In Trump era, a sudden flood of women candidates

Virginia's House of Delegates nearly doubled its number of female lawmakers on Tuesday, while across the country, Democratic women won key mayoral and other races. Many say dismay over President Trump's election motivated them to run for office themselves.

Courtesy of Teddy Smyth/Jennifer Carroll Foy for Delegate
Jennifer Carroll Foy became one of 11 Democratic women to win seats currently held by Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates in the November 2017 elections. Across the country, women prevailed in many key races.
David Goldman/AP
Atlanta City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks as her daughter, Lincoln, watches at an election night party in Atlanta Nov. 8. Ms. Lance Bottoms is headed into a runoff election Dec. 5. Women won many races across the US in this week’s elections.

Jennifer Carroll Foy is one resilient woman.

Three weeks after announcing her candidacy for the Virginia state legislature, Ms. Carroll Foy discovered she was pregnant – with twins. That led to bed rest, and a very premature delivery. But she kept on running, and on Tuesday, she became one of 11 Democratic women to win Republican-held seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, bringing her party to the brink of a majority that few saw as even possible.

The Virginia house will go from 17 women out of 100 members to at least 28, with some races still undecided – a display of female power that was no coincidence. Across the country, in Tuesday’s off-year elections, women prevailed in many key races. In the Seattle suburbs, prosecutor Manka Dhingra won a special election for a Washington state senate seat – flipping control of the chamber to the Democrats. Seattle also elected a woman as mayor, as did Manchester, N.H., where Joyce Craig will become the first woman ever to hold that position. Charlotte, N.C., just elected its first black female mayor, and New Jersey will soon seat the nation’s first black female Democratic lieutenant governor.

Since President Trump’s election a year ago, women around the country have flooded political training programs, and many have declared candidacies. Tuesday’s elections provided two clear takeaways for women thinking of running for office: Don’t be afraid to take on incumbents, despite seemingly long odds (historically, incumbents win at least 90 percent of the time). And don’t wait to be recruited, just jump in.

“These women really defied conventional wisdom – 30 percent of Democratic women who ran as challengers [in Virginia] won,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “They were in many ways fearless in throwing themselves into these races.”

The success of female candidates in Virginia in particular – where Democrats also swept the statewide races, in an election seen in part as a referendum on Mr. Trump – is something that Democratic activists will be hoping to replicate across the country in the 2018 midterm elections.

Many of Virginia’s new female state delegates are also minorities, a reflection of an increasingly diverse state. Carroll Foy is black, two others are Latina, one is Vietnamese, one is Filipina, and one is transgender. And many of them say their decision to run came from a visceral reaction a year ago to the election of Trump as president.

Courtesy of Teddy Smyth/Jennifer Carroll Foy for Delegate
Democrat Jennifer Carroll Foy, campaigning for the Virginia House of Delegates. Ms. Carroll Foy, originally considered a long shot, won her seat just months after giving birth to twins.

“I decided to run on my own,” says Carroll Foy, who works as a public defender, in an interview. “I remember watching the election last year, and knowing how disappointed and frustrated and angry and hopeless I felt. I knew that there had to be a response to Trump.”

Younger women with younger children

Another newly elected Virginia delegate, Kelly Fowler, speaks of taking her eight-year-old daughter – born on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009 – to the Women’s March last January. That’s when she decided to run.

New delegate Kathy Tran, a refugee from Vietnam as a little girl, gave birth to her fourth child shortly after Trump’s inauguration, and decided to run soon thereafter. She campaigned door-to-door with baby Elise – named for Ellis Island – at her side.

All these stories point to another trend: Women with small children are no longer shying away from running for office. 

“We are seeing younger women with younger children,” says Ms. Walsh. “Everything we know about women in politics may be going out the window.”

Still, she and others caution against over-interpreting Virginia’s election results, noting that it has become an increasingly Democratic state, particularly among women, who voted for Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) by 22 points. Hillary Clinton’s margin among women there last year was 17 points.

Tuesday’s election “feels a little like the legislature is catching up with the electorate,” says Walsh.

Republicans in Virginia, too, have worked hard to recruit and elect women candidates. The party’s nominee for lieutenant governor was a woman, state Sen. Jill Vogel. And all the Democrats’ statewide office-holders are men, both today and when the new governor is installed. But the numbers don’t lie. In Tuesday’s election, 27 of the female challengers for Virginia’s House of Delegates were Democrats, and only three were Republicans.

Issues like health care – the top concern of Virginia voters overall, according to exit polls – and reproductive rights were key for both Democratic women candidates and voters alike.

Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from northern Virginia, knows his party has a woman problem but, he adds, referring to voting trends, “the Democrats have a man problem.”

Above all, Democratic leaders are focused on recruiting candidates they think can win – and in the era of Trump, with voters in both parties crying for outsiders, that often means women.

“We had made a concerted effort as a caucus to recruit more women candidates,” says Charniele Herring, chair of the Democratic Caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates. “Some we had tried to recruit for years to step up.”

Hala Ayala, a cybersecurity expert and single mom in an outer suburb of Washington, is one whom Virginia Democrats had long tried to recruit. In January, she was an organizer of the Virginia contingent to the big women’s march the day after Trump’s inauguration. Now, she’s preparing to take her seat in the House of Delegates.

But Ms. Herring is also a big believer in women who self-activate.  “I always tell women, ‘Don’t wait for someone to ask you to run, because then you probably never will,’ ” she says.

Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/AP
Democrat Manka Dhingra, being congratulated by supporters after taking the lead on election night for a state senate seat, in Woodinville, Wash.

A long-shot bid

Carroll Foy is one of those women who didn’t wait. And her run for a seat in a racially mixed outer suburban area that was being vacated by a Republican may be the most memorable of this cycle. It began as a long-shot bid in the Democratic primary, against a party-establishment favorite who had already been running for more than a year. He outraised Carroll Foy by four to one, and had racked up a pile of local endorsements.

When Carroll Foy discovered she was pregnant, she plowed ahead, and tried to keep it private as long as possible, so as not to distract from her campaign and her message. When she told one person, early on, she says, the response was: “‘How are you going to run for office and work and be a mom? It’s going to be impossible.”

But she knew she could do it, with the support of her husband, family, and campaign team.

“I knew that I didn’t have to choose between being a mother, or an attorney, or a wife, or a candidate,” she says. “Those should all be ‘ands.’ ”

When she went on bed rest, just two days before the June 13 primary, her husband and campaign manager swung into action. She won the primary by 14 votes after a recount. On July 5, her twin sons were born, almost 18 weeks early. This week, she won the general election by a wide margin.

What in her background had prepared her for this challenge?

She credits her faith, and her education at Virginia Military Institute, where she was one of the first women of color to attend. There she learned time management and organizational skills, and “how to work with people who have a great disdain for you, and don’t want you in the room.”

She had also been a foster parent, an experience that gave her “an understanding of how to meet the needs of people in my community, not just identifying problems, but how to be part of the solution,” she says.

“I was raised by my grandparents,” she adds. “What if they hadn't taken the time out? What if they hadn't given me the opportunity, where would I be?”

Now she’s a mom herself, and the next phase of her journey of “ands” – wife, mother, lawyer, and soon a state delegate – is about to begin. She plans to keep working 50-hour weeks as a public defender, and take leaves of absence when the legislature is in session.

She says her “huge family support system,” including her mother-in-law, will keep helping her and her husband juggle everything. And the babies? Both now weigh more than 7 pounds. Xander has just come home from the hospital, and Alex should be home early next week.

“They’re doing wonderfully,” she says.

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