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February 15, 2020

2 women politicos share tips for beating the Big F: Fear

In 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed Eva Guzman to complete the term of a judge on a trial court in Houston.  When the term was up, she ran for the job (judges in Texas are elected) and her public life officially began. A person with “no connections, no money,” she has now run five successful campaigns for Texas judicial posts and currently serves on the Texas Supreme Court. In her 2016 race, Guzman got more votes than anyone in the state’s history.

Guzman and former Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton shared their experiences in electoral politics at the program, “Vote. Run. Lead. 100 Years of Women in Politics,” held at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas.

The biggest thing that keeps women from running for office, Guzman said, is the “big F word.”

“Fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being away from home. Fear of not being accepted. Fear of not being able to raise the funds.”

In her first race, she said, “the question was, could a Latina run and win in my [Republican] party at the time?”

Although Texas is a state of 27 million people and running statewide “is a challenge,” Guzman said, “I embraced the politics. I embraced the idea of connecting with voters” and sharing her platform with them.

In addition, she reached out to women’s groups across the state, “and they embraced me.”

Guzman didn’t downplay the difficulty. Sometimes she would campaign in three or four cities a day and miss important moments with her daughter. Develop a thick skin, she advised, “because you’re going to need it.”

Sayles-Belton’s first campaign was for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. She lived in a swing ward and needed to build a coalition and put together financing.

Her first fundraiser was a cookout at her home with hot dogs and hamburgers “and the cheapest beer you could find,” but it created an opportunity for people to hear her message. An African American in a predominantly white city, Sayles-Belton knocked on a lot of doors, only to have people see her face and then walk away. Some would even say, “We do not vote for your kind.”

She dealt with it by telling herself to “stay razor-focused on what it is I’m trying to accomplish here.”

Although running for office is hard work, Sayles-Belton said, “if you are victorious, you can do some wonderful and significant things for your community.”

It is incumbent on all of us to empower our communities, each other, women and young people, said Guzman, who added that she tries to pay it forward by identifying and encouraging people who would do a great job in public office.

She advised women to get involved at the local level “if you want to be that catalyst for change.”

Referring to one deterrent to women running for office – incumbency – Guzman said to “stay ready” for when seats open up.

Sayles-Belton did just that. The incumbent in a position she wanted was set to retire, but had identified someone else to run for the seat. “And that person was groomed,” she said.

“Can I fight against that?” she asked herself. “You’ve got to have faith in yourself, and your community’s got to have faith in you, too.

“My election was part of a long game” where women knocked on doors, made calls and used Sayles-Belton’s experience as a template for candidates who came after her.

Make an objective evaluation of the race and your resources, Guzman said, and ask yourself “do I have the rigor” for this?

Get as much data on your district as you can, she advised, admitting there was a dearth of data on the attitudes of communities of color toward immigration, abortion and other issues.

Guzman recalled campaigning in rural Texas, where she spoke before a group of white farmers, whom she assumed wouldn’t support her. She got up and talked about the issues and her judicial philosophy, and a farmer handed her a $15 check, saying, “I believe in you.” The experience taught her to leave her assumptions behind.

Guzman and Sayles-Belton were joined on the panel by Kaitlyn Newman, donor relations and partnerships manager at She Should Run, a nonpartisan, nonprofit working to dramatically increase the number of women who run for office, and Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, director of civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Other stories from the panel appear here and here. The program, part of the Present and Powerful Speaker Series, was sponsored by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and the Law Practice Division.