Women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, but only 33 percent of state legislators across the country are women, and the way things are, it could take more than 200 years to reach parity. 

That’s where the organization Vote Run Lead comes in. Its goal is to close that gap, and so has launched an initiative called “Charting a Path to Women’s Majority,” to help achieve that.

Vote Run Lead offers training and even financial help for female candidates for local and state offices, and even U.S. Congress, who support progressive initiatives like fighting restrictions on abortion and contraception and other liberal causes.

The organization's chief political officer, is our guest on the Lean to the Left podcast.

"It's the fact that when you line up the actual population of this country and pretend that the elected representatives we have are actually fully representing those folks. It feels like a joke, right? How can you say that in a state like ... South Carolina, less than 20 percent women [are] speaking on behalf of policies that impact a population that is 51 percent women, is somehow reflective and representative. It just means that, the policymaking and the decision making in government is not actually taking into account the lived experiences and the needs and the values of the full population adequately," Shulman says.

She points out that in Southeastern states that have the fewest women in political, policymaking positions "it is a pocket of some of the most restrictive laws related to women's health care, abortion access, contraceptive access. There's an absolute correlation there of who's making the laws and who those policies are actually serving or not serving."

Vote Run Lead provides both on-line and in-person training for female candidates and campaign management personnel, helping them with every aspect of campaigning for public office, according to Shulman.

"We are a training institute," she explains. "We recruit, we support women once they're running. We are really focusing in on one of our key initiatives is called Run/51. And that has become our largest focus. It is the initiative that is aimed at women's majorities in state legislatures specifically. We're still the political home for any values-aligned woman who is interested in running, but Run/51 is really where we are putting most of our resources to recruit women to run specifically for state legislatures, giving them the training and the confidence and the tools to run a successful campaign and to be with them throughout their political journey."

For more info about Vote Run Lead, Run/51, and the many services provided by the organization, please check out this episode of the Lean to the Left podcast, "Calling Female Candidates."

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Show Notes

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Show Transcript

Calling Female Candidates

[00:00:00] Bob Gatty: Women are 51 percent of the U. S. population, but They're woefully unrepresented in political office. In fact, only 33 percent of state legislators are women. And the way things are, it could take more than 200 years to reach parity. That's where the organization Vote Run Lead comes in. The organization's goal is to close that gap, and it's launched an initiative to achieve that. It's called Charting a Path to Women's Majority. We're pleased to have Vote Run Lead's Chief Political Officer, Sabrina Shulman, with us today to break this all down. So stay with us. 

[00:00:46] Now, before we get to Sabrina, I want to urge you guys to visit our podcast dot lean to the left dot net website, where you'll find thumbnails and links to all of our episodes. You can subscribe there too. And don't forget to give us a rating. Five stars would be super cool. 

[00:01:04] Now about our guest, Sabrina, and about Vote Run Lead, which is a nonprofit organization that teaches women how to run for office and win.

[00:01:14] She's former VP for Political and Legislative Affairs at NARAL, Pro Choice New York, and the National Institute for Reproductive Health. and helped lead the campaign to pass New York's Reproductive Health Act. She founded Planned Parenthood of New York City's first permanent grassroots activist program, and it's political committee. Sabrina currently serves on the board of directors for both Willie Mae Rock Camp and Kegwin Company. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. Is that correct, Kegwin? 

[00:01:51] Sabrina Shulman: Yeah, I'm impressed you got that right. 

[00:01:54] Bob Gatty: Okay. Sabrina, thanks so much for being with us today on our podcast. 

[00:02:00] Sabrina Shulman: Thanks, Bob. I'm really glad to be here. 

[00:02:02] Bob Gatty: Hey, exactly what is the case with women holding office, public office today? Isn't it true that several states still have fewer than 20 percent women's in their legislatures?

[00:02:15] Sabrina Shulman: Yeah, it is true. As you stated at the top of the podcast, women are 51 percent of the population and across the country only 33 percent on average of state legislators. And when you dig down into the numbers I hate to say it, your home region of the Southeast is unfortunately has a number of states closer to the bottom of of those numbers.

[00:02:38] Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee all have fewer than 20 percent women sitting in their state legislators. West Virginia is way at the bottom with less than 13 percent of state legislators that are women. 

[00:02:56] Bob Gatty: Wow. Wow. 

[00:02:57] Sabrina Shulman: Yeah. 

[00:02:58] Bob Gatty: You know in South Carolina it's even worse than that because right now we don't even have a female on the state supreme court.

[00:03:06] Of course that's another story. 

[00:03:07] Sabrina Shulman: That's right. It's 

[00:03:08] Bob Gatty: It's pretty bad here. But why is it so important? This is a dumb question, but I guess I have to ask it. Why is it so important to have more women in the state legislatures? 

[00:03:23] Sabrina Shulman: Honestly, Bob, I wish you didn't have to ask that question. I feel that so much of our work is making the case to folks about why it matters to have a reflective democracy.

[00:03:37] And that's what it really is about for us. It's not just, oh, we need more women for the sake of having more women. It's the fact that when you line up the actual population of this country and pretend that the elected representatives we have are actually fully representing those folks. It feels like a joke, right?

[00:03:58] How can you say that in a state like yours, hate to keep picking on South Carolina, but less than 20 percent women speaking on behalf of policies that impact a population that is 51 percent women is somehow reflective and representative. It just means that, the policy making and the decision making in government is not actually taking into account the lived experiences and the needs and the values of the full population adequately. 

[00:04:30] Bob Gatty: And all of that reflects itself when it comes to the issues, right? 

[00:04:35] Sabrina Shulman: Absolutely. Absolutely. You look at again, just focusing in on the Southeast. It's the lowest representation of women in state legislatures, it is a pocket of some of the most restrictive laws related to women's health care, abortion access, contraceptive access.

[00:04:54] There's a, there's an exact correlation there of who's making the laws and, who those policies are actually serving or not serving. 

[00:05:03] Bob Gatty: It always amazes me to see, especially on the abortion debate, these women who are Republicans coming out on the side of restrictive measures. I just don't understand that.

[00:05:18] Sabrina Shulman: I think, something that's critical for us is that, as I said earlier, it's not representation The sake of representation values still matter. So for us but really has a values lens. We are unabashedly feminist anti racist and pro democracy. So 

[00:05:37] Bob Gatty: you guys are really that's nasty. All those things you're about.

[00:05:42] It's just nasty. 

[00:05:44] Sabrina Shulman: It's really unfortunate. But it's, for us, it's like, it's not just any woman. It's not, it's women because we need more represented based on our population, and we need more women who actually represent the majority values on the ground. You mentioned abortion, right?

[00:06:01] There's so many restrictive laws being passed across this country, but when you look at the statistics, and you look at the endless public opinion polls that have been done over the years. The majority of this country believes there should be safe, equitable access to abortion care. We are nonpartisan and so if there are Republican women out there who are feminist and anti racist and pro democracy, bring it on. We welcome you to our trainings. We want to see you run. But, because for us, it's about the values and it's undeniable that one party is demonstrating those values more than the other at this point in the country, but to be fair, I think there are women interested in running for office who maybe identify as Republican are in Republican districts and do believe in those values. But their party hasn't been as welcoming and hasn't created a space for them to to be elected leaders at this point in their party.

[00:06:59] Bob Gatty: I don't know why your initiative is needed. After all, wouldn't a woman your age really like to be represented by people like Mitch McConnell, for example? 

[00:07:13] Sabrina Shulman: There's one reason I live in New York, but Listen, if there is a, if there is a place for Mitch McConnell's representation and there is a district that aligns with his values, then he should be elected to represent them.

[00:07:26] The reality on the ground is that a lot of folks who align with his views and his agenda are only serving because the system has been stacked against women like me and, Black women and progressive women in redder states running and winning. If our districts were drawn fairly, if the system were set up to, for the loving, the playing field to be level for anyone who runs for office, I think you'd see a lot fewer Mitch McConnell's representing Districts where there is a diversity of opinions and values.

[00:08:05] Bob Gatty: Okay, so what's the solution? How do we achieve closer equity? Tell me about what Vote Run Lead action is doing to reverse this trend. 

[00:08:14] Sabrina Shulman: Sure. So we are a training institute. We recruit, we support women once they're running. We are really focusing in on one of our key initiatives is called Run 51. And that has become our largest focus.

[00:08:32] It is the initiative that is aimed at women's majorities in state legislatures specifically. We're still the political home for any values aligned woman who is interested in running, but Run 51 is really where we are putting most of our resources to recruit women to run specifically for state legislatures, giving them the training and the confidence and the tools to run a successful campaign and to be with them throughout their political journey.

[00:09:02] So we provide one on one coaching with expert coaches on the ground in various states. We have a digital resource hub that has all of the tools. There's some inspirational videos. There's Toolkits and worksheets, how to build your field plan how to fundraise, all of these things. And some of it is what everybody needs to run for office, man or woman.

[00:09:25] And some of it is unique to women. Often women need to be asked many more times to run for office than a man. And part of what we do is to partner them with a community of other women who have their backs. Women who have run before, some have won, some have lost. But the point is that it demystifies this idea of jumping into the political arena.

[00:09:50] It makes it feel doable, makes it feel feasible, help them understand that at the end of the day, it's a job. And it shouldn't feel like a mystery. Really for us, it's about the resources and it's the community and it's the confidence. One other thing I want to mention that we just launched last year is that often women who come to us say that they don't feel welcomed into the political and campaign arena.

[00:10:17] Partly because, as I mentioned earlier, The system is still run largely by young white guys, to be totally blunt. I experienced this in my career, and they want a campaign manager, they want staff who understand what it means to run as a woman, the difference in what's going to be thrown at them on the campaign trail, there's more harassment, there's more violence, there's more threats.

[00:10:39] Often women of color want a campaign manager who also understands their experience, and so we've also launched a campaign manager recruitment and training program to start expanding the field of not just women running, but also women working in the political arena who have a different perspective and are going to do things a little bit differently than politics as usual.

[00:11:04] Bob Gatty: Sabrina, is this all done online or is it in person or what, or a combination? 

[00:11:08] Sabrina Shulman: Oh no, it is both. We, the Vote Run Lead magic really is in our in person trainings. We build that community by being in a room with other women, feeling the energy. And while we do offer a lot online frankly, the pandemic pushed all of our organizations to be better at offering resources online.

[00:11:29] But as soon as we were able, we got back to in person trainings because We consistently hear from the women who go through our programs that yes, the content is critical and important information to run, but part of the brilliance of what we do is putting them in a room with other women across the country.

[00:11:51] That woman who they're going to call when they're on knocking doors and something crazy happens, at a door and they're going to text that woman they met from five states over at a boat run lean training and be like, Oh my God, you're not going to believe what happened today. And that's their support system.

[00:12:06] We actually gathered over 150 women in Detroit just this November, both women interested in running and women interested in managing campaigns. Women from all over the country who are now part of each other's political community, even if they live on totally opposite sides of the country. 

[00:12:24] Bob Gatty: Wow.

[00:12:24] You take these training sessions around to different cities, is that it? 

[00:12:29] Sabrina Shulman: We do. So sometimes we have national trainings like Detroit, and sometimes we'll do state specific trainings. So in the fall, we had a Minnesota training, which was specifically for women interested in running or managing campaigns in Minnesota.

[00:12:43] We also had one in Georgia, and we've just expanded and hired staff on the ground in seven new states. And we'll be having state specific trainings in the future in those states as well. 

[00:12:56] Bob Gatty: How many women do you think you've trained so far and how they've been doing as candidates? 

[00:13:02] Sabrina Shulman: So over our lifetime, we've trained thousands of women definitely over 10, 000.

[00:13:09] We, so what really has been around is actually our 10 year anniversary. But it was originally a program of an organization called the White House Project which was around for decades and also trained. Women under the Vote Run Lead program so We know we've trained many thousands of women across the country.

[00:13:30] We Over 1100 of them have run for office in 49 states in dc and currently 350 about are serving in 35 states and dc across the country 129 of those are state legislators serving in 26 states across the country. So we've been building that bench for a while. And those are folks so as I mentioned, 129 are state legislators, but the 350 are folks from super local town and county offices up to Congress.

[00:14:07] Bob Gatty: Now you mentioned minority women before. Are there any specific efforts that you guys have to help women of color who want to run for office? 

[00:14:18] Sabrina Shulman: We do. As I mentioned earlier, in addition to just caring about gender equity in our government bodies, we care about I guess you could call it the cross tabs of who those women are and As you dig into the demographics of who's currently serving the numbers get even more dire.

[00:14:36] You know again picking on south carolina. I looked a lot at that data today knowing I was going to be speaking to you when you look at black women make up 15 percent of the state population in south carolina and they hold around four percent of seats in the state legislature And across the country, there are almost 20 states in this country where not one Black woman serves in the state Senate.

[00:15:02] Not one. That's something we look at carefully. And it's not just Black women, it's Latinas are woefully underrepresented, women in rural areas. There's lots of demographics as when you dig down into the data that we know that we need to make sure that we are focusing our resources on the most underrepresented groups of women.

[00:15:22] It's interesting that by and large our trainings tend to be mostly attended by women of color. We've done a lot of work to organize out in rural areas. And something else we do is that we make sure that we're partnering with organizations who who really serve women of color as their primary purpose.

[00:15:42] So we work with the elect black women pack and fire heights. Delta, the Deltas one of the black sororities, one of the largest black sororities, has launched a Deltas for Women in Action, which is specifically for recruiting and training their members to run. We've got a really good longstanding partnership with them.

[00:16:03] Part of it for us is helping build the capacity of organizations that already primarily serve women of color and working with them to figure out how can we bring what we've built to support their work already in their communities. 

[00:16:17] Bob Gatty: Okay, so you guys focus on the state legislatures around the country mostly, right?

[00:16:23] Okay, how about Congress and even the White House? You just letting that alone or what? 

[00:16:28] Sabrina Shulman: No, not at all. So the focus on state legislatures is relatively recent and we launched Run 51 back in 2021. And before that, we focused on just broad women's political training women who might run for anything, anywhere.

[00:16:45] And while our focus continues to be at the moment, state legislatures, we also want to continue to be the political home for values aligned women looking to run for anything. So a percentage of our work is still focused on that. And what I would say is, You can focus exclusively on one level of office, but elected jobs are like any other job.

[00:17:09] You start somewhere and you tend to grow, right? When we talk about bench building, often our recruitment for state legislatures is working with women who are local elected officials right now and encouraging them to run for higher office. Our current Vote Run Lead alums serving in Congress, many of them were state legislators, Brittany Pedersen from Colorado, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota.

[00:17:33] So while we're focusing on one segment of the ecosystem, we also are trying to touch the other levels of government because we do need a reflective democracy at every level of government. And we know that some of the VRL alums in state legislatures are currently running for state legislatures will at some point eye higher office and we look forward to seeing them continue to move. 

[00:18:02] Bob Gatty: Sure. Okay, so how, if a woman, wants to run for office and she wants your help, how does she go about doing that? 

[00:18:12] Sabrina Shulman: She should reach out to us. We have a variety of ways of providing support. We have, as I mentioned, state directors on the ground in specific states.

[00:18:23] And in those areas, we have more on the ground support for women. As I mentioned, we have more directed trainings in those geographic areas. And we have a state director who she can talk to about what office she might run for. If you go to our website, you can, and you reach out to us, we, our state director will follow up with you if you're in a state that we have a staff member.

[00:18:47] Bob Gatty: How many states is it that you have? 

[00:18:49] Sabrina Shulman: So we currently have we have state directors on the ground in seven states, six states. Six states, which are Minnesota, Georgia, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico. Okay. And then we've got a regional head in the western part of the country who also works with women in Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

[00:19:17] Okay. In those places, we can pair you up with a staff member who can really hand hold your political journey. In the rest of the country as I mentioned earlier, we continue to offer national training opportunities, both virtual and in person, that women interested in running anywhere in the country are welcome to join.

[00:19:36] And one of our really core resources that we built and launched last year, the VRL HQ that's literally the website, vrlhq. org is our digital resource hub, which is where we put all of our resources and tools and videos and that's an easy place for women to go and check out all of our resources, wherever she is and what office she may be interested in running for, or if she wants to run a campaign for a friend or someone she's met.

[00:20:08] Bob Gatty: Okay, is there a charge for people to participate? 

[00:20:14] Sabrina Shulman: No. Most of our resources are free. The digital hub is free. All of our virtual programming is free. We do sometimes have registration fees for our in person trainings, but part of our values is to make sure that every woman who needs to be in the room can be in the room.

[00:20:31] So we also offer Support financial assistance for registration fees for travel to our in person trainings, because there are already so many barriers to women running for office that it's critical to us that if somebody is interested and has decided it's her time that we want to make sure she can join us and get that jump start.

[00:20:54] Bob Gatty: Okay. so, I saw online that there's this company m. Lafleur, that lends clothing to women who want to run for office. I thought that was really cool. They call that program Ready to Run. What do you think about that approach? 

[00:21:13] Sabrina Shulman: I think it's amazing. I think, to what I was saying a moment ago, anything that reduces the barriers for a woman to run is critical.

[00:21:23] And I was thinking about this. I think the parallel is, I'm sure you've heard of the organization Dress for Success, which for many years has been helping women get interview clothing for job interviews. It's no different than that. And really what it is There could be something so small as just not feeling like you have clothing that you are comfortable being out in the public eye in.

[00:21:48] Not doing press interviews as a candidate in and that should not be a barrier for a woman who wants to run for office and it can be just like it can be a barrier for women looking for other kinds of jobs. And so I think it's very cool when companies bring their expertise and their resources to bear in solving what can be a big problem for a lot of women who know that they are going to be not only in the public eye, but more and more really scrutinized as a public figure.

[00:22:19] Bob Gatty: You talked about a lot of services that Vote Run Lead provides. Where does the funding come from if you're not charging people to participate except for some registration fees? Where does the funding come from for all of the support? It's got to be expensive. 

[00:22:35] Sabrina Shulman: So we as a nonprofit organization, we rely on donors and grants and folks who believe what we believe who have supported us year after year with contributions.

[00:22:48] I feel like in more recent years, people have really started to understand the critical nature of not just promoting women's confidence and understanding of the political arena, but actually doing the deep political work of recruiting women for specific seats and supporting them through their political journey.

[00:23:09] So we're grateful that our donors and funders, a lot of them are grant makers have looked at us and said, Oh, okay, you all are making some headway. You know what you're doing and have continued to not only fund us, but in some cases continue to grow their contributions over the years.

[00:23:25] Bob Gatty: Okay. So you do accept contributions from individuals. 

[00:23:29] Sabrina Shulman: Absolutely. 

[00:23:30] Bob Gatty: Okay. How can they how can they reach out and do that? 

[00:23:33] Sabrina Shulman: They can go to voterunlead. org and there is a donate button right on our website. 

[00:23:39] Bob Gatty: Okay, and that's where they can get started for more info too, right? 

[00:23:44] Sabrina Shulman: Absolutely. They can also check out.

[00:23:46] We've recently launched a sister organization called Vote Run Lead Action. So Vote Run Lead Action dot org. You'll see you can jump around on our internet presence all there's tabs at the top, but Vote Run Lead Action, our 501c4 is how we are doing most of our training and programming and support at this point.

[00:24:06] Burtonleadaction. org is where you'll find trainings posted, virtual and in person opportunities to come join us in your state or for national opportunities. 

[00:24:17] Bob Gatty: Okay, great. You got anything else you'd like to add before we close with it? 

[00:24:22] Sabrina Shulman: I don't think so. I feel like we covered a lot of turf.

[00:24:26] Bob Gatty: Yeah. All right. Who would you like to see? This is coming out of left field. Who would you like, we know we have Joe Biden as the democratic, as our president and the democratic nominee against our old friend, Donald Trump. Who would you like to see as a Democratic candidate if you had your choice?

[00:24:49] Sabrina Shulman: Oh, this feels like a trick question. 

[00:24:51] Bob Gatty: It's not a trick question. I just, I, would you like to see Biden? Or would you like to see, if you just had your druthers Harris or, I think there, 

[00:25:03] Sabrina Shulman: I think there's some, I'll put it this way. I think there are some fantastic women elected officials who I hope will run for president someday.

[00:25:14] Kamala Harris is, has been an amazing vice president. She's carrying a lot of the core issues for the administration that are critical to women, including reproductive justice. Gretchen Whitmer, I know, is someone who a lot of folks have talked about as a candidate in the future. Michigan has been blowing us away with the policies they've been passing that are feminist, anti racist, and pro democracy, so I wouldn't mind seeing her on the ticket at some point.

[00:25:47] Bob Gatty: Okay. That was a very political A 

[00:25:49] Sabrina Shulman: diplomatic answer. Diplomatic

[00:25:52] Bob Gatty: answer. It was quite good.

[00:25:55] Okay. All right. Listen, Sabrina, thank you. I really enjoyed talking to you. And if you don't mind, I'm going to have some of our, People from the women's organization here reach out to you guys. 

[00:26:08] Sabrina Shulman: Yeah, that'd be fantastic. I would love that. 

[00:26:10] Bob Gatty: All right. 

[00:26:11] Sabrina Shulman: Usually we tell folks to get in touch via email 

[00:26:14] Bob Gatty: via email. And the best email would be 

[00:26:17] Sabrina Shulman: so the best email would be info at vote run lead. org. 

[00:26:23] Thanks so much. 

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