‘You have to do 110%’ Women talk about challenges facing female candidates in Fresno County

Perceptions of “electability” and a candidate’s image were among challenges discussed Saturday in a forum addressing barriers faced by women who seek elected office.

The event at Fresno City College, hosted by several groups, was inspired by the question: “Why don’t more women run for office in Fresno County?”

Fresno isn’t devoid of women in leadership positions. Its sheriff, district attorney, and county clerk/registrar of voters – one of Saturday’s five panelists – are all women, to name a few, along with two of the area’s state senate representatives.

Yet there are still fewer women in many elected offices in Fresno County than the statewide average, said Lisa Bryant, Fresno State political science assistant professor. No women have filed paperwork to run for Fresno mayor or seats up for election on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors or Fresno City Council.

Recruitment matters

Bryant started the event with a presentation before turning it over to a panel of local elected female leaders, who answered questions.

Research shows while more men consider running for an elected office, Bryant said, more women show an interest in the work required to win, such as campaigning, fundraising and talking with the media.

Getting women to run is the biggest challenge. “Being asked matters,” Bryant said. Plus, party leaders and activists, along with business people and local elected officials, are less likely to ask women to run, she added.

It also takes more effort to get women to consider running. More men than women believe they can win or have enough qualifications to do so, she said.

“Some things that are very important: When women run, they win,” Bryant said. “They win as often as men…When women fundraise, they fundraise as much as men. And yet we still see that women are underrepresented at all levels of government.”

California ranks seventh in the nation for gender parity among elected officials, yet only 38% of those leaders are female, she said.

Bryant said women in the central San Joaquin Valley interested in running for the U.S. House of Representatives would have the best chance of winning in the 16th and 21st congressional districts, according to an electability index.

Two women, including Fresno’s only female city councilmember, are running against 16th Congressional District incumbent Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno).

Sabrina Ashjian of the National Women’s Political Caucus, California, moderates a panel of female elected officials during the “Why Don’t Women Run?” forum exploring opportunities and barriers for women seeking political office at Fresno City College on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Fresno female officials talk about challenges

The three women of color on Saturday’s panel – State Center Community College District Trustee Annalisa Perea, Fresno Unified School District Trustee Keshia Thomas, and Kingsburg City Councilmember Jewel Hurtado – said people advised them how to dress and wear their hair during their campaigns.

Perea said she responded by dyeing part of her hair blue in protest.

“There’s a reason that the woman who said they’ve been told, ‘Don’t wear your hair that way. Don’t wear that color of lipstick. You don’t look a particular way’ happens,” Bryant said. “They’re younger, they’re women of color. It’s much more likely to happen among those populations.”

Thomas said she was especially discouraged by men who told her she couldn’t win because she is a black woman.

“We have to empower our young ladies to know it doesn’t matter what you are,” Thomas said. “You stay strong, you continue to persevere, and you’ll make it.”

The importance of self-confidence and working hard as a public servant was a reoccurring theme for the panelists.

“You have to do 110%,” Thomas said. “As a woman, we can’t do 100%.”

Fresno County Clerk/Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth said something similar.

“I think the public expects women to be maybe more perfect than men,” Orth said. “I think sometimes we have men that can get away with being mediocre or average, where women are not held to that standard. They are held to a higher standard.”

Getting more minority populations to vote, and to believe their vote will matter, was another challenge cited by Thomas and Hurtado.

The panel ended with some advice for women considering a run for office:

“Don’t count yourself out. … Just do it. Just run,” Bryant said.

“There are so many men and women who are qualified,” Hurtado said, “that have experience, more experience, than you do. But who’s willing?”

“Be present where you are,” Clovis City Councilmember Lynne Ashbeck said, “and run because you want to serve the constituents, wherever it is. People who run because they want to be something else are quite obvious.”

Thomas said more women should be trained and recruited into public service. Orth called the work a “calling” compatible with women’s compassion, dedication, and ability to “see the job all the way through.”

“In 2016,” Perea said, “our nation proved that we were ready for a female president by three million popular votes. … If we were ready for a female president, we’re ready for female council members and congressional members.”

Let’s keep conversations going

The “Why Don’t Women Run?” event was hosted by The Fresno Bee, National Women’s Political Caucus Fresno, League of Women Voters of Fresno, and Mi Familia Vota Education Fund.

Fresno Bee Executive Editor Joe Kieta said people can expect The Bee to host other public forums in the future. Reporter Brianna Calix helped organize Saturday’s event.

Kieta said delivering news remains The Bee’s top priority, but that it also plays other roles, including “using our power to convene and to get people together to talk about important issues in our community.”

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.