Progressive women in public office emerge as key to future

In the winter months before Scott Walker really got rumbling with his extremist agenda — destroying bargaining rights, public education and stripping communities of their power to fix things — leaders of the progressive and union communities held several meetings with the articulate Karen Middleton, a multi-term elected official in Colorado with a national reputation.

She was seeking support and money for Emerge America, a national program that finds, trains, prepares and inspires committed progressive Democrat women to run for public office.

Not, you’ll notice, just any woman, though Middleton would probably concede that the lack of women in public office is a major problem. But women on the progressive side of the Democratic Party – that’s really her mission and the kind of woman she thinks will make a difference in the current political climate.

Don’t turn Limbaugh-Lite on me and dismiss the goal as a niche movement, a long shot, a pie-in-the-sky fancy. Just speed ahead seven months after Middleton’s pitch in Milwaukee and consider what has happened. Progressive women are on the march and they seem a key reason why the national media now looks at the results of the Wisconsin recall elections as confirming a balance between conservative and liberal forces.

Democrat women knocked off two GOP male incumbents in the state senate as the Democrats won 5 out of the 9 recalls even while missing by one a reversal of the senate. News reports point out two things – that the progressives had enough money and more enthusiasm to compete even while it took literally tons of outside money and pleas to the right wing base to keep the GOP in power.

Those same reports reveal that it was largely women out in their neighborhoods talking to other families, not just union families, and finding the voice to speak out at public forums they were once reluctant to participate in – and discovered they could stalemate the impact of outside money.

Women are now the key political presence in many communities, because they are no longer content to sit on the sidelines of debate and turmoil and let their children lose educational opportunities or be sent off to strange wars.

Women who never thought of themselves as progressives, liberals, put the label you want on them, found that the roots of that approach – caring what happened to everyday people — dovetailed with their family and religious beliefs, their nutritional and environmental concerns, their preference for something other than edicts and bossiness. Suddenly well-heeled funders far beyond Emily’s List (which always emphasized women candidates) were joining the support but even more amazing was the nickel and dime giving by women on the Internet.

Political and community leaders openly acknowledge not just the strength of women’s concerns but how progressive Democratic women may well be the door to the future political success, especially as so many citizens tire of the false promises, stubbornness and plain foolishness of the conservative GOP.

So what once seemed far-fetched is no longer silly. Take the idea that media pundits used to laugh at, that Wisconsin as a whole might embrace a dynamic, outspokenly progressive woman to be its newest senator. But now that longtime Madison Rep. Tammy Baldwin has announced she will run to replace retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, state voters are seeing the logic of a talented, practiced legislator known for nifty compromise, stand-up principles and fighting for working families as an alternative to wimpy wishy-washy.

Left or right may not prove as important as capable and human. The scoffing at Baldwin’s candidacy, the jeering from conservative talk radio, should remind the observant of the last time such radio goons chuckled that more conservative males would wipe the floor with any progressive woman who expected the working class to embrace her. That jeering in 2004 was about Gwen Moore, next to Kohl the most successful politician in the state for those who play the numbers game.

More reality. Women carried a major presence in the recall elections on both sides, but it was two Democrat women who defeated male Republican opponents in the state Senate. One, Jessica King, the largely unknown deputy mayor of Oshkosh, is actually a graduate of the Emerge Wisconsin program. She is now State Sen. Jessica King. She has fellow Emerge colleagues in the Assembly, including the only Latina, JoCasta Zamarippa of Milwaukee.

So now backtrack to Middleton’s visit. It would be fair to say the Wisconsin union leaders asked her hard questions about why she wanted their money as well as their influence. While they no longer ask such questions today, it’s worth revisiting what they were concerned about.

Why, they probed, of all the fine causes dunning them, should they help Middleton — and Wendy Strout, the organizer who left an AFSCME job to serve as executive director of Emerge Wisconsin, one of the national group’s state chapters.

Why should unions help Emerge by identifying or encouraging women to run for public office? Doesn’t labor itself need more women leaders? Unions are struggling not just to draw more minorities, young people, immigrants and veterans but also more women to take leadership. Their sex already makes up almost half the union workers in the US but only a minority of the leadership positions.

To that concern, the articulate Middleton had a sly and telling answer. The move to public office doesn’t lose progressive women to the union cause. It puts them in a position to advance union goals, and it makes room within the union ranks for the women who have the ability for leadership but don’t want to displace members of their own sex. (Displacing the men above them, of course, is an entirely different matter.)

The dilemma – not enough forward looking women in public office – contains the roots of Emerge America’s growth. More women would bring a fresh approach to problems, especially progressive women who don’t want to pretend to act like men. If there are not enough women in the front ranks, you attract more with intense preparation and networking, providing the tools to succeed and developing the skills to compete – and learning to do it well.

“We help women get into office, stay in office and like it,” Middleton is fond of saying — but it is determined work, she concedes, because women are different. They are not drawn to open domination as men are. They have to be coaxed. They actually have to believe they can make that difference — and deal with some scorn and doubts not just from men but other women.

Union leaders relate to her stories – how, in a roomful of both sexes it was the men who tended to volunteer for leadership and elected office while the women held back. Much of this is heritage and expectation, the historical role of women, but as Middleton pointed out it is also a matter of a different view of the nature of leadership.

Many of the women Emerge America is finding are not focused on public office and public speaking. Events led them to those roles. These women are often the quiet leaders in a neighborhood, a school, a committee, who don’t thrust themselves forward to get votes until circumstances force their natural initiative out into the open. In other words, they don’t know their own power. In some ways, the progressive ideals are the best way to waken them, since these concerns are natural to their own concerns about faith and family. Creating better schools, better environment, spending what is needed for jobs, not letting economics control the reproductive choices – that’s far more appealing than the protective self-gratification that many see in the navel-gazing Tea Party women.

Middleton clearly believes that awakened rounded thinking women who never seriously contemplated a public career are naturally drawn to become progressive Democrats. And events in Wisconsin seem to be proving her right.

That’s why you will find Wendy Strout running all over the state wherever there are rallies. She’s not only a speaker but mainly a quiet scout searching the crowd for women no one previously heard of but who show that instinct and intelligence for leadership and organization. That’s why Emerge Wisconsin seeks money so that economics don’t control involvement (the program costs thousands but no accepted applicant gives more than $350 for weekends of training). Emerge Wisconsin is having such an impact that it has moved its training classes up a year and has one group of applicants attending courses this month at union locations.

Nationally, Emerge is also making a mark, with a major awards ceremony in San Francisco, a powerhouse board and with Middleton speeding around the nation. Her energy could be the main reason Gov. Walker worked so hard to oppose the bullet train – she drops in on training classes in many states, talks on TV and radio, gets profiled in the New Yorker, pushes this “state of the art” concept to prepare women for public office.

Emerge America also has chapters in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and (get ready Rand Paul) now Kentucky.

To learn more about the program and its stepped up classes, visit or contact