#WomenToWatch is a series by RepresentWomen that documents rising women leaders and their stories.
In our first installment of #WomenToWatch, we are highlighting the stories of three women who will be on the ballot this Tuesday: Aruna Miller (MD), Connie Johnson (OK), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY).
Aruna Miller, House Candidate for MD-6
By Barbara Turnbull
Maryland politics hit close to home for us at RepresentWomen, so it’s especially painful that Maryland is currently one of eleven states with no female representatives in Congress. With this Tuesday’s primaries, though, that fact could change. Aruna Miller, a 2-term state Delegate from Montgomery county, is running for the vacant MD-6 U.S. House seat. News outlets and strategists have called her candidacy the “best shot Maryland has” for electing a woman to Congress in 2018. As an experienced state legislator, a first-generation immigrant, and a woman of color with a background in science and engineering, Miller seems like the perfect fit for her heavily Democratic district.
However, Miller faces an uphill battle when it comes to campaign finance. The other top contender in the race, David Trone, is self-funding his campaign and has donated well over $10 million to himself already. Trone ran unsuccessfully for the MD-8 seat in 2016 with a $13 million campaign that shattered the spending record for self-funded House campaigns. Miller’s grassroots donation strategy, combined with contributions from the PAC EMILY’s List, has raised her about $1.3 million.
The Miller-Trone race raises important questions about who gets to run for office and win. Although Trone has no political experience, a record of losing campaigns, and only recently moved to Maryland’s 6th district, his personal wealth has bought him significant media coverage and name recognition. As political campaigns become more and more expensive, RepresentWomen’s research indicates that they will become more exclusive as well -- it will be women and people of color who aren’t able to keep up with fundraising. Miller’s presence in Congress would be extremely exciting given the vast underrepresentation of women of color in Congress, and her defeat by a rich white man all the more saddening.
In an interview with Bethesda Magazine, Miller told reporters that “public office is something you earn, not something you buy.” If Miller wins her election this Tuesday, it will be a powerful affirmation that women candidates can run successfully “as they are” -- with a strong policy platform, pertinent experience, and grassroots support.
Connie Johnson, Oklahoma Gubernatorial Candidate
By Evelien van Gelderen
Oklahoma has a broken education system, the highest rate of black men killed by police officers in the country, and the highest female incarceration rate among the US states. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Connie Johnson hopes to change that. She’s up against Drew Edmondson, who is considered to be the party favorite, in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. Johnson has a long track record of public service. She first worked as a legislative analyst in the Oklahoma Senate, and went on to serve for eight years as state Senator. Johnson was the first African American woman nominated for a major statewide office in Oklahoma. During her time in office, she was an outspoken critic of the Republican legislature, and advocated for medical marijuana legalization, death penalty reform, and education reform. In 2014, she ran unsuccessfully in a US Senate special election, making her the first woman US Senate nominee from Oklahoma of any party.
Johnson has called herself a “radical” and hopes to shake up Oklahoman politics. She is backed by Our Revolution, the PAC that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and was the only Oklahoman super-delegate to vote for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. Despite trailing behind her opponent Drew Edmondson in fundraising, Johnson remains hopeful that her progressive platform will appeal to voters who are tired of being drowned out by the establishment and corporations. She has spoken passionately against privatization, and thinks that hemp and medical marijuana should be regulated and taxed. Johnson has faced numerous challenges in her political career, including racism from within her own party. But she remains hopeful, and committed to fight for what she believes Oklahoma needs: “a voice for the people who are disrespected, disregarded.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, House Candidate for NY-14
By Katie Pruitt
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was eight years old when current Representative Joe Crowley (NY-14) was first elected to office. At the time, she lived in Yorktown, NY with her Puerto Rican mother and Bronx-native father. Now 28, Ocasio-Cortez is challenging Crowley for his seat in the upcoming Democratic primaries. She is running on a super progressive platform: she calls for single-payer healthcare, a federal jobs guarantee, abolishing ICE, and a $15 minimum wage. If elected, she would be the youngest congresswoman ever and the first person of color to represent the 14th district.
Ocasio-Cortez faces many obstacles in getting elected. As a woman of color, she is challenging a history of systemic exclusion from government. Women of color make up 19.8 percent of the U.S. population but only 7.1 percent of Congress. Among other things, our winner-take-all, single-winner system disadvantages women of color, who not only face racial and gender prejudice but are also robbed of the opportunity to form coalitions among voters of various backgrounds.
The ever-increasing influence of money in politics effectively means that only wealthy people can afford to run for Congress. Currently, the median net worth of a member of Congress is $1.1 million, which is about twelve times the American median household income. Wealthy people also tend to be old and white, which means that the people who can afford to run for Congress are also old and white. Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t come from wealth — she works as an educator at a non-profit and has worked service jobs on the side — so she has to rely heavily on donors. She has also promised not to accept corporate money as an ethical stance, a move that excites her progressive base but also places her a further funding disadvantage. According to OpenSecrets, Crowley has raised $3.3 million, while Ocasio-Cortez has only raised $300,000.
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle that Ocasio-Cortez faces is that she is running against an incumbent. In the past three election cycles, incumbents have been re-elected 94 percent of the time. Along with access to fundraising mechanisms and experience campaigning, incumbents have the advantage of name recognition. Crowley is so well-known and powerful in New York City politics that he’s often called the “king of Queens.”
Despite all of these obstacles, Ocasio-Cortez is running a powerful campaign. She sees her background as her strength: she can fairly represent the interests of her constituents, 70% of whom are people of color and a majority of whom are working class. She’s been backed by several progressive groups, including MoveOn and the Democratic Socialists of America. When Crowley failed to show up to a debate with Ocasio-Cortez (incumbents often skip debates if they feel that they are likely to defeat their challenger), the New York Times editorial board chastised him for “taking voters for granted” in a race that might not actually go in his favor. Ocasio-Cortez has energized young people of color, who have turned out in droves to campaign for her.
Though her chances of winning the June 26th primary are slim, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign will still be historic. Ocasio-Cortez is paving the way for more “non-traditional” candidates to run for office by challenging several systemic barriers. In an interview with the Huffington Post, she offered some sage advice to these future candidates: “In my opinion, if women and gender-expanding people want to run for office we can’t knock on anybody's doors[:] we have to build our own house."