This guest piece is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics called “That’s What Girls Do.”
We started in 2016 as a conversation among three neighbors in the alley between our homes: me, a civil rights lawyer; Katherine West, a political activist; and Murry Newbern, a health care advocate. We were all keenly interested in politics. In our collective wisdom, we thought Hillary Clinton would be the next president and usher in an era of ascendency of women in politics and that we would be part of this change.
The conversation soon turned to the obstacles faced by women running for office. The No. 1 obstacle identified was fundraising. Women have a harder time than men asking for money and traditionally have had a more difficult time attracting contributions. We wanted to remedy this gap and decided that a PAC was the only practical way to do so. We really had no clear idea what we were getting into. We knew of no other PAC like us — dedicated to raising money for women candidates only. We had no idea how our idea would be received and whether we would be able to raise a dime.
We duly consulted the Arkansas Ethics Commission and filled out the proper paperwork. Our original members were six: in addition to the founders, the group included JoAnne Mills, LeAnn Robertson and Debbie Goolsby, who were all members of Arkansas WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions). Progressive Arkansas Women was born. We were and are the only homegrown, grassroots organization doing what we do. We are not affiliated with any national group, our donors are 90 percent in state and we are made up by 90 percent volunteers. (We contract on a part-time basis with a graphic designer and a communications specialist to assist us with our social media presence.) We presently have more than 20 women who are very actively involved in our work and whom we call our core group. We strive for inclusivity in both our supporters and the women we support. We are a hard-working group. When we say we are going to undertake a task, we do so, and follow it through to completion. We don’t have time nor patience for divisiveness, neither internally or with other organizations who share our goals.
Our first fundraising efforts were tentative. The first person we asked for a contribution was lawyer Peter Miller. He quickly gave us $5,000, the maximum yearly contribution allowed. More contributions followed. We were ecstatic. We began to feel more comfortable asking for money, which is a big leap forward for women. Since 2016, our fundraising efforts have grown, as has the money we’ve raised. We began raising money in 2016. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, we traveled the state recruiting women to run and asking for donations. By the end of 2019, we had raised approximately $260,000 and endorsed a total of approximately 100 women.
Besides fundraising and giving to women candidates, we recruit women to run for office. This is also a challenge, as women traditionally have been more reluctant than men to put themselves out there for a variety of reasons — lack of confidence, work and family responsibilities, and, of course, lack of money. We travel the state asking women to consider running. We network with community leaders and Democratic county committees to discover women who have the interest, drive and credentials to be viable candidates. We use social media to reach out to women who may be thinking of entering politics. We encourage women to run by reminding them, in the words of PAWPAC’s Susan Inman, “If you think you are not qualified to be in office, just look who is in office now.” We have been very pleased with the number and quality of new women who have taken the plunge. We are also pleased with the number of new women who have been elected, including state Reps. Jamie Scott (D-North Little Rock), Denise Ennett (D-Little Rock), Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville), Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) and Pine Bluff Alderwoman Joni Alexander. So far, we have a 30 percent success rate with our candidates, and we think this rate will increase.
Once a woman has decided to run for office, we invite her to apply for a PAWPAC endorsement. We interview applicants to ascertain if their positions on the issues are compatible with ours and if they are capable of launching a viable campaign. We know that no one can guarantee a win, but we are careful with our donors’ money to only contribute to women who have put together the elements of a successful campaign. We want our donors to have confidence that when they give us money, it will not be squandered. We provide our candidates with funds, advice and mentoring on how to run and win.
Have we made mistakes along the way? Of course. But, we are learning, becoming more savvy and growing. We have run into detractors. Some people, mostly men, think that we also should give to male candidates — especially those who support women’s issues. Our answer is that men have a much easier time raising money and that we need to focus on women. Individually, we do give to and support male candidates, but as a PAC, our focus is women, whose need for money and support is much greater. And actually, we find that more people enthusiastically support us because we do promote women exclusively.
There are other hurdles. There is a lack in Arkansas of people to staff campaigns. We need more campaign managers and consultants who provide expertise in running campaigns with fundraising, scheduling, financial reporting and recruiting volunteers. PAWPAC offers assistance in these matters but cannot fulfill entirely this need. We are thinking of ways to address this lack. We need women not just to run for office but to become campaign managers, consultants and to work for candidates by doing the hard but indispensable work of going door-to-door and making telephone calls.
PAWPAC is nonpartisan. It does not matter if a candidate is a Democrat, Republican independent or has some other party affiliation. However, a candidate must espouse our core ideals to qualify for our support. Our core ideals are embodied in our mission statement: to identify and support women leaders in our communities who are committed to reproductive freedom and women’s economic and social equality. So far, no Republican woman has asked for our endorsement, but we are ready to welcome her.
PAWPAC intends to continue to grow until it is a powerful political force. We want to change the face of Arkansas politics. Our aim is for women to make up half of every state and local legislative body in this state. Only then, will there be laws that benefit everyone — women, men, children and families, the rich and poor alike. Women’s issues are everyone’s issues.
Bettina Brownstein is a civil rights attorney in Little Rock and founding member of Progressive Arkansas Women PAC.