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Rural districts are the new frontier for women running for office

Rural districts are the new frontier for women running for office

At the moment when Esther Roberts decided to run for elected office, she was standing far from her home in Somers, Wisc., amid a sea of pink hats at the March for Women in Washington, D.C., in January 2017. And a few weeks later, when she decided exactly what elected office she was going to run for, she was back home on her computer looking at photos of the seven white men who were the trustees of her local village board.

“As soon as I saw that, I knew I’d made my choice,” says Roberts, who works as a housing inspector in Kenosha when she isn’t out asking for votes. “Right now, my 9-year-old-daughter isn’t represented on that board; half of my village isn’t represented on that board; I’m not represented on that board.”

Roberts is typical of the thousands of women who have entered the political arena in the past 18 months in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. But she is also representative of something more — the subset of that group who are running in rural areas, often for local seats, encouraged and assisted by nonprofits that see particular value in increasing the number of women in office in farm country.

“Women from rural areas are woefully underrepresented in government at all levels,” says Liz Johnson, a co-founder of VoteRunLead and head of that group’s Rural Women’s Initiative. For instance, she says, 51 percent of Minnesota’s 87 county commissions have no women on them, and all but one of those are in rural areas, she says.

Also, in Minnesota, 13 percent of rural state senate districts are represented by women, compared with 34 percent of urban and suburban seats; in the state legislature’s lower chamber, 19 percent of rural seats are held by women, versus 44 percent of suburban and urban seats, according to Debra Fitzpatrick, who tracks these numbers as part of her research for the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

“Minnesota is not an outlier, and the numbers translate to other states, generally speaking,” Johnson says.

“There are very few women in leadership roles in rural areas nationally, and there’s a large opportunity for women to make a real difference if they take on those roles,” agrees Ash Bruxvoort, the politics coordinator of Plate to Politics, an arm of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, which has a new program to recruit and train women candidates. “Our goal is to have a woman at every table where decisions are made about food and ag policy,” she says, “and most of those are very local — from the state assembly down.”

And Roberts says she is running precisely to fill that gap. “It’s important to have more women in office everywhere but additionally important in rural areas, where it feels like we’re still a little stuck,” she says. “Out in the country, men serve in certain offices because men have always been in those offices. The more women run, the more voters can see that, yes, we are able to do this.”

Johnson says she has been “talking about rural women candidates to anyone who will listen” for years, and now “seems to finally be the time.”

“It used to be we were cajoling people to run, and that’s not happening anymore,” she says. “Now women in rural areas are coming to us. When Congress is frozen, it’s local communities that have to deal with the solutions right now,” she says of what she sees as the reason for the increased interest. “It really does trickle up. The more active county commissions and boards are at passing policy at the local level, that gives state legislatures permission to make changes that have to happen, and maybe what happens in state legislatures influences Washington.”

To accommodate the increase in women who are “running for everything from rural co-op boards to soil and water conservation boards to the city council to the state legislature,” Johnson says, VoteRunLead recently began partnering with such groups as Plate to Politics and the National Farmers Union to adapt its training program for rural candidates. The result has been a change of venue (seminars are now in places like Decorah, Iowa, and Peninsula, Ohio), a change of student body (the diversity metrics by which the group builds its classes now include a mix of rural and urban in addition to other standards, such as race and age) and a change of content (guest speakers include women who are already serving on county boards or as state legislators in farm communities.)

Some of the differences explored in the new trainings are practical ones. Running for a suburban or urban seat where you can canvass door-to-door by foot, for instance, is completely different from running for a rural seat, where farms can be miles apart.

“You might not do as many coffee shop meetups and events in microbreweries,” says Bruxvoort. “Instead it might be visiting people on their farms, going to the food co-op and talking to a group of retired farmers.”

“Only out here,” Johnson says, “would you find a Leah Phifer,” a candidate for Congress from the Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, who spent three months last summer on a listening tour of all 18 counties in that district – traveling 7,000 miles on her motorcycle.

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