Electing Madame President: An Interview with Jessica O’Connell, Executive Director of EMILY’s List
What do you see as your main goals at EMILY’s List and the biggest obstacles to overcome in achieving them?
EMILY’s List exists to elect pro-choice, Democratic women. We have a very clear mission. Women are over fifty percent of the country but make up only twenty percent of Congress right now. We’d like to see those numbers get a little bit closer. [We’ve helped elect] 19 Senators, over 100 women to the House. And we’re focused not just on women, but on women of color because we feel that it’s really, incredibly important to bring diverse perspectives to our governing bodies, so that the voices that don’t normally get heard in Washington have a seat at the table.
What is a moment you feel most proud of during your time at EMILY’s List?
Well, I hope it’s coming still, because this is a really big election cycle for us. I think what I’m most proud of is the diversity and breadth of our candidates. Not only do we have Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket, with a real chance to become the first woman Democratic presidential nominee and possibly President of the United States, but we have also endorsed nine pro-choice, Democratic women for the Senate. That is a record number for us. In 1992, it was the year of the woman, and that was because we elected four women to the Senate. We have the chance to elect nine, and of those nine, four of them are women of color. There’s not currently an African-American woman in the Senate. There’s never been a Latina. We have a chance to change both those things, so I’m working hard on that.
How do you think EMILY’s List’s role in politics has changed over the last twenty years?
It’s changed a lot. When we first started out, nobody believed women could run and could win. That was primarily because of money, even in the Democratic Party. Nobody really believed in women because they didn’t have the money to communicate their message. The very first thing EMILY’s List started doing was raising money for women, so they could have a fighting chance, so they could actually compete. And then we realized, okay, once they have the money to actually get their message out, they win.
So we thought, now we need more of them. We started to recruit. That was the second thing we worked on: recruitment. We have, at EMILY’s List, trained over 9,000 women around the country to run for office. We’re very proud of the recruitment. I mentioned that diversity is important to us. We have helped elect every single African-American, Latina, and Asian-American Democratic congresswomen currently serving in Congress.
The third piece that is really important for EMILY’s List, and for women and elections, is that women have to turn out and vote, particularly young women. That’s a really important piece. We’re going to be running our “Madam President” project, which will speak to women voters and young people about Hillary Clinton. We’re prepared to spend as much as $20 million to help have conversations with voters on behalf of Hillary Clinton, to ensure that women understand what the stakes are and what the alternative is, because the stakes are pretty high with the extremism on the other side. I’m really proud of the efforts we’re making this cycle. I’m proud of our diversity, I’m proud of our success, but we have a long way to go still.
You mentioned young women, Hillary Clinton and bringing them together. Right now, in the primaries, a lot of young people are planning to vote for Bernie Sanders. What would you say to young people that are planning on voting in the Democratic primary?
Let me start by saying this: I think that Bernie’s ability to bring young people into the process is fantastic. I think it is so important that we galvanize young people on the issues that they care about. Let’s just say, without a doubt, that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both better alternatives to anyone on the other side.
What I would say to young people that are looking at this race is that Hillary Clinton has been a fighter and a champion for women her entire career. From her early days at Yale Law School, where she started work with the Children’s Defense Fund to help kids and families in need, she has fought for women and families. And she has withstood Republican attacks that entire time as well.
So for young people who really care about progressive values and want to ensure that there are plans that get enacted, Hillary Clinton has proven that she can do it and that she can get the job done against Republicans in the fall, and that’s what is going to matter most. She’s got a plan, we know she’s a fighter, and she can get things done, and I think that the question of taking it to the Republicans in the fall is a really important one.
The other thing that I would say is important for young people to consider as they look at the Democratic primary is that Hillary Clinton understands that women’s issues are economic issues and economic issues are women’s issues. I think that sometimes others try to marginalize some of the women’s issues and say “Hey, okay, that’s reproductive health, that’s women’s issues.”
But Hillary comes at these issues in an integrated kind of way. She understands, for instance, that one of the biggest economic decisions a woman can make and a family can make is whether or not to have a child and when. That’s not just a physical decision. It’s not just an emotional decision. It’s a financial one. We have to acknowledge that race and gender play a part. We’re still fighting for equal pay. These things are integrated, and you cannot set them aside. Hillary Clinton has been fighting for these issues—equal pay, healthcare, minimum wage, things that impact women and families—her whole career.
In addition to the presidential race, are there any races in 2016 that you’re particularly focusing your attention on?
Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, is running for Senate there.
You hear a lot about the things we talked about: pay, family leave, minimum wage. But Kamala Harris is a woman who is fighting new fights. She prosecuted a guy in California who was posting nude, pornographic pictures of women sent to him by their exes. He put them up online, and then when they realized it and they called to complain, he said, “Yeah, I’ll take it down, but for a price.” Kamala Harris secured one of the first prosecutions of a case like that, and she’s setting precedent.
Donna Edwards in Maryland. She would bring an African-American, female voice back to the Senate. There have only ever been two women of color in the Senate. I think it’s time to make some room for her. She comes out of Baltimore, she led the conversation on Freddie Gray. It’s time we have people at the table who are part of this social justice and criminal justice conversation.
Catherine Cortez Masto is one to watch. She is running for Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada. She would be the first Latina ever elected to the Senate if she wins. And think about it: you hear about immigration, and there’s never even been a Latina at the table to have that conversation. It’s ridiculous.
How does the state and local work that you do differ from your national strategy?
There are so many fights [at the state and local level]–one of the big [ones] is over abortion. A lot of the governors and a lot of the state legislatures are pushing through incredibly restrictive abortion laws, closing clinics, working to defund Planned Parenthood. Tuesday, Congress voted for the eleventh time to defund Planned Parenthood. They’re also introducing bills that require trans-vaginal, medically unnecessary procedures on women. That happens at the state and local level, so we need woman champions at that level to fight back against those kinds of laws.
The other thing that we’re working on is preparing for redistricting, which will happen in 2020. We know the congressional maps will get redrawn, and it’s important how these maps will get redrawn and how we’ll compete. Every state manages that differently. Sometimes the governor is in charge of it, sometimes the state legislatures, so we have targeted, in our FOCUS 2020 program, about 16-17 states where we think if we elect more pro-choice, Democratic women, we can have an impact on redistricting. In some cases, that may be electing a governor, in some cases that might be helping to flip a state chamber, electing maybe a state senator or a state assemblywoman, who can help make sure that the commissions are fair, that the lines are drawn fairly.
As a last question: what advice would you give a young woman who is interested in a career in politics?
Do it. My advice is to do it. We need more women at every level. We need them to run for office. We need them to work behind-the-scenes creating policy and legislation, and we need them to work on campaigns and help manage campaigns and recruit more women to run and manage what are now million dollar operations. There are not enough woman campaign managers, and we think that’s a really important piece. And most importantly, we need young women to vote and to talk to their friends and family because at the end of the day, this comes down to conversations. Democracy is about conversations, and we need young people to have important conversations and to tell their own stories and to talk about what’s important to them.
For the first time ever, this cycle, millennials will outnumber baby boomers [among] eligible voters. That doesn’t mean they’ll vote more than baby boomers, but they could. That is tremendous power and tremendous responsibility. If millennials do turn out to vote in those higher numbers, we know the Democrats will win, we know the issues that we care about will be on the ballot, and issues that you care most about will be on the ballot, too.