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Oklahoma City nonprofit works to encourage, recruit women to run for political office

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Sally's List

Members of Sally's List, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit, pose for a photo.

After a career in directing television, California native Sara Jane Rose left Los Angeles for Oklahoma, her husband and two young daughters in tow.

She settled into her new life, joined the Oklahoma Planned Parenthood board and taught women’s self defense. But in 2010, the then-political novice decided to support women in a different way—helping them get elected to office.

Rose founded Sally’s List, a nonprofit based in Oklahoma City that seeks to recruit, train and help elect progressive women to public office in the state. It has now endorsed and primed some of Oklahoma’s most prominent women in politics, including U.S. Congresswoman Kendra Horn and state legislators Cyndi Munson and Kay Floyd.

“It’s very funny, people said if I was from Oklahoma I never would have tried (to start Sally’s List) because I would have thought I couldn't succeed,” said Rose, who is also the organization’s executive director.

Named after OU law alumna and women’s rights advocate Sally Rae Merckle Mock, Sally’s List’s fundamental belief is that women in leadership positions create progress.

“We know that women in leadership directly impact the wellbeing of our communities by working more effectively across the aisle, listening to constituents, and incorporating otherwise absent perspectives into male colleagues’ legislation,” the Sally’s List website states.

Recruitment, training and qualifications

Recently, the staff at Sally’s List has chosen to focus on recruiting women instead of letting women approach the organization. This streamlines the process, Rose said.

But if a woman says she wants to run for office, Rose and Alyssa Fisher, programs manager, first look at where the potential candidate lives to see if any elected office is open. They also pull data from the area to see if the woman has a chance to secure the vote, Fisher said.

“In far eastern Oklahoma, a woman’s not going to win,” Rose said. “(But) if a woman wants to run, I will work with her. Better to have a good candidate who’s going to lose than a bad candidate who’s going to lose. Because at least you keep your voters actively engaged.”

Sally’s List is progressive, but it’s also nonpartisan—women of either party can get an endorsement. But if a candidate wants the organization’s support, she must meet a few qualifications, which Rose calls “unifying issues.” For instance, Rose and Fisher said they want their candidates to advocate for affordable healthcare, safe and legal abortion services and criminal justice reform.

“When you look at our unifying issues, they’re really just intersectional feminist issues,” Fisher said. “We believe that all of these issues connect.”

However, Rose said she has accepted that holding candidates to particular stances can be difficult.

“My philosophy is I’d rather have a woman in office who agrees with us most of the time than a man who doesn’t ever,” Rose said.

Many women come to Sally’s List with no political experience, so the organization holds free in-depth trainings to prepare the women both for campaigning and holding office. This year, Sally’s List will hold the trainings on non-consecutive weekends in May and June, Rose said.

Topics covered at these in-person trainings include the logistics of running for office, fundraising and preserving mental health, Fisher said. Sally’s List has also added new training components like public speaking, which Rose said many candidates requested, and spouse interactions. Some men still have issues with being “the man behind the woman,” Rose said.

“We’ve got people who’ve asked their partner to support them, help with the kids, and (their partners) won’t,” Rose said.

Rose and Fisher said they take a “whole person” approach to training candidates, a process that focuses on passion and honesty. Sally’s List staff talks with candidates about the events that led them to pursue office and what issues they’re most enthusiastic about. This, Rose said, makes the candidate a more organic, appealing choice.

“When they pitch their platform to voters, it comes from their heart,” Rose said.

Fisher said it’s key to treat the candidate like an “entire person” and recognize the hurdles she will likely face while running for, and possibly holding, office.

“I think in Oklahoma, those (hurdles) are really exacerbated by a lot of overt misogyny that our candidates have to overcome,” Fisher said. “Part of the reason we have been so successful since Sarah Jane and I really stepped on is that we really believe that Oklahoma is in a place where it requires a unique type of attention and a unique approach to telling the candidates’ stories for them to be successful.”

Sally’s List doesn’t just work with women who want to run for office in the next year or so. Rose and Fisher said they will also work with women who want to run in four, six or even ten years.

“We are trying to make sure that the candidates have the tools to survive, whatever comes at them,” Fisher said.

‘I would not have (run for office) … if it weren’t for Sally’s list’

Oklahoma Democratic congresswoman Kendra Horn made history in the 2018 midterm election when she flipped the historically Republican fifth congressional district. But before being elected to office, Horn served in Rose’s position at Sally’s List from 2015-17.

Sally’s List endorsed Horn when she ran for U.S. Congress, but Rose said the endorsement likely didn’t secure the election for Horn.

“We count Kendra as a win, even though Kendra pretty much did that on her own,” Rose said. “Kendra was a fully formed candidate who knew exactly what she was doing.”

Rose stepped in for Horn when Horn announced her bid for Congress. Little did Rose know, the year she took over would be a major time for the Sally’s List. In a two-week period around the state’s teacher walkout, about 10 women approached Sally’s List to run for office, Rose said. The organization endorsed 45 people for that election cycle. Eighteen won.

“When you have (that) many candidates, you learn a lot about what works in your programming, what doesn’t work, what they need more of,” Rose said. “We learned a ton.”

Oklahoma State Sen. Kay Floyd was Sally’s List’s first candidate, Rose said. Cyndi Munson, an Oklahoma state representative since 2014, was another success story.

Munson said she had just spoken at her alma mater, the University of Central Oklahoma, when she was invited to a meeting at Sally’s List with Rose. Munson said Rose asked her if she knew why she was there—she didn’t. Rose then told her Sally’s List wanted her to run for state representative.

“I was very much surprised and had no idea that anybody would consider recruiting me to run for office,” Munson said.

Munson said she had reservations at first due to job security, her status as a single woman and the lack of diversity in politics. She ultimately decided to run, but she lost the election on her first attempt. However, she won the 2015 special election and was re-elected. Her current term ends in 2020.

Munson said Sally’s List gave her a support system of other women as she navigated a possible political career for the first time. She said she and the other women were able to network and share their frustrations, doubts and strategies through the organization.

“The best part was having others who were running for office to sort of lean on,” Munson said. “That was really the most important and I would say beneficial and impactful part of my experience with Sally’s List.”

Anne DeLong, an OU international studies senior, interns at Sally’s List twice a week. She said the best part of her job is hearing the perspectives and experiences of the organization’s staff and candidates.

“They didn't start off their lives intending to go into politics, but because they felt like the need was there or they just wanted to help their communities, that's why they got into it,” DeLong said. “And I think that's really awesome to hear about. Really inspiring.”

Munson said she still keeps in contact with Rose and the staff of Sally’s List.

“I work with Sally’s List regularly,” Munson said. “I’m pretty passionate about recruiting women to run.”

Munson said she knows from experience how important it is to help women understand that they have the ability to hold office.

“A faraway dream of mine was to run for office someday,” Munson said. “But I would not have done it at this point in my life if it weren’t for Sally’s List.”

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