Magazine

Women & Power

Across Massachusetts, outsider female candidates are taking aim at the political gender gap

Nontraditional candidates are in the running to “do something” about a broken system.

Jackie Katz, a Wellesley High School teacher, is running for state Senate.
Diana Levine for the BOston Globe
Jackie Katz, a Wellesley High School teacher, is running for state Senate.

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A YEAR AGO, Jackie Katz wouldn’t have called herself a political person. She voted. She followed the news. But the Wellesley High School history teacher, 34, says she “was one of those people who was disillusioned about politics. Because this system feels broken and corrupt.”

Then came November 8, 2016 — and Katz, flush with frustration at the results, found herself on an unlikely new trajectory. In January, she attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., then answered the call to action to meet in “huddles” with like-minded people, keeping the movement alive. And over the course of those meetings and venting sessions, she came to realize that the skills she had honed as a teacher, from speaking in public to encouraging civil debate, could make her a viable politician.

Now Katz is running as a Democrat for the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex state Senate seat held by Republican Richard Ross, making the rounds of picnics and meetings when not working full time — all while pregnant with her first child. Politics still feels broken, she says, but “what this election triggered in me was ‘Well, you have to do something to change it.’ ”

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The 2016 presidential race will go down in history for many things, and one of them is unfulfilled promise for women in politics. But in no small part because of Donald Trump’s surprising victory, 2017 and 2018 are shaping up as years to watch. A survey this year by American University, Loyola Marymount University, and Politico found that a quarter of Democratic women who are now considering running for office were directly motivated by Trump.

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How many of those women will actually appear on a ballot, the report notes, is unclear. But frustration with Trump winds through the personal stories of many newcomer candidates in Massachusetts, seeking offices in bodies that range from the Boston City Council to the Legislature (which is 26 percent female, while women make up 51.5 percent of the state population) to Congress.

Many of them are entering politics for the first time or harnessing newfound ambition inspired by the president’s actions. In short, they’re outsiders. And it would be a rich irony if frustration with the political status quo — the trend Trump rode to victory — wound up propelling his foes into office, too.

THE URGE TO FIND a new and unconventional crop of candidates didn’t start with Trump. Political organizer Emily Cherniack has been preaching the value of outsiders for years. In 2013, she founded Boston-based New Politics, which recruits and trains candidates with public service backgrounds. (The group’s best-known candidate thus far is Massachusetts congressman and Marine veteran Seth Moulton, who has lately been spotted on the Iowa fair circuit.)

“A lot of people thought I was crazy, pre-Trump, when I was talking about candidate recruitment,” Cherniack says. Many political activists she knew were more focused on campaign finance reform, the environment, or other single issues.

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But to Cherniack, assembling a new crop of elected officials feels foundational to creating a different kind of discourse — and a fresh approach to government. “We always say the lack of political leadership in this country is not for lack of leaders,” she says. “We know where they are. They’re just not running, and they’re not in elected office.”

In the past year, Cherniack says, she’s sensed new interest. Across the country, a record 175 people, from both parties, have registered for New Politics’ training program, Answering the Call.

Women’s organizations have seen an even larger surge, says philanthropist Barbara Lee, whose nonpartisan Boston-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation has studied and supported women’s political involvement for two decades. One of the programs it supports, She Should Run, launched an incubator initiative in October 2016, with the goal of registering 400 participants by the end of the year. The day after the election, Lee says, the group’s leaders were sitting glumly around a kitchen table when they realized that sign-ups were rolling in. By December, 5,500 women had registered. Now that number is up to 15,000.

“For all the people who still feel in dismay about the situation the way it is,” Lee says, “when I tell them about how many women are running, they see it the way I do — that it’s a silver lining.”

Activist Deeqo Jibril took a run at Boston City Council this year.
Diana Levine for the Boston Globe
Activist Deeqo Jibril took a run at Boston City Council this year.

THE 2017 SURGE in interest represents a movement, but it’s also a collection of individual decisions, driven by opportunity. That’s how it was for Deeqo Jibril, an activist in Boston’s Somali community. Two factors drove her decision to run for Boston City Council this year: the fact that Councilor Tito Jackson was running for mayor, leaving an open seat, and the travel bans Trump was attempting to impose on majority-Muslim countries.

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“The same week he announced the Muslim Somali ban, that’s the same week I decided: We are at a crossroads and it’s up to us,” says Jibril, who was one of 13 candidates in the District 7 preliminary election and missed the runoff by 115 votes.

Brianna Wu had her own epiphany soon after election night. The video game developer earned national fame as a central figure in Gamergate, a roiling battle over sexism in the gaming community. A frequent speaker and activist in tech circles, she volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and attended Cliton’s party on election night.

The following week, in a meeting with venture capitalists, she realized she had the urge to use her platform for a different purpose. “If I were just sitting it out and making video games right now, I don’t think I’d feel really good about that,” she says.

A few months later, Wu announced that she was mounting a primary challenge to Representative Stephen Lynch, one of the more conservative members of the state’s all-Democratic delegation, in the Eighth District.

It won’t be the first time Lynch has faced a primary challenge from the left. But Wu traces her candidacy largely to gender identity. “There is an unbelievable amount of fury at what Donald Trump is doing,” she says. “Women have had enough. Women have been pushed too far. Women are not going to let the status quo continue.”

Video game developer Brianna Wu is running for Congress.
Diana Levine for the Boston Globe
Video game developer Brianna Wu is running for Congress.

AS AMBITIOUS AS WOMEN can be, Barbara Lee says, they also face stubborn barriers to winning elections. Research supported by her foundation shows that male candidates can have the luxury of appearing to be anti-establishment because they don’t bear the burden of having to prove that they’re qualified. It also shows that people will vote for a man they don’t like — while women still have to be likable to win, preferably “using action-oriented leadership language.” And men tend to seek office on the basis of pure ambition, while women, on average, need to be asked seven times before they’ll agree to run.

That last statistic feels familiar to Kim Janey, a Roxbury community activist who was the first-place finisher in Boston’s District 7 City Council preliminary election. “It probably took me 70 times,” she says. “People for years have [said], ‘Kim, you should run for office.’ Then it was ‘When are you going to run for office?’  . . .  I always styled myself as the person who would work on the campaign, not necessarily the candidate.”

What pressed her to finally run this year, Janey says, was a one-two punch of insecurity related to Trump’s election and the neighborhood-level effects of Boston’s growing economy: “This huge economic boom happening, and too many of my neighbors being left out of that opportunity and just squeezed out of our community.”

Economics was also a driver for Juana Matias, a 29-year-old first-term state representative from Lawrence. She knocked out an incumbent in the 2016 Democratic primary and is now running for the Third Congressional District seat being vacated by Niki Tsongas. The daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Matias first entered politics to influence issues that affected her immigrant community, from unemployment to the cost of higher education.

Trump’s rhetoric on immigration helped motivate her to seek higher office. “We have a president right now who attacks a different group of Americans every day,” she says. “I’m the product of the American dream, and I’ve seen in these 11 months how American values are really under threat.” In the already crowded race for the Third District seat, Matias, an AmeriCorps veteran, has drawn support from Cherniack and her group, New Politics.

Some of that support has been tactical. Like many candidate training programs, New Politics offers guidance on the mechanics of building and running a campaign. But the group also counsels candidates on developing a cogent message — a critical aspect of candidacy, says Cherniack, who sometimes advises people who reach out to her group that they aren’t yet ready to enter a race.

“The reason [candidates] struggle is their internal work,” she says. “Speaking skills are not actually the hard part. The hard part is, do they know who they are, do they have clarity about why they’re running, and are they centered?”

For some outsider candidates, that self-definition competes with voters’ knee-jerk reactions. When Jibril knocked on doors in her district, wearing her traditional head scarf, she sometimes had to explain that, yes, she was eligible to run — she’s a citizen who has lived in Boston for 26 years. (That’s not long enough,” one voter told her.)

Jibril says she won over some naysayers by emphasizing broader issues. “I said, ‘I know what it’s like to be a mom, I know what it’s like to live in affordable housing, I know what it’s like to want a quality education. My story is your story,’ ” she recalls.

Outsider status can also help a candidate stake out a strong identity. Katz says being a teacher shapes her approach to politics — managing tinderbox issues, fostering civil debate, and pressing a point of view without making personal attacks. And Wu says her tech background fosters an approach to problem solving that feels different from today’s hyperpartisan politics.

“When you’re in an engineering meeting, there’s not any ego in the room,” Wu says. “It’s all about finding the right answer, no matter where that answer comes from. So for me, I don’t look at problems saying, ‘What do Democrats believe, what do progressives believe?’ I’m like, ‘Where do we want to go?’ ”

Wu doesn’t shy away from a direct critique of the Democratic Party establishment. “If we don’t have a really honest conversation with ourselves, about why people aren’t enthusiastically voting for us, Republicans are going to win,” she says.

Matias, too, is willing to challenge her party from within — and accept that she won’t get support from many power brokers. “With the political establishment, it is what it is. ‘Why don’t you wait your turn, this is not your turn,’ ” she says. “Political establishments don’t determine whose turn it is. Our community determines whose turn it is.”

In her state representative race, Matias avoided most political events and spent the bulk of her time in the neighborhoods, convincing voters to support an unconventional candidate — in her case, a young Latina woman. Once, she says, she approached a man outside a bodega in Lawrence who sized her up and said, “Don’t even talk to me.” She gave him her card anyway and told him to call if he changed his mind. A few weeks later, he did.

Many new candidates are finding themselves at that stage of the journey now, deep in the nitty-gritty of making the pitch and doing the convincing. As Katz makes the rounds, she recognizes the challenges ahead. Facing an incumbent is an uphill battle, and “this might be a four-year plan,” she says. She’s committed to trying. But however her political career progresses, she doesn’t plan to be an insider for long.

“I don’t intend to do this for 20 years,” she says. “To me, this is public service. You do it for a while and you leave. And someone else steps up.”

Joanna Weiss is a writer based in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.