The first cohort of scholars at the LBJ Women’s Campaign School graduated on Jan. 9, and I am so grateful to have been part of this program’s inaugural 2020-2021 class. Fifty women from across the nation and political spectrum — doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, teachers, lawyers, community activists and veterans — were selected to participate in a rigorously intensive eight-month program to prepare for serving their community in the political arena, regardless of party affiliation or previous experience.
Some of the nation’s top political experts, campaign consultants, data analysts, fundraisers, and journalists participated in virtual training sessions, panel discussions, and mentorship opportunities. LBJWCS Scholars learned from elected officials themselves about what it takes to run for office and manage campaigns at the local, statewide and national levels.
One of our final guest speakers was Admiral William McRaven, retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral and former Chancellor of The University of Texas System, who spoke about thoughtful decision-making and leading with integrity. He served as an advisor to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on defense issues, and is well-regarded as an American leader and specialist on national security, foreign policy, counter-terrorism, and military intelligence.
Adm. McRaven and I both earned Bachelor’s degrees in Journalism, and know that our words or silence can have just as many consequences as our actions or inactions.
In the spirit of his famous “Make Your Bed” speech and book, I looked back at my notes and drafted a similar list of 10 lessons I learned from participating in the LBJ Women’s Campaign School.
Bring Your Sincerity
We all have a story to share. Re-telling our lived experiences can be the difference between someone else believing in themselves or not. The struggles, sacrifices and successes that we witness and overcome can help shape our policy areas of interest. Hone into your strengths and passions, and find a tangible way to make a difference in your community by serving as a mentor, joining a professional association, applying to serve on a board, leading a group, or running for office.
Reach Across the Aisle
The LBJWCS Scholars learned a tremendous amount about how campaign structures tend to differ for candidates filing to run as a Democrat or Republican in terms of staffing roles, budget priorities, and consulting services that are utilized. It was interesting to see our speakers absorb the reasoning, strategy and values behind some of those differences in a purely educational setting. There should be more safe spaces for campaign staff from varying positions on the political spectrum to ask fellow campaign staff about crucial decisions and party-specific strategies, in a bipartisan fashion that doesn’t come across as malicious or ill-intended.
Be Relevant for the Future
When it comes to motivating voters, confidence in the positives is a stronger motivator than highlighting fears. How can you and your policy agenda improve the lives of your constituents? Most races are tight and hard-earned, but if you can change the electorate, you can change the outcome. Look at your district’s voter history. Which precincts actively vote? Which voting method do voters prefer in your region: vote-by-mail, early voting, Election Day voting? Texas has long been considered a “non-voting state,” but in 2020, Texas led the nation in early votes casted by youth, a feat reflecting of years of activism and engagement. Still, there’s certainly more work that needs to happen at the Texas Legislature to help bring Texas’ voting process and election laws into the 21st century.
Female Leaders Have More Hurdles
Women are underrepresented at every level of elected office, often because they aren’t tapped to run, despite the fact that women win at the same rates as men. When they do run, there are narratives and stereotypes that women candidates have to worry about that men don’t. Women are more often asked questions along the lines of, “Why do you want to run for office?” Men are more often asked, “What do you want to do when you’re in office?” If you’re a woman who doesn’t have a family of your own, why don’t you? If you do have a family, who will take care of the kids while you run for office? Your outfit choice could be a talking point in the media, but if you hire a clothes stylist, you’ll be questioned on whether you are spending money irresponsibly. Even when women reach positions of power, studies from the Harvard Business Review find that male lawyers and activists interrupt women Supreme Court justices three times more than male Supreme Court justices. Communicate with confidence and poise during media interviews or on panels, and make sure to focus on your “presence,” instead of your “performance.”
Make a Plan
It was extremely disheartening to realize just how much money it costs to run for office. The campaign literature you receive in your mailbox or candidate ads you see on television are so expensive! However, it was equally empowering to think through specific fundraising and organizing strategies that can be happening years or months before you ever file for office. The best campaigns have a combination of time, money, and people power in advance. Think of your campaign as an investment for the future, and be able to pitch tangible goals and achievable milestones to perspective donors, such as: “X amount of money will help me pay for a radio ad in English and Spanish.” Whether someone can chip in $5 or cut a check for $5,000, it’s important to remember that friendship and character trump political party affiliation.
Life Is Going to Happen on the Campaign Trail
You can have the perfect plan, and the world is going to throw its punches at you. None of us could have predicted a global pandemic and economic turmoil would overrun 2020. Plans for in-person LBJWCS sessions shifted to virtual trainings over Zoom. Political campaigns had to pivot to online fundraisers. Working parents, especially single mothers, had to make tough decisions about finding childcare or sacrificing pay. Those who serve as essential workers risk contracting the coronavirus, and may not have access to proper PPE. Even before the pandemic, Texas women were still being paid $2.83 less in hourly wages than their male counterparts for equal work. During the pandemic, women lost their jobs at higher rates, but served as a higher percentage of essential workers and front-line medical staff compared to men.
As a Rio Grande Valley native, my hometown was a national talking point for our high coronavirus mortality rates, which in large part was the result of public policy inequities that have plagued our region for decades. When the world stopped in March of 2020, I was working in Austin but happened to be home to celebrate my grandfather’s 96th birthday. I couldn’t have imagined that I would spend the next nine months working remotely from my childhood bedroom, once again sharing a living space with my college-student brothers and working parents. In late July, I left my digital communications associate role at Every Texan (formerly the Center for Public Policy Priorities), a non-profit research and advocacy organization, to join my very first political campaign. In this role, I helped with social media engagement and managing phone-banking volunteers for State Representative Abel Herrero. My participation in the LBJWCS certainly had a hand in me making this professional switch, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to supplement my political strategy studies and campaign structuring coursework with real-life campaign experience in working for an elected official who is involved with politics for all the right reasons.
Be a People Collector
I am blessed to say I have always had a strong support system comprised of family, childhood friends and school peers, my mom’s comadres, and an army of my former educators from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD and McAllen ISD. I graduated from St. Edward’s University in 2018, and I have worked in and around the Texas State Capitol for the last three years. At 24, I’m often one of the youngest in the room, and I’ve never been afraid to ask questions, which has led to me garnering some brilliant colleagues and supportive mentors. I have also learned tremendously from the leading ladies at the LBJ Women’s Campaign School, who formed a genuinely supportive sisterhood.
In September of 2020, my grandfather fell and broke his hip, which required hip replacement surgery. After suffering from post-surgery complications, he died two weeks later on Sept. 27, 2020. Losing my hero sent me into a personal tailspin, and I’ve spent the last four months picking up the pieces. While I did my best to keep my act together professionally, I’m blessed that the same people who have always cheered for my wins and successes also offered me the same level of grace and compassion as I mourned.
Recognize the Significance of the Era We’re Living In
The 19th Amendment grants women the right to vote, and 2020 marked the 100-year anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement. Additionally, 2020 also marked the 65-year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which constitutionally extends voting rights to people of color. Our first LBJWCS session was days after George Floyd was killed and nationwide protests addressing police brutality had started. During our virtual session on Campaign Human Resources, Diversity & Inclusion, we all received news alerts and texts announcing the 2020 Presidential Election winner. Regardless of your party affiliation, recognizing that a woman, and a woman of color, had been named Vice President of the United States of America for the first time in our nation’s history was especially noteworthy. The 2020 Election also brought a record-number of Republican women into Congress. Our final LBJWCS session was the day after insurgents disgracefully attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7. During all these pivotal moments, I am grateful to have had the insight of several LBJWCS leaders and guest speakers to weigh in on current events.
Build a Dependable Team
Running for office is a lot like building a start-up company. There’s a role for everyone who wants to help your campaign succeed. Surround yourself with a team that shares your vision and passion and empower your staff enough to respectfully challenge your decisions and hold you accountable. Don’t create an echo chamber or compromise on your beliefs, and be careful about the money you accept to fund your campaign. Trust takes years to build, seconds to lose, and forever to rebuild. Compliance rules, campaign finance deadlines and legality issues need to be met and followed at all times. Most importantly, give back to your community and plant seeds of service wherever you go.
Turn If’s Into When’s
There’s a balance between running for office when you are ready and diving right in to making change. Don’t sit around learning and waiting until you’re more seasoned. Leadership is an art, not a science. Gather as many facts as possible about a situation and then make moral, ethical, and legal decisions. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good,” because you’re never going to have all the facts, and mistakes are going to be made from time to time. Own the good and bad calls. Be a genuine leader at every opportunity.
As I start my new role of serving as Legislative Director for State Representative Armando “Mando” Martinez of the Rio Grande Valley for the 87th Texas Legislature, I am grateful for the amount of knowledge and resources I received from the LBJ Women’s Campaign School. Before this program, running for office seemed like a far-fetched idea that I had to wait for patiently. Slowly, those thoughts of “If I were to run” are transitioning into “When I am ready to run.” And when that day comes, I know now that I will have a wide network of support from the Rio Grande Valley, Austin and beyond. ¡Adelante!