New group looks to get more women into elected office
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | September 25,2013
MONTPELIER — Vermont’s newest political organization has launched a statewide effort aimed at putting more left-leaning women into elected office.
Emerge Vermont, which filed its statement of organization in early August and held its inaugural event in Burlington on Tuesday evening, will recruit women Democrats from across the state, and school them in the art of campaigning.
Emerge Vermont is an affiliate of Emerge America, the San Francisco-based group founded in 2005 to advance women in Democratic politics. Vermont is the 14th state to see a state-level organizing push by the Emerge movement.
With a start-up budget of nearly $50,000, raised almost entirely from in-state donors according to Emerge Vermont officials, the group has designs on filling posts at the local, statewide and federal levels.
“We’d like to get our first training classes under way in early 2014,” Sarah McCall, executive director of Emerge Vermont, said Tuesday. “And when we graduate that class we could see them running for office as early as 2014.”
As a federal political action committee known as a “527,” Emerge Vermont is a primarily political organization whose donors aren’t eligible for tax write-offs. Emerge America and its state affiliates had formerly operated as nonprofits until the Internal Revenue Service in 2011 revoked their tax-exempt status on the grounds that Emerge’s “activities are primarily for the benefit of a political party and a private group of individuals, rather than the community as a whole.”
McCall said Emerge Vermont won’t engage in the kinds of political activities and “issue advocacy” conventionally associated with 527s, which have been made famous by groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the outfit that helped sink the 2004 presidential candidacy of John Kerry.
“We won’t get involved in candidates’ campaigns, we won’t get involved in issue campaigns, and we’re not going to donate any money to candidates,” said McCall, who moved here recently from Washington, D.C., where she worked as a political fundraiser. “The money we raise is strictly for our training programs.”
The training program here will be modeled after the one designed by Emerge America, in which women attend training sessions once a week for six months.
Former Democratic Gov. Madeline Kunin said Tuesday that the group’s advisory board will tailor the model to fit Vermont.
Kunin said that while Vermont has enjoyed comparatively high rates of female representation — women here hold 40 percent of seats in the Vermont House, a percentage exceeded only by Colorado — she said women still have a long way to go, at the local and federal level especially.
Vermont has never had a female congressperson or U.S. senator, Kunin noted, and she said that women are poorly represented on local boards of governance, in rural areas especially.
“I find even at a young age women need to be asked to run,” Kunin said. “They’re less likely than men to say, ‘I’m qualified.’ And the purpose of Emerge is to give them the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”
Rep. Sarah Buxton, a Democrat who represents Tunbridge and Royalton, said she was once one of those reluctant woman candidates, even after being approached by someone encouraging her to take the plunge.
“I admitted my fear was that I wasn’t smart enough, so she took the time in a very logical way to show me how my skills and knowledge and experience met really any measure of adequacy,” Buxton said. “It was my own limitation that was keeping me from even contemplating running, and when I talk to female officeholders across the whole spectrum, they have almost uniformly a similar story, and they are absurdly amusing in retrospect.”
Buxton said the infusion of money into an organized recruiting apparatus will help ensure that other qualified women aren’t deterred by the same self-limiting behavior that nearly prevented her from entering politics.
Kunin said that an influx of Democratic women onto select boards, and into the Statehouse and Congress, will advance causes like paid sick leave, child care, and the battle against workplace discrimination — issues she said that tend to gain traction largely at the urging of women.
“Men obviously can sympathize with those issues, and many have,” Kunin said. “But women tend to feel it in their gut, from their own experience.”
While 527s, which are governed by the IRS as opposed to the Federal Elections Commission, can’t offer prospective donors tax write-offs, the groups are eligible for tax-exempt status themselves. As a 527, the group is also required to periodically disclose the names of its donors.
During the last election cycle, 527 groups spent more than $406 million nationally to influence the outcome of state-level elections and ballot initiatives, according to the campaign-finance transparency website, opensecrets.org.
According to the same website, Emerge America spent $368,000 during the last cycle, much of which came from donations from national labor groups.
McCall said Emerge Vermont plans to hold kickoff events in Montpelier, Rutland, Brattleboro and the Northeast Kingdom in the coming weeks.
“Women have typically enjoyed more support, I think, in Chittenden County,” Buxton said. “And I would really love to see if our first measure of success is that we can try to raise in the rest of this state the number of women who are participating in their own communities in a social and political context.”