WomenWinning, a statewide political fundraising group dedicated to helping pro-choice women win elections, has been supporting Tarryl Clark for years — since her first run in a special election to the state Senate in 2005.
Now the group, billed as the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund, is working overtime to help Clark get elected to Congress.
And despite the difficult challenge of unseating 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann, Sarah Taylor-Nanista, the group’s executive director, thinks there’s a good chance.
“Absolutely, she’s got a chance,” Taylor-Nanista said this week, during an interview at the WW office in a remodeled industrial building on St. Paul’s University Avenue. The group is working with Sen. Amy Klobuchar — another recipient of WW assistance — to hold a fundraiser for Clark before the Nov. 2 election.
WW, founded in 1982, has helped hundreds of women run for election.
Not all of them win, of course — the group was solidly behind Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s bid for governor, but she lost the DFL primary election to Mark Dayton.
On the other hand, the group has supported U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum since her first run for the North St. Paul City Council in 1986, and has seen her win four terms in the state Legislature and then five terms in Congress.
The group has endorsed and provided fundraising help to pro-choice women running for all forms of government office, from city council and county boards in Minnesota to national offices.
It even sent a check for $5,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Bank snub prompted group’s formation
WomenWinning was founded 28 years ago by a small group of women upset that banks required women who applied for business loans to have their husbands co-sign the loan, Taylor-Nanista said.
“They realized the long-term solution was to elect more women to public office,” she said, “so they got 25 women to each contribute $1,000.”
Then, as now, abortion was the litmus test: Women candidates had to be pro-choice to get the group’s support. They also now encourage other stances beyond abortion funding — on issues they believe have a positive impact on women and families, including nutritional lunches and adequate child care, Taylor-Nanista said.
In the early days, virtually any woman candidate fitting that bill was endorsed and supported. In recent years, though, the group wants to be sure a candidate has a viable chance of winning before resources are expended.
And there are cases when choices have to be made between several eligible candidates: Susan Gaertner was passed over in the governor’s race in favor of Kelliher, whom the WW committee thought had a better chance at winning.
And in this year’s 6th District race, the group picked Clark over Dr. Maureen Reed, another DFL contender in the early going.
During this election cycle, WomenWinning has endorsed nearly 100 women in races throughout the state and, so far, has helped raise about $500,000 for the candidates.
The group provides some direct funding to candidates, but also organizes its members to raise funds for them. And the WW staff works with candidates to develop their own fundraising expertise.
Do men ever ask for endorsement and support?
“Men do ask for help,” Taylor-Nanista said. But they don’t get it.
“There are plenty of other organizations out there to help them,” she said. “And looking at the numbers, they’re doing just fine.”
And while the group is technically nonpartisan, the pro-choice requirement has meant that the vast majority of candidates getting support are DFLers. There have been a few Republican pro-choice candidates in the past, but none are serving now.
Gender parity? Not yet
Women make up about 34 percent of the Minnesota Legislature, the group says, which is fourth highest in the country and far better than the 17 percent in Congress. (Of course, not all of those are pro-choice women, Taylor-Nanista notes.)
Women make up only 11 percent of the seats on Minnesota county boards, 37 percent of state school boards and 15 percent of the state’s mayors.
“We’re still not even close yet on gender parity,” Taylor-Nanista said.
But it’s not that women can’t win, she said. It’s just that not enough run.
“When women run for office, they win at the same rate as men,” she said. “The challenge is, they don’t run at the same rate.”
So a big priority for WomenWinning is finding candidates who are ready to run and encouraging them to take the step. Sometimes, that’s harder with women than with men.
“Studies show that men are much more willing to run for political office without being asked than women are,” Taylor-Nanista said. Sometimes women have to be asked more than once.
“A little encouragement goes a long way. And a call from Joan Growe [former Minnesota secretary of state, and a candidate for U.S. Senate] can be a powerful thing,” she said.
So in addition to endorsing and supporting existing candidates, WomenWinning is scouring the state to find suitable candidates for all levels of government.
“We’re looking for partners in Greater Minnesota who can help us find women who are ready to run for office — women who work in universities, in nonprofits, and run businesses,” she said.
“It wouldn’t have been so heartbreaking when Margaret lost if we thought there was a cadre of women ready to run. We do think they’re out there — we just need to figure out who they are. And sometimes we know who they are but need to get them ready.”
There were encouraging signs, even in Kelliher loss.
“She made it easier for the next woman to run for governor; she had a viable campaign in a very high-profile race, so that’s progress,” Taylor-Nanista said.
“But like Hillary, we see there’s not a long line of women ready to run for governor, or president. Who are the women getting ready for the next time? And that’s a place we can make a difference,” she said.
Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politics and other topics.