For Tara Gaston, it was being repeatedly told “that’s not the way things have been done” on the Saratoga County, N.Y., board of supervisors, to which she had just been elected.
For Haya Ayala, it was watching her bill calling for pay parity get “killed before it could get anywhere near the floor” of the Virginia House of Delegates, which she joined as one of an influx of newcomers last year.
And for Deborah Gonzalez, it was taking her first meeting with the other candidate who had flipped a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives during a special election last fall and realizing that “he got a big office; I got a little office. He was given his first choice of committee requests; I didn’t get any of my committee requests. He was a white man; I was a Latina.”
There’s a blue wave predicted for November, composed of record numbers of newcomers, many of them women, who are running to change the status quo. But for the forerunners of that wave — new legislators like Gaston, Ayala and Gonzalez, who have already won their off-year or special elections — that expectation has now met reality. Like generations of officeholders before them, they are learning that getting elected is completely different from governing, and that this unprecedented and unpredictable political landscape makes it all the more complicated.
“The attention has been on the record numbers who are running and to the message being sent by those sheer numbers,” says Rosalyn Cooperman, associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. “But what kind of change this brings depends not only on who runs and who wins, but how they navigate the rigid political institutions” they are being elected to.
Cooperman studied the Virginia House of Delegates, which added 19 first-time delegates in the November election; 12 were women, 11 of those were Democrats, and nine of those were challengers who defeated male Republican incumbents. It was a stunning sweep, but it fell one delegate short of flipping the House majority. (In fact, it fell one vote short of doing so, because the final seat in question was a tie, and a coin flip went to the Republican.) That meant a world of difference in what the newcomers could do.
“More than half of the incoming freshmen were relegated to the science and technology committee, a committee with a light workload and limited jurisdiction,” Cooperman wrote in an
“Democratic women (and men) delegates,” she continued, “also saw
“I thought it was an obvious good,” says Ayala, who represents Prince William County, about her co-sponsorship of a bill that would protect employees from reprimand should they discuss their wages with other employees. “In some contracts, it is part of nondisclosure,” she says, “which perpetuates the tendency to pay women less than men.” Opponents of the bill said it was not needed because existing labor laws already cover the problem, she says, “but they don’t, which is why there is a problem.
“Anything they could do to desecrate my bill, they did,” she says. “When I reintroduce it this year, I plan to be better prepared.”
Being in the minority party was a major obstacle cited by the new officeholders interviewed for this article, but it was not the only one. Gaston, a lawyer who represents Saratoga Springs on the county’s board, says that entrenched tradition is another. She had spent most of her adult life moving around the country to wherever her husband’s naval career took the family. Though she had lived in Saratoga Springs periodically during those years, she had only been a full-time resident of the upstate New York town for a year when she decided to run as a Democrat for an open seat after the 2016 presidential election. “That one didn’t turn out the way I had wanted it to turn out, and I felt it was time to step up and do my part,” she says.
She won and became one of five newcomers on a 23-person, majority-Republican board. At the county level, she says, the divide is less one of party than of tenure, and she has been warned by those who have been there for years, even decades, that she was breaking unwritten rules. When local reporters attended board meetings, she asked that they be given copies of all the documents being reviewed by the supervisors, rather than just the specific ones they happened to request. “I was told in no