Spreading the Dough

Spreading the Dough

How can the left build a new majority? EMILY’s List has a big piece of the answer.


Everything about freshman Congresswoman Gwen Moore is fabulous–from her rhinestone glasses and her cackling laugh to her passionate grassroots politics and blunt outspokenness (something the professional handlers, if they can get hold of her, might try to tamp down). Moore represents Wisconsin’s Fourth Congressional District in Milwaukee, with areas of black unemployment as high as 59 percent. She’s the second woman and the first African-American the state has ever sent to the nation’s Capitol.

When Moore was a young single mother of three, the repo man came for the washer and dryer she got from the local rent-to-own shop. “I’d paid for it two or three times, I’m sure,” she says. “That’s how it works.” In response, Moore organized a march on her local bank and helped form a community development credit union. Today she’s on the House Financial Services committee.

If you want progressive politics, Moore has the whole package. She fought for women’s reproductive rights as a state senator. She battled former governor Tommy Thompson over his welfare “reform” experiments and still gets worked up when she talks about it: “Ten thousand women got kicked out of college and technical college!” (Moore herself finished college while on welfare.) She’s a big supporter of labor. She’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a star candidate for EMILY’s List, the political action committee best known for using the power of the purse to propel such heavy hitters as senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to “Year of the Woman” victories.

As EMILY’s List–the name is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise…)–turns twenty this year, it has built an impressive track record with its innovative fundraising and its simple mission of electing prochoice, Democratic women to office. The group has helped elect sixty-one women to the House and eleven to the Senate, along with eight governors and hundreds of state officeholders. Members gave $10.7 million to EMILY’s List candidates in the last election cycle, making it the wealthiest PAC in America.

But EMILY’s List has not been known for working with grassroots, progressive campaigns. So when the group began calling Moore during her primary, she says, frankly, “I was irritated.” When the group had reached out to a woman candidate for governor in Wisconsin, Moore says, “They courted her and talked to her and smiled, and in the end they didn’t do much.” Moore figured EMILY’s List wouldn’t put any real energy into her race either, especially since she was running against other prochoice Democrats. She finally agreed to go to lunch with an EMILY’s List representative, whom she told, “I know all about you. You’re the people waiting on the shoreline with the warm towels and the hot chocolate after the woman swims the English Channel.”

To Moore’s surprise, EMILY’s List put more than $685,000 into Wisconsin last year–not only helping send her to Washington but filling the State Senate seat she left behind with another African-American woman, Lena Taylor. EMILY’s List also helped a third candidate, Tamara Grigsby, win Taylor’s seat in the State Assembly. “I was stunned that they got in and they got in as deeply as they did,” says Moore. EMILY’s List supported Moore not so much because of her progressive values, but because she was a viable candidate. With the group’s expert advice, Moore built her own crack fundraising operation–a good thing, because she didn’t have a dime of her own to put into the race. No one was more surprised by it all than Tamara Grigsby, a social worker whose initial thought when her friend Lena Taylor suggested that she run to fill her State Assembly seat was, “You must be crazy!”

The trifecta of victories in Wisconsin illustrates a favorite point for EMILY’s List–that by working together, women can achieve more in politics than they thought possible. But the broader lesson is about taking back the country from the right. Especially since 2004, progressives have been talking about the need to replicate the right-wing takeover of American politics. After Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, the hard right began a long march to power, taking over local school boards and Republican Party machinery, grooming candidates for higher office, building networks, coordinating strategy.

How can the left begin its march back to power? EMILY’s List has a big piece of the answer. The group is doing work long neglected by both the Democratic Party and progressive groups: training and funding political newcomers to get them into office, then helping them move up.

From the beginning, women’s status as political outsiders spurred EMILY’s List’s entrepreneurial approach. When it started in 1985, at a “Rolodex party” in founder Ellen Malcolm’s basement, the goal was to help Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski become the first Democratic woman to win a Senate election (other Democratic women had served by appointment). Malcolm’s innovation was “bundling” contributions–getting members to write small checks to individual candidates, which the group then pools for maximum impact. Two decades later, there are more than 100,000 members who write checks averaging $93 each election year to candidates EMILY’s List supports.

The group’s mission has evolved with the political landscape. In the 1990s EMILY’s List began training candidates. When the candidates had trouble finding professional fundraisers and staff, EMILY’s List began training them, too. By 1995 the PAC had launched its Women Vote! project, which last year put $10 million into voter mobilization. In 2001, when women’s representation in state government had begun to decline for the first time, EMILY’s List began reaching “down ballot” to recruit and train candidates for state offices. Its Political Opportunity Program has so far trained 3,200 women, helping 217 get elected to statewide office in twenty-nine states.

Now Karen White, EMILY’s List’s political director, is in the middle of a ten-year plan to help the Democrats control as many state legislatures and governor’s mansions as possible in time for Congressional redistricting after the 2010 Census. (With an eye on redistricting, the group is now putting male incumbents in New York through its patented training.) “In 2004 all people could talk about was the presidential election,” says White. “But we were continuing to build a farm team.” In five states where legislative chambers flipped from Republican to Democratic control in 2004, EMILY’s List played a pivotal role–nowhere more than in Colorado. After John Kerry’s campaign pulled out, judging the state a lost cause, EMILY’s List continued to pour resources into the races of thirteen women. All thirteen won, as both houses went Democratic. For the first time, both the Colorado speaker pro tempore of the House and the president of the Senate are women.

EMILY’s List training sessions are the heart of its effort to build its “farm team,” combining the inspirational power of a consciousness-raising group with professional nuts-and-bolts instruction. At a recent candidate training session in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, regional director Tanya Bjork offered EMILY’s List’s standard uplifting slogan, “When Women Run, Women Win.” Bjork cited a Brown University study showing that men are almost twice as likely than women to consider themselves “highly qualified” for office–even though women candidates do just as well as men at the polls.

One of the featured speakers was the charismatic new state senator from Milwaukee, Lena Taylor–Gwen Moore’s successor. At a Friday evening dinner, she grasped the hand of Ame Grail, a realtor from Door County, a tourist mecca in northern Wisconsin. Grail is brand-new to politics, getting ready to run for State Assembly because she is concerned about the environment. “There is so much E. coli on the beaches, our children can’t swim,” she said. “I commend your courage!” Taylor told Grail. “I and others will be there for you when you run. You go through a lot and have to know you have a sisterhood of elected officials.”

That feeling of “sisterhood” is evident throughout the EMILY’s List candidate training. Women share information and laugh about common problems–especially the particular forms of insecurity and overpoliteness that plague some female candidates. At a training session last spring in Arizona, Ann Liston of EMILY’s List asked participants to role-play candidates asking donors for money. (EMILY’s List asked that I protect the participants’ anonymity.) First, Liston gave the group a pep talk about how Ellen Malcolm has raised tens of millions of dollars in her career. Her method: Break the ice, chat about your shared political goals, then cut to the “ask”–very directly, for a specific amount of money. Then stop talking. Don’t say another word.

It sounds easy. But as the candidates began trying to do it in the role-playing session, it was anything but. They ran right over the “ask,” apologizing, even bringing up reasons the donor might not want to support them. A shy woman with long dark hair choked when the “donor” asked why she shouldn’t support her opponent. “Oh, she’s a master of manipulation!” she blurted out, turning beet red. “The phone is your friend,” Liston said kindly. “If you blush a lot, stick with the phone.” Another candidate began her role-play by folding her arms across her chest and declaring, “You all can’t laugh at me!”

In each case Liston followed the same script: Get the group to comment first on what the candidate had done well, then ever so gently work in some constructive criticism. “You have to make sure you’re not talking down to these women,” Bjork explains. “You don’t want to undermine their confidence.” Even the most unsteady neophytes improve dramatically with practice, she says, and can blossom into great candidates. Take it from Ellen Malcolm, who was not always a fundraising legend. “I used to be scared to death,” she says. “My knees would shake. I’d think, I hope nobody notices.”

The fundraising success of EMILY’s List had made it a model even for the right. “We copied some of their tactics, especially the concept of bundling small contributions,” says David Keating of the Club for Growth, a conservative PAC that supports candidates who favor tax cuts and smaller government. But while EMILY’s List is mainly concerned with getting more women to run for office–and win–PACs like the Club for Growth, and like the Progressive Majority on the left, support candidates who reflect a political ideology. EMILY’s List focuses on winning more seats for prochoice, Democratic women. Period. Which raises a legitimate question: Are these women leading the country in a more progressive direction?

The EMILY’s List offices take up most of the eleventh floor of a big building on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. The walls are lined with the photos of women the group has helped elect. No longer political outsiders, many of these women now represent the mainstream of the Democratic Party–Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Mary Landrieu. Even on choice, the only litmus-test issue for EMILY’s List, some of them–most notably Hillary Clinton (she of the “sad, even tragic choice” speech)–have retreated, rhetorically at least.

Malcolm is careful not to criticize Hillary, except to say that Democrats have, in her view, “misread” the polling on “values voters” after 2004. If Senator Clinton runs for President, EMILY’s List will be “delighted,” Malcolm says–behind her 100 percent. “If you want a more progressive America,” Malcolm argues, “your best bet is to elect more prochoice, Democratic women.” But surely there’s more to it than that.

In some races EMILY’s List has actually backed the less progressive candidate. In last year’s gubernatorial primary in Washington, for example, the group helped knock out King County executive Ron Sims, who favored abolishing the regressive sales tax in favor of a more equitable statewide income tax. The EMILY’s List candidate, Christine Gregoire–who won after a long recount–was the more cautious, centrist candidate.

Dean Nielsen, Washington State director of Progressive Majority, found the race frustrating. “Their model worked beautifully. The early money was like yeast,” he says. But the upshot was the defeat of a viable progressive. Nielsen also says he doesn’t see EMILY’s List putting much emphasis on candidate recruitment at the grassroots. “Are they out there every day beating the bushes for candidates? No,” he says. “Their contribution is primarily financial.” And the group’s “bundled” contributions go only to federal candidates.

That criticism is echoed by Mandy Carter, a longtime grassroots organizer and former member of the Democratic National Committee from North Carolina. “EMILY’s List is absolutely a model” for their national work, Carter says. But like many progressives fed up with Democratic centrism, Carter counts herself among those who think “it makes more sense to put money into the very local level, where there’s a lot of energy and excitement–not so much as you move up.”

EMILY’s List’s achievement, thus far, has been to move one disenfranchised group–women–into power. “We all bow to the feet of EMILY’s List in terms of their effectiveness and what they’ve accomplished for women,” says Progressive Majority’s executive director, Gloria Totten. “Do they have women in their ranks who we wouldn’t consider progressive? Absolutely.” Unlike EMILY’s List, Progressive Majority supports only candidates who score 100 percent on a forty-question quiz covering issues like economic justice and the environment. But Progressive Majority works only in a handful of states–with candidates for local office, like City Council, that EMILY’s List won’t touch.

EMILY’s List does occasionally partner with progressive groups like Totten’s. The candidate training in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, was a joint effort, for instance. More notably, Malcolm co-founded America Coming Together, the progressive coalition that launched a massive voter-outreach effort for Democrats in 2004. She continues to meet weekly with a coalition of more than thirty progressive groups called America Votes to share information, strategy and research.

Those efforts are essential, because when it comes to building a coordinated strategy to take back power in the states, the Democratic Party has left the field wide open. “The lack of infrastructure-building by the party has created a need that we have just moved in to fill,” says Malcolm. DNC chair Howard Dean agrees. “When I came in, because of my own experience in the presidential campaign, I believed we needed to do what EMILY’s List is doing,” he says. Under Dean, the DNC is putting paid organizers in every state to work on party-building. Teaming with EMILY’s List and with younger progressive groups, Dean wants to get the Democrats to reconnect with the grassroots.

That means finding more candidates like Gwen Moore, who says of her campaign for Congress, “Whenever I would get discouraged, I’d see the faces of the people who were going to have no voice in government if I weren’t elected. A lot of them were female. A lot of them were people of color. And a lot of them were white, and they were poor. And they didn’t matter. They just were obscure.”

If it’s up to her, it won’t stay that way.

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