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May 09, 2016

Be the Change You Want to See

By Lorelie S. Masters

June 4, 2014, marked an important step in D.C. residents’ struggle for home rule. The D.C. Court of Appeals upheld a referendum enacted by D.C. voters for an elected attorney general. This victory offered a promise of greater self-determination in the face of a local government controlled by the U.S. Congress—and an elected attorney general could serve a unique role in this ongoing fight.

A month later, amid Independence Day celebrations, I reflected on my commitment to home rule. Lawsuits, marches, petitions, and decades (centuries!) of protest have not corrected the injustice of taxation without representation for the 650,000+ American citizens living in D.C. I wanted to do more.

I began considering a bid for attorney general. I had decades of trial experience representing policyholders in high-stakes insurance coverage litigation and obtained the first judgment protecting a woman under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. I had managed a law office and large teams of lawyers. Clearly, I had the necessary expertise.

My husband said, “Are you out of your mind?!” Indeed, I had no political experience, no campaign staff, and few political connections.

As I weighed my decision, I thought of all the women I had encouraged to run for office. I thought about the fearless women who broke down barriers—women like Emmeline Pankhurst, who was jailed in 1858 and went on a hunger strike to demand women’s suffrage. As a Women’s Campaign Fund board member, and law firm partner for 30 years, I know too well the abysmal numbers: for decades, women have made up less than 20 percent of our elected leaders (and law firm partners, general counsel, and . . . and . . .). As Civil Rights icon John Lewis tweeted, “Democracy is an act. It requires . . . dedication to the highest principles.” What will cause change?

With the deadline for election petitions looming, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. The next morning, I went down to the D.C. Board of Elections to complete the paperwork and had my first interview with the press. For the first time in my career, the case I was touting was my own: why I should be attorney general.

On election night, less than four months later, I received the results. I gave a short, heartfelt speech thanking supporters and a concession call to the winner. Despite the outcome, I had had a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the first race for D.C.’s elected attorney general. As a candidate, I met people from all walks of life and learned about my adopted home, the District of Columbia, in ways I never could have otherwise. It was exhilarating—and terrifying!

I learned:

  • Running for office takes great courage, and great stamina. Perhaps better said, it takes determination and a thick skin.
  • It takes a village. To win, most people need to know local politicians, activists, and experienced campaign workers.
  • As with success in legal practice, preparation and training are key. Many people do not win on the first try. As I like to say, losing is part of winning. Do not be afraid to lose. People will admire you for it.
  • Women face sexism in campaigning. Male campaign staff may not recognize it, but women supporting you will. Be prepared to call out sexism in a nonjudgmental way—then pivot to your message.
  • Campaigns are expensive. Until our campaign-finance system changes, women (and the men who love them) need to “vote with their purse.” Women support campaigns at a quarter of men’s rate. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that laws helping women succeed—pay equality, family leave—are not enacted.
  • More than anything else: be bold! The women who broke down barriers for us were unafraid. Banish fear. Ask for what you want, on the campaign trail—and off.

Women need to be asked to run for office six times before they do it—that’s about six times more often than men have to be asked before they run. We need to change that. Women will not have an equal say unless more women run for office—because the more we run, the more offices we’ll hold. When women run, women win.