One year ago, Mandy Wright was a sixth grade public school teacher. Last November she beat Wausau conservative radio talk show host Patrick Snyder by 911 votes to become the state representative for the 85th Assembly District.
Wright, a Wausau native with three daughters, had never considered running for office, but “all that happened in 2011 was very disconcerting to me, not just what happened, but how it happened,” she said. “So I got involved and started networking in my community, but never thought I’d run for public office.”
A friend helped change her mind by suggesting that Wright sign up to take part in Emerge Wisconsin, an organization to train and support Democratic women who want to run for public office.
She went to the Emerge interview and made it clear that she was not interested in running for office, but wanted to make contacts.
They asked her, what about running for local office?
She couldn’t run for school board because she is a teacher. She was happy with her city council person so didn’t want to run for city council, and the county board meets during the day, which would not work for a teacher.
“So they said, ‘How about state office?’,” Wright said. “I said I was very interested in state-level politics, but that I was very satisfied with my current representative, Donna Seidel.”
Wright was accepted for the seven-month Emerge program. Halfway through, Seidel announced she was going to run for a state Senate seat in the June 2012 recall election and would give up her Assembly seat no matter what.
“I really did not foresee that happening,” Wright said. “Because it was an open seat, I thought, this is actually a good opportunity and decided this is something I really wanted to try.”
Wright said going through the Emerge program helped her with campaign issues that she had no idea about until they came up.
“In many ways running a campaign is like starting a small business,” Wright said. “Emerge really helped me organize the campaign. You have to be pretty motived, and Emerge really helped me with that. The networking is also helpful. There were 30 of us in class and 10 that ran for Assembly or Senate, so we kept in touch. It was really, really helpful to hear, ‘I ran into this problem and this is how I problem-solved it’.”
“We have women all across the state in all levels of office,” said Wendy Strout, executive director of Emerge Wisconsin.
The Emerge program began in California and now is one of 13 states with Emerge programs. Emerge Wisconsin has been in operation since 2007. Since then 56 percent of the graduates have run for public office and 59 percent have run successful campaigns.
“Women across the country are not happy with what’s going on. They are looking for a way to make a change. So you’re going to see women across the country getting more active,” Strout said. “Our goal is to continue increasing the number of Democratic women at all levels of government. We are nowhere near 50 percent of elected officials, yet women are 50 percent of the population, or 51 percent of the population in some places.”
Last year Emerge Wisconsin decided to take its show on the road with daylong sessions for Democratic women in different parts of the state in what they call a Taste of Emerge. Taste of Emerge Door County takes place July 13 from 10 am to 3 pm at the United Unitarian Fellowship in Ephraim. The cost is $25, and the Democratic Party of Door County is offering four full scholarships to the training session. To apply for a scholarship, contact DPDC Chair Garret Cohn (920.559.2557, [email protected]).
“This program is really just a sample of what our larger program is,” Strout said.
Of course, Republicans also want to provide more opportunities for female candidates. Jesse Dougherty, press secretary of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefish is leading the charge to bring more Republican women into public office.
“We are holding training sessions across the state and women are a major aspect of that training,” Dougherty said. “Women will have a strong voice in our party.”
For more on Emerge Wisconsin or to register for the July 13 session, visit emergewi.org.