Kim Olson strode to the stage of the Democratic State Convention on Friday to Kelly Clarkson’s “Whole Lotta Woman.”
“Let me just repeat those lyrics, a bad-ass woman with class and self-confidence,” Olson said. “I run for office because I’m confident I’m going to win.”
“Whole lotta women” could have been the theme of this weekend’s biennial gathering at the Fort Worth Convention Center of Texas Democrats, who this year have a record number of women nominees for elective office from justice of the peace to governor.
This being Texas, many, probably most, of the Democrats will lose, though perhaps fewer than usual if there really is a national blue wave.
But win or lose, these female candidates might ultimately prove to be game-changers. That’s what Olson, who is running for Texas agriculture commissioner, told 37 first-time candidates at a WomenWin Conference she organized with Joi Chevalier, the Democratic candidate for comptroller, two weeks ago at the Fort Worth Hilton, across the street from the convention hall.
“If you lose, people will come to you for advice for the next three years,” Olson said. “You will probably be asked to run again. This is a long game, ladies, and that’s what today was about, preparing you not just for November but November of 2019 and certainly for 2020. We are going to impact this state and this country for the next decade. That’s what this is all about right now because you are in a moment of history.
“Every one of you are going to inspire somebody when you’re on the trail,” Olson said. “The thing we don’t do as well as the men is we don’t build bench strength purposely. I am imploring you to reach back, train somebody up to take your place because you are on a trajectory for something bigger.”
Nearly half the Democrats in legislative races are women
Two women have served as governor of Texas, both Democrats. There was Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, who served two separate terms as governor in the 1920s and 1930s, when the state was nothing but Democratic. And there was Ann Richards, who was elected in 1990 but defeated in her re-election campaign in 1994. She was the last Democrat to serve as governor.
Now, for the second time in a row, Democrats have nominated a woman for governor. In 2014 it was Wendy Davis, then a state senator from Fort Worth. This year it is Lupe Valdez, who stepped down in her fourth term as Dallas County sheriff to make the run.
Close to half of the party’s nominees for state legislative seats, and 18 of the party’s congressional candidates, including two incumbents, are women.
At present, there are 29 women — 21 Democrats and eight Republicans — in the 150-member Texas House of Representatives and eight women — two Democrats and six Republicans — among the 31 state senators. Only three of the state’s 36-member congressional delegation are women.
“It feels really good. It feels historic,” said Julie Oliver, the Democratic nominee challenging U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, in the 25th Congressional District, at the WomenWin training retreat.
“We’re not only setting people up for a path to success and victory in 2018, it’s setting us up for 2020, it’s setting up for 2022. The presidential election is 2020, congressional lines are 2022, that’s how we have to look at this,” Oliver said. “It’s not just a path to victory in 2018, it’s a path to victory going forward.”
For many female candidates, Donald Trump’s victory, thwarting the election of the first female president was a bugle call.
“Right after the election people said, `Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ And that’s when the blue wave started,” Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa told the party’s Women’s Caucus on Friday. “But I call it the pink wave because that’s really what it is. The women of this country and of this state are the ones who stepped up because they knew they couldn’t depend upon anyone else.”
Like Vikki Goodwin of Austin, the Democratic nominee taking on state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, in the competitive House District 47, who attended the WomenWin Conference.
“I have helped the other candidates who have run against Paul Workman in the past, and I guess I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better candidate,’” Goodwin said. “Then I said, ‘OK, maybe I’m that candidate who can reach across the aisle, who can maybe appeal to business owners in western Travis County, but at the same time has a passion for public education,’ so I just felt like I have the resources, the time, the energy and the desire, so I am going to do it.”
More female candidates, more female volunteers
The convention’s Women’s Caucus meeting, held on the convention floor because of its immense size, was chaired by Wendy Davis.
“Women never considered entering the political arena themselves and were always happy to push other people forward in front of them,” Davis said.
But, now, she told the caucus, “Those women said, `If not me, then who?’ so we have this extraordinary number and extraordinarily talented and capable and powerful women who are on our Texas Democratic ballot.”
There is a further ripple effect, Davis said.
“We are going to have more women volunteering on those campaigns than ever before, more women knocking on doors, more women talking to each other, turning out their peers, whether they’re in college or whether they are in a senior living facility,” Davis said.
“And we all know, and my apologies to the amazing feminist men in the room, but we all know that no one nurtures, no one loves, no one cares like a woman, and we are all going to do everything we can to create that climate in this state and across the United States,” Davis said. “We are going to drive harder than ever before to ensure that we are going to defeat the kind of patriarchy that has been holding us down and holding us back for so long.”
In her remarks to the Women’s Caucus, Valdez, who at 70 is 15 years Davis’ senior, was more old school, careful to attend to the feelings of any men in earshot.
“Gentlemen, I’m not going against you,” Valdez said. “We need the balance and the balance is going to come through the Democratic Party.”
Valdez is both the first Latina and first lesbian to be the state party’s gubernatorial nominee.
Like Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, Valdez served in the military, achieving the rank of Army captain before becoming a federal agent and winning election as sheriff.
“Think of Lupe being in the United States military,” Olson, who was part of the first generation of female military pilots, said at the candidate retreat. “We would hunt people down in the military and throw them out if we could figure out you were gay. Think about that, that’s who this country was then.”
‘You don’t call them names back’
Valdez spoke and answered questions at the conference, which included discussion about how to stay safe, eat healthy, talk to the press and how much to fret about how difficult it is for women to raise money. (Olson said don’t fret, do without.)
“I have story after story,” Valdez said. “Most of you know that in 2004 (when she was first elected sheriff), I got called all kinds of names because I am a lesbian, and over a decade ago it wasn’t as accepted as it is now. I got called all kinds of names. Just keep your integrity. You don’t call them names back.”
“I’m old enough to remember when LGBTQ was in the closet and we didn’t want to come out because we might get our heads chopped off if we came out,” Valdez said. “But it took a couple of people standing up who said, ‘Go ahead and chop off my head. I’m still standing.’”
“Look, we’re human. We’re scared. We don’t want to be degraded,” Valdez said. “And I’ve often said, ‘I’ll take the scars with you, but don’t let me fight alone.’”
Women are frequently faulted for being assertive in ways male candidates are not.
“A lot of it is how authentic you are and who you are,” Olson said.
“You visit with me, I’m a retired colonel,” Olson said. “I am exactly that. I wear it well and I command well, so my title allows me to have leeway in being quite aggressive because not only am I a colonel, I’m a combat vet, I’m a pilot. Sometimes it’s all those things that kind of give you a buy, so I think women have to play to their authenticity.”
“If they’re a schoolteacher, then they can take command of a classroom. Fill in the blank. If they’re a mom, they’ve wrestled teenagers around,” Olson said. “Women are beautiful at the multitasking.”
If the talk at the WomenWin conference was, while optimistic, still realistic about the fate many of them face this fall, Olson was brimming with “bad-ass” confidence at this weekend’s convention.
“This is our time, ladies. This is our moment in history. We will fundamentally change this nation for the better,” Olson said to a standing ovation from the Women’s Caucus. “And we are going to win in record numbers.”