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Encouraged by opposition to Trump, these women are pushing a political revolution

By all accounts, 2018 is shaping up to be a watershed year for women in political office. We spoke to a number of Latinas about their races and what’s to come.
15 Nov 2017 – 06:32 PM EST
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Elizabeth Guzman was the first Latina ever to run for a seat in Virginia's House of Delegates. Last week, she won. Crédito: Courtesy of Elizabeth Guzman.

The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Elizabeth Guzman’s nine-year-old son asked her if they should leave the country because they speak Spanish. “That’s what he’d been hearing for the last few months,” says Guzman, a public administrator and social worker in Alexandria, Virginia.

A year later, Guzman won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, ousting Republican incumbent Scott Lingamfelter, who had held his seat for 16 years. A political newcomer, she was the first Latina ever to run for a seat in the statehouse. She won by nearly 3,000 votes.

Guzman, 44, is one of hundreds of women who have decided to run for office in the Trump era—many with no previous political experience. By the time election day arrived last week, she was the second-highest Democratic fundraiser in the state and had garnered the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I reflected on my life in my county and how Latinos are treated,” says Guzman, who immigrated to the U.S. from Peru as a single mother; she and her children are citizens. “I realized we’d never had a delegate who cared about his Latino constituents, and that we don’t have a voice. So I decided to step up myself.”

She’s far from the only one. For many progressives and women, and especially women of color, Trump’s presidency has inspired a new sense of personal responsibility. Organizations that back and train those who aspire to political office are reporting unprecedented participation in recent months. And a slew of new, grassroots organizations have popped up to support them.

Last week’s election results were the first real glimpse that it may be working. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, November 8, 2017, was a night of “landmarks for women.”

In Virginia, the 100-member House of Delegates will go from from 17 women members to 28 next year. Among them, Guzman and Hala Ayala will be the first two Latinas to hold seats in the Virginia Assembly. Virginia also elected the state’s first female Asian American, the first openly lesbian and first openly trans woman to House of Delegates seats.

And there were notable gains beyond Virginia, too. Sheila Oliver will be New Jersey’s first-ever black lieutenant governor. Seattle elected Jenny Durkan, the first openly lesbian mayor and the city’s first woman mayor in almost a century. Michelle de la Isla will be the first ever Latina mayor of Topeka, Kansas. Indian American Manka Dhingra’s victory ensured Democratic control of the Washington State Senate. And 23-year-old Crystal Murillo won a city council seat in Aurora, Colorado, defeating a 79-year-old incumbent.

“There is definitely momentum,” says Erin Loos Cutraro, the Founder and CEO of the non-partisan She Should Run. “There’s a sense of urgency among women to both fix what is broken and provide their experience and perspective to create healthier government.”

Though experts say women are getting involved across the political spectrum, Democrats are riding a tidal wave of activism that began in response to Trump’s victory and has culminated in record numbers of candidates. Among women who ran in Virginia, 43 were Democrats and nine were Republicans.

For her part, Guzman won on an unapologetically progressive platform. An outspoken pro-choice candidate, her legislative priorities include Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, early childhood education, a higher minimum wage and immigrant rights. She didn’t shy away from telling her own immigrant story, either.

“I’m just gonna run”

When Bernie Sanders ended his presidential campaign in June 2016 with a call for others to consider running for political office, Guzman listened. She had been an early Sanders supporter and a state delegate for his campaign.

“He mentioned decisions are made at the local and state level and he wanted this revolution to continue,” she says, “and in order to do this you have to run for office and stay involved.”

She volunteered for Hillary Clinton in the general election, but she knew even before Clinton’s loss that she would run herself. By October, Guzman had announced she was running for delegate.

“We just didn’t have enough women before, and we didn’t have enough women of color in Virginia,” Guzman says. “I am a working mom, an immigrant, I thought I had a message that would resonate with my community.”

During her campaign, Guzman attended a number of trainings specifically for first-time women candidates. She gained the support of a web of organizations, both long-standing and those created after Trump’s win. In the end she fundraised over $1 million, which she used to roll out an ambitious ground game, going door-to-door to meet voters.

“I think five, 10 years ago, it was a different climate; running for office was seen as an option for only the select few,” says Lucy Flores, a former Nevada Assemblywoman who is on the board of Our Revolution, a group that seeks to elect progressive candidates at all levels of government. “It’s not like that anymore.”

Our Revolution was born out of the Sanders campaign and seeks to leverage grassroots organizing tools, like the ability to phonebank and schedule events and house parties online. The group has a special eye towards women and people of color. Last week, candidates they supported won 27 seats, Guzman among them.

“You don’t have to be the ‘chosen one’ by the establishment to have access anymore,” Flores says. “People are believing it’s a reality for them with or without the support of the political leadership. They’re saying ‘I don’t care about any of that, I’m just gonna run.’”

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The newly launched progressive groups Flippable and Indivisible supported Guzman with phone calls, postcards and door knocks, as well as fundraising. So did the women-led group Sister District.

Born the day after the presidential election, Sister District now has 25,000 volunteers who work from deeply blue areas to help state-level campaigns in red districts, and particularly swing districts. Many of the Sister District volunteers who worked on Guzman’s campaign actually did so from San Francisco. In total, 13 out of 14 candidates the group supported won.

“We’re a brand new organization; we didn’t know if it would work,” says Sister District co-founder Lyzz Schwegler. “But it worked out well, unbelievably well.”

An avalanche

Emily’s List, a long-standing Democratic outfit aimed at electing pro-choice women, knew in January that something big was happening.

In conjunction with the Women’s March, Emily’s List held a workshop in Washington for women interested in running for office for the first time. Five-hundred women showed up, with another 200 on a waiting list. Nearly 50 percent of attendees were between the ages of 25 and 34.

The enthusiasm hasn’t died down since. Since November, 20,000 women have contacted Emily’s List to say they want to run. That’s compared to 920 during the 2015-2016 cycle. The group has run trainings all over the country, including those specifically for Latinas. Of the 15 Republican-held seats that were flipped in Virginia’s House of Delegates last week, 11 were by Emily’s List endorsed women.

“Every week, it’s been seven new women, 10 new women, coming to us saying they want to run,” says Vanessa Cardenas, Emily’s List Director of Strategic Communications. “And often they don’t fit the typical profile. It’s been younger women, diverse women, women from unusual backgrounds, like scientists and veterans.”

In just the two days following last week’s elections, 90 women signed up with Emily’s List, Cardenas says.

The non-partisan She Should Run launched in October with a goal to get 100 women signed up for their programs. They closed 2016 with over 5,500 registered women, and now have over 15,000.

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat from New Mexico and the Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, applauds the interest.

“Our legislative bodies should look like the communities they represent,” Lujan Grisham, who is running for Governor of New Mexico in 2018, wrote in a statement to Univision. “Women, especially women of color, are underrepresented in the halls of government. When the voices of women are included, our families are better served.”

Since November, 20,000 women have contacted Emily’s List to say they want to run. That’s compared to 920 during the 2015-2016 cycle.

Just 25 percent of the 7,383 state legislators in the United States are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Women hold just 19 percent of the 535 seats in Congress—74 percent of them Democrats. Only 37 women have ever served as governor across the United States.

For women of color, the numbers are far worse. Last year, Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez-Masto became the first Latina ever in the Senate; only 14 Latinas have ever served in Congress. At the state level, just 23 of the 1,972 seats in state senates are held by Latinas.

Overall, Hispanics are still largely underrepresented in politics; almost a fifth of the population, they made up only one percent of all elected and appointed officials in the United States last year, according to a Univision analysis.

In Virginia last week, women gained at least 11 seats in the House of Delegates (one is still being decided), breaking the record of women representatives in the state.

It wasn’t just candidates; women voters played an outsize role, too. In the race for governor, Democrat Ralph Northam won women by 22 points, larger than Clinton's 17-point advantage last year. A staggering 91 percent of black women voted for Northam, while just 32 percent of white women did.

New voices

In a race that garnered national attention, Democrat Danica Roem, a journalist, defeated outspoken conservative Republican Bob Marshall last week, making her the first openly transgender elected official in Virginia history. She ran on a platform of improving traffic. Democrat Kathy Tran became the first Asian American woman elected to the House there, and Democrat Dawn Adams the first open lesbian. In Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins won her City Council race, becoming the first openly transgender black woman ever elected to office.

When Crystal Murillo was elected to city council in Aurora, Colorado, she was the youngest ever to do so. The daughter of immigrants from Mexico, she was also the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Murillo says having Latina role models in local politics helped encourage her to try herself. After graduating from college in 2015, she worked for Crisanta Duran, the first Latina Colorado Speaker of the House. On the weekends, she took a six-month course on the basics of running a political campaign, offered by Emerge, a 12-year-old group that prepares women for office. She figured she would run in 10 years. But then Donald Trump won.

“I felt numb,” Murillo says. “That was not my concept of what America was. It made me take a closer look at my own backyard, at the community I grew up in.”

In her heavily Latino and immigrant district, there had never been Latino representation in the city council. At the urging of Emerge and the other women she’d trained alongside, Murillo decided to run against a 79-year-old conservative woman and Trump supporter. She was supported by Duran and earned a number of key endorsements. She won by some 400 votes.

“I just tried to be authentic and genuine,” Murillo says. “As someone that has and is living a similar life to those in my district, people cared what I had to say.”

Michelle de la Isla, the first Latina ever to be elected to mayor of Topeka, Kansas, won her race with 40 volunteers, but no organizations or training behind her.

And unlike other woman who won races around the country, she didn’t focus during her campaign on the fact that she is Puerto Rican or a woman.

“I am in the midwest, in a very red state,” she says. “I ran my campaign based on the issues. The fact that I happen to be a Latina and a female—well that’s awesome.”

Across the aisle

Last week’s election results were clearly a win for Democratic women, but Cutraro says the rise of women candidates is not a partisan phenomenon by any means.

“We’ll continue to see growth on both sides of the aisle,” she says. “We’ll continue to see women who now no longer have to feel they’re going at it alone. We’ve reached a point of women no longer wanting to shrink away and that’s not a partisan issue.”

In an email, the National Federation of Republican Women told Univision they don't have any hard statistics, but “are definitely noting that more Republican women are interested in running for office at all levels.”

For decades, the NFRW has run a Campaign Management School program to train Republican candidates to run for office. But overall, the Republican infrastructure for recruiting, training and supporting candidates and newcomers is still behind, Cutraro says.

“Republican women are just as interested in local government and seeing government succeed,” she says.

Cutraro says she hopes to see more diverse women candidates telling their stories—not just Democrats and Republicans, but Independents, women of color of all political stripes, even the women who run and lose.

“All these stories help women and girls see what’s possible,” she says. “It helps move women from a place of ‘maybe’ to actually declaring that they do want to run.”