One of the real winners in Tuesday’s election wasn’t on the ballot: Emerge Maine. Emerge is an excellent candidate training program for Democratic women – inspiring women to run and honing their skills to win. Emerge graduates ran for eight seats at the city council and school board level all across Maine including in Lewiston. Of those eight seats, seven Emerge women won. Two Emerge graduates, Isobel Golden and Kristen Cloutier, will serve on the Lewiston City Council this year.
Why does gender equality in politics matter? To quote Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked about why he appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, “Because it’s 2015.” Women have a unique and important perspective on the economy, education, the environment and healthcare. We will not see solutions to our society’s pressing problems that meet the needs of all of our people, if our society itself is not fully represented in the decision-making process. Gender equality in politics is also important because of the messages that are sent to our daughters and granddaughters. I want our daughters to grow up in a world where they can see themselves as leaders with the potential to do anything they set their minds and hearts to. Tuesday’s election didn’t magically bring about gender equality…yet, but the Lewiston City Council is one seat closer to parity. Emerge Maine deserves a great deal of credit for inspiring and training their candidates to run and win!
A second winner in Tuesday’s elections was the Maine Young Democrats, representing the next generation of political leaders in our state. Grady Burns, President of the Maine Young Dems, was the highest vote getter in Auburn’s at-large city council race. He’s 25. Bangor’s highest vote getter for city council seat is also 25: Sarah Nichols. And the race that received perhaps the most attention statewide was Democrat Ben Chin’s challenge to Republican Mayor Bob MacDonald in Lewiston. Chin is 30, and he too was the highest vote getter on Tuesday, although Chin and MacDonald will participate in a run-off on December 8. If you haven’t read Chin’s plan to renew Lewiston, you should. It outlines an exciting new vision for the downtown including 100 new units of resident-owned housing, a massive downtown revitalization effort and investments to make Lewiston Maine’s solar energy hub. There is indeed a surge of young people running for local office and winning. You can’t call these young people apathetic. They’re concerned – about student debt, jobs and the future of our economy and our environment. And if they’re running and winning local office today, they are sure to be running for and winning statewide office tomorrow.
The story of Tuesday is a story of empowerment. While incumbency and the old boy’s network remain powerful forces in our politics today, organizations like Emerge Maine and Maine Young Democrats are helping to break down those barriers to public office.
One of the biggest barriers, of course, is money. Big money in politics threatens our very democracy. When billionaires and millionaires control who can run, then they decide ultimately who wins, and voters are left without meaningful choices. Maine’s clean elections system takes big money out of the equation for many local races. Under clean elections, candidates recruit $5 checks from their future constituents to qualify for public financing. Candidates from any party receive equal funding, and candidates can spend their time talking to voters rather than talking to donors. Clean elections won big on Tuesday too. By a vote of 55% to 45%, Mainers voted Yes on Question 1. In doing so, they chose to increase funding to clean election candidates, improve transparency on political ads and increase fines and penalties for those who break campaign finance laws. What this means is that you don’t have to have personal wealth or wealthy friends to run for the Maine legislature. Clean elections levels the playing field. Clean elections makes it possible for more newcomers to politics – including more women and more young people – to run for state office to represent us in Augusta.
These are important trends. Despite all of the doom and gloom in politics these days, particularly at the national level, Maine is challenging the status quo. With more women and more young people in public office, accountable to the voters and not big money, politics is getting better. Positive change is coming.