In April 2010, I was sitting in a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia with a remarkable group of women from all around the world who were attending a conference of the World Movement for Democracy. Each of them had been a candidate for parliament in their home countries, many of them had not succeeded. Most of those countries were emerging democracies where women had few rights. All of them were determined to keep trying. The conversation went something like this:
“When I first decided to run for parliament, my husband beat me. When I refused to give in, he divorced me. Then I was threatened by the government, and my best friend disappeared. She is still missing. I keep going because if I quit there is no hope that we will ever find her alive.”
“They put me in prison for six months.”
“They murdered my son.”
“They beat and raped me so badly that I was in the hospital for six weeks.”
The stories went on – women who had braved the unimaginable in order to assert their democratic rights and change their societies for the better.
Then one of them turned to me. “What about you, Anita? You’ve been telling us about your worries about government policies in your own country. You live in a country where they will not beat you or rape you for being in politics. Why are you not running?”
It was true that while I realized how special Canada is and how fortunate we are, I was worried about the direction that things were going: the growing gap between the rich and poor; the erosion of our own democratic institutions; families struggling to find affordable child care while looking after aging parents and wondering how they would ever be able to pay for their children’s tuition fees; wondering if the health care system and public pensions would still be there by the time they retired.
Until that moment, I was quite happy with the way my life was going. I had been active in politics in my youth – both in party politics and in activist groups like Amnesty International. I had worked for a time in the Canadian Parliament, which I enjoyed immensely. I was fortunate to have gotten a job with the United Nations Development Programme in New York, as a manager of a global online network to promote women in politics and connect women around the world using technology to help and encourage one another (www.iKNOWPolitics.org). As part of my job, I got to travel around the world talking to women like this and building connections between people on different continents who spoke different languages, but who shared the common desire to see more inclusive politics in their countries. Why on earth would I give it all up to run for Parliament?
But when I looked these women in the eyes, I realized what a privilege it was that I could even consider it. That as a woman – and an opposition member – I could run for Parliament in my home country without risking my own personal safety or that of people closest to me. And that I lived in a system where, once elected, I could actually make a difference for people. One week later, I submitted my resignation letter to the UN and packed my bags to go back home for what turned out to be the most tumultuous year of my life. I decided to run for Parliament!
Through my international work I always heard about how important it was for candidates to have mentors and role models. I am lucky that, in my constituency, the former MP and another past candidate are women, and they gave me a lot of support. Sometimes all it took was a nod of encouragement from across the room and I knew that I wasn’t alone in this! I also got good advice from politicians I had worked with over the years – both male and female – and to this day I can still recite some of the sage words they imparted to me, probably long after they’ve forgotten what they said.
Since I had been around politics on and off since I was 15, I thought that I knew what I was getting into. But I learned quickly that politics is very different when it’s your own name on the ballot. What surprised me the most in the whole process was how much emphasis there was on the superficial aspects of politics, rather than on the substance. More people commented on my hair and my outfits than they did on my policy ideas. I will never forget my conversation with a former female MP. When I asked her for advice, her first words were: “Start wearing lipstick”!
This was my first indication that elections are as much about image as they are about ideas and smarts. As a candidate, a lot of people feel very invested in your success, and sometimes they forget that you are a person rather than a marketable product. At first I resented it when someone I had known for only a few weeks offered me a coupon to go get my hair done at her salon. Or when my campaign aide pulled me out of a meeting to tell me to go refresh my make-up. Or when my campaign chair insisted that I get my hair professionally blow-dried before every television appearance. I almost drew the line when they referred me to an image consultant. My image was perfectly fine, thank you! And wasn’t this supposed to be about what I could contribute and how well I could represent people’s concerns?
Regardless of my protestations, I soon found myself in a coffee-shop, with a consultant critiquing everything from my forehead (bangs are too short) to my bra (must go see a consultant at Sears) to my shoes (nothing open-toed without a pedicure). When she got up to get more coffee, a woman sitting at the next table turned to me and said “I’d have slugged her by now!” Ah – the life of a female candidate. Somehow, I can’t imagine that my male opponent was ever told that in order to qualify for public office he had to get a pedicure!
During the year that I ran for Parliament, I realized that politics is very much about highs and lows. I had heard MPs complaining that the nomination was the hardest part, but I didn’t understand it until I went through it myself. I think that women in particular are socialized to be co-operative and to work in teams. This is not to say that all women are like that – or that men aren’t – but whereas little boys are encouraged to win and be competitive, little girls are admonished to “be nice”. This leaves women who are accustomed to working collaboratively at a distinct disadvantage in the nomination process. Whereas I had no trouble being competitive against my opponents from the other parties, I had a very hard time when the attacks came from my fellow Liberals. My nomination race was the most competitive one that the party had seen in that riding since 1988 and lasted for seven months. Throughout the entire year that I spent campaigning, the most difficult moment came when a prominent former female cabinet minister who always spoke publicly about supporting women candidates endorsed my male opponent for the nomination. When you’re fighting the election it is easy to accept it when people say “I like you but I’m not voting for you because I prefer the other party”. But in the nomination process, everything is personal. I learned what people mean about needing a thick skin!
On the other hand, my favourite part was going door to door. Each time that a door opened it was like stepping into a vignette of someone’s life. People are amazingly forthcoming with their worries and ideas when talking to a political candidate. I’ll never forget the single mother who started to cry because she was just at the end of her rope with three small children and no childcare. Or the elderly woman who had just returned from the hospital after her brother passed away and all I could think of was to give her a hug, completely forgetting that we were total strangers. Or the three nursing students who’d just been evicted because they couldn’t pay both rent and tuition. People also shared their joys with me – I had young children give me pictures they’d drawn, seniors who went out to their gardens to pick fresh tomatoes for me, and people even inviting me to sit down to dinner with them! While not every encounter had a major public policy implication, I got a chance to connect with people on so many levels. I am a richer person for it.
One of my biggest challenges was recognizing that as a candidate, I had to let go of so many aspects of my own campaign and let other people do the work. Since everything was being done in my name, I had to find the fine line between ensuring that the campaign reflected my values and ethics and letting go of the things that were best handled by others. My job was to meet with and convince 60,000 people to vote for me. Any minute that I was not talking to a voter was a minute wasted. While I wanted to write the answer to every policy question that came into our email inbox, I had to satisfy myself that I had very good people who understood my policy positions well enough to reply to the easy ones and who knew when to consult me on the harder ones. But at the same time, I had to put a heavy foot down regarding ethics. Everyone on my team knew that I would never tolerate negative campaigning or breaking the rules. You have to have a lot of strength to be able to say “no” to people who are spending every waking minute of their lives working for you for free.
I think the most compelling thing about running for office is the volunteers. I always heard candidates refer to how they didn’t do it alone – it was a team effort – and I thought it was a bit trite. But I don’t think anyone who has not run for office can appreciate the overwhelming emotion that you feel for those people who put aside their own lives for 36 days or longer, go out in the snow for 11 hours at a time, eat crappy food and fold brochures until three a.m. – until you are the one they are doing it for.
I will never forget election night. I knew I had lost, and I was driving to the hall where my election night party was being held. I saw cars parked on both sides of the street for at least ten blocks. And I realized it was for me. When I walked in and saw hundreds of people chanting my name and red-eyed young people crying while trying to smile at me and the 80-year-old man who had been out door-knocking every day actually looking his age for the first time, it was all I could do to get up to the stage and say something. I felt I had let them all down. I looked at all these people who shared the same vision and passion as I did, and who believed in me, and I felt what can only be called love. I loved those people. So I managed a smile and I managed to get up to the podium, and for the life of me to this day I don’t remember what I said, but everyone told me afterwards that it was inspiring. And once again, I felt that sense of huge responsibility. All those people who invested so much time and energy. It wasn’t about me, it was about everyone. And I lost the election but they were still chanting my name. I don’t think there is anything more humbling than that.
After the election, I went back to working internationally on democracy promotion. A few months later, I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo conducting a campaign school for a group of female candidates. As each woman spoke about her frustrations, about the stereotyping and image politics, about the difficulties getting their own party nominations, about the fear of losing and about their own challenges and worries, I was able to give something back. I told them that it was they – women of emerging democracies – who had given me the courage to run for parliament. Now it was my turn to encourage them. Most of them lost that election, which was mired in violence and fraud. But they still email me from time to time and we still lift each other’s spirits whenever we get the chance. Because now I understand what it means to put my name on a ballot. What a responsibility it is, and what a privilege. And I am grateful to live in a country where it is possible.