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January 28th, 2013

No Tupperware Party: Iowa State offers training for female candidates

AMES, Iowa—Sue Dvorsky stepped down last weekend as chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party after strengthening the party’s grassroots base of activists, particularly liberal women. Part of the recipe for Democrats’ success in the 2012 cycle also involved a focused approach to recruiting female candidates and operatives—not just volunteers willing to cook for campaign events, call voters or host socials.

“Volunteering and grassroots activism is how we built this party. The Iowa system is a temple to that,” Dvorsky said in an interview with “But we’ve got to get women to think beyond volunteering. That’s incredibly important work, but it’s too easy for women to relegate themselves to that role.”

Dvorsky joined Republican Party of Iowa Chairman A.J. Spiker at the Ready to Run Iowa Workshop earlier this month. The seminar was hosted by Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. The first of six training sessions, held Jan. 18, offered an introduction to Iowa politics for women considering a run for office.

Iowa State academics open the training sessions to people of any political affiliation, but more than 30 of the 36 in attendance identified as Democrats—a sign that the Catt Center might need to boost their outreach to GOP women.

“Anything that helps to encourage and promote women running for office is valuable,” said Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the director of the Iowa Department of Public Health and a two-time Republican congressional candidate. Dr. Miller-Meeks said that women face unique challenges in running for office, especially women with children or demanding careers.

Dr. Miller-Meeks, a past Ready to Run speaker, said that outreach to women by party officials is not enough to transform the party into a winning coalition.

“We need to expand the reach of our party. We have a tremendously diverse party, but people have to see that in candidates running for office and elected officials,” she said. “It’s important that policy and political voices come from many different backgrounds. It’s often easier for people to relate to people who are like them.”

Dvorsky said the Catt Center program is important in training candidates in the long slog of campaigning. Women often are their families’ caregivers—for children or elderly relatives—and usually don’t consider running for office until it’s too late in the cycle. Dvorsky noted that state Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, is the only Democratic state legislator outside of Polk County with school-age children. State Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, also has young children.

“It’s really talking to women about pushing their comfort zone and making a plan,” Dvorsky said. “This is a long-game. You don’t just decide three months before a general [election] that this is what you’re going to do. That’s why Ready to Run is so critical.”

State Rep. Marti Anderson used Democratic Party help to overcome hurdles as female candidate

Female legislators face unique challenges, not least of which is becoming acquainted with the State Capitol complex.

“I’m really tired today,” state Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines. “I just got finished with my first week in the legislature. It’s great work, but oh my gosh those floor are hard! And it takes 10 minutes to get anywhere.”

Anderson, a former social worker, talked about her decision-making process to run in 2012. Former state Rep. Janet Peterson, D-Des Moines, announced a run for state senate (a contest she won), and Anderson faced a competitive primary for the Democratic nomination. She built up enough tenure as a state employee in the Iowa Attorney General’s office to retire, so she wasn’t risking her career to run for office. She consulted with Dvorsky, the party’s former executive director Norm Sterzenbach, state Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, and other prominent Democrats. She also asked seven other Democratic candidates seeking the seat to run a “civil” campaign.

“I didn’t want to have Democrats beating up on Democrats,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t that important for me to get elected if that kind of thing would happen.?

Anderson thought fundraising would present an insurmountable obstacle. She didn’t think she could raise $5,000, although she ultimately brought in $75,000 for her campaign.

“In Iowa, many of us were born into a party. Our parents were our party. Our grandparents were our party,” she said. “Some of my friends were willing to support me even though they weren’t the same party as I was. I hate fundraising, but this is going to cost money. That’s the bottom line.”

Anderson bought a database of voters from the state party and spent the winter calling voters over 80 years old to have “nice long chats with them.”

“Even if you can’t go outside, you can be calling,” she said. She spent the spring  knocking on more than 7,000 doors in her district. She also had the advantage of working with the Iowa campaign for President Obama: their canvassers handed out Anderson’s campaign literature and she gave all her volunteers to Obama’s effort for the last three weeks of the general election campaign.

Jones County auditor, a Republican, prefers nonpartisan approach of local politics

Janine Sulzner, the auditor in Jones County since 1994, offered attendees advice on how to navigate local politics, which involve parochial issues and personality conflicts rather than partisan politics.

She was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1994 and then ran unopposed. She has been opposed only once since then, a race she called a personal vendetta. She’s thankful that she doesn’t have to spend time campaigning for the low-profile position.

“Administering the election is quite hard enough without the burden of campaigning,” she said.

Sulzner takes her responsibility of providing neutral information to candidates of all partisan backgrounds seriously.

“I try to provide assistance to candidates no matter what their partisan affiliation is,” she said, noting that she provides advice on how to obtain county voter lists, absentee ballot tallies and information on how to file campaign finance reports. She told potential candidates that they should seek out their county central committees for resources, volunteers and other assistance. Sulzner also told would-be candidates that they need to know their voting history—so they’re prepared when a primary challenger tries to use it against them.

“You need to contact your county auditor, and you need to know what your voting history is and what your voter registration information is, especially in a primary,” she said, noting that a Republican in Jones County updated his driver’s license and inadvertently allowed the Iowa Department of Transportation to change his party registration to independent. When he ran for office as a Republican, his primary opponents used the mistake to embarrass him.

First Latina elected to office in Iowa tells women to conquer fear of running

Sara Huddleston, a Storm Lake City Council member, had no plan to run for office at any level. Chuck Offenburger, a former Des Moines Register columnist, recruited her to run after another person of Hispanic descent left the city council in the diverse Iowa community. Immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia have congregated in Storm Lake and other rural Iowa communities to work grueling jobs at meatpacking plants and other jobs that many native Iowans shun.

“I thought it was time that we started getting some of their voices involved on our councils, committees and communities,” Offenburger said in an interview with

“He said, ‘Sara, I think you should run for city council,’” Huddleston said. “I had no clue what I was doing. But I always say yes. That’s one of my things. I never say no. This guy says I think you can do it, and I said, ‘Oh my God, who’s going to vote for a Mexican, Latina woman? Without his help, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

Huddleston, who immigrated to the United States about 20 years ago, has spent her career working on domestic violence issues and advocacy for Iowa immigrants. The Cancun native worked at a bank in Storm Lake. While she followed politics, she was “gun shy” about running for office herself, Offenburger said.

Offenburger, a former Republican who endorsed Democrat Christie Vilsack in her congressional race against Republican Rep. Steve King, taught Huddleston everything she knows about the art of campaigning.

The then-Buena Vista University professor took Huddleston to city coffee shops to hobnob with Storm Lake’s opinion leaders. He taught her how to shake hands with men (hint: pat them on the shoulder while going in for a firm handshake) and to always buy something at a restaurant (even if she wasn’t hungry or thirsty). He also urged her to campaign in west side neighborhoods, “because that’s where all the conservative white people live.”

To Huddleston’s surprise, she won.

“This town is crazy,” she said she thought at the time. “I didn’t believe it. But let me tell you ladies… fear is the worst enemy of any human being. Just do it. Build relationships, network, be friendly, be yourself. When it comes to politics, you are not working for Democrats or Republicans: work for people. Make a difference in poeple’s lives. Iowa has been so good to me since the day I came to this country.”

Offenburger said Huddleston had an advantage as a rookie candidate because she ran for a nonpartisan position.

“She was almost the perfect candidate because she was very friendly, very outgoing and everybody in town was curious about her,” he said. “When somebody is getting into politics, it’s certainly easier to start off with a nonpartisan election, because that lets the candidates focus on their own beliefs, their own agenda of what they’d like to accomplish without having the baggage of explaining with the Republican position is or what the Democratic position is.

Ready to Run Iowa is a statewide, non-partisan program designed to recruit and train women in Iowa to run for elected office, to prepare for appointed office or to become involved in public life as leaders in their communities. The Catt Center has offered Ready to Run Iowa every other year since 2007 as part of a national network founded by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. For more information, including information about registering for the next workshop Feb. 15, visit the Catt Center’s website.

[image source: Iowa Public Television]

About the Author

Jeff Patch
Jeff Patch is a correspondent for He's a communications, research and political consultant for Iowa candidates, causes and companies. E-mail questions, comments, insults or story ideas to jeff [at]

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