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Rural districts are the new frontier for women running for office

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
Esther Roberts stands in her friend’s field in Somers, Wis., which sits directly across the road from the massive Foxconn development site in Pleasant Prarie, WIs. (Photo: Sara Stathas for Yahoo News)

At the moment when Esther Roberts decided to run for elected office, she was standing far from her home in Somers, Wisc., amid a sea of pink hats at the March for Women in Washington, D.C., in January 2017. And a few weeks later, when she decided exactly what elected office she was going to run for, she was back home on her computer looking at photos of the seven white men who were the trustees of her local village board.

“As soon as I saw that, I knew I’d made my choice,” says Roberts, who works as a housing inspector in Kenosha when she isn’t out asking for votes. “Right now, my 9-year-old-daughter isn’t represented on that board; half of my village isn’t represented on that board; I’m not represented on that board.”

Roberts is typical of the thousands of women who have entered the political arena in the past 18 months in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. But she is also representative of something more — the subset of that group who are running in rural areas, often for local seats, encouraged and assisted by nonprofits that see particular value in increasing the number of women in office in farm country.

“Women from rural areas are woefully underrepresented in government at all levels,” says Liz Johnson, a co-founder of VoteRunLead and head of that group’s Rural Women’s Initiative. For instance, she says, 51 percent of Minnesota’s 87 county commissions have no women on them, and all but one of those are in rural areas, she says.

Also, in Minnesota, 13 percent of rural state senate districts are represented by women, compared with 34 percent of urban and suburban seats; in the state legislature’s lower chamber, 19 percent of rural seats are held by women, versus 44 percent of suburban and urban seats, according to Debra Fitzpatrick, who tracks these numbers as part of her research for the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

“Minnesota is not an outlier, and the numbers translate to other states, generally speaking,” Johnson says.

“There are very few women in leadership roles in rural areas nationally, and there’s a large opportunity for women to make a real difference if they take on those roles,” agrees Ash Bruxvoort, the politics coordinator of Plate to Politics, an arm of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, which has a new program to recruit and train women candidates. “Our goal is to have a woman at every table where decisions are made about food and ag policy,” she says, “and most of those are very local — from the state assembly down.”

And Roberts says she is running precisely to fill that gap. “It’s important to have more women in office everywhere but additionally important in rural areas, where it feels like we’re still a little stuck,” she says. “Out in the country, men serve in certain offices because men have always been in those offices. The more women run, the more voters can see that, yes, we are able to do this.”

Johnson says she has been “talking about rural women candidates to anyone who will listen” for years, and now “seems to finally be the time.”

“It used to be we were cajoling people to run, and that’s not happening anymore,” she says. “Now women in rural areas are coming to us. When Congress is frozen, it’s local communities that have to deal with the solutions right now,” she says of what she sees as the reason for the increased interest. “It really does trickle up. The more active county commissions and boards are at passing policy at the local level, that gives state legislatures permission to make changes that have to happen, and maybe what happens in state legislatures influences Washington.”

To accommodate the increase in women who are “running for everything from rural co-op boards to soil and water conservation boards to the city council to the state legislature,” Johnson says, VoteRunLead recently began partnering with such groups as Plate to Politics and the National Farmers Union to adapt its training program for rural candidates. The result has been a change of venue (seminars are now in places like Decorah, Iowa, and Peninsula, Ohio), a change of student body (the diversity metrics by which the group builds its classes now include a mix of rural and urban in addition to other standards, such as race and age) and a change of content (guest speakers include women who are already serving on county boards or as state legislators in farm communities.)

Some of the differences explored in the new trainings are practical ones. Running for a suburban or urban seat where you can canvass door-to-door by foot, for instance, is completely different from running for a rural seat, where farms can be miles apart.

“You might not do as many coffee shop meetups and events in microbreweries,” says Bruxvoort. “Instead it might be visiting people on their farms, going to the food co-op and talking to a group of retired farmers.”

“Only out here,” Johnson says, “would you find a Leah Phifer,” a candidate for Congress from the Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, who spent three months last summer on a listening tour of all 18 counties in that district – traveling 7,000 miles on her motorcycle.

Leah Phifer, congressional candidate for Minnesota’s Eighth District. (Photo: phiferforcongress.com)

Some differences, though, are more sociological.

“There are lots of seats available in rural communities that women can fill, but they are less likely to see themselves in that role,” Bruxvoort says. “These are small communities where a lot of people have known each other their entire lives going back multiple generations. For a woman to say she’s going to step up is still not the way things are done. These women have a story that is different from the one voters [in other areas] have become accustomed to. Those are the things we can address in our training.”

The first decision for any first-time candidate is deciding what to run for. That’s the subject of the initial workshop of most programs like VoteRunLead, Emerge, New American Leaders or Running Start – “finding where your passion is and telling the story that makes you the right person for that job at this time,” Johnson says.

For Roberts, this was a methodical and deliberate process. She sat for hours with representatives of both Our Wisconsin Revolution, which helps recruit and train progressive candidates, and Emerge, which focuses on the same for Democratic women, identifying her reasons for running in order to identify the seat from which she could best meet her governing goals. Her specific catalyst, she realized, was the factory being built within walking distance of her home by Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that plans to use the new plant to manufacture LCD screens and had been given tax incentives to locate at that spot. Her broader reason for running, she says, was that she felt her neighborhood had not had a voice in that decision.

“The most recent land development plan that the village board put out was from 2008,” she says. “They were content to just let things happen here, not make them happen.”

And the responsibility for making things happen, she decided, was at the village rather than the state level. She started knocking on doors and asking people to talk about the plant and what they wanted from their local government. “They said: ‘We’re scared. We see roads being widened and pipe being laid, and no one has told us what’s happening. We want someone to communicate with us. We just want to know what’s going on.’” Her campaign pledge, she said, was “to be that someone.”

For others, though, it’s the specific office that is the goal from the start. Kayla Koether, who is running for Iowa’s House of Representatives from the state’s 55th District, grew up on a farm, studied international agricultural and rural development at Iowa’s Grinnell College, and now works at Iowa State University teaching best business practices to beginning farmers. Since her college years, when she first noticed that “the writing is on the wall for our small towns and has been for a long time,” her eventual goal was to work to “revitalize rural economies, regrow main streets and bring young Iowans back.”

Kayla Koether, statehouse candidate from Iowa’s 55th. (Photo: kaylaforiowa.com)

The resources to do so were beyond any one small town itself, she believes, so when Koether, who at 28 is herself a “young Iowan,” attended a VoteRunLead training last year, she says, “I knew what seat I was looking to run for before I even got there. I knew the state level was where I would have the power to address the issues I am concerned about for rural dwellers.” Her biggest question during the training was not what to run for but whether it would matter that “I’m not what you think of when you think of a candidate. I’m not a 50-year-old established lawyer.”

She addressed the fact that she is not a typical candidate by running in an atypical way. Her campaign launch event, for instance, didn’t consist of a speech but small clusters of attendees brainstorming solutions to a variety of local problems. “I asked them to imagine an Iowa of the future, a perfect Iowa, how would that look,” she says. That done, she “asked them for action steps to get there and how this campaign could help bring some of that to fruition.” That became her platform.

“I’m not saying that only a woman can lead an event like that,” she says, “but it certainly is different from the way things have been done here in the past.”

The rural women in the latest wave say they have faced all the complications they’d been warned of in training. Some of those are because they are women. Madalynn Gerold, for instance, a candidate for the District 47A seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives recalls overhearing a conversation at the Democratic caucus there at the start of her campaign. The (male) speaker noted that the state already had two women — Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith — in the U.S. Senate, while two of three declared candidates for governor there are also women, adding that more than that “sounds like it’s asking a lot.”

She wishes she had engaged the man, but she was about to take the podium and decided to let it go at the time. “Why is that asking a lot?” she would have said. “Does he think he’s doing us a favor letting women have a shot at playing at government? Or does he think voters statewide won’t go for this? That we just can’t get voters to elect ‘that many’ women?

“Whatever his reason,” she continues, “one of my biggest obstacles seems to be that there is this feeling that women are a box to check, and when ‘enough’ get checked, problem solved. It might help us to lay that bare and have it out in the open so I can address it, but mostly it is sneaking up and coming at me sideways.”

Some of the complications of running as rural women have more to do with geography than gender. Brittney Johnson, who is not related to Liz, though she has gone through VoteRunLead training, is fairly sure that no candidate in a suburban or urban district has had to miss a scheduled door-knocking session because one of her ewes was having a hard time giving birth.

Running for House District 8A (pop. 40,000) in Minnesota, Johnson, 24, is from Barnesville, where she grew up watching her mother struggle with the drug addiction that would eventually kill her. Last summer, after finishing a degree in agriculture at the University of Minnesota, Johnson used an inheritance from her mother to buy her own farm, something she says most young people do not have the means to do, which is why districts like hers are steadily losing population.

Now she is campaigning on the dual platform of “healthcare and farming,” she says, spurred by her personal history. When she decided to enter the race last December, after watching the unexpected success of many first-time female candidates in Pennsylvania, “I Googled how to run for office,” she says, and found a rural VoteRunLead training near her home. There she learned “what documents to file, how to find a campaign treasurer and what a campaign treasurer does, the laws about fundraising, the most efficient way to do door knocking, and mostly what seat to run for.” She decided on the state assembly after exploring a few county-level posts, she says, because “as a farmer I don’t hear about county ordinances as much, but there are a lot of state ones.”

Brittney Johnson with a lamb on her sheep ranch near Underwood, Minn. Johnson is campaigning for state representative in Minnesota’s District 8A on the dual platform of “health care and farming.” (Photo: Dan Koeck for Yahoo News)

The voters who answer her door knocks are more surprised to find a Democrat standing there than they are a woman, Johnson says, because her district has a history of voting 65 percent Republican vs. 35 percent Democratic. They often invite her in for coffee anyway, she says (“It’s still too cold out here to talk on the porch”), and seem to respond to the fact that she too is a farmer.

But it’s that role of farmer that gets in the way of campaigning at times. A few weeks ago, for instance, she was scheduled to knock on doors in the town of Battle Lake at 6 p.m., but one of her ewes was undergoing a difficult labor. (Five of them were pregnant, including one named Hillary.) By the time Johnson successfully delivered the lamb, it was too late and she was too dirty. And what about next year, should she win and need to be in the capital, Saint Paul, during lambing season? “I’ve already worked it out with a couple of really good farmers who will take care of my sheep for me while I’m down there,” she says.

Roberts, for one, finds that the complications she encounters are both because she is a woman and because of the particular logistics of a rural campaign. She decided not to use available Democratic party data to target specific households and just knocked on whatever the next farmhouse door might be.

“They would see this woman trudging through 3 feet of snow just to get to the house, and it took some people by surprise; they’re used to men doing that,” she says.

At one point this winter, the door she reached after slogging through drifts was of one of the trustees she was running against. He invited her in and heard what she had to say and even took her campaign literature.

“He said, ‘I’m glad you’re interested in serving’” she recalls. “It came out in a tone of ‘That’s cute that you think you can do this.’” In response, she vowed not to quit trudging through the snow that day. “I told my team, ‘I’m not quitting until the sun goes down.’”

The vote for the Kenosha Village Board was April 3, and Roberts came in 95 points shy of winning a seat. There were three seats available, and she placed fourth, behind the three incumbents. The two who got the highest number of votes “didn’t go out to canvass at all; they just sent out a flyer together the week before the election,” she says.

Her central campaign promise was to hold quarterly meetings in her district to tell voters what was happening on the board and to ask for input on upcoming votes, she says, and she is keeping up her civic involvement. She has changed her Facebook page from “Esther E. Roberts for Trustee in the Village of Somers” to “We the People of Somers” as a place to keep residents updated about the building of the Foxconn plant. And she intends to implement the quarterly listening sessions and bring what she learns to village board meetings.

Then she will run again.

“There are three more seats open again next year,” she says, speaking by phone from a candidate training session sponsored by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “I got almost 500 votes,” she says. “I’m building my base.”

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