More women than ever before are running for public office, but many don't know what to expect or how to get started.
That's where groups including AVOW: Advancing Voices of Women; the Richard G. Lugar Series; and Hoosier Women Forward come in. They offer women a chance to learn about challenges and strategies associated with campaigning for and working in public office.
AVOW was founded three years ago by four Fort Wayne women – Patti Hays, Marilyn Moran-Townsend, Rachel Tobin-Smith and Faith Van Gilder. The group primarily focuses on three initiatives: the Paul Helmke School for Women in Public Life, Engaging in Civil Conversations, and a weekly opinion column written by women that appears Sundays in The Journal Gazette.
Concerns over the tone of the 2016 national elections for Congress and president provided the inspiration for AVOW, Moran-Townsend said. The idea, she said, is to make a difference locally.
“It's not so much that we're trying to come up with solutions or generate activity toward one position or the other,” Hays said. “It's purely helping women find their voice. To be met with someone with an opposing position and to practice civility, to practice listening, letting everyone speak and to try and find common ground.”
Van Gilder said she thinks AVOW, which is nonpartisan, has been successful.
“I actually had one participant at the campaign institute say, 'I've never been in a room with Republicans,'” she said, noting that she was surprised that the participant had lived for so long in her own political bubble.
Moran-Townsend said the group felt it was important to bring together women from both political parties.
“The point is, if we are only training women on one side of the aisle – and there are groups around the country that do that – it may be effective at getting those women elected,” she said, “but will it be effective in getting women who are trained to reach across the aisle to others and get things done? We have to replace people in government who aren't collaborative with people who are, on both sides.”
It might seem strange for a group whose goal is to help women run for office to have a program named after a man. It also regularly features male speakers. Former Mayor Paul Helmke is a personal friend, Moran-Townsend said, and was one of the campaign institute's first guest speakers. Moran-Townsend also campaigned for Helmke and former Mayor Graham Richard.
According to AVOW's website, the Paul Helmke School for Women in Public Life “includes seminars and classes to help prepare women for active involvement in public life, from joining boards and commissions to running for office, helping candidates and /or managing campaigns.” The organization's annual Women's Campaign Institute is part of the school.
“There's so much tremendous research that shows when you have women around the table, you have way better decisions and you get significantly more collaboration that will last beyond the decision itself,” Moran-Townsend said. “There are men in our community who fully understand that and support it and want more women in government and those are the men who are part of this.”
Fourteen women participated in the campaign institute in 2019. Many of them are involved in local government.
“This I would liken to baseball. It's building a bench,” Moran-Townsend said. “When we have successful women in municipal office, they're well-prepared to be successful women in state and federal office.”
The next Women's Campaign Institute is March 6-8, Moran-Townsend said, and will be an “intensive boot-camp-style program to prepare women for races in 2020 and beyond.”
Although AVOW is nonpartisan, some organizations in Indiana are designed to advance women affiliated with a particular political party. The Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series, named after the former U.S. senator, is geared toward Republican women. Hoosier Women Forward offers programming for Democrats.
According to its website, The Lugar Series was founded in 1990 “to increase the preparation, number and influence of Republican women in local, state and national elected and appointed offices.” Each year, the series selects 20 Indiana women to undergo political training that involves daylong classes once a month for eight months, including a four-day seminar in Washington, D.C.
“The Lugar Series is educational in nature and does not take positions on issues or support individual candidates,” the program's website states.
City Clerk Lana Keesling is an alumna of the program, one of more than 500 statewide. Her daughter Nicole Keesling participated in the program last year.
“It was started by a group of women who wanted to get involved 30 years ago to raise money for Richard Lugar but figured out women weren't supposed to do that,” Keesling said. “They decided to start the program to help raise money for (Lugar) and educate women so they knew they could get involved, they could make a difference.”
Keesling said she learned how to run a campaign and what happens when you get elected. Participants are asked to sign a form pledging to either run for office or help someone else.
“It was amazing. It was an eye-opening thing for me,” Keesling said. “I told them at least three dozen times I had no interest in running for office, I was doing this to better myself, educate myself and get involved more.”
Keesling said the lessons she learned were helpful when she launched her 2015 bid for city clerk.
The 30th Lugar Series class will be welcomed at an opening reception on Oct. 24.
Hoosier Women Forward is similar in that it selects 20 to 24 Democratic Party women, who then participate in a nine-month leadership training program. Hoosier Women Forward is in its second year. The class announced in August includes Van Gilder and Misti Meehan, chair of the Allen County Democratic Party. This year's training program started in August.
Hoosier Women Forward's goals, according to its website, are to empower Democratic Party women to become more active, confident and valuable participants in politics and community leadership; to grow a powerful network of engaged Democratic Party women across Indiana; to develop Democratic Party women to run for office at the local, state and federal levels; and to increase the number of Democratic women of influence in every level of government.