Spokane Valley’s Mary May might have lost her bid to be a state representative last November, but she didn’t throw her signs away.
Following her loss, which was the first time she had run for public office, she decided to enroll in Emerge Washington’s 2019 training course.
“After the election I realized that there’s so much I didn’t know and still don’t know,” said May, a former city planner who now works for Community Frameworks. “The opportunity presented itself to make some connections and get some learning under my belt as far as tip and tricks on how to run a successful campaign, how to be a politician, and how to make connections in the community. I am always up for learning.”
Emerge Washington recruits and trains Democratic women to run for public office. It is an independent affiliate of Emerge America, a national organization that does the same. Emerge America affiliates are operating in 25 states, and they have trained more than 4,000 women since 2012. More than 500 alums are currently serving across the country, the organization says on its website.
“We train women to run for office and provide ongoing support throughout their journey to public office,” said Karen Besserman, executive director of Emerge Washington. Besserman has worked on political campaigns across the country for more than a decade. “Putting together a successful campaign is important whether it’s the school board or cemetery board.”
This year’s Emerge group will “graduate” in May after completing an 80-hour course that included meeting once a month over five months in various locations across the state.
“We have a class of 26 women and over 40 percent are women of color and LGBTQI,” Besserman said. “We are trying to build a bench who are ready to run at any given moment.”
Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall, a member of this year’s cohort, bears the distinction of being the first Democrat elected to that position in 70 years. The group includes six women from Eastern Washington, including May.
“I believe that women by nature are great at finding common ground, and we’re great at looking for ways to find solutions. We value collaboration,” May said. “But I think we naturally let others speak first or step up first, and Emerge teaches us to have faith in ourselves and to realize that we have not only a valid point but our communities need us.”
A dozen Emerge women are running for various offices this year, Besserman said. The group boasts 16 elected officials across the state who have completed the program, including U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, who ran in a heated campaign in 2018 against Dino Rossi.
Attorney Kristin Ang, another member of the 2019 class, is running for Port of Tacoma Commissioner Position 5. She decided to run after learning of the protests against a liquified natural gas plant being built there and noticing no challengers on the ballot.
“I realized I will not ask of someone what I will not do myself,” Ang said. “Like other Emerge women, I became aware that voting was not enough—we must run for elected office.”
Ang enrolled in Emerge to become part of a network of women leaders and learn what is needed to win an election.
“The training has demystified the campaign process,” She said. “Most importantly, I have forged relationships with amazing women who are deeply committed in serving their communities. Emerge has provided a great support network. No one can win or do great things alone. With Emerge, we have a community of passionate and powerful women enthusiastic to help each other accomplish any endeavor.”
Topics covered within the 80-hour course include how to tell your story, what to run for and when to run, how to raise money, how to put a campaign plan together, how to prepare for debates, and how to navigate the Democratic party, how to knock on doors, and more. They deliberately do not train on political issues and instead favor focusing on the tools women need to run for office, Besserman said.
Politicians, community leaders and others lead the individual workshops. During the April session in Spokane, Sandy Williams, who publishes the Black Lens newspaper, gave a seminar on social justice. Nancy Shatto, a member of Toastmasters International, provided tips on public speaking.
The cohort shadowed state legislators in Olympia in a previous session.
“These women get amazing connections with elected officials that they didn’t have before coming into the program,” Besserman said. “It’s really a way to make politics accessible to the women who come.”
Tuition for the annual cohort is about $700, though Emerge Washington does offer some partial scholarships. In addition to the longer course, Emerge offers multiday boot camps. Individuals can apply online at wa.emergeamerica.org.
The Washington State Republican Party does offer free grassroots training across the state that is not specifically geared toward women. Topics include campaign support, canvassing, social media, first-time candidate training, and more. Those who are interested can register on the organization’s website.
Besserman said about half the women over the past two Emerge cohorts had already been involved in the Democratic party and were “fluent” in political terminology. Others had an inner fire but no idea how to channel it.
“Not every woman who comes into the program is going to run at the end of the day, but it really gives them the confidence to stand up for themselves and gives them the confidence to speak publicly for the first time,” Besserman said.
Once women complete the program, they are part of a national network and receive advice and other support from Besserman and Emerge.
“These women walk away with sisterhoods for life.
“The immense respect and love amongst these women this year is just amazing. … I really truly believe that in this time of conflict and turmoil and division in this country it’s women that are going to make the difference,” she said.