It’s been a good year for women in politics in San Francisco, and Andrea Dew Steele can take some of the credit.
In 2002, a friend of hers whom you might have heard of — Kamala Harris — sought Steele’s help in her run for San Francisco district attorney. Now, of course, Harris is a U.S. senator and a rumored contender for president in 2020.
Steele realized back then that too few women were considering a career in politics, and that those who did want to jump into the daunting world of campaigning didn’t know how. So she co-founded Emerge America, a training ground for women in politics. It now has programs in 25 states.
Emerge graduates include Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen and Supervisor Catherine Stefani. There are 730 alumnae of the program running for office in 29 states this year. One Emerge graduate whose race Steele is keeping an especially close eye on is Deb Haaland, a New Mexico community activist who could become the first American Indian woman ever elected to Congress.
I sat down with Steele in her office on California Street the other day to talk about why more women are running for office and why that matters. Steele, mother of three kids ages 9 to 14, lives in the Presidio. She has some eclectic office decor, including a mug with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg flipping the double bird above the word “Dissent” and a sign reading, “Not today, patriarchy.”
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Can you walk me through that conversation with Kamala Harris that started this for you and how the light bulb went off that Emerge was needed?
A: Kamala came to me and said, “Andrea, I want to run for office. Where do I start?”
I told her to come up to my apartment — I was living in the Haight at the time. She walked up the four flights of stairs and sat at my little green desk and said, “What do we need to do?”
I said, “Well, we need to write your bio. You can’t do anything without a bio.” So we typed up her bio, and she then said, “OK, what’s next?”
I said, “Well, we need to get your contacts in order because we need to start fundraising.” She pulled out a Filofax. She hadn’t put any of her contacts into a database. This was 2002, but still.
I realized we can make it easier for women if we can get them starting to think like a candidate earlier. At our Emerge training, the very first day, we say, “Your candidacy begins today.”
Q: What do you think has changed? Now San Francisco has its second woman mayor ever, which is pretty incredible, a woman running the Board of Supervisors, a majority on the board. How do you think we’ve turned that corner?
A: Certainly, it helps to fill the pipeline, to have women who are ready to take the plunge and run for office. That’s what we’ve been doing since 2002. There’s a feeling, certainly, right now that this is the moment. I don’t think it hurt that Oprah Winfrey had that wonderful speech (at the Golden Globes ceremony in January) about this being the moment, particularly for black women, not just to carry the vote for Democrats, but to be in office and leading the way.
Q: Kamala Harris has been outspoken against the president. She has a new memoir coming out. A lot of people think she’s laying the groundwork for a presidential run. Do you think she should run?
A: I’m saying what a lot of people are saying right now who work in politics. We need to be focused on 2018. That’s what I’m focused on. Then I think we’ll see what happens.
I want to be sure that we have a robust pipeline, and we’re not just focused on the top of the ticket. That’s what’s been wrong with Democrats for too long, that we’ve been focused on this savior. It’s not going to save us.
We need to be really working on getting great mayors in office, and we need to be focused on the 520,000 offices in this country. That’s what’s really going to help us.
Q: What do you see happening in the midterm elections? Do you think it’s going to be a good night for Democrats?
A: I’m cautiously optimistic. You never know what’s going to happen in the world, right, but certainly momentum is on our side.
Q: Can you talk about why so many women have been inspired to run since President Trump’s election in 2016?
A: Women woke up and realized we elected the biggest misogynist we’ve seen probably in politics ever. That was just such a slap in the face to us as women. How could America have done that? That was galvanizing.
But more importantly, women run for office because of issues. They run for office because they care about the fact that children are being mowed down in school. They run for office because they want to fix their schools and their communities.
Every single issue we care about is absolutely on the line now — that’s why you really see a lot of women running for office.
Those women who may have said, “Oh, I’m not qualified. I don’t have five master’s degrees and a Ph.D.” — now they see how you don’t have to have any experience at all. I do think that is also a factor.
Q: Do you see any difference in how women actually lead?
A: The research shows women are more collaborative. We pass more legislation, we co-sponsor more legislation. There’s no question about that, the difference we make when we’re at the decision-making table. We bring our personal experience to bear.
Q: How do you convince more women to run when the political atmosphere has become so nasty, especially on social media?
A: First of all, we have to stand up and say, “You have to do it. Your country is depending on you.” I want to take back the flag and say, “It’s your patriotic duty. Do you love your country? Do you want to help your community?” It’s now that we need really great people to step up to the plate. One thing we provide at Emerge is a sisterhood. We’re going to be there for you.
Q: If you could control the future, who would be elected president in 2020?
A: Well, of course I wouldn’t mind if Kamala was president — that would be amazing. I love all the women who’ve been mentioned. (U.S. Sen.) Kirsten Gillibrand is one of my favorites. I adore (U.S. Sen.) Elizabeth Warren. If I had my magic wand, I would like to see a woman president. I don’t think that should be an unreasonable request in 2018.
Q: Also, if you had that same magic wand, what would happen to Donald Trump after 2020?