Maryland Democrats Aim To ‘Build The Pipeline’ For Women In Office

Posted by Lulu Garcia-Navarro

The 2016 presidential election was a huge catalyst for these women to enter (or re-enter) politics. They're now in a Maryland program that coaches Democratic women to run for local office: (From left to right) Lenora Dawson, 51; Christiana Rigby, 32, and her baby, Arlo; Marisol Johnson, 41; Lesley Lopez, 33; Ciara Robinson, 29

Marc Rivers NPR

The 2016 presidential election was a huge catalyst for these women to enter (or re-enter) politics. They're now in a Maryland program that coaches Democratic women to run for local office: (From left to right) Lenora Dawson, 51; Christiana Rigby, 32, and her baby, Arlo; Marisol Johnson, 41; Lesley Lopez, 33; Ciara Robinson, 29

This past November was a wake-up call for the Democratic Party. Many Democratic women, in particular, are feeling a strong need to answer that call.

Less than a quarter of elected positions are filled by women in the U.S. There are many reasons for that, but Democratic activist Diane Fink says women are often discouraged somewhere along the way. She runs Emerge Maryland, a group that helps Democratic women run for office.

“What we’ve learned is that the women, their ambition is crushed by somebody in their life. Oftentimes they’ll say, ‘I mentioned this to my family and they just laughed,’ or, ‘I went to a community leader or party leader and they told me, ‘Well, no, that probably isn’t for you.’ ”

Democrats are now figuring out how to rebuild their party — and capitalize on the energy in progressive circles, shown in demonstrations like the Women’s March, where millions of women took to the streets the day after the inauguration.

In Maryland, Fink says, her group’s aim is to have at least half of Maryland’s political power belong to females. “And to build the pipeline,” she adds. “We have no female delegates to Congress.”

We sat down with some of these women in the training program to talk about how they got here, and what sparked their political ambitions.


Interview Highlights

Ciara Robinson, 29, running for Town Council in Capitol Heights, Md.

Robinson grew up under extremely difficult circumstances. She was raised by her single mom, while her father was in and out of prison.

“My sister had a daughter when she was 15, so a lot of the things in my family influence my interest in politics.”

She was the only one of her siblings to graduate high school and the first and only in her entire family to go to college. She has three degrees, including a master’s in public policy.

“I knew from my master’s degree that I was interested and ready” to get into politics, she says.

But it was the 2016 election that drove her to apply for the program.

“When [Hillary Clinton] lost, it made me want to help other women get into office but kind of set the bar for me. I was originally thinking I’d run for local government, but now I’m doing research about running for higher offices.”

Christiana Rigby, 32, running for Howard County Council, District 3.

“I get asked a lot, ‘Why now?’ mostly because I just had a baby,” Rigby says, holding her 3-month-old son, Arlo, on her lap.

“For me it really was, ‘If not now, then when?’ Because otherwise you just keep going to those County Council meetings and you get your three minutes to testify and then the vote happens without you anyway.”

When women get elected, Rigby says, it’s a win for all women. “It’s having those representatives, having those faces and those experiences.

“I remember hearing a speaker say that a man will run and lose, and run again and lose, and run again and win. And that women often don’t run again. And that really made me feel like, well, if that happens I should think about running again. I shouldn’t count myself out.”

Lenora Dawson, 51, running for clerk of court in Baltimore, Md.

Dawson agrees.

“I know I would certainly run again because, for me, it’s about being of service and not running for office. So that can have many different faces for many different aspects. And I think that we have to be relentless and continue to push forward.”

Lesley Lopez, 33, running to represent District 39 in the Maryland General Assembly

Lopez became interested in politics while working with immigrant families.

In 2008, she worked as a press secretary for Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, then became head of communications of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and later, worked for the National Immigration Forum.

“I had a great eye-opening experience and it gave me an opportunity to feel like I impacted families like my own.”

She says she figured she’d run for office at one point, but took time away from Washington to focus on family.

“But then this past election cycle happened and my heart took a drop kick,” she says. “I realized that no matter how qualified you were, there are double standards for women. But at the end of the day, if you don’t have women in positions of power, women’s perspectives just aren’t being heard.

“If you look at what’s happening in Maryland, they’re still talking about parental rights for rapists. And this state is supposed to be progressive. So the realization of putting all these pieces together … we need to be represented more.”

Marisol Johnson, 37, running for Baltimore County Council, District 2.

“My identity is one of a cultural melting pot,” Johnson says, “but ultimately, I am a proud Latina woman. I say all of that, because I have the gift and blessing to be able to work in communities of different faiths, sexual orientations and races. In today’s landscape a good public servant must be able to navigate the ever-changing world. My background gives me that ability.”

When the mother of four children joined the school board, she saw a new side of politics, she says. “I realize politics doesn’t belong in the school system but it’s there. And I’m aware now of disparities.”

The catalyst that launched her political engagement was the November election. When ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, carried out two raids in her neighborhood, she felt she had a responsibility to take action.

“I realized that women who are not documented are putting themselves beyond the limb to empower and teach other immigrants. So if I’m a documented successful businesswoman, I have to help now.”

But, Johnson argues, not all elected female politicians are necessarily serving all women. “If you’re on the wrong side of the aisle, voting for things against funding Planned Parenthood and those sort of things, it is not a win for women,” she says.

“Having something for our little girls to look up to is challenging and it is heartbreaking sometimes, but it is a job that we have to continue to fight through and fight for our future little girls’ leaders.”

Producer Lucy Perkins contributed to this story.

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