Columnist Solomon Goldstein-Rose: Encouraging nontraditional candidates

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Early in 2017, I was at one of the best-attended local legislative events, where even those legislators who don’t often come to things will show up — almost all the representatives and senators from the Pioneer Valley were there.

We were called up one by one, and that was the moment when something I’d known as a statistic hit me in person — there were 15 or so legislators present and exactly one was female.

The Massachusetts Legislature as a whole is about one-quarter female, which is still a long way from where it should be. At the same time, you’ve heard me talk about how young people are also wildly underrepresented, with 18- to 29-year-olds being 20 percent of eligible state voters and now only about 4 percent of the Legislature.

I believe there is some prejudice against candidates who are not older white men, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in Massachusetts legislative elections. In 2016, one-third of the new representatives were female, one-third were under 30, and one-quarter were nonwhite.

I looked at all the candidates I could find (Ballotpedia keeps a decent list with data from the Massachusetts secretary of state), and in 2016 of all the people running in a primary or general election, 27 percent were female and 73 percent were male. We elected similar percentages to the Legislature as a whole.

The problem is not that when women run they are disproportionately not elected, but that not enough women run. It is much harder to estimate people’s ages or races and impossible to know their religions without a list being available, so I have not done a similar calculation of candidates with other non-establishment identities, but looking at the class of new representatives it seems we are electing them when they run.

One organization that has been reporting this for a while now is Emerge, which trains female Democrats to run for office all over the country. I am on the Men’s Leadership Council of Emerge Massachusetts, and can tell you the amazing results we see in our state. About half of the Emerge alumnae have run for office so far (mostly at the town level), and of those, 76 percent won their elections.

As I calculated, when women run, they win at the same rates as men (or better if they’ve had a training program and network like Emerge!) but it takes more to get a proportional number of women running.

Emerge will do trainings and workshops over the next year, including in western Massachusetts, and you may contact me if you are interested or have someone to recommend.

I will set up for the first time a Political Leadership Institute to run a two-day training for young candidates during early February in Amherst. This will expand on the communications trainings I’ve done with local youth and will be open to 20- to 25-year-olds from anywhere. This one is nonpartisan.

The point of these trainings is to make up for the structural barriers that lead to disproportionate demographics in candidates. For instance, young folks often aren’t as connected to the local players in the political establishment, so learning communications skills to approach those people can be valuable.

I’ve heard from a number of young people that a major barrier to their choosing to run is the prospect of fundraising. Young people don’t have a network of wealthy professionals to call on, and asking for money means putting yourself out there in a way that young people (and women and many others) are taught not to do.

The national organization Run for Something is addressing that problem financially by having both a network with mentoring, and a real PAC, to support young progressives.

The Political Leadership Institute will address it by giving young candidates the skills — not ones usually taught in college — about whom to ask for money and how to speak when doing so. We’ll also delve into nuts and bolts of forming an organization, collecting signatures and much more.

So, if you know either a young person or a Democratic woman (or both) from Massachusetts, please ask if they would consider running, or at least being trained to run. Often the biggest step is being asked in the first place.

Solomon Goldstein-Rose, of Amherst, is the Democratic state representative from the 3rd Hampshire District.