I first met Raquel Teran in the Fall of 2011, soon after starting New American Leaders, in the lobby of the Sheraton Phoenix. She arrived from a day of organizing, in a yellow T-shirt, hungry and tired, and ready to talk about running for office one day. She was a community advocate then, as she is now, as the representative for House District 30 in the Arizona State Legislature.
Raquel’s journey to this position is one that represents both the problems and the potential in our democracy. A child of the border, she was born and raised in Arizona and Mexico, living in ways that represent and reflect the experience of millions of Americans.
My life experience is dramatically different from hers, but I know that my liberation and hers are intertwined. And we both know that our liberation is connected to millions of others. Until everyone around us is free, not just to dream, but to achieve those dreams, she and I are not truly free. This interconnectedness is at the heart of the democracy we need to build, and immigrant and refugee women are and will be core architects of that new system, alongside our indigenous and Black sisters.
The political potential in immigrant and refugee women, whom I call New Americans, is more apparent in 2020 than it was ten years ago, when I started New American Leaders, to prepare and support our community to run, win, and govern. In the 2018 midterms, a historic number of women of color were elected to Congress and to state and local legislatures across the country. Raquel was among those women. Her victory is worth celebrating, but underlying it is a series of systemic challenges that must be eliminated in order for hundreds of Raquels to be elected. A democracy that is for us and by us will not emerge with just a four-person squad as we see embodied in Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, or a singular historic win like that of Safiya Khalid, who was the first Somali woman to be elected to the Lewiston City Council in Maine in 2019.
These women faced similar barriers to running and governing and will continue to do so until we redesign democracy to work for the American electorate of today and tomorrow. Specifically, that means addressing three existing challenges: the primacy of existing voters, particularly those deemed to be reliable voters; the role of money, not just in campaigns but in determining who can run and serve; and more fundamentally, the perception of who a leader can be, both by gatekeepers and in society at large.
I start with two assumptions. One is that immigrant and refugee women are uniquely qualified to lead because of their lived experiences and connection to community. Ayanna Pressley has described this as follows: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” In survey after survey by our organization, women applicants talk about the issues they wish to address in office, from affordable, quality education to a more humane immigration system. These are not only “immigrant” or women’s issues, but also core tenets of a society that is welcoming and inclusive.
My second assumption is that they do not suffer from a lack of political ambition but from a lack of support to run and win in ways that honor their unique talents and the challenging demands of their lives. I believe this undermines the barriers that women experience as they navigate careers in any field. This is affirmed by research from the Center for American Women in Politics, which indicates that many factors can influence the decision to run. Some of these are being socialized to downplay ambition, assessing the cost-benefit analysis about what’s at stake when running, and observing that they are held to higher standards by voters than men. Researcher Molly Bangs states it this way: “From recruitment and the political establishment, to concerns about campaign funding inequities, to wealth gaps and the high costs of a political career, that women would not be interested in running for office could be considered less of an ambition gap and more of a rational choice!”
Primacy of White Voters. An ongoing tension exists in current conversations about how to win political power. On one side of that tension is the old equation of winning elections, one that relies on the prime voter, many of whom are older and white. On the other side is a diverse, younger electorate as well as newcomers to the political process, including around three million who have become citizens since the 2016 election. When politicos talk about the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt, they fail to acknowledge that among those populations are naturalized citizens. In fact, the American electorate includes more than 23 million naturalized citizens, in particular Asian Pacific Islander Americans and Latinos. In states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Michigan, registering and mobilizing naturalized citizens can change the outcome of elections. Few candidates make the effort to reach out to these potential voters, because of a self-perpetuating myth that they don’t vote.
However, when new American women run, they knock on the doors of voters like these, who have often never voted or never heard from incumbents. We saw this in 2016 with the historic defeat of 44-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn by Ilhan Omar for a seat in the Minnesota State Legislature. Omar built a multiracial coalition of progressive voters to defeat Kahn and laid the foundation for her congressional run in 2018. Her race is the embodiment of a new progressive pipeline that starts with community leaders running for local and state office and moving to leadership positions within their legislatures or to higher office. That continuum is at the core of a new generation of elected officials, who are embedded in community and bring that orientation to their governance. It’s with that type of leader that we can engage in co-governance, which puts communities in collaboration rather than confrontation with their elected officials.
The Role of Money. For immigrant and refugee women, running for office is deeply tied to money. Although money in politics is often discussed as it relates to campaigns, the reality is that for those who are not wealthy and well-connected, money is an issue that informs the very decision to run. Among those we train at New American Leaders, money concerns include everything from the usual factors such as the ability to raise money to things like childcare costs. Even as they weigh running, candidates like current New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who was running in 2018, have to consider whether they can take the pay cut that comes with being a state legislator. As a housing attorney, Catalina made a $150,000 annual salary. As a state legislator in New York, she now makes $110,000. And she is on the high end of the scale for legislator salaries. In states like Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia, most legislators make from $17,000 to $30,000 per year. The legislature is ostensibly part-time; during that time, laws are made and budgets decided. But being in office doesn’t stop once you leave the state capitol. Attending community events, responding to constituent requests, and learning about policy concerns make being a legislator a full-time job. Women in these jobs face a Catch-22 situation. It’s difficult to do their jobs well if they don’t focus on them full-time, but not having other paid employment to supplement the low legislators’ salaries is financially unsustainable if you are not well-off. As a member of the Maryland State Legislature, Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins balances her legislative role with paid employment at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCR) and Georgia Representative Bee Nguyen with work at New American Leaders. Some are lawyers in private practice who can, for example, make ends meet by taking on cases when the legislature is not in session. In small cities, council members are paid a pittance and expected to attend weekly meetings in the evenings. For mothers, childcare costs alone make it prohibitive to serve their cities and towns.
Who is a Leader? When we ask women applying to programs at New American Leaders what barriers they expect to face, these almost always include some marker of identity—their name, religion, head covering, immigration status, etc. They do not see themselves in office because women like them are not widely represented. They internalize the image of who can lead, not because they don’t believe they can lead but because images in media show white men as leaders. Despite the representation gains in 2018, women of color make up only 8.8 percent of Congress. In our country’s entire history, we have had only five women of color in the Senate; three of them were elected in 2017. Only 73 women of color have ever served in the House of Representatives.
That’s not coincidental. Our white Founding Fathers designed a government that would work for them and their peers. And we have a lot of work to do to get to a government that looks like, and works for, Americans today. The historic elections of Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Deb Haaland in 2018 mattered because now every Muslim and indigenous girl in America could follow a path rather than carry the burden of being the pathbreaker. Being the first brings fame and fanfare but is isolating and intimidating. While we can celebrate historic firsts, we have to create the conditions to replicate the wins of recent elections exponentially.
Building the future we want. We have a long way to go to close the gender gap in representation, and even more work to ensure gender parity for women of color. Training programs that recruit and support women to run are crucial to building a lasting pipeline and encouraging women on their political journey. As these women run and win, we will see incremental changes in representation and changes in our policy priorities as a nation as well. Their candidacies will bring along new voters and help change the public’s minds about who a leader is. But for exponential change, I would advocate for two systemic, and related, reforms. First, we need to increase the salaries of state legislators and city council members in large cities. More research is needed on the population threshold for a city or state that should have a full-time legislature, but in the short-term, salaries can be adjusted for the costs of inflation across every legislature. That’s a common-sense, but still challenging, first step that requires buy-in from the public and from legislators who understand that salary is a convenient barrier that precludes movement leaders from running and serving.
Second, we need to make state legislative responsibilities a full-time job. In doing so, we ensure that a city or state’s residents have the year-round attention of their representatives and reduce ethical concerns that arise if legislators have two masters. It also ensures that the most qualified and committed individuals don’t have to choose between financial stability and serving their city or country. It reduces the likelihood that legislatures will be led by those who are retired or wealthy and who see the work as a side hustle rather than a 24/7 commitment to building a more equitable democracy.
These two reforms are not enough to attract the strongest and most committed leaders to public service. They go hand in hand with many others, including ranked-choice voting to close the gender gap, universal voting to increase voter participation among all groups, and elimination of term limits to prevent the revolving door between lobbyists and state legislatures. All of this can help increase the representation by women who are Americans by choice.
In the way that today’s America is the legacy of our white male Founding Fathers, tomorrow’s America will be the legacy of women of color who are shaping our democracy today.