Annie’s List Executive Director Grace Garcia, who died in a car crash on Monday, was interviewed by The Texas Tribune in January for a story about the underrepresentation of women in the Texas Legislature.
With Garcia’s permission, the Tribune recorded that interview, in which she talked about barriers women face in politics and why she was hopeful about this year’s elections. Here are previously unpublished highlights from that interview with Garcia, who was the head of the organization that helps Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Texas Tribune: The Texas Legislature is about 20 percent women, a smaller percentage than that of other states. Why are there so few women in the Texas Legislature?
Grace Garcia: We do rank 33rd in the number of women represented, but it’s a problem across the country. It’s because women don’t naturally think about running for office. They’re not necessarily encouraged from a young age that this is an option. And that’s one of the reasons Annie’s List was created. Women often have to also be asked more than one time to consider running for office. We recruit women. Almost all of our candidates this cycle are women who have never run for office. There are some exceptions. Susan Criss in Galveston, who is looking at that seat that was held by [state Rep.] Craig Eiland, was a district judge.
TT: Susan Criss maybe learned a bit about the Legislature when her dad served as a lawmaker.
Garcia: Absolutely. And Libby Willis’ father-in-law was also in the Legislature, so she does come from a political family. Often when we go into communities and start talking to people, the same names start to come up for women who are involved in the community, and often when we talk to them the first time, they’re like, "Oh I’ve never really thought about running for office." But the more you talk to them, then they start to think of that as an option.
I have to say that we saw a definite shift after the filibuster, not only in the number of women who were attending our candidate 101 training but in the number of women who were seriously looking at running up and down the ballot. This year, for the first time in our history, we’ve endorsed statewide, with Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte. Having two women at the top of the ticket definitely helps all of our women across the state because it’s going to be a much more concerted statewide effort. We see great opportunity with women [voters] who just are not comfortable with the direction of some of the policies of the men in the Texas Legislature.
TT: How would policy-making change with more women legislators?
Garcia: There’s a number of things that potentially would be different. Let’s look on the federal side. In the shutdown, the men have quit talking. Women have a much more collaborative style. They’re willing to focus on the policy versus just the politics, and willing to talk to each other. I see that in the Texas Legislature as well. Look at the voter ID law. Horrible law. Democrats are in the minority. But state Sen. Wendy Davis was able to add that amendment that allowed women and others to vote with an affidavit.
Women are fighting from their set of experiences. Their history as mothers and daughters and sisters has a profoundly positive impact on legislation.
TT: It looks like two committees in the Texas Senate and five in the House have no women members. Does that matter?
Garcia: I think it does matter. It’s important that you don’t have legislation drafted where you have a room full of just men. Legislation is better, policy is better, when everybody is at the table. For too long, there have been too many rooms where women have not been there.
TT: You said women often have to be asked multiple times to run. What does the research show are the barriers to women running for office?
Garcia: I’m going to tell you the No. 1 barrier that women feel. It’s fundraising. They don’t always come with the same networks that men do. Not only do we give direct contributions to our candidates, but we also give them access to our statewide donor network of more than 6,000 women. Someone like Leticia Van de Putte, who’s been a senator in San Antonio, has not had to raise the kind of money she’s going to need for a lieutenant governor’s race. So we help her by introducing her to donors in Dallas and Houston and all across the state.
The other thing that has been written about a lot is some of the negative ways that women are referred to when they do run. We have the instance of the recent Denton County [GOP] chair that continued to use the "Abortion Barbie" reference. Things that are used to kind of try to diminish women. References to their appearance, what they’re wearing. So we work with women on how to focus on the issues and not respond to those kinds of personal attacks and references.
TT: If Wendy Davis or Leticia Van De Putte is elected, does that make it less of a problem that there are relatively few women in the Legislature?
Garcia: Yes, because [Davis and Van de Putte] will be major decision-makers.
TT: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Garcia: This is really a historic year for us. We have seen increased interest all over the state in women candidates, in women stepping forward to run. In San Antonio, where we typically have about 500 women attend our luncheon, in the beginning of November we had 1,000 women attend our event. The interest is only increasing, it’s not waning, and we’re very excited about the candidates that we have endorsed.