years Romo introduced this candidate to the right people. I did my best to vet Romo like I did all the people I worked with. It’s a good sign when multiple leaders can vouch for someone. I liked that he was known for investing development dollars in underserved communities in ways that empowered more than gentrified.
I heard stories about how Romo had helped another female politician win her first election (let’s call her Caroline). But as I will discuss in the next section, Caroline had a different feminine currency than I had. She was the daughter of one of Romo’s friends. Her real currency was on loan.
In all, Romo was your typical developer. We like our villains good and ugly but, the truth is, they’re not. Harvey Weinstein was praised at awards shows like he was God himself before he was cast out like a demon. While it makes for easy Hollywood drama people are not two-sided coins, they are vast treasuries. These men and these issues are complicated, like we all are and they warrant sober examination. When we explore the systemic complexities behind the headlines we are able to seek true resolution. Romo really wasn’t my greatest problem so I’m not going to pretend he was.
The sad truth is Romo would likely be considered one of the more progressive businessmen in town. He invested in women and people of color and even if it was somewhat ego-driven and occasionally predatory, it was much more than most leaders would even attempt. This is the same man who tried to convince me not to mention climate change in my campaign platform and he was honestly still one of the most progressive allies I had. This is where some regional political cultures still are today and it is why we need national initiatives like #WeHaveHerBack to offer transparency and counter-narratives where it is needed most.
Romo invited me to meet with him on several occasions. Some of these earlier one-on-one meetings occurred in cafes and restaurants where there is more transparency and women can feel more safe. We discussed strategy and resources. Among other topics of discussion, ironically, was the Harvey Weinstein debacle. This unfolded right before I ran for office and men like Romo were walking on eggshells. He explained he was frustrated because it was like men “couldn’t even talk to women anymore.” Public servants are practiced most in what they don’t say. I asked him how he typically engaged with his male colleagues and left it at that.
Seeing a good ROI meant a lot to Romo and he wanted to make sure that I had a campaign manager who could truly get me to a win. This way he could protect his image of backing successful candidates. Romo told me about Yana, a brilliant female campaign manager that I should consider and he told me about how, anywhere else Yana’s skills would land her a six-figure salary, but she just hasn’t had the right opportunities where we lived. He explained how he admittedly once wanted to marry Yana and how he helped her get through a challenging financial time in the past.
I followed Romo’s advice and met with Yana several times, to discuss the possibility of her managing my campaign. She told me that if my first race didn’t work out I should consider running for a higher office but for some reason she wasn’t willing to manage my campaign. Perhaps she knew the cost of working on Romo’s terms.
A Question Every Woman Must Ask Before Going Into Public Service
“What is my political currency and what are the currencies of those around me?” No woman should go into public service of any sort without asking themselves this question and understanding how the political currency of men and women truly works. Not understanding political currency can cost them dearly.
Every person in politics has a political price and a currency. But feminine currency is different than men’s. When a man goes into business or politics he transacts his masculine currency: his wealth or his influence. His influence can be his name, his knowledge, his time, his connections, his ego, his brand, his resources, or (as politics can currently attest) his wrath. Even his own press. Women wield these currencies as well but we have far less and it often comes with strings, which we will discuss next.
Even after 173 years of political advocacy, a woman’s real currency is still on loan and men are still the lenders. For centuries, women have been allowed to wield men’s currencies with their permission: the wealth and/or influence of their fathers; the wealth and/or influence of their husbands, their status as mothers of a man’s family or their own worth as objects of sexual desire. And the latter can even determine how much worth she has with her lender. Men understand the resources they have at hand. This is why we need allies.
Look at the women who have made their mark in the world and then look at the currency of the husbands and fathers around them. Rarely will women get to where they are without masculine currency but men can go as far as they’d like in their professional careers without ours. We even work to help them get there. We cook his meals, change his children’s diapers and even do his boring administrative work so that he has time to work more efficiently and get paid exponentially more than we do, if we are paid at all.
Not All Feminine Assets Are Seen; Nor Should They Be
Women should not make the mistake of assuming intelligence is an asset in politics. In fact, it can be their greatest liability. Again, I don’t make these rules. Men loan us our resources and they can foreclose when they choose. Women aren’t seen as having the allegiance to the status quo that men have. There’s no bro code for us to get in on; there’s nothing to be gained from our silence unless we are the secret. You can’t truly have a seat at the table when you’re also on the menu. There’s no “coordinating interest” as Milton Friedman would say.
A woman must remember which assets are truly hers and which can be taken away at a moment’s notice if she is too self-assured or too powerful. We are expected to “stoop to conquer,” meaning we must take on a role, position, attitude, behavior, undertaking, that is often beneath our abilities or social position in order to achieve our particular end. We are never to demonstrate our true, individual worth.
If we are too smart and too independent there is nothing to keep us from finding the skeletons and calling foul. In some men’s hearts, the separatists especially, they know it’s best that the smart women are kept out.
I remember once going before the board of directors of a major Chamber of Commerce to be vetted for an endorsement. The board wanted to get access to $40 million dollars in taxpayer money, so that they could expand a stadium and create luxury seating. This money was supposed to be emergency funds earmarked for small businesses. But I wasn’t supposed to actually look at the budget line that the funds were being taken from, I wasn’t supposed to understand how small business owners could have less financial recourse if a disaster were to shutter their business. When I discussed the broad merits and challenges of the Chamber’s request and how they were asking for a sum that was commensurate with what some of the sports team’s top athletes made, I looked at the dozen white men around the table (as well as the one token female and the one token African-American man). The white men began looking at one another with a gaze of sheer horror. Years later, I reflected on that moment with the African-American man who was at the table that day. I asked why the guys looked so afraid. “It’s because they were,” he explained. It reminds me of the time when my more practiced opponent described herself as “just a simple, country girl” in an interview. Ultimately she got the Chamber endorsement, not me. I had much to learn.
So how do women survive? We must swallow all desire for our actual abilities to be recognized and valued. We play dumb, practice resilience, stay quiet, pretend not to hear the truth, buddy-up with a gatekeeper and backdoor our way in. Even the late Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg often quipped that to endure, it was wise for women to “be a little deaf.” Because of all Ginsburg gracefully endured, new generations of women can envision a future of hanging on every word, speaking up and being heard. But until then we cannot speak our truth, without paying a price.
Women, Wealth-Gaps and Sexual Currency
This is the iconic photo taken by Dorthea Lange of a woman named Florence Thompson with some of her children. The photo is known as “Migrant Mother”. The Library of Congress caption of this photo reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”
In the 1930s, the US Farm Service Agency employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on this demographic of America. Many of the photographs are considered propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy of distributing support to the worst affected, low-income areas of the country. Today, in the wake of a global pandemic, resulting economic shortages and evictions it reminds us of the persistent predicament of women. During challenging times, it is those who have the greatest obligations and weakest safety nets who struggle most and fall desperate. Indeed, current studies show how working women have been hardest hit during the COVID pandemic. We should have seen this coming, it’s in our history.
Most women have no well-connected father or husband to move them up the political or economic ladder and the most influential currency women have, is sex. While I try not to fault other women for using what may be the only resource they have, I avoid negotiating this in business and politics. I know that when I submit to sexual advances I make it more likely that men will expect other women to do the same. I also refuse to feed the myth that women advance only from what they have “to offer” a man. When women are remotely attractive, intelligent and successful in our culture it is too easy to negate a woman’s hard work and assume that she got to a certain level of achievement only because she slept with and scandalized the right man. It negates her agency and her strength.
To be sure, some of us do use sexual currency and I stand in solidarity with them and refuse to shame them. We are only as ethical as our options, and these decisions are not as easy as they often seem. Indeed, not all sex in politics is predatory; sometimes it is a welcomed and even frequent engagement that some writers say should be embraced.
But given that the overwhelming majority of political activity is fundraising and given the rift of political resources that still exists between men and women we cannot just assume a woman has the financial capacity to consent. Typically when a women submits to sexual advances she enters into a trauma bond, of sorts, with a man. When it’s over, she is expected to go away and stay silent and this is done with nondisclosures, violence, shame, money and other currencies of erasure, exclusion and coercion. Sometimes these tactics are used to keep her coming back. Sometimes these tactics are weaponized to isolate her from her allies. In either case, women tend to be reduced to sex and subjected to varying degrees of violence and trauma for which the solace of transparency barely exists.
So what is a woman to do? In reality, neither option truly benefits us. If either choice did, the net worth of women today would be far greater than a man’s. It’s not. We often hear statistics about the wage gap between men and women but the wealth gap (the total worth of all of a person’s assets) is even greater. On average, women in the United States own a mere 32 cents to every dollar owned by men.
We shouldn’t be asking whether women play the sex card but how we create an entirely new game. The sooner we refuse to submit to this prisoner’s dilemma the sooner we can all break out of the prison.
While we are talking about allies and breaking out of prisons, I realize I’m introducing a binary, heteronormative discourse in an exceedingly nonbinary and intersectional world. To be sure, the power dynamics of sex and politics are uniquely different across the LGBTQ spectrum as well as across racial, cultural, religious and generational strata. Some of these topics will be taken up in future posts in this series. Some will be avoided to protect people’s anonymity. But in honest reflection it is shocking how social theory can sometimes appear lightyears beyond the all too one-dimensional, “old-school” norms and power-dynamics of politics today. I didn’t make this game; I am only articulating how I saw it played. This is a story about how we begin to end this game so that the playing field is level for you too.
At some point men and women must ask the question: if, in the era of #MeToo, sexual currency is finally taken off the table, what value do women truly have in a man’s political world? What do men have to gain from working with us let alone giving us power? Is it just a coincidence that we’ve seen the rapid rise of groups like the Proud Boys just as underrepresented Americans have accelerated their political accomplishments? Perhaps this is the real “steal” they attempted to stop.
Women who seek a seat at the table must ask themselves not only what kind of currency they possess but what are the currencies of those around them. This will help women to strategize with true discernment and win.
The Importance of Female Political Gatekeepers
To be clear, my campaign did not start with Romo. I did not meet him until I had already announced my candidacy. I spent months prior to this attempting to safeguard myself as a female candidate so that I wouldn’t find myself in a position like this. The first meetings I had were largely with female gatekeepers: female elected officials, influencers as well as state-wide and national organizations that hold themselves out as being for women’s causes and female candidates. I attended the trainings, the dinner parties and the state conferences and I made the connections I was expected to make.
At special conferences for female candidates we had trainings about basic campaign dynamics: branding, stump speeches, positioning, field, etc. But we never discussed the real elephant in the room. What value do women truly have in politics? What are our unique strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? How do we protect ourselves from being exploited? When and how do we change the rules?
Still, whenever anything seemed amiss I sought the counsel of these women and organizations. I confided in them about issues such as my predicament with Romo. They offered me guidance. Sometimes it protected me. Other times I was relieved I didn’t take their advice but ultimately what they had to offer wasn’t enough to keep me safe. If it was, I wouldn’t be telling this story. This is a movement whose resources are only just emerging and it’s time to nurture growth. We owe it to our grandchildren.
In truth, women in politics have yet to fully identify, let alone adopt, a bright-line rule about some of the unique obstacles we face. The Romo situation was a case in point. One senior female elected official (Jane) told me she doubted this developer would actually deliver on his financial promise and that it might be a better strategy for me to rely on smaller donors. This was the extent of her advice. In the cutthroat world of politics the bonds of social stratification are only so strong. In many regions the last thing the well-connected will do is make waves or stand near the person rocking the boat. The truth is, even with new political initiatives for women in place, women do not have a shred of the safety net we so dearly need.
Each female gatekeeper in my community had her own unique advice to share. Lana, a fast-talking, and somewhat younger political strategist hired to manage my campaign’s brand, shared a radically different take on my Romo issue. Before her career in political advising, Lana had been a national advocate for women. She plainly told me my situation with Romo was merely an occupational hazard. “If most women knew how I’ve negotiated many of my opportunities,” she said, “they’d revoke my feminist card.” She explained that playing to men’s desires was the easiest way for women to get what they want. As my strategist, of course, she quickly made inroads with Romo herself.
In the end, I listened to one of these two women.
Why Women Submit: Million-Dollar-Donors and Political Multipliers
Earlier in my run, Romo suggested I meet with Caroline and we met separately in a bustling hotel cafe to discuss the ins and outs of local politics. Over leather diner booths and lattes she explained how helpful Romo had been to her in the past and how she had returned the favor by helping him to get the city votes he needed to change some zoning laws in his favor so that he could move forward with a new, multi-million-dollar development.
I was grateful Romo brokered the meeting with Caroline because she offered to be one of the first public officials to formally endorse my candidacy. But I noticed something was different about my campaign when Caroline bristled after I mentioned the amount of money Romo committed to raising for me. Word travels fast in local politics and I quickly heard from other politicos that Romo had never put a sum like this on the table for a candidate before. So why me?
To be clear, no one donor is allowed to directly give exceedingly large sums of money to candidates. There are legal caps on how much any one donor can contribute, usually in the low thousands. But the right donor can quickly, and legally, multiply a candidate’s resources. He can give a maximum donation in his name; his wife can give a maximum donation in her name; then they can donate in each of their business names. These four moves on the chess board alone can quickly put a candidate in the tens of thousands range. But there’s more. He can then call upon friends to do the same by reaching out to them on your behalf or by hosting a fundraiser in your honor. He can introduce you to the large trade associations who have the power to endorse candidates and give even more money. Then there’s dark money, but that is a discussion for another time.
It is no accident that I am using the pronoun “he” to discuss donors and influencers. This is a man’s game. Upwards of 90% of a candidate’s time running for office is spent raising money, most of which is done by text or phone. We have access to lists of known donors to contact.
Political donations is a man’s game too. The overwhelming majority, at least 80% of the names on my lists, were male. On a typical day of “dialing for dollars,” if I spoke to a woman on the phone it was likely a man’s secretary, assistant or wife and no donation would be made without making a direct connection to the man in charge. I know this sounds like a scene out of Mad Men, but we haven’t made as much progress with the gender disparities as we like to think.
On my call lists I could see basic contact info, business ownership and family/relationship data. If a woman donated to candidates in the area it was easy to see if her husband did as well. Only rarely was a woman successful enough to stand in her own profession, with her own name and with her own money to give to my campaign. Even one of my closest friends, who lived in a small mansion and was a full-time mom could not donate to my campaign without her husband’s consent. Women still merely possess the illusion of control.
At the national level at least, the political gender gap is narrowing. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2020 the share of women giving contributions to federal political campaigns spiked to 43.5% after barely topping 28% in the 1990s (This study looked only at donations larger than $200). But studies like this only tell part of the story. There is a large difference between up-ballot (state, national) and down-ballot (city, county) races, the latter of which are determined by regional trends. Here, more research is needed so that national organizations seeking to financially assist underrepresented candidates can target funds to areas where there is the greatest unmet need.
What does this economic gender gap mean for female candidates in down-ballot races where the donor gaps haven’t narrowed? Everything. It is the resources men have and the resources women do not that keeps us “available” to them. Really. If women had the wealth of men who would take money off the nightstands, slide down the poles or change the diapers? And if they still did, they certainly wouldn’t do it for what they are currently paid. We are still playing a man’s game and it’s often quid pro quo. We are the other half Riis didn’t talk about.
Fish, Dolphins and Sharks: the Feminine Politics of Campaign Finance
To be sure, large donors aren’t the only fish in the political sea. Smaller donors give because they believe in a candidate’s platform, personality, or party. These donations of $10, $50, $100, or $250 quickly add up. Smaller amounts and more donors make for a more honest campaign. These are elected officials’ greatest constituents and it is important that candidates look them in the eye and listen to how they see the world. It’s more calls, handshakes and speaking opportunities at public events but fewer strings, so it’s much safer for women. But the organizations for female candidates aren’t telling us this yet.
Good campaign finance strategy involves striking a critical balance between small and large donors. There’s an ecology of survival in political finance just like one would find in the ocean. It’s the difference between schools of fish and dolphins. Having a large number of small donors (the fish) will show that you have popular support, but the big-name donors (the dolphins) show that you are taken seriously by the establishment. A wise candidate strikes a balance between both and understands that sometimes what we think are dolphins are actually sharks.
The large numbers of small donors can help a candidate forestall being at the whim of a few, large contributors. But there’s a catch: cultivating small donations takes time. Smaller donors give when you nurture relationships with them. They want to make sure you will stand up for the causes they believe in and it takes time to earn their trust. Followers are perhaps more important than leaders because they help keep them honest. But most will never know that.
At the outset of a campaign a candidate’s most precious commodity is time. It is, indeed, the great equalizer. If invested the right way, time will amass the right amount of capital needed to get the attention of the big fish. These larger donors have more money to give and carefully watch candidates before deciding to invest. They like to see whether the candidate can attract smaller schools of fish first. Because the larger investors play this waiting game it is challenging for a new candidate to take on an incumbent.
The ecology of campaign finance is just one of the reasons why it is so challenging for new candidates to win races. Then add gender to the mix and it’s even worse. When I think about Lilly Ledbetter and pay equity or women-owned businesses or the upward mobility of women into the c-suite, I think about who the political donors are; what kinds of candidates their money supports; what policies those donations will help decide and who might not have played a role in this process but who is subject to the policy nonetheless. Is this why largely congressmen and judges have been debating issues like “viability” for decades? That word is about one’s ability to independently survive. It’s what we are really talking about here. So why haven’t we debated the viability of women with the same fervent passion we give to the life women carry? Perhaps that’s a debate for another time.
Secrets, Sail Boats and Varsity Footballs
When Romo said he could bring $100,000 into my campaign he was telling me that he was powerful and connected and he was trying to tell others I was his. I felt like I was back in high school watching the varsity football players vie for the new female student — who would attempt to stake their territory and bragging rights first? Women know this game. We see it our entire lives.
So if it’s a game, why did I play? To be honest, I had a secret. This wasn’t my campaign’s first obstacle. I had been mortally wounded early in my campaign and I needed to quickly and quietly recover time and money lost in order to survive. If too many people knew, my campaign would be over. There was already blood in the water and sharks weren’t far away. But this is a story for another time.
Romo explained I was lucky to have him on my side because he was friends with the aggressive political reporter who wanted to make my campaign the newspaper’s chum du jour. Romo said that he could help keep the sharks at bay. He suggested it would be a good idea for me to advertise with the two large political publications in town to further ensure my safety.
In theory the editorial department and business departments of newspapers are separate. But as Romo explained, ads in our town not only purchased favor but silence and safety.
Romo and I also discussed the yacht party fundraiser he had planned for my campaign and the list of major donors he planned to invite. This single connection, alone, could bring my campaign to the quarter-million financial goal I would need to keep up with and protect myself from my opponent.
Our next meeting was a planned outing on Romo’s sail boat with some of his associates. But when I arrived Romo mentioned that the others were running late and he wondered whether they would show up at all. They didn’t. Storm clouds were quickly rolling in over a bright turquoise sky. I prayed for rain to cancel the day’s excursion. I cannot be out at sea with him alone.
When I realized that Romo and I would be the only two people meeting, I knew I had to use my head and keep myself safe. I brought up a pressing, campaign-related question and insisted that we get a local political analyst whom I’ve been wanting to meet, on a conference call. I hoped this would work because it would feed and temporarily satiate Romo’s ego. He was able to brag on several fronts and tell others that he was the man who connected me to one of the biggest political analysts in town.
Romo was also able to tell the analyst he was calling from his sail boat, and I was on it. Just like the varsity boys he was claiming his territory with someone who knew the landscape well. I get it. We all win a little. I suggested that we stay docked in the marina to maintain good reception and dodge the storm. Luckily, we did.
My job was to keep Romo and the analyst laughing and embroiled in debate long enough for me so say “oh look at the time” and then run off to my next meeting. I found a way to drag the call out for the greater part of an hour and found other ways to take the focus off of me before getting both of my feet solidly planted back on the dock. I promised myself to learn from this and protect myself better next time. I don’t have a harrowing, Farrowesque story of Romo walking out of the shower. At least not yet.The real controversy comes later.
The next time Romo wanted to meet he was driving out of town to look at a new yacht. He wanted me to accompany him. I came up with a convenient excuse to politely refuse. “I’m behind on call time and have to meet with my field director to discuss strategy,” I said.
The next invitation was a text where he claimed he had an ankle injury and was ordered by his doctor to stay off of his feet, in bed. He asked me to stop by his house. His wife was away and he wasn’t sure if he would be able to get up to feed the dogs. I remember texting him something to the effect that “I learned long ago not to go to king’s castles while the queen is away. I have too much respect for queens.” I hoped he would appreciate my integrity.
But I quickly learned that female candidates pay dearly for refusing these “opportunities”. Unlike sexual harassment in the workplace there are no sexual harassment or whistleblower protections for women running for office. Public servants do not get paid to run for office, it is a voluntary vow of vulnerability. Running is a full-time job but we are not employees.
Candidates often stop their day jobs to take the free-fall leap into politics, which only makes women more exposed. Couple this with the select secretiveness of politics and you have a recipe for disaster. Transparency protects women, but politics thrives on what remains opaque. Remember how shame is a political weapon? Those close to campaigns know that when a candidate comes forward with any improprieties, their opponent will find a way to spin it as a candidate’s own weakness or liability. Because of this the laundry stays dirty and women are easy prey.
#MeToo, #Time’sUp and Politics’ New Generation of Straight Backs
Women owe a debt of gratitude to Tarana J. Burke for patiently cultivating the #MeToo movement for so many years. It has raised awareness about sexual violence especially in our most marginalized communities and has lit a fire that has surged world-wide creating spin-off movements and allowing survivors to step forward.
The #Time’sUp movement is making headway into electoral politics with campaigns like #WeHaveHerBack to protect the media image of prominent politicians like Vice President Kamala Harris. It has called out the racist and sexist disparities in the media coverage of Harris’ campaign.
The #WeHaveHerBack hashtag is evocative of a line from Dr. Martin Luther King’s final speech, “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” We are building a new wave of straight backs.
But in order for a person to truly stand in their strength and climb the political ladder they need to know that there is a net beneath them to catch them if or when they fall. We need this net for those at the bottom of the ladder in down-ballot races as well as those at the top, in the national spotlight. Because today’s down-ballot bid is but tomorrow’s up-ballot win. We also need this net for survivors of the current system.
Moving Beyond #MeTooPolitics will Require a Kevlar Safety Net
It is not hyperbolic to say that when a woman reaches for political power she is volunteering her body for a war for which no kevlar exists. But as Donald Rumsfeld would say, “You go to war with the army you have.” This article seeks to help women understand the political battlefield so that we can collectively and strategically construct a political economy that truly supports us and gets us to greater, more secure and meaningful wins.
If politics is truly about power and sexual harassment is about power, it’s time we put the pieces together so well that we build the kevlar safety net female public servants need to stay safe. As our ancestors would tell us, the answers are quite simple. We just need to start weaving the pieces together.
Women and people of color are moving into politics at a new pace and there is an old guard who only sees equity as a threat to their power. Women and men need to identify who the opportunists, separatists and allies are. Then the allies need to get on the same team and start building a kevlar safety net.
I would like to end this article saying I took the high road and that there was some kind of reward or fairytale ending for my bravery. I thought I was able to successfully avoid putting myself in a compromised situation with the developer but I soon learned he had a three-strikes rule that was brutally enforced. He made me pay, with interest.
By not submitting to sexual advances I paid perhaps a greater price and after what happened to me I can barely say I still have my dignity. I’m still recovering. This single article can barely begin to the describe the litany of violence, coercion, intimidation, gaslighting and trauma I encountered in a single political run. What I have discussed above is not remotely my worst campaign experience. It’s not even my top ten. But like Rumsfeld, we all have to start somewhere.
This is just the beginning of a far more extensive and painful story and I passionately believe that I endured it so that, one day soon, other women won’t have to.
If you made it here, thank you! This is the first chapter of my series on Medium. Please repost this article, and look below to give the story a “clap,” join my mailing list, or leave a comment. Follow me on Twitter @lyons_aly. I will follow you back. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Together we are going to make politics safer and more accessible for all.