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Mon November 19, 2012
Warren's Winning Strategies
As a United States Senator, Elizabeth Warren will be starting her political career close to the top. Warren will be one of 20 women Senators in the next Congress — a record-breaker. Some pundits are calling this the year of the woman ... redux.
The original “year of the woman” occurred 20 years ago, when seven senate seats went to women in 1992.
"People are supposed to be hysterically happy over the fact that we now have 20 among 100 senators," says Barbara Kellerman, a lecturer in public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Kellerman says that in 2012, Americans are still unaccustomed to women in political power. After all, women make up half of the population, but only one fifth of the U.S. senate.
"The climb remains uphill, the numbers remain relatively small," says Kellerman.
Small as the numbers may be, women candidates — like their male counterparts — cannot get elected without powerful supporters.
Cambridge-based philanthropist and political activist Barbara Lee says its her mission is to build what she calls the new girl network, to counteract the old boys school of the U.S. Senate.
If Karl Rove and conservative Super PACs were among some of the biggest losers this election, spending millions of dollars on unsuccessful candidates, Lee was one of the winners.
Lee spent nearly half a million dollars on political contributions this year, making her the sixth largest donor in Massachusetts, and the third most generous supporter of democrats. She supported Warren and other progressive women nationwide running for governor and the Senate. She also contributed to super PACS like Planned Parenthood Votes and Emily’s List, an organization that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office.
"I make contributions to and help individual women whose values are like mine," says Lee.
Lee also promotes senatorial girl power through her foundation, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which conducts focus groups and phone surveys to figure out what women need to do to win elections.
The foundation’s most recent report is called “Pitch Perfect: Winning Strategies for Women Candidates.” It finds that for women candidates, there is a correlation between being qualified and likeable, which is not the case for men.
"What we found is that language really matters for women," Lee says. "They need to come across as confident, competent and have a good understanding of themselves and of voters, for voters to feel that they are competent and qualified."
According to the report, women do not have a lot of room to make mistakes on the campaign trail. Performing poorly in a debate or getting angry in public can be more detrimental to a woman’s campaign than a man’s. One potential strategy outlined in Pitch Perfect: respond quickly to a mistake with a succinct, straight answer and then introduce third-party "validaters" who can reinforce the candidate’s qualifications.
Elizabeth Warren provided an example of this strategy in her second debate against Senator Scott Brown, when she responded to character attacks about her alleged native American heritage.
"I’ve answered the questions of how I was born, what I learned growing up and also that I never used it for college, for law school or to get a job," said Warren succinctly. Then she remarked, "others have backed me up," naming The Boston Globe and Solicitor General of the United States Charles Fried.
Lee says that Warren and other successful women candidates have already developed the winning strategies outlined in Pitch Perfect, and that before Warren announced her bid for Senate, she sat down with Lee.
"I had sent her our research and didn’t hear back for quite a long time," says Lee. "She called me up early one morning and said 'I got your research. I’ve read it cover to cover and I really wanted to reach out to you but I was working for the White House and didn’t think it was appropriate to call you until I left the White House and that was yesterday.' And so I went right over to her house and met with her to talk about the research and the issues women all face when they’re running for office."
Lee calls herself a booster and a supporter of candidates like Warren. At 67, Lee has the energy of a thirty-something. Her office in Cambridge is filled with girl power kitsch: Barbie for President in the original box, and the inaugural July 1972 issue of Ms. Magazine with Wonder Woman for President on the cover.
Lee has a pretty good track record. Since the late-1990s, she has helped elect seven Governors, 18 U.S. Senators, and 12 U.S. Representatives — all women. She’s spent $1.5 million doing so.
"Usually every cycle I give money to a lot of candidates and I make contributions to different organizations that are helping candidates," says Lee. "Every year several of those candidates usually get elected and this year almost all of them did."
Lee says many of the women she’s supported have become personal friends, like Nancy Pelosi and Hilary Clinton. When asked if Clinton has started planning for a presidential bid in 2016, Lee says no.
"Hillary needs a vacation," says Lee. "I think she’s probably doing the American public a big favor by not making a big decision right now. Because I think everyone needs some time off before getting into the game of presidential politics for the next election."
But Lee is not taking any time off. She is still working for the day, when she can add a picture of the first woman president to her collection of winning candidates.
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