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NYC's female politicians offer advice for aspiring women candidates

Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez laughs as Public Advocate Letitia James makes a joke about the challenges female politicians face when running for office.
Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez laughs as Public Advocate Letitia James makes a joke about the challenges female politicians face when running for office.
Madina Toure,

Barriers exist to women entering politics, but it's possible with self-confidence and organization, some of New York City's seasoned female politicians told a mostly female crowd of 60 people on Monday evening.

“Why She Ran: Brooklyn,” held at the Transport Workers Union on 195 Montague St. in Brooklyn, was the last of three events in the “Why She Ran” series, a series of discussions geared toward aspiring female candidates on what it takes to run for office. The panel was preceded by a tweet chat under the hashtag #WhySheRan on Monday afternoon encouraging women to attend and to discuss the issues facing female candidates.

The panel featured Public Advocate Letitia James, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and City Council Member Laurie Combo. Heather Kashner, regional director for the Political Opportunity Program at EMILY's List, moderated the discussion.

"Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, whether you're a conservative or progressive, when you're a woman, you tend to see things differently," said Zenaida Mendez, president of the New York State chapter of NOW.

The series is sponsored by the Working Families Party, Eleanor’s Legacy, the Women Information Network, EMILY’s List, the Brooklyn-Queens chapter of the National Organization for Women, the New Kings Democrats and the Transport Workers Union.

The series was previously held in Manhattan on March 10 and in Queens on March 13. Panelists included James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council Member Julissa Ferreras.

The panelists fielded questions from Kashner and audience members about how to navigate the campaign process, the challenges they face on the job and what they gain from working in politics.

Although James credited campaign financing for supporting her campaign, she stressed that women are overrepresented in the pink collar industry, which includes professions such as nursing, childcare and teaching and underrepresented in industries such as real estate and finance.

"If you have a lot of friends in the pink collar industry professions, it's going to obviously have an impact on your fundraising ability and it's going to take you a while to get to the point where you can raise additional resources," James said.

Organization is key to running a successful campaign, Velázquez said, stating that she increased her name recognition by appearing regularly in Hispanic media on key issues such as police brutality, education and voter registration.

"In order for me to be competitive, I knew that I needed to have strong labor support," Velázquez said. "But for labor, it would not be easy to challenge and go against an incumbent so I decided that I needed to let them know that I am viable and had credibility."

Cumbo suggested candidates have lists of at least 600 people, including relatives, that can contribute to their campaign as well as meeting with elected officials. She also encouraged potential candidates to save money.

"You've got interns working with you and they're 13 or 14 and you're like, 'I'm only going to spend $10 tonight,' and then the 12-year-old at 10 o'clock at night says, 'I'm getting on the train,' [and] you're like, 'No, you can't. Here's some money, go home.' ... You're spending like $100 a day."

Politics requires passion, dedication and making sacrifices, the panelists said, citing the long hours, the accountability to which constituents hold them and the need for a supportive companion.

Velazquez criticized the lack of progress on comprehensive immigration reform and the fact that 47 million Americans did not have access to health insurance, many of whom were Latino. And Cumbo reaffirmed her support for universal pre-kindergarten as a way to combat the criminalization of African-American children and mandated maternity leave.

But the panelists noted some victories, including James' push for universal free lunch in public schools and Cumbo's role in improving conditions in the New York City Housing Authority's developments as .director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn.

Last year, Kim Council, 44, associate minister of Berean Baptist Church, ran for City Council and lost by 14 percentage points. She is planning to run again.

"Everything that they said, I can definitely relate to," Council said. "Particularly getting your finances in order, being in optimum health, getting your lists together because you definitely need money to run."

Kercena Dozier, 33, of Harlem, a faith and political organizer for New York Communities for Change and United New York, said she appreciated the panelists' concrete advice.

"I liked the congresswoman's really big push on voter registration and really organizing your community before you even get elected," Dozier said.

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