Heather Edelson was the only woman to compete for the DFL’s endorsement in Edina’s House District 49A in 2016. This year, she was joined by first-time candidates Carolyn Jackson and Cheryl Barry.
Leah Phifer, another rookie candidate who’s running in the Eighth Congressional District DFL race, has met plenty of men who are cheering her on.
But Trista MatasCastillo, a first-time candidate for a nonpartisan Ramsey County Board seat, is asked whether her husband approves.
A surge of women — most of them Democrats — are running this year for everything from city councils and county commissions to legislatures and Congress. In Minnesota, 76 women, several of them newcomers, filed as candidates for 134 House districts.
The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University is tracking the trend. In U.S. House races, 421 women are running even after some lost primaries; the previous high was 298 in 2012. Fifty-two women have a shot at U.S. Senate seats, up from 40 in 2016. And the field of female gubernatorial candidates is 79, well more than double the 1994 record of 34.
“Women kind of woke up” after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 election “and decided they could no longer let someone else do politics for them. They decided they might actually need to be the candidate themselves,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers center.
“Since the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement has been more and more about women finding their voice and empowering themselves,” she said. “I think that running for office is a piece of that.”
DFLers Barry, Jackson and Edelson were all vying to take on Republican state Rep. Dario Anselmo in November. When she sought the same seat in 2016, Edelson was the only woman in the endorsement race. “This year there were three women. It’s a huge difference,” said Edelson, who won the district endorsement on March 10.
“We’ve been underrepresented,” said Barry. “I carry a mental image of men sitting at a table in the White House making decisions about reproductive rights.” She decided to run after complaining to her husband about politicians.
“You should be the one doing this,” he told her.
The catalyst for Jackson was the Women’s March in St. Paul the day after Trump’s inauguration. Campaigning against two women strengthened her sense that a wave of Democrats could win across the nation in November. “The neat thing is, with the three of us, it looks like a wave and there’s some solidarity in that,” she said.
Anselmo, first elected in 2016, hopes voters choose more women — and more men who are advocates for the issues women care about. This isn’t so much the year of women, he said, as it is “the year of people who are really trying to make a difference.”
He added, “Just to replace me because of my gender does me a disservice.”
Third-term state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who is running in the First Congressional District, said in a statement that being a woman has been an advantage. Obstacles she faces, she said, “come from being an outsider in the Good Ol’ Boys Club in St. Paul.”
Despite “what the national media may say, it’s not just Democratic women that are stepping up but strong conservative women as well such as myself and my Senate colleague Karin Housley,” Nelson said. Housley is a Republican state senator who is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Tina Smith.
Sixty-six women serve in the Minnesota Legislature — down from a record 70 in the House and Senate from 2007-2010. Both of the state’s U.S. senators are women and both have female challengers this year (the Green Party’s Paula Overby is challenging Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar). But Minnesota is among 24 states that have never elected a female governor.
Barriers to women in politics are deeply rooted, said Erin Vilardi, CEO and founder of VoteRunLead, which is based in Duluth. It has offices in New York, Colorado and California and since 2014 has provided online and in-person training to 17,000 women from both political parties who want to run for state and local offices.
MatasCastillo was startled by some of the questions she’s been asked on the campaign trail. “ ‘What does your husband think of this? How do you manage your kids?’ — I’ve been asked that,” she said. “I’m like, are you kidding me? Men don’t get asked those questions.”
MatasCastillo, a veteran, was often the first or the only woman in her military jobs, and she had to contend with skepticism and cruel jokes. Competing against other women in the county commissioner race, she said, “was kind of awesome. I felt kindred sisterhood in my heart.” She won the DFL endorsement on March 10.
North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, who is seeking the endorsement in the race to succeed fellow DFLer Rep. Rick Nolan in the Eighth Congressional District, believes that women bring a special sensibility to governing. “Politics is how we take care of each other,” she said.
She said that campaigning has taught her that “you can have failings, emotions close to the surface. … It does not diminish you as a leader.”
Phifer has been encouraged by men’s reactions. “I can’t tell you how many older white men have told me, ‘We’ve had our time. It’s time that we elect more women, more people of color,’ “ she said.
Organizations that recruit and train women candidates have sprung up across the country. EMILY’s List, founded in 1985, is one of the oldest.
Spokeswoman Julie McClain Downey said it has seen a spike in interest since 2016: More than 34,000 women have contacted the group since Clinton’s loss. Half of them were under 45. In the previous election cycle, she said, about 900 women reached out.
“This is not a wave, it’s a sea change,” she said. “There are tens of thousands of women stepping forward, raising their hands and saying, ‘I want to run for office.’ “ EMILY’s List has more than tripled the size of its state and local staff because of increased interest, she said.
Emerge America trains women candidates in 24 states. The Wisconsin affiliate’s executive director, Erin Forrest, said that it trained nine women in its first class in 2008. In 2017, there were 74, and interest this year is soaring. Part of Emerge’s mission, she said, is overcoming the perception among some women that they’re not qualified to run for office.
Women, she said, often are focused on making their own communities better and don’t “see public office as a way to do that.” A facet of the training is to get women to explore “how they think about who needs to be at the table when decisions are made,” Forrest said.
Vicki Jensen, a former state senator running for the DFL endorsement to replace Rep. Tim Walz in the First Congressional District, wants to be at that table. But she had to be coaxed at the beginning of her political career.
Jensen said she recognized a passion for public service when she got involved in school budget decisions affecting her son with Asperger syndrome. But she didn’t consider running for the school board until someone else — a man — suggested it.
“That’s very, very common,” she said. “Women do need more validation.” She believes women are better collaborators and problem-solvers. “It’s your ideas and your tenacity” that count, she said.
Vilardi at VoteRunLead is confident that the surge in women candidates is a permanent change in American politics. “The wave,” she said, “will run through 2020,” when she expects women to seek both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.
The timing is perfect because 2020 will mark the centennial of a milestone, she said: The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.