What Sandra Fluke’s Short-Lived Congressional Bid Can Teach Ambitious Progressive Women

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Commentary Politics

What Sandra Fluke’s Short-Lived Congressional Bid Can Teach Ambitious Progressive Women

Catherine Geanuracos

What if you’re a young progressive woman who wants to shake things up? You should! But you also need to be practical and strategic.

When Sandra Fluke declared that she was considering running for Henry Waxman’s Congressional seat last week, the young progressive feminist Twitterverse lit up. Here at Rewire, Erin Matson wrote that “young women will not just serve supporting roles in the political process, but will help make the rules in the primary institutions of power themselves.” I got emails from non-political friends asking me whether I was involved and how to join in.

Unfortunately for Fluke, the reaction I heard most from women and men in the Los Angeles Democratic political world was, “Seriously?!?” People who are familiar with the race and with the district understood from the beginning that Fluke would struggle to raise funds locally and connect with voters. People from outside Los Angeles couldn’t know that Fluke failed to win a seat on the LA County Young Dems Board last year, precisely because she didn’t correctly read or participate in local LA politics. (Fluke ultimately ended up saying she would run for state senate instead.)

As in most electoral races, both the context and the strategy are key, and successful candidates, whether male or female, understand that. The 2013 LA mayor’s race, between former city council members Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, is a case in point. Greuel’s traditional base is on the west side of Los Angeles and in the Valley, and she entered the mayoral race with much of the traditional Democratic donor base and elected officials on her side—precisely the people who are concentrated in Waxman’s district. Nonetheless, Garcetti won women and young voters, along with Greuel’s traditional west-side strongholds. Why? Like many of our local elections, this one was decided largely by campaign strategy. Greuel ran an extremely negative campaign, compared to Garcetti’s aspirational, innovation-focused platform. In addition, the support of the unpopular Department of Water and Power union became a liability for Greuel. In the end, even though Greuel was from the area and had been in politics for a while, her strategy and her team just did not work as well as her opponents.

Still, most Angelenos who follow politics expected Greuel to run for another major office. When Waxman’s seat opened, it made sense that she would enter the contest. Non-Angelenos might not understand how natural a fit the seat is for Greuel and how her candidacy offers the opportunity for her to mend some of the rifts she created within the LA political scene because of her unnecessarily negative mayoral campaign. What didn’t make sense was the idea that Sandra Fluke would be a viable candidate for Congress from that district, because she didn’t have the roots, the organization, or the knowledge of the district.

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Please understand: I want more women to run for office. We only have one woman on our city council in Los Angeles. It’s pathetic. I want more women elected to Congress. I want more progressive voices in Congress. I want more young people in Congress. But Fluke’s candidacy demonstrates what can happen when the progressive online left folds in on itself, and fails to be realistic about local political context.

The reaction to Fluke’s announcement shows a disturbing tendency by progressives online to leap before they look. I would love to see as much buzz about some of the young women running for Congress or defending their seats who could really make a difference—candidates like Amanda Renteria in Fresno or Kyrsten Sinema in Phoenix. (Both races are listed as competitive by the Cook Report.) Renteria is pushing for attention to the needs of her low-income, Latino-majority Central Valley district, while Sinema stands for access to women’s health care, education, and support for military families.

What if you’re a young progressive woman who wants to shake things up? You should! But you also need to be practical and strategic. Here are some basics for young women (or any young candidates) who are thinking about launching an unexpected candidacy:

1. Understand your district and the competitive landscape of the seat.

Fluke tried to run in one of the most influential Democratic Congressional districts in the country. It’s where Democrats from around the country come to raise money, and it’s the home base of entertainment industry fundraisers and west-side liberals. It’s not a great place to be an outsider candidate. There’s a reason Waxman held the seat for 40 years.

2. What Washington thinks about you is not what your district thinks about you.

If you, like Fluke, are lucky enough to have some Internet fame and a national profile, great! But don’t forget to take the temperature of the district in which you’re running. The Washington Post had an article opining that Wendy Greuel must have been relieved that Fluke changed her mind; I can’t imagine that Greuel, and the substantial operation she built during her race for mayor, ever considered Fluke a serious threat.

3. If you don’t want to “wait your turn,” you should build a strong team and base before you declare your candidacy.

Two young California Assembly members, Jimmy Gomez and Matt Dababneh, weren’t “supposed” to run, or win. But they each constructed a solid, local, dynamic base of support, and ran extremely smart campaigns. Dababneh built his work for Congressman Sherman into a formidable fundraising operation. Gomez leveraged his base in labor, and his secret weapon, his campaign strategist and wife Mary Hodge, built an incredibly smart and well-organized campaign. They beat older, more “traditional” candidates. I wish they were women, but I’m glad they’re in office. And they demonstrate that the traditional California Democratic Party power structure once known to shut out young candidates is weakening.

4. Carpetbagging is still a problem (unless you’re Hillary Clinton running for Senate in New York).

Fluke has no family or personal ties to Waxman’s district stretching back farther than one year. This is equally true for her new district. She grew up in Pennsylvania, in a strong Democratic district; perhaps she should consider running for a Republican-held seat in that state? For her new state senate race, she’ll be facing a young, smart, progressive candidate, Ben Allen, who grew up in the district, is president of the Santa Monica school board, attended Harvard, Berkeley, and Cambridge, started programs for at-risk kids, teaches law at UCLA, and worked in D.C. and abroad. Given that Betsy Butler is jumping houses/districts to join this race as well, we may be looking at a replay of the resource-draining, angina-inducing duel between Butler and Torie Osborne, the 50th Assembly district race we suffered through, during which friendships ruptured over minor policy differences. Neither woman won. And in the pre-endorsement meeting of the California Democratic Party for the state senate seat Fluke is seeking, no candidate won enough votes for the endorsement recommendation, but Butler got 57 percent of the votes, while Fluke received 8 percent. Democratic donors, please send your money to races that matter (see Renteria and Sinema, above).

5. Being a sweetheart of the progressive online left—or the digital elite—doesn’t necessarily translate into supporters or victory.

You can look at candidates like Torie Osborn in LA or Reshma Saujani in New York to see what happens when candidates start to believe the online/progressive hype. Even Eric Garcetti’s extensive digital impact was just one part of a broader campaign strategy. And the Garcetti campaign focused on engaging LA’s tech and startup community as donors, as well as making sure his celebrity supporters tweeted up a storm.

6. Progressives want to elect women, but just being a woman isn’t enough.

This is the most important lesson to take from Wendy Greuel’s loss in the LA mayor’s race, and I trust that Greuel’s current team and Hillary Clinton are planning accordingly. Progressive women voters want to see women in leadership. But they also want candidates who reflect the full spectrum of their values, and who have a clear vision for the future of their communities.

I can’t wait to see more young women candidates create campaigns based on local knowledge, leadership, and vision. I’ll support them when they run, and celebrate when they win.

Correction: A version of this article incorrectly noted that Kyrsten Sinema had been a candidate in Tucson, Arizona. In fact, she had been a candidate in Phoenix. We regret the error.

This article has also been edited to correct the spelling of Wendy Greuel’s name.