Why Anne Wakabayashi wants more women in local and state government

“Women make great candidates,” says the executive director of Emerge Pennsylvania, a training program for Democratic women who want to run for public office.

By Albert Hong

But if the 2016 presidential election — and the resulting aftershocks — has showed voters anything, it’s that they want change.

Emerge Pennsylvania, a two-year-old affiliate of the national organization Emerge America, operates with the belief that change can start by getting more Democratic women into office. The org hopes to achieve that by both encouraging and training a cohort of women to run through its seven-month training program.

Emerge PA just had its first cohort last year and there was at least one big result — Carolyn Comitta, the current mayor of West Chester, Pa., unseated Republican Dan Truitt as the new state representative in the 156th Legislative District. (Cohort member Diane Cornman-Levy ran unsuccessfully for state representative in Delaware County but is now leading the charge for women and gender equality as the new executive director of Women’s Way.)

Anne Wakabayashi, executive director of Emerge PA, said, “There’s still a lot we need to do in terms of establishing ourselves within the state.” Consider the statistics she gives in terms of representation of women in state and local government: Only 18 percent of our state House and 14 percent of our state Senate are women. There are no women in the congressional delegation, there has never been a female governor elected, and Pennsylvania has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate.

Fortunately, it seems that more women than ever want to get involved in the political realm — Emerge PA’s 2017 cohort of 25 women had to be selected out of more than 100 applicants.

As someone who has worked “in all corners of Pennsylvania” with roles including political and communications director at the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, as well as running the campaigns for Anne Lazarus’ race for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Councilman Allan Domb’s race, Wakabayashi now wants to be a resource for women to prove themselves in affirming her core belief: “Women make great candidates.”

We wanted to learn a bit more about Wakabayashi’s previous work and what she strives for today as executive director of Emerge PA. Here’s our condensed and edited conversation.

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Generocity: What qualities are you looking for when selecting cohort members?

Anne Wakabayashi: We only really have three requirements — they have to be Democrats, women and eligible to run in Pennsylvania. But what we’re really looking for in a candidate is women who know what they’re going to run for and when they’re going to run for it. We’re also looking for someone who is dedicated to their community, somebody who has connections and ties in some way. Whatever it is, we want to see that you have a background of leadership and being engaged.

We really value candidates that come from diverse, non-traditional backgrounds. Right now, you look at the legislature and it’s largely all the same — lawyers, business owners, white, middle- to upper-middle-class, they all have the same haircuts. We have somebody in the class right now who works for the roller derby league, we have social workers, teachers, healthcare workers.

G: What were some of the things you enjoyed about working in campaigns?

AW: I think I like the pace that campaigns and politics work at. I played sports in college and that team mentality — that mentality of being on a campaign team — is something I really enjoyed. In sports, everyone has a common goal and [in campaigns], there’s a set end time to a campaign for which you’re working towards, a very clear goal. It’s really getting to work with a team about something that I care about.

G: How was it working at the local and state levels?

AW: Working at those levels can always be a little frustrating because you don’t get the same exposure that bigger races get — people have less of an idea what their city councilperson or their township supervisor or even their state legislator does. But the things that they’re doing and in charge of really affect your daily lives a lot more than what your congressperson or your senator’s gonna do. Especially for the judicial races, they’re so important but people don’t pay attention to that one.

I think a lot of voters are tuning back in, especially with what’s happening at the state and local levels. That’s pretty exciting to see how fired up voters are and how much they’re paying attention.

G: What does the future look like for you and the work you’re doing at Emerge PA?

AW: All of these resistance groups and the people who are going out there holding their elected officials accountable, they’re largely led by women and I’d like to be a resource to them being able to accomplish their goals and have their voices heard.

Part of our program — the reason we do it as a cohort — is because we’re really focused on creating a network within the state of women who are ready to pull each other up or support each other while they’re running. A lot of times, we’ve lost women who were first-time candidates, had a horrible experience and won’t run again. Emerge offers a network of women who are like, “Hey, tough loss, but we’ve all been there, we feel your pain. Get up, we’re gonna keep fighting.”

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