Two new Denver councilwomen got campaign training from “an antidote to the old boys’ club”

“Running for office is hard on purpose,” said Emerge Colorado Executive Director Michal Rosenoer.
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City Council District 5 candidate Amanda Sawyer speaks during a forum at Christ Church United Methodist, March 5, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Amanda Sawyer's path toward an upset city council victory started while she watched her daughter play flag football at Cranmer Park.

That's when Sawyer, who defeated incumbent District 5 Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman this week, first learned about Emerge, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.

After mentioning to a friend that she was considering running for council, the friend mentioned Emerge. Sawyer ended up reaching out to the organization's local chapter.

"It kind of snowballed from there," Sawyer said.

It led to a three-day boot camp last summer in Los Angeles. She launched her candidacy just before leaving for the trip.

A year later, she's now one of two Emerge students, along with Candi CdeBaca in District 9, to not only win an elected office but knock out a sitting councilmember in the process. They joined Chris Hinds in District 10 as part of a trifecta of upsets. Peg Perl, another Emerge alumna, is running for clerk and recorder in a race that's so close it's likely headed to a recount.

"I felt like I finally understood exactly what a campaign looked like," Sawyer said. "The boot camp was fantastic. It was a great overview. I wish I had had time to be able to do the whole program here."

Emerge has -- sorry -- emerged as a leading statewide organization preparing Democratic women to run for office.

You've likely heard of other Emerge alumnae, including current Secretary of State Jena Griswold, state Sen. Faith Winter and state Rep. Leslie Herod.

Candi CdeBaca (right) celebrates as election results come in showing her lead over incumbent Albus Brooks, June 4, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"In Colorado, we've really been focused on elevating the voices and leadership of women not just in politics, but in Colorado's political leadership," Emerge Colorado Executive Director Michal Rosenoer said.

"I think of it as the antidote to the old boys' club," she said.

Emerge Colorado was founded in 2012. It's part of a national network, with 25 states hosting similar programs, according to Rosenoer. The entire network has 4,000 alumni, including 300 in Colorado. They offer six-month programs, three-day boot camps and one-day programs covering technical aspects of running a campaign like field strategy and voter outreach, fundraising and budgeting, and campaign management.

"Running for office is hard on purpose," Rosenoer said. "A lot of the reasons it's difficult is it's part of a system that has been built to maintain the status quo. A lot of what we do is pull back the curtains of what it takes to run."

She said the only criteria they have for potential trainees is that they self-identify as a woman and are a registered Democrat. They do ask about social justice and anti-racism but don't do a policy litmus test because, she said, "what it means to be a Democrat can be different from place to place, like in Grand Junction may be different than in Boulder."

Heather Lurie, Senior Consultant at the Denver-based Electing Women PAC, said they have collaborated with Emerge in the past. The PAC was co-founded by former Colorado Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler and Judi Wagner. It supports pro-choice women running for governor and U.S. Senate.

Lurie said organizations like Emerge are important because women often need more support to be encouraged to run. If they don't feel like they have the right tools, they're far less likely to jump into a race.

"Part of the purpose of these programs is getting younger women to run sooner so that they have more time to hold office and gain experience," Lurie said.

Both CdeBaca and Sawyer were first-time candidates.

"I'm really excited about where they ended up and I'm not surprised that so many of the voters were drawn to their authenticity, their grassroots organizing and their homegrown message," Rosenoer said.

CdeBaca is set to graduate later this month from the six-month program. She said she doesn't attribute her win to her involvement in Emerge, instead noting her "depth of connections over many, many years" in her community. CdeBaca also received training from the Working Families Party.

"Beyond what we learned, it was not all about getting the content from there, it was primarily about the network," CdeBaca said about Emerge. "It's a very activated network. The women who are Emerge sisters were always (available) to volunteer for things."

A watch party for mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón and District 9 candidate Candi CdeBaca, May 7, 2019. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

CdeBaca, who is the first queer Latina woman on Denver City Council, said Emerge does have some work to do in helping women of color. She said they need to work on their "intersectional approach." Rosenoer noted that the 2019 class is their most diverse ever, including 70 percent women of color, a majority of whom are black women.

Former Denver Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez has served on panels for Emerge. She provided advice on things like fundraising for candidates during a panel in March, where CdeBaca was present. Rodriguez said the organization provides "pragmatic information" for women interested in running for office.

"I had sort of said to myself after the November (2018) election that I was only going to support Emerge candidates because they are so well prepared," Rodriguez said. "Everything is focused on giving women the tools to participate in elections."

Emerge relies on its alumni network to recruit other women. Rosenoer said it's an expectation that once they're out of the program and in office, they continue considering how they can help other women rise.

And there's clearly enthusiasm among women: Rosenoer said following the 2016 election, their applications for the six-month program doubled. She said it hasn't slowed down

"I think what is important to recognize is women running for office isn't a moment, it's a movement," Rosenoer said.

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