Wins by New Mexico Dems reflects success of women’s political group

Ashley Sanderson shrugs off phrases bandied about after Tuesday’s victories for Democratic women in New Mexico: blue wave, pink wave.

Yes, these wins — many in longtime GOP strongholds — largely point to a wave of fury over Republican President Donald Trump’s policies and frustration following eight years of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

There was plenty of dissatisfaction — outrage, even — driving many Democratic female candidates’ decisions to run for office this year.

But the success of their campaigns in the general election is not something Sanderson, executive director of the nonprofit political organization Emerge New Mexico, expects to wash away as the women take office.

“It’s not a wave,” she said. “It’s definitely a movement.”

The movement began in New Mexico a decade before Trump’s election shocked the nation in 2016, spurring the Women’s March on Washington and #MeToo.

It started when Emerge quietly opened its doors a dozen years ago and has been building ever since — a meticulous effort to identify, recruit and train a diverse array of Democratic women on the finer points of campaigning and get them into elected offices at all levels of government, from the school board and the village council to the U.S. House and beyond.

“This is a big year for us,” said Sanderson, who has been with Emerge for six years. She also has worked for Delta Consulting Group, a firm co-founded by Democratic Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, for the past eight years.

Forty-two graduates of the Emerge New Mexico program were on the ballot this year. All but five won, and some of the losses were impossibly narrow: Jessica Velasquez’s 49.54 percent to Republican Gregg Schmedes’ 50.46 percent in state House District 22. The biggest victory came late: Xochitl Torres Small’s surprise lead over outgoing state Rep. Yvette Herrell by several thousand absentee ballots in Southern New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District.

Sanderson was busy last week touting the group’s 37-5 election season. Emerge tallies four appeals court seats and 17 seats in the state House of Representatives.

“We’re thrilled to be changing the face of politics in New Mexico,” she said. “We just keep increasing our numbers in the Legislature.”

The group has never before sent one of its grads to Congress. Now it’s preparing to send two.

Debra Haaland, the congresswoman-elect in Albuquerque’s 1st Congressional District who will be one of the first Native American women in the U.S. House, is an Emerge grad from the Class of 2007. Torres Small was in the Class of 2018.

That was the biggest class the political organization — some might call it a machine — had ever seen: more than 50 women, compared to the usual 20 to 25, applying to participate in the intensive training program that covers fundraising, campaigning, public speaking and ethics.

One of the most compelling lessons, said Micaela Lara Cadena, who won a Southern New Mexico House seat on Tuesday, was on the power of storytelling — making connections with voters by sharing personal experiences.

Cadena said Emerge emphasized that “voters remember how you make them feel.”

Since it was established in 2006, Emerge has trained more than 300 women; 69 of them are now in public office across New Mexico.

“More than half of the 37 Emerge New Mexico women who won in the election were women of color with deep connections to their communities,” said Julianna Koob, an Emerge founder, volunteer and board member.

When Sanderson began working with Emerge, recruitment was tougher. “We would practically have to beg women to even consider running for office.”

Now prospective candidates are coming to Emerge.

A powerful sisterhood

Emerge New Mexico is part of an aggressive effort to increase representation of Democratic women in government across the U.S.

But the national organization, Emerge America, is not a Democratic Party project.

“Definitely not,” said San Francisco-based activist and political analyst Andrea Dew Steele, who dreamed up Emerge in 2002 — a full decade after the Senate’s so-called Year of the Woman, when, Steele said, women were still dismally underrepresented in government.

Steele said her inspiration for Emerge was a close friend who was interested in running for a district attorney position in California but wasn’t certain how to get her campaign started. Steele found there were no resources for women like her friend, Kamala Harris.

Harris — elected to a U.S. Senate seat in California in 2016 and now considered a prospect for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020 — went on to win the district attorney’s race in San Francisco and later was elected attorney general.

Steele couldn’t get the Democratic Party in California to back her plan for Emerge, she said.

And no, she said, George Soros did not write her a startup check. “We’ve never received any money from rich, white men.”

So, how did Steele build up what has become a $3 million-a-year Emerge America operation and 25 state affiliates with budgets of about $120,000 each?

“I did the hard work,” she said. “… I went out and tried to get people to believe in my vision. America is better when women are in office.”

Most of Emerge’s funders are women, she said.

The idea caught on quickly. In 2004, an Emerge affiliate was established in Arizona. New Mexico’s organization was the third.

“There were some really pushy New Mexico women hounding me,” Steele joked.

Together, the Emerge affiliates have trained more than 4,000 Democratic women to run for office. On Tuesday night, they saw 318 wins, including 145 state legislative seats and five congressional victories, including the two in New Mexico.

“New Mexico is one of our success stories,” Steele said, “and it’s a long-term success story. New Mexico has really led the charge on diversity, equity, inclusion from day one.”

The affiliate has built what Steele called “a powerful sisterhood on the ground.”

The state had long been purple, she noted. “Now it’s solid blue, and I believe Emerge New Mexico played a real role in that.”

‘Our work doesn’t end here’

State Auditor-elect Brian Colón also credits Emerge with the Democratic Party’s sweeping success Tuesday.

Colón was the state party chairman when Koob set out to establish an Emerge affiliate. She brought the idea to him and asked for help.

“There was just no question that this was something I could support,” he said.

Emerge has significantly increased the number of women in office in New Mexico, “and we’re a better state for it,” Colón said. “Our young girls in New Mexico have just as much right to see themselves reflected in government as boys. … And that was missing.”

But Emerge is far from satisfied with the numbers of women in elected office in New Mexico and nationwide. Emerge America has a 50-state plan, Steele said, and it’s only halfway there. She pointed to Georgia and Texas, where Emerge affiliates are in development, and Florida, where the organization doesn’t yet have a presence.

“We need to take back legislatures in some of these states,” Steele said.

The state and national groups in early 2019 will start preparing to put women on ballots in 2020.

Emerge New Mexico has its sights set on the state Senate in particular, where it hasn’t yet seen a graduate elected. It also has work to do at the local level in communities now entirely governed by men, Sanderson said.

“Our work doesn’t end here,” she said. “… We want to see women make up 51 percent of the population” of people in elected office.