WASHINGTON — Six months after the Women’s March on Washington, the biggest national protest in U.S. history, women aren’t just thinking about running for office. As the race for Virginia’s House of Delegates shows, they’re doing it.
There was skepticism the women who came to Washington in late January on buses from as far away as Denver and Chicago wearing pink knit hats and waving homemade signs would do anything more than join together to protest Donald Trump’s election for a day. At least when it comes to Virginia, that’s proven wrong.
“Right after, I felt I needed to do more,” said Hala Ayala, a single mother of two and cyber security specialist running for a delegate seat representing an area including Prince William’s County. “At the march you could stare into one another’s eyes and see where they’ve been. It was almost intolerable,” said Ayala, who’s been a volunteer and community organizer but never run for office. Like Ayala, a number of the women running for the first time are minorities.
In Virginia, a total of 51 Democratic women competed in this year’s primaries, a record and up from 26 females who filed in 2015, according to the state party. Democrats need 17 seats to take control of the legislature, which will be difficult despite the Republican Party’s national problems, including Trump’s low approval ratings. Yet, fueling Democrats’ hopes, that’s also the number of GOP-held House districts that Clinton won in 2016 — and she carried nine of them by at least 10 points.
Overall, 10 of the Democratic challengers in those 17 races are women. They include a nurse, teachers and small business owners, and most have never run for office.
“We’ve had women candidates in the past. But this number? No,” said Charniele Herring, a Virginia delegate who chairs the state’s Democratic Caucus. “It’s partly years of recruiting women, asking them to run,” and partly women deciding, after Trump’s election, that “it’s time for them to take their seat at the table,” she said.
During a spring training session for prospective House of Delegates candidates, there were a couple of special guests who illustrate the changing recruitment landscape: two newborn babies tagging along with their mothers, Kathy Tran and Stephanie Cook, who subsequently won their party’s primaries and are now official candidates. Virginia and New Jersey hold statewide races in off years, offering an early lens on the national political landscape.
Tran, Cook and Ayala are among the early signs the march represented more than a single day of protest against Trump’s presidency and policies. Several of Virginia’s 2017 candidates had served as local organizers for the march a day after President Trump’s inauguration that drew an estimated 2.6 million to 673 marches in 50 states and 32 countries. According to Emily’s List, a major force in Democratic Party recruiting of females, an estimated 16,000 women nationwide have expressed an interest in running for office.
To be sure, Virginia doesn’t reflect all states, particularly traditional Democratic-leaning states. In New Jersey, for instance, a state with a strong history of women running successfully at the state and local level, there’s been no real spike in female candidacies.
Yet what’s happening in Virginia may indeed be part of a broader trend. According to the Women’s March, their strongest local chapters are in Republican-leaning or dominated states, including Ohio, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, where the need for new Democratic leaders is greatest. Overall there are chapters in 30 states.
In Virginia, many women say they are responding to state-level trends. The male-dominated GOP General Assembly (women account for 17% of seats) passed a bill in February to defund Planned Parenthood, which Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed. That was weeks after passing a resolution declaring the anniversary of Roe v. Wade a “Day of Tears,” which the state Democratic Caucus called a “woman-shaming” resolution; and introducing a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks that the state’s Attorney General said is probably unconstitutional.
“Their policies mimic Trump. That’s why it was perhaps that final push where more women are stepping up,” said Herring.
Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, tripled the size of her state and local team and doubled her group’s financial investment in those races since last year.
“You ask me if that’s enough? I’d say no,” she said. “What’s happening in Virginia, I believe, is part of a historic wave of women running in 2018,” said Schriock. “It’s happening particularly in red and purple states where there are opportunities,” she said.
Even so, taking control of Virginia’s legislature seems daunting. Democrats would have to sweep the districts Clinton won. “It’s possible but 17 seats would be an unbelievable haul for them,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
As for the Women’s March leaders, they are among the organizers behind major civil rights and Trump policy protests around the country and in Washington, including a recent sit-in on health care. Last weekend, they organized an 18-mile march in 90-degree heat from the National Rifle Association to the Department of Justice.
Why they’re running
Interviews with three Virginia candidates revealed differing policy concerns, with one common inspiration: Trump’s politics.
Kelly Fowler, who works in real estate and is a former school teacher, said she had been reaching out to her local representative about an abortion resolution, and getting no response. After the march, she thought to herself “why am I not stepping up?”
“It was a changing day, it was one of the top days of my life, up there with my kids and getting married,” said Fowler. “Being there and feeling like I wasn’t alone changed me and changed my course,” she said.
Tran came to this country as a refugee at 2 years old at the end of the Vietnam War. While her family was offered asylum to Canada and France, they waited an extra 13 months at a refugee camp in Malaysia because “It was this country that embodied the values they risked their lives for,” she said.
“Those values are under threat by Trump and Republicans,” said Tran, citing Trump’s proposed travel ban predominantly effecting Muslim refugees. “My husband and I want all of our kids to know we are doing absolutely everything we can,” she said.
Ayala, a single mother of two of South American and Middle Eastern descent who works in cyber security, was on Medicaid for several years while she worked in retail at a gas station. She cited Trump’s travel ban and stance on reproductive rights and health care as her biggest concerns. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said of Trump’s presidency. “I’ve felt upset before,” said Ayala, who’s volunteered on campaigns. “But this was just very heavy,” she said.
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for 10 years in Virginia politics, said what’s happening in Virginia may portend a national trend ahead of next year’s midterm congressional elections.
“From the day after Trump was inaugurated to the day of his first general election in 2017, women have been at the forefront of taking him on,” said Ferguson, who also worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Likewise, “if we’re going to be successful in 2017 and 2018, it’s going to be because of suburban women voters pushing Democrats across the line,” he said.