Are female operatives finally breaking through a male-dominated industry?
Forget the so-called “War on Women” this election year. More women than ever are running this cycle’s war rooms.
Across the country, female operatives are leading more campaigns, starting their own political consulting firms, taking the reins of Super PACs and controlling millions in independent expenditure dollars.
“I think it’s pretty easy to say it’s a male-dominated industry,” says Kelly Gibson, a Democratic media consultant with the Hamburger Company. “But there are these sort of little pockets that are just run by women. And probably every big race I’m on now, there’s a female on the consulting team.”
Top operatives suggest several potential reasons for the increase. For one, the proliferation of money, and therefore business opportunities for political consultants. It’s also partially the result of a deeper bench of female operatives who have risen through the ranks in recent cycles. Others surmise the influx is a byproduct of both parties focusing on female voters this year.
“This has typically been a very male-dominated, tough club,” says Ann Liston, a Democratic media consultant. “We certainly do bring a different eye, sometimes a different opinion, sometimes a different language. I think those differences are helpful, and it’s added value to have women as part of the strategy-making process.”
There’s no hard and fast data on the gender breakdown in the political consulting industry, but evidence of an increase isn’t just anecdotal. Female managers run more than half of the 13 most competitive Senate campaigns on the Democratic side of the aisle.
And for the first time, women are running the independent expenditure arm for two key campaign committees: The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
It’s a change from a decade ago, when operatives remember only a handful of well-known female media and polling consultants. At the time, Democrats counted media gurus Mandy Grunwald and Dawn Laguens, as well as pollsters Celinda Lake and Diane Feldman, as the top women in their field. Similarly, Republicans looked to pollster Linda DiVall and operative Maria Cino.
Liston remembers watching Annie Burns work back in 1996—almost a decade before she put her own name on the door at the Chicago-based Adelstein-Liston. Burns, often the only woman at the table, made an impression on Liston as a benevolent and thorough boss at GMMB.
“It’s harder to be what you can’t see,” Liston explains. “I saw her as a pioneer female media consultant at the time.”
The increase in female operatives this cycle is more pronounced among Democrats. On the Republican side, there’s only one female manager working on the top 13 most competitive races this cycle.
Kim Alfano believes she’s still the only female Republican with her own media firm—more than 20 years after she started Alfano Productions.
“I see a lot of female pollsters; I see a lot of female fundraisers,” Alfano says. “I don’t know any on the media side. They haven’t really broken the barriers on this on the Republican side, and I wish they would.”
Angela Faulkner, a Republican direct mail consultant, doesn’t remember working with any female operatives when she started her Indiana-based firm back in 2004. This year, she estimates at least 30 percent of her campaign staffers are female.
But even Faulkner noted the stigma she’s felt as both a mom and a full-time consultant, especially when traveling for clients overseas. Early in her career, Faulkner felt resented by women who questioned her decision to work Venezuela’s recall election, rather than staying at home with her three sons.
“When people talk about family values, it’s usually based on a stable home environment, and many conservatives feel that a stable home environment requires a mother that isn’t required to travel,” says Faulkner.
Media consultants typically have the most grueling schedules of any operatives. Between the need for rapid response and the nearly-constant travel, it’s one of the reasons there are fewer women in media than in polling, fundraising or direct mail, say female operatives.
“Women have been forced to make this choice, and it’s not a fair choice,” Faulkner says. “Men are not forced to choose whether they’re going to have a family, or whether they’re going to have a career.”
Enter the Super PAC—an entity that has changed the way many operatives do business. Instead of working at the whim of a candidate, Super PAC leaders like Alixandria Lapp, the executive director of House Majority PAC, have more flexible schedules.
“I’m not getting a call at 11 p.m. from the DCCC chair or Congressman so-and-so,” Lapp says. “You answer to your donors ... but it’s different than answering to a politician.”
In fact, the mere proliferation of Super PACs has created more opportunities for consultants and therefore female operatives. Earlier this year, Lapp realized several of her eight employees were raising children under the age of five.
“We’re going to be the only Super PAC with an in-house day care,” jokes Lapp.
Probably not for long.
Shira Toeplitz covers campaigns for Roll Call. Originally from Pittsburgh, she previously covered politics for POLITICO and The Hotline.