For some of the women running for office in Texas this year, it was the election of Donald Trump in 2016. For others, the energy of the #MeToo movement.
Carla Morton was in Austin in January 2017 when she decided to run, marching with thousands of other women to protest the recent election and advocate for women’s rights. “It was so inspiring,” Morton said. “It was like, you know, screw this, we’re going to do this ourselves. We can’t wait on anyone to do it for us.”
Today, Morton, a pediatric neuropsychologist with no political experience, is running as a Democrat to represent District 11 on the Texas State Board of Education. She is part of a nationwide wave of female candidates pursuing elected office at all levels of government. Texas has seen particularly strong performances from women candidates this year: In March, women triumphed outright or qualified for runoffs in more than 50 primary races across the state.
But running for public office isn't easy, especially for first-time women candidates venturing into an arena traditionally dominated by men. On Sunday, Morton and dozens of other Democratic women gathered at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Fort Worth for a series of workshops designed to help female candidates progress along that steep learning curve.
“You get a lot of training before you run for office — getting ready to run, thinking about running. There are a lot of organizations around that,” said Kim Olson, the Democratic candidate for commissioner of agriculture and one of the organizers of the weekend's inaugural Texas WomenWin conference. “Now you’re in the game, and there’s really nothing out there to help you to make it through.”
The women sat around circular tables in a Hilton ballroom, sipping coffee as they listened to presentations covering a range of topics: how to stay safe on the campaign trail, maintain a healthy diet amid the chaos of an election race, collaborate with fellow candidates and communicate effectively with the public.
In the first presentation, Paul Stone, chief of police at Weatherford College, warned the candidates to “look at your work environment through the lens of survival.” That means arriving early to events, reviewing maps of every venue and keeping an eye out for suspicious men who show up repeatedly at campaign stops.
“That person might be a stalker,” Stone said. “You’ve got to be proactive. What’s he gonna do? Either he’s gonna flash me or he’s gonna shoot me.”
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, who’s looking to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in November, delivered a brighter message during an hour-long pep talk that followed Stone’s presentation. “Relieve yourself of the burden of trying to be perfect or to do this in the right way,” he said.
In Texas, gender disparities are as endemic to politics as outdoor barbecues and invocations of the Alamo. Only three of the 38 members of the state’s congressional delegation are female. And women hold just 37 of the 181 seats in the Texas House and Senate.
“Look at the percentages. It’s embarrassing,” said Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez, who spoke at the conference. “We need a balance and a balance is more of us. We need the females in there to make a difference.”
Olson and Joi Chevalier, who is challenging Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, recently started a private Facebook group for women to ask questions about the challenges and indignities that female candidates confront, such as comments about their clothing and skepticism about their grasp of complex issues.
“Some of the concerns were, ‘I’m worried about how people are not listening to what I’m saying about these issues because they’re asking about my clothes, or what it’s like to be so far from my family all the time,’” Chevalier said.
The final presenter, Jacqueline Lambiase, who chairs the department of strategic communication at Texas Christian University, urged the candidates to treat derogatory comments as rhetorical opportunities. She cited the example of Alison Lundergan Grimes, a U.S. Senate candidate in Kentucky in 2014 who Republicans disparaged as “an empty dress.”
“‘I am not an empty dress, I am not a rubber stamp and I am not a cheerleader,’” Lambiase said, quoting one of Grimes’ campaign speeches. “There are ways you can defend your brand without sounding defensive.”
Still, for all the challenges facing women candidates in Texas, the gender breakdown of the state’s congressional delegation may soon inch closer to equality. Texas is poised to send its first two Latinas to Congress in the fall: Earlier this year, former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia both won Democratic primaries in blue districts.
Many of the candidates gathered in Fort Worth on Sunday are unlikely to enjoy similar success in November. But that does not mean the movement will come to an end, Olson said in a speech as the conference wrapped up.
“If you lose, people will come asking you for advice and probably ask you to run again,” she said. “This is a long game, ladies.”