To women like Jessica Morse who are running for office for the first time, the good news isn’t just that Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s special election for the U.S. Senate this week; it’s that Republican Roy Moore lost.
This isn’t just about party loyalties. After seeing Hillary Clinton win the popular vote but lose the presidency to a man accused by 16 women of inappropriate sexual behavior, female candidates like Morse were looking for small signs of hope. Small signs, like a man accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s losing a Senate race.
“It shouldn’t be a shock that America would stand up and say no to (an alleged) sexual predator, but in this climate you don’t know,” said Morse, who is running for Congress against Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, a career politician who has been in office almost continuously since being elected to the Assembly in 1982. Morse was born that year.
But Morse and other female candidates know that they can’t count on more Moores of the world easing the electoral path for them. He was a political Halley’s Comet, one of those freakishly bad candidates who shoot through the galaxy infrequently.
Instead, as Andrea Dew Steele — founder and president of Emerge America, which recruits and mentors female candidates across the country — said, female candidates have got to find their own Route 28.
Route 28 was the mantra of Danica Roem, who last month became the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia General Assembly. But Roem didn’t defeat a 13-term Republican incumbent, the state’s self-described “chief homophobe,” by talking about becoming the first transgender person elected to that assembly. She talked about how horrible the traffic was on the highway through her district and how she’d fix it — something people in her district really cared about.
“I tell candidates not get too caught up about national affairs,” said Steele, of San Francisco. “When you run for office, you have to talk about what your constituents care about. You have to tell them how you can make their lives better.”
Morse is running in a largely rural, largely conservative district that is pretty Alabama by California standards, spanning 10 inland counties from north of Sacramento to near Fresno.
So the former State Department official, who grew up in the district, isn’t talking about the Iran nuclear deal. She’s talking about bark beetles. That’s her Route 28.
“They’re destroying the forests here,” Morse said. She said she met a woman who couldn’t afford the $1,000 it would cost to remove an infested tree, which then fell and crushed her home. So she made a temporary move to a trailer, which was then destroyed by last summer’s Detwiler Fire.
Last summer, Morse spent a couple of days as a volunteer helping fire victims in Mariposa, a town of 2,173 near Yosemite National Park.
“No one at the relief center talked about being a Republican or a Democrat,” she said. “The victims displaced by the fire and the people helping them talked about community. The community getting together to help.
“And that’s what we saw in Alabama,” Morse said. “People choosing community over party. They said, ‘No, our community has stronger standards. We don’t want Roy Moore to represent us.’”
Other women running for the first time are finding their own Route 28s. Like Anna Pletcher, a former federal prosecutor running for Marin County district attorney.
“In Marin County, we have a long way to go to treat women with respect,” Pletcher told me. “We do not have rape-kit examinations here in Marin County.”
Instead, Pletcher said, if a woman manages to make it to Marin General Hospital after a sexual assault, she would have to get into a police car for the hour’s drive to Vallejo for an exam. That’s because six years ago, Marin officials outsourced that function to Solano County to cut costs.
Pletcher said the #MeToo movement shows there are few women who haven’t been touched by sexual assault or harassment in some way.
“As women, we walk through this world differently,” said Pletcher. “So when the county said there isn’t enough money to pay for it, you remember that a budget is a statement of values. When women are in power, they will bring their statement of values. And we will make sure our budget reflects that.
“That is one reason why I’m running,” Pletcher told me. “Women on the campaign trail have been thanking me for raising this issue.”
It’s her Route 28 — and it encompasses her values. In that way, she said, what’s happening in Marin County and what’s happening in Alabama aren’t that different.
“What (Jones’ victory) shows is that we’re not very far apart,” Pletcher said. “Women across the country are speaking out about the experiences they’ve had over their lifetimes. Now they’re feeling that they can talk about them openly.”