Women Gain Skills to Blaze the Campaign Trail

At Yale University, women politicians learn practical tactics - from polling to stumping - to get them elected

Against the backdrop of chandeliers and wood paneling at Yale's Graduate Club, Angela Maria Arboleda glides from hand to hand, pressing the flesh.

Ms. Arboleda is a politician in the making, eager to break from her networking to talk about the office she plans to hold - the presidency of Colombia.

"Eventually I want to become a minister, after that run for office, then become the first woman president, which I think is possible," says Arboleda, currently a college student in Connecticut.

"My father works for the UN, and I've seen that power lies only in the hands of the politicians, for the worse or for the better," she says.

That's a familiar sentiment among the 38 students at last week's Women's Campaign School, where intentions of running for president, United States Congress, state senate, and town council were often voiced in the hallowed halls of Yale University.

The school, an intense, five-day workshop in its second year, draws women from California to Connecticut to swap war stories from the campaign trail, explore the possibilities of their political ambitions, and pick up pointers on the "nuts and bolts" of running a race.

"There are a lot of places you can learn about governance," says Andree Brooks, co-founder and president of the school, as she hunts for copier paper and answers persistent questions from an all-volunteer staff. "We are very specialized in dealing with" how to get women elected to the halls of power, she says.

The Women's Campaign School has emerged in a political climate in which there are eight women in the US Senate; women hold 47 US Congressional seats (10.8 percent); 1,536 state legislative positions (20.7 percent); and the governor's seat in just one state, New Jersey.

After a trouncing of the Democrats in the US last November accompanied by a general rise of conservatism throughout the country, there is a new need to support women politicians, says Audrey Rowe, executive vice president of the Urban League and defeated candidate for lieutenant governor in Connecticut. "[Women candidates] have lost a lot of ground in support from women voters," she says. "Women were in much better shape 10 years ago."

The school aims to eradicate the obstacles that have historically stood in a woman's way, such as establishing credibility as a candidate, learning to raise funds, and not being afraid to seek power in a male-dominated arena.

The curriculum is designed to serve the diverse needs of its participants, who hail from 14 states, range in age from 21 to 70, and represent a rainbow of ethnic backgrounds.

The school, run from one cluttered classroom, offers courses on deciding when to run, the use of advertising in a campaign, and how to conduct polls.

A wide array of speakers - both Democratic and Republican - are sprinkled throughout the program, and the many hands-on exercises, such as videotaping a platform speech with a media trainer, are highlighted.

Marty Blum from Santa Barbara, Calif, says she was attracted to the school because of the leg up it offers women campaigners. After a full career as a lawyer and educator, Ms. Blum ran for city council in 1993 and lost in the closest race in Santa Barbara's history. "I was really right there," she says. "I just need a few pointers."

She's running again this November and says she has gained much in the last five days to polish her campaign techniques. "The major thing I learned here was not how to do direct mail or phone bank ... [but] how to speak."

She had used notes to deliver her speeches throughout her last campaign, though she really didn't need them, she says. "It was just a crutch." It's a mistake she says she won't make again.

For Kathleen Cosgrove, a town council member in the small Connecticut town of Oxford, the school's lessons on effectively conveying a message will be invaluable. Ms. Cosgrove is one of three elected officials on her town's governing board - the other two are men.

"I'm constantly outvoted by them," she says. Cronyism is rampant in her town, and she fights an uphill battle every time she enters the town hall, she says. "But here I've learned how important it is to have a sense of humor. You can [get your point across] in a positive way, without being angry all the time."

Not all the school's attendees are planning to get back on the campaign trail, though. After losing a run for the state legislature in Florida in 1992, in which she lacked her party's support, Suzanne Sanchez Coleman is dedicated to creating new places for women candidates to go for money. "If you are not the party's 'anointed candidate,' which women often are not, there's nothing," she says.

Participants repeat that the most valuable parts of the program are the hands-on exercises, and say that if they have a complaint with the program, it's that there aren't more of them.

The campaign school was the creation of Ms. Brooks, a journalist from England who ran for office there in the early 1980s, and Julie Belaga, now director of the Export/Import Bank in Washington and previously a candidate for governor of Connecticut.

The two put together a 21-member board of directors that includes Yale professors of law and women's studies, landing the program in New Haven.

"We'd all faced obstacles," Carolanne Curry, vice president of the campaign school, says of the women who make up the board. "We felt that if we put a school together we could change that, and that appears to be happening."

One graduate of the 1994 program won a New York City council seat last November, and with as many as a third of the current graduates seeking political office in the next year or two, that number is likely to shoot up.

Each new graduating class allows the board to dream of bigger and better things for the Women's Campaign School, as well. With each class there are more alumni and thus a larger network to tap for resources. Brooks would like to offer the school several times a year and expand to new locales if possible. She also hopes to reach out to more international students and possibly help develop a similar school abroad.

But until more funding is available, Brooks can take heart in the enthusiasm that her attendees express regarding what is being offered at the school.

"If I knew then what I know today," says Ms. Coleman from Florida, "My campaign would have been a snap."

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