Emily’s List, an influential political organization that aims to elect pro-choice women, announced June 14 that it had named former Maine state lawmaker Emily Cain as its new executive director. Cain, who was elected to the Maine state house at just 24, helped the Democrats win back control of the legislature as minority leader in 2012 before launching two (ultimately unsuccessful) congressional bids. “Emily is a leader for progressive change at a moment when the rights, security and well-being of women and American families are under unprecedented assault by the radical and dangerous policies of the Trump administration and GOP,” Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement.
In an interview with Motto, Cain said that it’s more important now than ever that women run — and win — down-ballot elections for roles ranging from state legislatures to local school boards. The 115th U.S. Congress, which convened in January, has 104 women in both chambers — unchanged from the last congressional session. Statistics aren’t better in local governments, either: according to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics, women only make up 24% of statewide elective executive offices, 24.5% of state legislatures and 17.5% of mayors. Research has shown that women are just as likely as men to win races, but there aren’t enough women running for office in the first place.
Cain spoke with Motto about how we can encourage more women to enter politics, her own political trajectory and her thoughts on whether supporting abortion rights should be a prerequisite to joining the Democratic party.
What are your biggest goals in your new role?
One of the biggest opportunities is the Run to Win Program, which Emily’s List kicked off after this last election when so many women felt left behind and frustrated by the election results. We’re giving them the opportunity to step up and run for office. As of this week, nearly 15,000 women have signed up online to participate. The best way to affect change at the Congressional level and the White House is to have more women running for office at all levels. As someone who has been a candidate and knows what it’s like to have this organization in your corner, I want to say to them: “You can do this. You can win. And we can help you.”
Research shows that one of the reasons for the gender imbalance in Congress is that so few women choose to run in the first place. How do we change that?
Research also shows that the number one way to get a woman to run for office is to ask her to run. That’s my story. When I was 24 years old, I had a passion for education policy and I reached out to my state senator, Mary Cathcart, and told her I had an interest in public policy. Mary and her husband, Jim, asked me if I had ever thought about running for the office. I said no. I didn’t even know that the state legislative seat in my district was open. And Jim said to Mary: “I think we found our candidate.”
The good news right now is that after the election of Donald Trump, women are clamoring to run for office at all levels. We can take the research we’re talking about and seize on it and say, “Now is our chance.” We can draw on this moment where groups of all men are talking about women’s health, women are being dismissed and interrupted. This is our chance to change who sits at the table.
After the 2016 election, the number of women in U.S. Congress remained virtually unchanged. How can we make sure that doesn’t happen in the 2018 midterms?
We need to elect more women at the state legislative level, where women don’t even make up 25%. And that’s a problem. For me, that’s why I’m so interested in those down ballot races for mayors, state legislatures, town councils, school boards. We have an ability and, I believe, a responsibility to be the go-to place for women who want to run. I really believe that if you wake up in the morning caring about something, you’re qualified to run for office.
Earlier this month, Iowa Congressional candidate Kim Weaver dropped out of her race due, in part, to receiving harassment and death threats. How can we encourage female candidates to persevere through this kind of treatment?
I have been there — whether it’s with negative ads or dealing with gender-related criticism. We need to make sure women have support all the way through that process because it’s a big undertaking. I think Emily’s List is one solution to that problem — we come with a team that’s ready to help. A candidate can say yes to running for office knowing that we have her back.
Have you ever experienced sexism in your own political career? How did you overcome that?
Of course. I’ll give you a recent example: In my congressional election in 2016, an attack ad from the National Republican Congressional Commmitee accused me of wanting to weigh teenage girls in public schools. It was nasty and it was made up, seizing on a public health bill that I had sponsored about ten years ago. [Editor’s note: The ads didn’t mention that the bill, aimed at addressing child obesity, would have kept all data confidential and given parents the opportunity to opt out. The bill never made it out of committee.] This was at the same time that all of this stuff came out about Trump allegedly calling Miss Universe Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy.” I decided to respond, direct camera, with a video about how dealing with weight is difficult and how the attacks were not only untrue, but the worst kind of attacks in politics today: ones focused on women’s bodies.
A woman running for office should never apologize for being a woman. That was one of the most public ways I ever dealt with the gender question, and I hold my head high for both the things I supported and the way I responded.
There’s been a debate within the Democratic party in the past few months about whether supporting abortion rights should be a litmus test for joining the party. Emily’s List explicitly supports pro-abortion rights female candidates. What are your thoughts on this issue?
At Emily’s List, we support pro-choice Democratic women running for office. That is our founding mission because those are the voices that were not and are still not represented equally in office. I’m excited and very proud to work on that mission at Emily’s List, but I believe that the Democratic Party should be open to everyone who wants to call themselves a Democrat.
What’s your biggest advice for female candidates?
“Say yes.” In college, I had never done student government. My undergraduate degree was in music education. I never even took a political science class. For so long, so many women have thought that their backgrounds didn’t qualify them for office. But I want women to know that they are qualified. We need you.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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