The fight to increase the number of women in California’s Legislature Tuesday, August 21, 2018
By J.G. Preston
It is one of those sobering statistics that too often escapes notice: Only 25 percent of California state lawmakers are women.
For San Mateo attorney Valerie McGinty, that stat was a call to action.
“I knew I had to do something” to correct the imbalance, said McGinty. So last November, on the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election as president, McGinty launched Fund Her, a political action committee to assist progressive women running for the California Legislature.
The goal of Fund Her is to make California the first state to reach gender parity among state lawmakers. “We know that, until we get money out of politics, we need money to get our message out,” McGinty said. “Even the best candidate isn’t going to win if they don’t have any money to communicate with voters.”
McGinty said the defeat of Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election convinced her that something needed to be done to help women candidates. “It was not just that the first female major party nominee who also happened to be one of the most qualified people who had ever run for the office had lost, but also that Donald Trump received the votes of 52 percent of white women,” McGinty said.
She considered running for office herself, McGinty recalled. “But then I thought, what if, instead of getting myself elected, I could help get 20 or 30 women elected? And I knew right then that was what I wanted to do.”
Fund Her has received high-profile support from actor Jamie Lee Curtis, who spoke at the organization’s Los Angeles launch event in March, hosted a fundraiser at her Santa Monica home and narrated the group’s promotional video.
Fund Her had its first triumph in December, when it supported labor activist Wendy Carrillo in her successful special election bid to represent the 51st Assembly District. Then in April, Fund Her endorsed Sydney Kamlager-Dove in the special election in the 54th Assembly District, which she won, and in June endorsee Luz Rivas won a special election in the 39th Assembly District.
Ten of the eleven candidates endorsed by Fund Her in the June primary advanced. The only one who didn’t was in the 32nd Senate District, where Fund Her endorsed two candidates and one of them, Vanessa Delgado, qualified for an August special election runoff, which she won.
Nine candidates endorsed by Fund Her will appear on the November ballot: Kamlager-Dove, Rivas, Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (AD 16), Christy Smith (AD 38), Cottie Petrie-Norris (AD 74), Tasha Boerner Horvath (AD 76), Sunday Gover (AD 77), Maria Elena Durazo (SD 24) and Joy Silver (SD 28).
“Now that we’ve canvassed the state and seen where we can have the most meaningful impact, our focus will likely narrow and deepen so that we can invest heavily in one or two priority races,” McGinty said. “Of our nine endorsed candidates, six of them would be replacing a Republican. We have to be realistic and focus on where that is most likely to happen and where we can help really move the needle.
“We’ll be looking to team up with our progressive allies, and we’ll be paying close attention to who their priority candidates are and where we might overlap so that we can join together to have the greatest impact possible.”
McGinty is in the San Francisco Bay area. Fund Her’s chief of staff, Adina Brin, is based in Los Angeles, where she has six years of organizing experience. Fund Her also has geographic diversity in its marketing staff: chief marketing advisor Rachel Sterling, a Google executive, is in Northern California, while chief engagement strategist Tehya Kopp, a veteran of marketing in the entertainment industry, is in the south.
“I feel so lucky to have this kind of a team,” McGinty said. “I could never have done this on my own. I knew that there were incredibly talented people who know a lot more than I do and who have been in this [political fundraising] business who would be willing to help. And I was pretty sure there were people who had the means and the inclination to invest in a vision of what our future could be.”
Factors considered in Fund Her’s decisions to support a candidate include her commitment to women’s equality, women’s reproductive freedom, social justice and climate responsibility. The nine members of the organization’s board vote to determine which candidates are endorsed and which races are considered priorities.
McGinty is also interested in expanding the Legislature’s diversity. “Our first four endorsements were all women of color,” she said. “Five of the next nine were women of color or from the LGBT community. What we are representing is a future where we are governed by folks who are bringing fresh ideas and who have a diverse experience and who are willing to present creative solutions to the challenges California faces.”
Fund Her has already raised more than $225,000, and McGinty says momentum is growing. “I’ve been astonished by how many people have come out of the woodwork, in part coming off the election of 2016 and coming off the Harvey Weinstein scandal,” she said. “People have said, ‘Did you say fund her? Oh, I’m in.’”
There are no restrictions on what donors can give to Fund Her. “Because we have the independent expenditure capability, there is not a limit on what donors can give us,” McGinty explains. “We are limited in what we can give candidates directly, the same limits that individuals have, $4,400 in both the primary and general election.” But the PAC is not limited in what it can spend on advertising or other means of supporting a candidate so long as it is not coordinated with the campaign.
Fund Her uses both larger events and smaller house parties to make the pitch to potential donors. As McGinty describes it, “We always have either a panel of experts or a featured guest speaker, and always at least one endorsed candidate so people can get a sense of what they’re investing in.” And these events frequently lead to opportunities to do more events. “After our March launch event in Los Angeles, we got an immediate 10 or 15 offers to do a house party, and more offers after those.”
McGinty had not been directly involved in politics until after the 2016 election, when she ran for, and won, a position as a California Democratic Party delegate from the 22nd Assembly District. But she has politics in her blood: her grandmother, Elizabeth Rudel Smith, was a member of the Democratic National Committee from California and served as Treasurer of the United States under President John F. Kennedy until April 1962 (her signature appears on U.S. currency printed during her tenure).
Although the current gender imbalance in the Legislature is discouraging, McGinty is confident that California can equalize the numbers of woman and men among its 120 lawmakers.
“There’s no reason to think that we shouldn’t be the first state to do this,” she said. “We were the first state to send two women to the U.S. Senate, and we lead the country with our progressive policies. Just by putting women in open seats going forward, we could get to gender parity in ten years.”
J.G. Preston is press secretary for Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC). Valerie McGinty is a member of CAOC’s Board of Governors. Some members of CAOC are on the board of directors of the group that funds ProtectConsumerJustice.org.