EL PASO – Currently, 80 percent of lawmakers in the Texas Legislature are men, as well as 80 percent in the U.S. Congress. But that may change as movements for more women in politics grow.
In El Paso, more than a dozen women turned out to a recent Candidate 101 forum hosted by Annie’s List—a statewide organization whose purpose is to get more progressive, pro-choice women to run for and win office.
“I’m really encouraged that they would be willing to lend their gifts and talents to our community,” said former El Paso City Council representative and current EPISD trustee Susie Byrd. “I think it’s so important and so necessary that courageous people with a vision for our community step up to lead.”
Byrd, who is on the steering committee for Annie’s List, led the forum at Beto O’Rourke’s campaign headquarters in Downtown El Paso on April 19. She spoke about the technicalities and things to consider when running for statewide, state legislative, state house, judicial, commissioners, judge, mayor, city council, school boards and even justice of the peace positions.
“I was really happy to listen to the stories of my friends who have all run but also was really excited to hear many of the women in the room who are thinking about office,” Byrd said.
As the Democratic nominee for House District 16, former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar is one step closer to becoming the first Latina from Texas in the U.S. Congress.
As campaign manager, Byrd played an instrumental role in Escobar’s campaign.
“It was kind of a tough race, but it felt very validating that the voters recognized her strengths as a candidate and a community leader,” Byrd said. “The experience that she brought to the table, the vast vision that she was presenting to the voters and so it was just a really satisfying win all though I have to tell you, it took a while to sink in.”
Byrd and Escobar became closely acquainted from working on campaigns together and helping one another run each other’s races. The two have also worked closely to encourage and support other women interested in running for office.
“I think one of the things that’s really important to me is to make sure that you continue to bring up identified talent and help talented young people run for office, hold office, and really build a platform on leadership,” Byrd said.
Byrd said cultivating effective leadership in the community needs to be an ongoing effort. Term limits on City Council positions mean they have to continue to look for other people that are willing to run.
“I think one of the things that I’ve learned just from watching sort of the politics of our community over time is that if you want great things to happen in your community you need to have courageous, ethical leaders who are willing to run for office and serve in office,” she said.
Lina Ortega, State Representative for District 77 in El Paso, Cassandra Brown, City Council Representative for District 3 and City Council Representative for District 6, Claudia Ordaz Perez held a panel at the forum to answer questions on their recent campaigns and wins.
At the forum, women considering running for office were able to hear from two current city representatives and a state legislator – Lina Ortega, Texas State rep. for District 77; Cassandra Brown, City Council rep. for District 3 and Claudia Ordaz Perez, who represents District 6.
“I would love to see a female Mayor. Suzie Azar was a great mayor for El Paso but that was 20 years ago,” Byrd said. Azar, El Paso’s only female mayor, served from 1989 to 1991.
In 2012, Annie’s List helped State Rep. Mary Gonzalez win her seat in Texas House District 75. Gonzalez represents a section of El Paso County that includes the towns of Socorro, Fabens, Tornillo and Clint where she was raised.
“I’ve always been really political ever since I was little. I didn’t know I wanted to run for office I like being involved but that was all it,” Gonzalez said in a phone interview.
At the time Gonzalez was approached by Annie’s List to run she was teaching college course on social justice education and wanted to set an example for her students
“I ran not thinking I was going to win but trying to demonstrate to my students to practice what you teach,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, 34, is the oldest of 11 children in her family. Her mother owns her own business and her father works for a the Central Appraisal District. She said she enjoys representing the community she grew up in.
“In Clint, I loved growing up in the country. I raised animals, cows, goats,” Gonzalez said. “I loved the small town feeling of it. I did everything from folklorico, chess club, debate team, everything. If there was a team club I was in it.”
Coming off of this last legislative session in March, Gonzalez was reelected for her seat.
“This campaign was one of the harder campaigns,” she said. “I was really humbled, really excited, this cycle I worked really really hard independently. We had a great session and I’m proud of work we did.
In representing El Paso, Gonzalez said she thinks overall, people in the state are eager to understand the entire state, beyond which party they belong to, and understand the border region. As a Latina representative, Gonzalez feels she brings a new perspective to the capitol.
“I don’t know if people ask me different questions, but I do bring a different perspective to the house floor,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said every woman should consider running for office and is inspired by the progress she has seen recently.
“It’s completely empowering to see more women of color elected. I’m excited and inspired by it and eager about the future,” she said.
Although Annie’s list works to endorse candidates who are progressively driven and focus on issues that are core to their identity, Byrd said that does not mean they discourage candidates of other platforms to run.
“I think anybody really should run. If there’s something that you have a deep passion for in your area—a policy, a project, a campaign is a really great way to make that something that other people care about, so yeah, people should run for office,” she said.