OFFICIAL BLOGHER '10 LIVEBLOG: White House Project - Exercising Influence at Every Level

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the White House Project panel: Exercising influence at every level: How women leaders are making an impact, and why you need to join them. We're getting started.


  • Erin Vilardi, Moderator
    Vice President, Program and Communications, The White House Project
  • Lea Webb
    White House Project Alumna and Councilwoman in Binghamton, NY
  •  Susan Molinari
    Former member of Congress

Erin Vilardi is introducing the session and saying a little more about The White House Project and how to get involved. Sign up on their website!

Introducing the panelists: Susan Molinari, who wrote Representative Mom: Balancing Budgets, Bill and Baby in the U.S. Congress, and Lea Webb, Councilwoman in Binghampton, NY and alumna of The White House Project.

Speaking first: Susan Molinari. She's starting with running for New York City Council. She was 28 and felt like she started-out late. (Note: her father and husband have also served in Congress, so she has a family history of politics.) She was the only woman elected and the only Republican, so she immediately became the minority leader of the city council. She was scared of speaking in front of the group, but she stood up and did it.

After serving in City Council four years, she ran for U.S. Congress. When she first started out in the House, she gave a big speech about defense. She made incredible news, but it was for the fact she was the first woman in Congress to wear pants. 1990. Not for her important tough-talking speech. The point here is when you're questioning yourself and your abilities, you have to fight even harder every day to not let that happen.

Think about the fact that you are sitting in this room right now either contemplating running for office, raising your voice for others running for office, or helping them run, remember women control economic power. When the recession is over, women will be staying in the workplace because it has shifted. Don't those women in the work force deserve to have more of us in office, regardless of their positions so we can have a better dialogue? And also remember in the last election, the majority of voters were women. They need representation.

Remarks from Lea Webb (some direct quotes, some paraphrased):

Half the battle is running for office, and once you get there, that's where the real work begins. The city council had a reputation of being a reality TV show. Our meetings were televised, so people would come down and yell at each other late into the night, all year long. At the same time, there were a lot of families leaving the area. My district hadn't had a grocery store in fifteen years. I had been working as a community organizer since the age of fifteen. I came from a family of activists, "aggressive progressives." My family emphasized hard work and giving back and that everyone had a role to play in the community.

I was encouraged by a lot of folks in my community, and I didn't want to run. When I was approached, I was 25. There was only one other woman on City Council, but no one young. There had never been a person of color elected in the history of my county, so I thought I should wait until I was 30. That was my rationale for waiting. People kept asking, "Why not now? You understand what our issues are and you are inviting us to the table to understand what the issues are for our community." Finally I said "why not now?" and I made a conscious decision about engaging a lot of people who hadn't voted in a long time.

My campaign was extremely grassroots. We had events at the park, asked for a dollar from some. We identified block captains on every block in my district, I ran in the Democratic primary. We had amazing voter turnout. With a former voter turnout of 6%, we had 24% because people felt a connection to me and because I was honestly trying to bring them to the table and tell them how important civic engagement was. My opponent created another party and ran again in the general election, and I had to beat him again. Then I became the youngest city council member.

Finally she gave a pitch for us to run, saying we need women who promote an environment of positive engagement and involvement with the community, and women tend to bring that with them. People - even those who disagreed with her - came up to her and said thank you for bringing reasonable dialogue to the city council meetings. This is an example we can all follow.


Q) Erin asked how to deal with budget issues.

A) Susan replied that she was on the budget committee when the budget was balanced in Congress and they just worked hard at it, but she's not sure what happened since. It really was, to Lea's point, people coming up and demanding it.

Lea) Federal budget affects local budget. We created budget committees in the community and had to make some tough decisions, but it was a lot easier to bear as a community because there were stakeholders who had engaged, looked at it online, and realized how tough it is to make these cuts. Whether it's budgets or other policies, you need a way to engage with your colleagues and the public.

Susan) But you said when you started that you have to be willing to change and shake things up, which is important for all of us to do.

Q) Erin asked about family balance while running and being elected and how to manage that.

A) Susan said she'd have a smaller conversation off the record, as a joke, but she married one person then later another... (I don't know the whole story but she's alluding to it) I was keynote speaker on CNN, high ranking Republican, and I still would have insecure moments in my marriage. Even though he was also in politics, he understood what I was going through. It all involves risk, and risk is hard. You have to have family support that understands. So any stupid thing you say will not be thrown back at you. You also need respect. We disagreed on almost every issue we voted on in the House of Representatives, but we respected each other.

(More...) Time management was also a key component. People do not understand that the job is all-consuming. Knocking on doors, listening to constituents, making phone calls. You need a family that understands they'll have to share an awful lot of your passion and your thoughts or you should not be in office. The people who draw a line are not good public servants. But at the end of the day, I was the member of Congress, so I could bring my daughter to work if I wanted. You are given so much more leeway.

(More...)I made a decision in my life after being in public office for 13 years, that when I had my first child, for me, I was feeling like I wasn't doing the best for my constituents and for my daughter. But everyone has different factors that guide our choices.

Q) Erin asked Lea about dating and how she does it.

A) My family was very involved in my campaign - my mom and my sister would cook and help with a lot of fundraisers. My entire team was made up of family and friends and they are still very much involved in my political life, but they also help me to remain sane. When you are in political office, there's this expectation that every moment is for the public. So striking a balance between legislating or creating policy and serving constituents vs. finding personal time for yourself - whether it's dating or socializing - is important. You have to maintain balance. I have a tendency to be a giver... three's so much work to be done, but I have people in my life that really help me to maintain balance.

Q) Lisa Stone asked what their future plans for office are.

Lea) I'm running again - I'll be term limited but I can run one more time. And I've been looking at some potential opportunities at the state level. I think the possibilities are open. But regardless, my life's mission is to help others and all of the decisions I've made have led me to this point of being a public servant. Whether that's as a politician or a teacher, I want to make sure I do it 100%. I want to be there to help foster the community forward.

Susan) I'm done. But when I was there, it's a great job. It's a great life. There are freedoms that you give up in terms of your anonymity, but there's also a freedom to take up issues that keep you up at night that allow you to go out there and make a difference, and 90% of the people do come up and thank you. They're just good, kind people in our communities. It's an amazing experience, and in so many ways, it's easier than you think. People adopt you and help you, even if they don't agree with you. The people who get in trouble are those who try to be something they're not. There are people who will disagree with you on issue but who will like you for being honest and fighting for what you believe in. I don't regret the nights of butterflies in my stomach worrying about the election results. It's a lot less scary than it seems.

Lea) I want to add something to that. Being a public servant, it's always a thankless job. A few weeks ago, we had reached a pivotal point in terms of the grocery store project I'm working on and having overall frustration and there was a growing sense of discontent. I got a call from a woman I'll call Mrs. Marshall. I was feeling really low and she said "something just told me to give you a call and say thank you." You have those moments where people are watching you and they can tell when it's getting hard.

(More...)There's always something that will happen that will remind you of why you're doing what you're doing. Simultaneously I got a call about the documentary film we're making about our battle to get a grocery store after our 15 year battle. I was sitting there crying but I remembered that's why we're doing this. You will have these difficult moments where you ask, "what was I thinking?" But these networks in our lives come and help promote you. Our communities really need us to help raise their voices.

(More...)If you don't remember anything about our comments on the panel, it is so important to step up. It makes a huge difference.


Last but not least... our final session of the BlogHer and The White House Project training - Your Invitation to Run!

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