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She's running (the campaign): Women manage most Wisconsin Democratic governor campaigns

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An aerial view of the Wisconsin state Capitol building.

FILE PHOTO

For some of the women running statewide political campaigns in Wisconsin, it’s no mystery why there are so many of them this year. With nine serious Democrats in the governor’s race alone, there’s more room for women in campaign management than ever before.

“People had to go outside the box (for hiring), and now we have these strong women running these races,” said Maggie Gau, campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state schools superintendent Tony Evers. “I think it’s incredible. It’s one of the best things to come out of the primary.”

Of the nine Democratic gubernatorial campaigns with hired staff, seven are managed by women. And while their campaigns will pit them against each other through the August 14 primary election, they’re also pleased with the makeup of their competition, and hopeful that it will pave the way for more Democratic women to take on leadership roles in future campaigns.

“It’s great to know that our Democratic ticket is really strong because of the strong management teams that all the campaigns have,” said Brita Olsen, campaign manager for the gubernatorial campaign of state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire.

After her interest in politics was piqued by a high school teacher, Olsen learned the ropes by working as a page in the state Assembly and interning for then-Rep. Cory Mason as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was hooked after working on her first campaign in 2008, and worked her way up to senior staff positions on campaigns and at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

'It was a lot of the same men'

Not every woman in politics can say she had an abundance of women role models from whom she could draw inspiration as she came up through the ranks.

“It was mostly guys, to be honest with you,” said Amanda Brink, who ran Evers’ most recent successful campaign for state superintendent of schools and attorney Tim Burns’ unsuccessful campaign for state Supreme Court, when asked whether she saw many women in leadership roles when she started working in Wisconsin politics.

Gau said the dearth of women leading campaigns was frustrating for her. She named Tanya Bjork, who has served as a senior adviser on several major Democratic campaigns in the state, as a mentor, as did others interviewed for this story.

“But especially on the legislative side, it was a lot of men, and it was a lot of the same men," Gau said. "And that was frustrating sometimes."

Because she didn’t see many women in behind-the-scenes leadership positions, Gau instead drew inspiration and strength from the women she worked for: state Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, and Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.

In addition to Bjork, Olsen named consultants Teresa Vilmain and Heather Colburn and operative Megan Mahaffey as role models and mentors. Several women interviewed named Peg Lautenschlagerthe late former attorney general, and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk as role models.

“I’m actually really lucky, because I’ve just had a lot of opportunities to work with some really amazing women who work in Wisconsin politics, who have not only been great examples but have really encouraged me to do my best in this career path,” Olsen said.

Olsen and Gau have both worked in Wisconsin politics for about a decade, although the two have not worked on any of the same campaigns. Olsen did work with Kelda Roys' campaign manager, Sonja Chojnacki, at Advancing Wisconsin, a 501(c)4 group that supported Obama in 2008.

'Historic year'

While Olsen’s and Gau’s paths kept them firmly entrenched in Wisconsin, Chojnacki left politics altogether after working on Tom Barrett’s failed gubernatorial campaign in 2010. After three years pursuing a career in social work, Chojnacki moved to New York and worked to elect New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. After a few other campaigns — working for Airbnb, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton — Chojnacki decided it was time to come home.

She wanted to work for a woman she thought could win — and Roys, a former state representative and start-up owner, wanted to hire a woman to manage her campaign.

“This is a historic year. Also, having strong female mentors behind me, for me is just a deciding factor that I want to get a woman progressive elected this year,” Chojnacki said.

Roys is one of two women running for governor this year. The campaign of State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, is also managed by a woman.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker criticized Democrats last month for allowing the two women in the field to be excluded from a forum sponsored by an outside group, questioning how Democrats could paint themselves as the party that stands for women.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Melanie Conklin noted that a list of staff and advisers released by Walker’s campaign only included two women, both of whom serve as finance consultants.

“Republicans are the party that lacks diversity in every sense of the word and has attempted to dominate the lives of women, our health care, gutting pay equity protections and generally doing harm to equality and education,” Conklin said.

Republicans were quick to note that three of the state Republican Party's four vice chairs are women — and while Walker’s campaign team is primarily composed of men, two recent major statewide GOP campaigns have been run by women: state Sen. Leah Vukmir’s bid for the U.S. Senate is being managed by Jess Ward, and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s successful re-election campaign in 2016 was run by Betsy Ankney. Ankney’s work on the Johnson race earned her the Campaign Manager of the Year award from the American Association of Political Consultants.

Ankney, like others interviewed for this story, first got involved in politics by interning and working on an assortment of campaigns while in college. While working at the Republican National Committee, she found support from women in leadership roles who encouraged her to ask questions, sit in on meetings and stay involved. Ankney said she doesn't see any major differences between the two political parties in terms of how much they encourage and promote women in leadership positions. 

"I think regardless of your gender, staying focused and working hard is always going to be the key to success no matter what race or what situation you’re in," Ankney said. "I think women sometimes, as the underdogs, have a little more fire in their belly and know they have to go the extra mile."

'People got smart'

Researchers like the ones at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics track how many women are running for office at the state and national levels. However, Rutgers political scientist Kelly Dittmar said there is not reliable data available to determine how many women are working in staff leadership positions.

That being said, Dittmar has seen anecdotal indications that there may be more women running campaigns this year than in the past.

Dittmar, in previous research on campaign consultants, found that about three-quarters of strategic consultants in statewide races were men, and most of them were white. She noted that most consultants come into that role following a leadership position on a campaign.

“The narratives out there (in 2018) are, more so than perhaps in recent years, about women’s empowerment and inclusion and the imbalances of power for women,” Dittmar said. “You do wonder if that also makes candidates particularly sensitive to the fact that it might be good to have diversity (within campaign staff).”

There’s no indication that a campaign run by a woman is more or less likely to win. Brink listed five successful statewide Democratic or liberal campaigns in the last decade that were run by women, including a win in this month’s state Supreme Court race by Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet, whose campaign was run by Jessica Lovejoy. But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke lost to Walker in 2014 with a campaign team composed of a majority of women.

Asked why she thinks there are so many women running races this year, Gau joked: “People got smart.”

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But she added that she and many of her competitors have “worked really hard and have done what’s been asked of us and more, and pushed ourselves” to get where they are now.

“I have worked really, really hard,” Olsen said. “I’m always really trying to win every day on these campaigns.”

Both Olsen and Gau said they have benefited from “shine theory” — the idea that successful women can help propel and amplify each other.

That principle could serve as a counter to some of the natural imbalances in networking that come with the territory of working in a traditionally male-dominated field.

'Meat night'

The gender imbalance extends to the world of outside groups that work alongside campaigns, Brink said. When those groups meet with party and campaign staff for post-mortem meetings after elections (it's illegal to coordinate during campaigns), the room is “often almost all men.”

And then there’s "meat night."

“I shouldn’t call it that,” Brink said. “‘Carne Noche.’ This networking of political operatives, and it’s all men.”

That is to say, an institutionalized social networking event among Democratic and liberal operatives limits is designed for men only.

“It’s funny because so much of what we do is just networking. I would say 30 to 40 percent of your job is just maintaining relationships,” Brink said. “When relationships are built around things that boys tend to do instead of women, it sort of fosters this culture that doesn’t apply to everybody.”

That’s not unusual, Dittmar said.

People tend to get campaign jobs based on who they know, she said.

“These networks have been so male-dominated that from election to election, this guy is telling his buddy, ‘these guys worked for me last time,’” Dittmar said. “It’s hard to break into that. So hopefully what we see this cycle is as more women gain these positions, they not only are looked to and tapped in future elections, but perhaps they also lift up other women.”

That’s important to Gau, who said she hopes to help promote not just women, but people who can help foster racial, geographic, generational and gender diversity.

Christine Welcher, who ran unsuccessfully for the state Assembly in 2016 and is running political activist Mike McCabe’s campaign, said she is excited to see so many women running campaigns — and she wants to do what she can to bring “not just women but people of all races, colors, creeds, whatever” to the table.

Brink said she hopes there will be just as many leadership positions available for women after the 2018 election as there are now — however, she added, “we shouldn’t have to have space created for us.”

“I think that women managers like myself are always going to be advocating for more diverse leadership at all levels on campaigns, and I think where we are now is great, but it’s just — we can always be pushing for more,” Olsen said.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.