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Picture a smoked-filled room crowded with older, white men. Hear the click, click of a slide projector as photos of a female politician shoot past. See her headshot, her family portrait, one of her standing behind a podium or shaking hands with average-looking people. A voice states: “Bob, I just don’t know how we’re going to sell this one. Her look, her hair style – it’s just not winnable.”
Sounds like the backroom politics of an earlier time, right? Take out the cigarette smoke and change the slide projector to Google Image Search, and this is what many consultant meetings look like.
The men around the table dissect the female candidate’s clothes, hair, smile, pitch of her voice – and then maybe they discuss her credentials. But what’s often lacking in the room is a woman’s perspective that could bring a smart balance to the discussion and strategy of running a first-time female candidate and appealing to female voters.
This isn’t to say that all prospective client meetings are like this, and not all male consultants are like this. I personally have benefited from a number of male mentors in politics, including at Storefront Political Media, where it just so happens there’s a majority of kickass women on the leadership team - and the men are absolute allies.
But the truth is, there aren’t enough women in this professional field to make the gender balance close to equal and that needs to change -- quickly. Because if we have more women behind the scenes, we’ll have more women in elected office.
Female consultants: The missing piece of the puzzle
Now, there are remarkable organizations supporting women running for office. But they either train (Emerge America, VoteRunLead), recruit (First Ask, Close the Gap in California), fundraise for (EMILY’s List, California Women’s List) or inspire women (She Should Run). The one critical piece missing is a farm team of female consultants who can help manage races for female candidates making their way up the electoral ladder.
We need to build a bench of talented female political operatives – because it’s just as important to have women behind the scenes as it is to have their names on the ballot.
Why women? Because women, especially mothers and women of color, bring to the table diverse perspectives and experiences. And because in certain areas of the country, where women vote more consistently to men, candidates need to effectively communicate and engage female voters in order to win. Having a woman on your consulting team brings a certain level of empathy and understanding that, frankly, men don’t have.
And to my knowledge there are very few organizations or consulting firms, like the ones mentioned above, that solely focus on providing guidance and strategic advice for first-time female candidates. (Rodham Consulting is the only one that comes to mind.)
There’s recruiting, training and fundraising support, but who’s going to help this fresh political talent win on Election Day?
The surge of first-time female candidates
After the 2016 Presidential Election, the Washington Post published an article on how more women felt the calling to run after Hillary Clinton lost. Women’s groups and campaign schools for women, like at Yale University, have seen an overwhelming surge of women interested in running for office. And New York Magazine reported over 13,000 women are now planning to run for office – a number that continues to climb.
The challenge for first-time female candidates is two-fold: there aren’t enough female consultants out there and they can’t afford to hire consultants in general.
First off, if you’re either fresh out of a training program or a political novice, you’re most likely running for a seat with a small budget.
Down-ballot candidates get brushed aside all the time. “Your budget is $100,000? Sorry, call us when you can raise $500,000.” (Of course budgets vary from city and state. Here in California, races are more expensive than most.)
This may sound counterintuitive coming from a consultant, but if your race is less than $5,000, $10,000 or even $25,000, don’t hire a consultant. Spend your resources on staff and communicating directly with voters.
Meanwhile, candidates who can afford consultants need to know what to expect.
When hiring a political consultant, you not only want someone reputable and talented, but you also want to make sure you have the right chemistry. A consultant is a teammate, your sage, someone who keeps you on the right path to victory. Find someone who’s a good personality fit because you’ll need to trust her and her advice throughout the campaign.
Consultants usually take on more than one race at a time – sometimes up to a dozen, depending on the size of his or her shop. Understand their workload for the upcoming election. If you’re the bottom of the totem pole, you’ll be fighting for attention from bigger clients.
But the more troubling question is: how can we build a bench of female talent and groom the next generation of leaders if we don’t start when they first enter the arena?
Taking advantage of the surge of new candidates
Consultants turn these races down because a majority of these candidates can’t afford costly monthly retainers. But if consultants want to take advantage of the surge of female candidates in 2018 and 2020, their business model will need to change.
I believe a new wave of female consultants have an opportunity to change the industry by advising this surge of female political talent. For these women to run and win, they need support to cross the finish line.
This industry of bare-knuckle campaigning is harder on women than men – for a variety of reasons – and we need to support a pipeline of women behind the scenes if we can ever hope to elect more women to office. That starts with both men and women mentoring the next generation of consultants – and taking a chance on first-time candidates for the sake of progress over profits.
Kate Maeder is a California-based political strategist and founder & President of Women Get It Done, a non-profit organizing thousands of women across the country to help shape an intersectional feminist movement. Connect: @katemaeder