The Politics of Gender

School Boasts List of Powerful Alumnae

Posted July 16, 2008 at 5:22pm

When Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) attended the Women’s Campaign School at Yale several years ago, she was a practicing attorney flirting with the notion of running for office.

But after the five-day intensive training session was over, the political neophyte was ready to commit to the campaign trail.

“It really helped me decide to run,” the freshman Democrat said of the school, which meets again in New Haven this week for its 14th annual session. “I learned about the nuts and bolts of a campaign. They really covered the how-to aspect.”

The Women’s Campaign School at Yale, founded in 1993, trains up to 55 aspiring politicians each summer — out of an application pool twice that size — with the intention of electing more women to office.

Unlike other programs aimed at electing women to public office such as EMILY’s List, the Women’s Campaign School is nonpartisan and steers clear of focusing on issues such as abortion or gun rights.

Instead, attendees of the five-day July program are trained on how to create and carry out a winning campaign, from the announcement speech to Election Day.

Participants are mostly women, but a handful of men looking to hone management skills also attend each year. The campaign boot camp leaves little time for socializing, with guest speakers offering advice on campaign fundraising, messaging, ethics and public speaking. They discuss how to draw a contrast with an opposing candidate, how to deal with a potentially damaging past blunder and how to champion an issue.

[IMGCAP(1)] Attendees are also assigned to create campaign plans. They do mock television interviews that are taped for critiquing, and meals take place during lectures and brainstorming sessions.

“You have to be well-organized. You can’t make it up as you go along,” Gillibrand said of the lessons she took away from the program. “You have to run a professional campaign, and you have to treat it like a business.”

Gillibrand grew up in a political household and worked a summer for then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) before attending law school. Even with her experience, Gillibrand said she never learned how to run a campaign.

Given her 6-point victory against four-term incumbent Rep. John Sweeney (R) in the previous cycle, in which she raised nearly $2.6 million, Gillibrand’s days in Yale University lecture halls were time well-spent.

Breana Teubner, a former staffer for Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) who currently works in Wal-Mart’s lobbying shop, hopes her trip up to New Haven will be equally rewarding. The one-time chairwoman of the D.C. Young Republicans, Teubner has been involved in politics since she ran for student government at UCLA, but like Gillibrand, Teubner said she has never been taught the nitty-gritty details of campaigning.

“Your expectation would be that women involved at this level wouldn’t need training,” Teubner said.

Attendees hear from a prestigious panel at the school that includes elected officials such as former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet, current Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and a handful of political consultants.

Women’s Campaign School Board President Martha Sterling-Golden echoes Teubner.

“Of course what astonishes me is that women feel they need to learn all these things,” she said, pointing out that so many of the attendees already have a working knowledge of what is needed to win on Election Day. “There are no campaign schools for men.”

Still, Sterling-Golden said fundraising is “the single largest barrier for women in politics.” She notes that many attendees are timid about candidate debates and that all are critical of themselves on camera.

Fellow campaign school alumna and freshman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) recalls being a young businesswoman with a curiosity for politics and not much else when she attended the school in 2000.

Giffords was strong in money management and delegating, but she had no media experience and was unsure how to turn her support base in Tuscon, where she ran her family’s tire business, into political momentum.

“There’s still a bias in our country [against] women running for office,” Giffords said, pointing out a hurdle she sees for female candidates. “I was able to translate my experience on nonprofit boards and in business into political experience.”

While most of the five days are spent focusing on canvassing and campaigning, attendees and speakers do touch on more personal topics such as work-family balance and how to overcome potential stereotypes that might harm a female-driven campaign — including a lack of forceful leadership and a life filled with too many familial distractions.

The jam-packed week is free of any girl talk.

“This isn’t just something to get together and love each other,” Sterling-Golden said.

Attendees aged 21 to 70 from all over the world, though mostly the United States, are drawn to the program, which costs $950 to attend plus the cost of travel and lodging.

Typically, they hear about it through word-of-mouth and networking, that age-old politicking talent. Participants include candidates running for everything from tribal chief to school board president, as well as statewide and federal office.

Sterling-Golden said the mix of “organized chaos” makes for a marketplace of political ideas that breeds strong candidates and professional relationships.

Teubner, who traveled five hours north on Amtrak earlier this week to make it up to New Haven, certainly holds that expectation.

“I hope to build relationships where, 10 or 20 years down the road, we’ll be in meetings together and doing business together,” she said.