Who’s the Boss?: Tell ’em. Show ’em. Tell ’em Again.
As in previous elections, voters in 2002 wanted evidence that women will be able to get the job done. Voters look for candidates to prove that they are up to the task of running a state government and managing a state budget, while working with an often unruly state legislature. Voters worried that a woman would not be privy to the wheelings and dealings behind the scenes. For female candidates, proving that they have these credentials—even when they already hold an executive title—is an uphill battle.
Each of the four successful female gubernatorial candidates in 2002 demonstrated executive capability before the campaign; three of them seized an opportunity to take on a high-profile challenge to protect the people of her state and promote values important to her. The fourth sought to bring new life to a political institution that could provide help down the road.
When voters have seen a female candidate lead in a crisis, go toe to toe with a powerful interest or build something of value, they have little doubt the candidate can do so again as governor.
Show Them What You Can Do – Now
In the 2002 races, all four of the successful female gubernatorial candidates held executive office prior to running for governor. Three held statewide office at the time, and each adhered to a similar strategic path for raising their visibility and defining their leadership. Each engaged in a high-profile confrontation on behalf of state residents and against an unpopular special interest. Their efforts were widely covered in the media and all resolved the conflict in a way that protected consumers.
In the fourth case, where the candidate had previously held executive office as mayor, she used her executive skills to rebuild her state party, unifying her troops and building a statewide operation. Whether the candidate created an opportunity or used one to her best advantage, the result was the same. These winners defined themselves as tough individuals, motivated by principle, and unafraid to use their authority.
Arizona, Governor Janet Napolitano:
Arizona State Attorney General Janet Napolitano took on Qwest Communications in 2001 for overcharging consumers, failing to disclose charges for repairs and installations, and engaging in false and misleading advertising. Qwest settled with the state and paid fines to help cover the cost of the investigation and fund future anti-fraud protections. The suit remained in voters’ minds.
“She’s already been prosecuting corporations…before it became the thing to do,” observed one focus group participant in reference to the Qwest battle.
“She’s become fairly successful in the public eye…she has done this for the citizens of Arizona…I think she would fight for us,” added another focus group participant.
Hawaii, Governor Linda Lingle:
In 2002, Linda Lingle was the only successful female candidate for governor who did not hold elective office. After serving as mayor of Maui for eight years, she ran for governor unsuccessfully in 1998. What she lacked was the machinery to win the election and the organization to lead. So Lingle took charge of a weak Republican Party. By building the party’s fundraising base, registering voters and working to increase the number of elected Republicans in Hawaii, Lingle turned what was once a weak political base into disciplined, well-financed party machinery ready to support her.
“Because she rebuilt the image of the party between 1998 and 2000, most of the people who were active in the party were with us,” stated a campaign consultant.
“She, in effect, in the years leading up to the 2002 campaign, remade the Republican Party in Hawaii,” said a reporter. “It had been a party that was sort of obsessing over issues such as abortion, death penalties, some of those mainland Republican issues. So she remade it. She said let’s talk about these other issues that are really on people’s minds here and to heck with the traditional Republican issues. She was very successful in doing that.”
Kansas, Governor Kathleen Sebelius:
Kathleen Sebelius was Kansas State Insurance Commissioner prior to being elected governor. During her tenure, she cleaned house and pledged not to take a dime from insurance companies or their interests. She was faced with a decision whether or not to allow a non-Kansas company to take over the health insurance for Kansas. Sebelius said “no” and denied a merger between Anthem of Indiana and Blue Cross of Kansas, saving seniors nearly $9 million on prescription drugs.
“Sebelius I think really transformed the role of insurance commissioner, really gave it more of a consumer watchdog orientation,” said a reporter. “She really benefited from the dramatic change there because she was widely respected throughout the state by members of both parties.”
When Sebelius took a pledge not to accept contributions from the insurance companies she regulated, she kept her word. And she spent her tenure cracking down on HMOs that refused to live up to their promises to patients.
Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm:
On September 11, 2001, gas station owners/operators in Michigan panicked, thinking there would be a gas shortage. In response, they raised gasoline prices to nearly $5 a gallon. Michigan State Attorney General Jennifer Granholm responded immediately, obtaining an injunction to prohibit the price gouging and fining those who kept prices up. In addition, she required all gas stations to reimburse consumers.
“She went out there and said wait a minute, and she took those people to court,” said one focus group participant. “That’s the one thing I remember about her…We respect her for that. I mean, she stepped out immediately,” said a focus group participant.
“She just didn’t talk and say, ‘oh, I’m going to take this bill.’ She did something about it right away. There was no waiting,” said a focus group participant. Granholm credits this confrontation with setting the stage for her run and defining the kind of governor she would be.
Every race is different and in some, ideology or issues dominate, but in many races, voters struggle to determine what kind of leader— personality, strength of character, action-oriented—this candidate will be. By taking decisive, high-profile action, these women defined their candidacies and answered voters’ concerns about toughness and decisiveness long before the campaign kick-off.
One candidate summed it up: “Voters’ impression is of a candidate as an individual and it’s not based on the issues. It really is based upon their general view of the candidate – it’s the feeling about this person. Is this an effective leader? Is this a strong person? Somebody who’s going to fight for me? That’s what they want to know. Somebody who’s on my side or somebody who is on the side of major corporate interests.”
Titles Tell the Tale
The office from which a candidate runs and the title she holds make an enormous difference for both male and female voters. Some offices are clearly better launching pads than others.
In 2002, attorneys general and mayors won while lieutenant governors lost. Lieutenant governors were perceived to be figureheads who don’t make hands-on decisions. In contrast, voters believe that attorneys general must be tough and decisive, and mayors can handle budgets and crises – all important qualifications for governor.
“Her job as attorney general told everybody she would be a good candidate,” said a focus group participant.
Lieutenant governors almost always face an uphill battle. As one focus group participant observed: “Lieutenant governor is kind of like being the spouse.” Another called them “junior partners.”
In 2000, the research revealed that voters believed state treasurers would be qualified for governor. By 2002, when many states were stretched, this position did not confer the same decision- making and crisis management credit previously granted.
“If she had done a good job [as treasurer], I don’t think we would be in the situation we are in,” explained a focus group participant.
- Look for Opportunities to Right a Wrong. There is no shortage of vulnerable communities – from seniors to busy consumers to teens targeted by alcohol and tobacco marketers. Who will you choose and how will you protect and educate them? How will you call attention to the predators that target them?
- Be Strategic in the Opponents You Take On. Whether you serve in an executive statewide office or legislative position, people admire those who go up against the powerful. Because they are still perceived as “lesser” in the power game, women get even more cred- it for doing so. But voters must see that the controversy is real, that their interest is at stake and that you moved quickly to protect them.
- Just Do It. In a world of term limits, potential primary and general election opponents will eventually see the same opportunity you see. Move quickly or you will lose your opportunity.
- Learn To Tell the Story. Sometimes taking on the fight is easy com- pared to marketing it correctly. If you’ve identified the dragon that needs slaying, develop the narrative that tells the story, then create the press version, the opinion leader version and the voter version – all from the same root truth, but in a form and length that lets you be seen as the heroine you are.
- Poll Regularly. Stay in touch with the voters of your state and spot trends early. Identifying voter dissatisfaction with corporate executives, the need for financial privacy protections or prescription drug price relief happens through research. Retain your own pollster, but stay in touch with and review the work of as many pollsters as you can.
- Never Get Too Busy to Listen to Voters. Whatever elected post you hold, build in a regular exchange with voters around your state. Whether it’s field hearings on behalf of a legislative committee, town hall meetings on insurance reform or health fairs for seniors – choose something that works for you, but get out there and LISTEN.