New PACs Aim to Empower Women Candidates, Voters

  • by Kate Cimini
    Medill Reports

For Sameena Mustafa, it was about the principle of the thing.

A first-time candidate running for Congress in Chicago’s 5th district, where she lives, Mustafa decided to eschew any and all corporate donations, even refusing a friend’s donation from her dental practice. The former real estate advocate and comedian believed focusing her fundraising around individual donors would be a way to give voice to her constituents.

“When the Democratic Party began taking money from corporations in the ‘70s we diverged from our ideals,” Mustafa said. “We forgot we represented people, and we need to re-focus on individuals.”

Post-Hillary Clinton, women’s participation in politics has increased dramatically. They are running for office, organizing marches and attending protests. Organizations such as Emily’s List have noted a huge surge in interest; 20,000 women alone signed up in the year since the 2016 presidential election for “how to run” seminars. In the two years from 2015-2016, Emily’s List heard from 950 women.

Women’s participation in the political process has also grown significantly on the donor side. While women historically have preferred to donate to nonprofits or causes they care about, allowing men to direct where political dollars go, the number of women donating to political campaigns and representatives has jumped overall.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization, the number of women donors to federal candidates and committees shot up by about 284 percent so far in the 2017-2018 election cycle, as compared to the 2015-2016 cycle.

The number of women donating to a federal campaign increased by 670 percent when compared with the 2011-2012 cycle.

“The fund-raisers I went to in the late 1990s, it was mostly men writing the checks,” Amy Rao, Democratic donor and chief executive of a Silicon Valley data-management firm, told the New York Times. “Now it’s mostly women. And a lot of these women are younger. They work full time. They are writing their own checks.”

This has led to the creation of several women-focused PACs, aimed at helping to support women candidates, as well as to grow the number of women who donate to political campaigns each year.

“Women are much more motivated and engaged than ever before,” said Meghan Christiansen, executive director for an organization called Cause the Effect, an Illinois-based organization which launched a PAC on the one-year anniversary of 2016’s Election Day.

It aims to generate money for candidates on the state and local levels in Illinois, where most women candidates focus their energies. This will give Cause the Effect the ability to have a greater immediate impact than it would if it focused on the federal level, where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on races.

Corporate donations do, historically, tend to be larger for male candidates. And although women comprise a much larger percentage of the workforce than they did 50 years ago, earning and owning more capital – despite earning lower salaries on average – men still make most of the decisions on which candidates to support financially.

This has started to change rapidly in the past few years, with Clinton’s failed bid for the presidency acting as a watershed moment. Christiansen, who worked in women’s outreach for the Hillary Clinton campaign in Wisconsin, recalled seeing the shift firsthand.

“Women were starting to give politically more than they had before,” Christiansen said. “I think for those of us at the ground level, we saw that there was still this need for women to take ownership over that.”

As candidates like Mustafa are coming up on registration deadlines in Chicago, fundraising becomes even more important. PACs like Cause the Effect could allow women candidates to take a hard-line approach as Mustafa has, avoiding corporate donations. Simultaneously, those behind the PACs believe this will open the door for women donors, allowing their voices to be heard at all levels of government.

“Since the 2016 election you’ve seen this movement of women who now want to make their voices heard by making political contributions to the candidates that share their values,” said Christiansen. “We want to nurture this movement of women giving to women.”

“It makes women who are writing the checks feel empowered and that they have a voice,” Christiansen added. “When you’re writing a check to a candidate that shares your values, that’s important.”

Photo at top: Wabash and Jackson, 21 January 2017, 13:17, Women’s March, Brad Hagan