‘Boot camp’ teaches women how to run for political office

By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

Nurse practitioner Suzanne Colilla has thought about running for public office.

“I think it’s important for nurses who are bedside experts to have a seat at the table when we talk about health policy issues,” she said.

But trying to win a local election raises a host of questions: How much money do you need to raise? How do you get the support of your party in the primary? How do you run a campaign if you’ve never done it before?

Ms. Colilla and about 40 other women — and a handful of men — spent a recent snowy Saturday in a Chatham University conference room learning just that.

“Ready to Run” is a campaign school aimed at women, a full-day boot camp complete with tips from women elected officials, advice on navigating local party systems, lessons on public speaking and an outline on the basics of fundraising and planning a campaign — plus a big dose of pep talks and confidence-building. The training is sponsored by Chatham’s Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.

Jennifer Stergion, an attorney from Buffalo, N.Y., said the event attracted her because it is non-partisan and focuses on the practical aspects of a campaign. Other campaign tutorial events she had considered attending in the past were more focused on helping candidates who, for example, were committed to an anti-abortion or abortion rights position.

“This is more of a nuts-and-bolts event and less policy-driven,” Ms. Stergion said.

Indeed, apart from a brief but spirited disagreement between Republican and Democratic panelists over the campaign of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the day — while filled with talk of politics — was remarkably issue-neutral. Discussions focused on everything from what to expect in a campaign to nitty-gritty details such as how to best speak to a television camera and how to split your time between fundraising and meeting with voters.

“In the current political environment, everything is so divisive. It’s nice to be able to just focus on the mechanics of it,” said Ms. Colilla, of Washington County, who said she learned the most from a panel discussion about Republican and Democratic party infrastructures and how best to approach them.

Pennsylvania generally ranks poorly in terms of its number of women elected officials — 39th nationally. Experts have blamed the state’s low ranking on everything from its highly structured and institutionalized political parties to full-time Legislature, which can make it harder for a working mother to serve in office.

“When we have more women at the table, bipartisanship increases, transparency increases, [new] issues come to light, different perspectives on old issues come to light,” said Dana Brown, executive director of Chatham’s Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.

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