We know women are running for office at record-breaking numbers, but as primaries come and go throughout the country, we are also seeing them win. In New York, first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. In Texas, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia are on their way to becoming their state’s first Latinas in Congress. In Florida, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell could flip her district from red to blue. And they’re not alone in their triumph. Stories of women of color running successful political campaigns are becoming more popular across the U.S., and their visibility is allowing a younger generation of Latinas to envision themselves in public office as well.
With Latinas constituting less than 2 percent of total elected offices across Congress, statewide elected executive offices and state legislatures, this surge in interest isn’t just newsworthy — it’s necessary. But just because more young women of color are considering careers in government doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pursue it. Running for office is tough, time-consuming and expensive, and without vital tools, resources and support, it could be debilitating — but it doesn’t have to be.
FIERCE chatted with Vanessa Cardenas, senior director of national outreach at EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports and trains Democratic women for elected office, on the steps they can take to help them run successful campaigns in the future.
1. Ask yourself guiding questions.
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As an elected official, you have the incredible opportunity to have a seat at the table and help make decisions on issues that concern your community. It’s an impactful and powerful position, but before you get there, you’re going to have a lot of long, demanding and dreary days and nights campaigning. The remedy: reminding yourself of the reason you are running. That’s why Cardenas recommends Latinas who are considering throwing their hat in the ring to first identify their passions. “You need to be clear on the reason you want to take this step, that’s first,” she said. “What are your passions, what are the issues you care about, what are the problems you want to fix, what is keeping you up at night? You have to answer those questions.”
2. Do the work before you’re in office.
(Photo Credit: Twitter / Veronica Escobar)
If you want to be an elected official, it’s likely you want to make change — for yourself, for your loved ones and for your community. But you don’t need to be in public office to make an impact — and, according to Cardenas, you really shouldn’t wait till then. “You need to show up. If you care about climate change, join an environmental task force in your community or participate in cleanups on the weekends. If you care about immigrant rights, volunteer for organizations that help this community on weekends. Take part in marches. The first part is figuring out your passion, and the second is acting on them,” Cardenas said, also encouraging that people be allies and support other issues that don’t impact you personally. This, she tells me, will offer you leadership skills, increase your understanding of the issues and help give you name recognition in your community.
3. Gain campaigning experience.
(Image Credit: José A. Alvarado)
Want to learn the ins and outs of running a campaign? Cardenas says to volunteer for someone else’s. “First, you will know how to run a campaign because you have an insider’s view. Second, the people in those spaces might help you in your campaign down the line. You are building valuable relationships,” she added.
4. Overcome your self-doubt.
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In trainings, Cardenas often hears women express concerns about their past: they’ve foreclosed on a house, they were late to pay their student loans or maybe their sibling had a run-in with the law. “We all have missteps,” Cardenas stresses. “Don’t let them discourage you from running. Instead, anticipate those questions, but also know that voters understand no one is perfect, so you don’t have to be.”
5. Build your tribe.
(Photo Credit: Twitter / Sylvia R. Garcia)
You’ve identified your key issues — the passion that will keep you energized throughout your race — and have gained the experience. You feel confident and ready to start putting in the work to run for office. Before you do, Cardenas says it’s crucially important to build your tribe — but she doesn’t mean your campaign team. “Running for office is a team sport, not a one-person show. Every successful candidate needs a network of support, including family and friends. You might need someone for childcare. You might need someone to care for your parent. Your internal house needs to be in order before taking this step,” Cardenas said, emphasizing the need for Latinas to get comfortable asking for help.
6. Identify the office where you can have the impact you’re looking for.
(Image Credit: Facebook / Debbie Mucarsel-Powell)
Cardenas wants first-time candidates to be realistic about the office they’re vying for, taking into account the cost of running as well as the impact they could have in the position. “It’s very hard for first-time candidates to win congressional seats, and that’s why we encourage them to look at local offices: city or state,” she said. “You have more of an impact on your community, because they make decisions for their community.” Once you decide which level of government, Cardenas suggests that hopefuls visit their state’s election office website to get informed on the seats opening up. From here, she says, let the issues drive them. “If there’s a board of education seat up, but you care about immigration, it might not seem relevant, but in this office you’ll be able to make decisions on how to treat immigrants in school,” she continued.
7. Learn the rules and requirements in your city and state.
(Photo Credit: Juana Matias for Congress)
Just because you volunteered on another candidate’s campaign doesn’t mean you know all there is to know about running one — especially if you are going for a seat in a different city or state. Rules and regulations for running for office are not universal, so Cardenas encourages women to visit their state’s election office website to get informed.
8. Think digital.
(Photo Credit: Lynn Debree Al)
As you check off all your requirements and prepare to embark on this new journey, Cardenas wants you to think digital, and that means being conscious and intentional about your presence online and ensuring that it aligns with your values and issues as well as locking down your domain name. “I tell trainees to buy a domain because it’s an easy tool to put their positions on issues on the page for voters to search,” she said. Cardenas says it’s important to purchase the domain even before you enter the race, because it’s just as easy for a future opponent to buy it as it is for you. “This just happened to our candidate. She’s running for office, and her opponent bought her domain name, so now there’s this website with her name that has all this negative information about her,” Cardenas said.
9. Find an organization that offers training.
(Photo Credit: Twitter / @XochforCongress)
There’s more to running for office than getting your name on a ballot. You need to build a team, connect with voters, gain press and, of course, fundraise. It’s overwhelming, but luckily there are organizations that exist to help train women and Latinxs on how to run successful campaigns. EMILY’s List offers trainings that assist women before they run, while they’re launching their campaigns and the steps they’ll need to take to be successful. They’re not alone. Cardenas also recommends national groups like Latino Victory, The New American Leaders Project and Emerge America.