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In 2012, an important election year, The Feminist Wire published “women running” features of candidates for local and state offices. This year, with elections across the country critically hinging on questions of women’s rights and anti-Black, anti-labor, and anti-immigrant initiatives, we’re again featuring progressive women who run. TFW does not endorse candidates; however, we do aim to create space for candidates who identify as feminist to share their perspectives and goals. If you are or know a candidate whom we might feature in TFW, please let us know. — The Editors
Although best known for her advocacy for gender equality and reproductive justice, for the last decade Sandra Fluke has devoted her career to public interest advocacy for numerous social justice concerns, including LGBTQ rights, worker rights, economic justice, immigrant rights, and international human rights, often focusing on the impact to communities of color. Her work has been honored by the American Federation of Teachers, American Constitution Society, National Association of Women Lawyers, National Partnership for Women and Families, Planned Parenthood, and Women’s Campaign Fund, among others.
She came to national attention in February 2012, when Congressional Republicans prohibited her from testifying, instead hearing from a panel of only men on an important women’s health issue. She then testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on the importance of women’s own private insurance covering contraception. Despite ongoing personal attacks, she continues to advocate for social justice and addressed the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She served as a surrogate for President Obama in his reelection campaign and helped to elect over a dozen progressive candidates to Congress. Continuing her public advocacy, she speaks to audiences across the country, in addition to her legislative policy work and pro bono representation of victims of human trafficking.
TFW: Why are you running for office?
Sandra Fluke: My career has always been devoted to the public interest, whether representing victims of human trafficking and domestic violence or advocating for social justice legislation. A few years ago, I was unexpectedly thrust into the public eye when I testified before members of Congress regarding the importance of comprehensive insurance coverage for reproductive health. As the media attention and the personal attacks grew, I knew I could retreat and wait for it to pass, but I believed it was my responsibility to stand up and use the microphone I was given to advance the policies I’ve always fought for. For the last ten years, I’ve been an advocate for legislation related to gender equality, LGBTQ rights, economic justice and worker rights, as well as many other progressive causes, and I am committed to continuing that fight in Sacramento.
California is a place where real progressive change can happen. Other states, and the country at large, look to California to set the progressive agenda. We can do so much here, and there is so much work to be done on issues I care deeply about – making higher education affordable, stopping the epidemic of university sexual assault, climate change, and more.
TFW: What can you, as a woman candidate, offer that a man can’t or won’t?
Sandra: I think it is important that elected officials reflect the makeup of our communities, and unfortunately too often they do not. Elected officials often skew older and more conservative than the people they represent, and the demographics of our country are so much more diverse than a sampling of elected officials would imply. Even in California, which is such a leader on many gender equality issues, our percentage of women elected officials is actually declining, which is an incredibly disturbing trend. Our legislature doesn’t come close to reflecting the makeup of this diverse state, and a truly representative elected body is an important part of a functioning democracy.
TFW: What do you think are some of the biggest systematic obstacles to women running for office?
Sandra: I think there are many obstacles that are unique to female candidates. We’re usually the caretakers in families, so lack of affordable child care and early childhood education options can be a real burden to a candidate, just like they could be to any working woman. Also, people have a different reaction to women who have small children when they run for office, so having a family and being a candidate is challenging in many ways. There are also perception issues that women face that are different than their male counterparts – women are often not perceived as leaders in the same way men are, a trait that people look for in their elected leaders. And those women that do show leadership traits are often looked at as too aggressive, or worse. Finally, the massive amount of money that candidates need to raise can also be an obstacle to women who sometimes aren’t as well-connected in wealthy circles or plugged in to special interests that typically finance elections.
TFW: Can you give us a sense of what it’s like on the campaign trail?
Sandra: Campaigning has brought together two of the things I love to do most: talking with folks and hearing their concerns, and contemplating policies to address community needs. I will say being a first-time candidate and trying to raise the vast sums of money needed to be competitive in an election can be challenging, as can the non-stop schedule. For the opportunity to serve my community in such a meaningful way, it’s all worth it!
TFW: How do you also incorporate issues of race, sexuality, and other “identity politics” into your campaign?
Sandra: As I said before, elected officials are often older and more conservative than the people they represent, and the demographics of our country are so much more diverse than a sampling of elected officials would imply. I think that good policy that supports those who don’t always have a voice is beneficial for everyone because it makes our communities stronger.
Personally, it has always been incredibly important that my decisions and policy positions are informed by diverse sources that can present different points of view, so in my advisors and staff, I ensure there is a diversity of experiences and opinions.
TFW: Tell us what you think of the current political climate.
Sandra: On the national level, it is very disheartening to see Congress mired in gridlock and unable to make progress on the issues that we really need them to tackle. I am of course a huge fan of, and very grateful for, some of our champions in Congress like Senators Boxer and Warren, but I decided to run for California State Senate because I felt like this is a place where we can really get work done.
TFW: What do you think are the five most important issues facing the United States at this particular moment?
Sandra: Like anywhere in the U.S., my district is concerned with jobs and economic opportunity. From jobs in the entertainment industry to the tech industry, I will explore ways to encourage hiring and job development. Too often economic growth only helps the people at the top, and we need to find ways for everyone to have more economic opportunities. Specifically, the top issues I’m emphasizing in my campaign and will focus on when I’m in office are:
TFW: What advice would you give girls and young women considering a career in politics?
Sandra: Be fearless! I think a lot of people were horrified when I was dragged into the media spotlight by conservative press that attacked my character, but what I hope young girls and women took away from what happened to me in 2012 wasn’t just a warning. What I wanted them to see was if you handle yourself well and speak your ideas, people will stand with you. The nation really rose up and said we aren’t going to let that kind of attack stand, and I wasn’t silenced by a bully. So if someone criticizes your ideas or your policies, maybe you need to consider what their point of view is, but if they’re attacking you personally just remember that won’t define you. You will define you, and the nation desperately needs more women in office.
TFW: Who are your political inspirations?
Sandra: Hilary Clinton, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Barbara Boxer are all incredible role models and people who inspire me. I also deeply admire Congresswomen Karen Bass, Janice Hahn, and Julia Brownley, State Senator Holly Mitchell, and Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin.