NYC Grassroots Movement Strives to Get More Women Elected to City Council

21 in '21, a nonpartisan initiative, aims to get 21 women elected this election cycle

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What to Know

  • For the first time ever, the New York City Council could be made up of a majority of women
  • An initiative, 21 in '21, created by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito has been providing support for women candidates throughout the election.
  • Even as more women run for office they continue to face difficulties in fundraising and winning primary elections throughout the country.

While New York City awaits the final results for the 2021 mayoral primary, it looks like the next City Council could be made up of a majority of women members, and if this turns out to be the case, a women-run initiative, could be partly to thank for it.

21 in '21, a nonpartisan initiative created by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and other women political leaders, aims to get 21 women elected this election cycle -- all while lessening the barriers that they face when running for public office by ensuring that women candidates have the resources and support that they need in order to successfully run their campaigns.

"Out of 51 seats, only five womxn are set to remain in office in 2021. Simply put, women’s representation on the NYC Council is in crisis. That’s why we’re working electing at least 21 more womxn to the City Council in order to achieve full representation for the first time in our city’s history — a mission that matters now more than ever as Covid-19 has shone a bright light on NYC’s systemic injustices and the unique ways womxn (especially mothers, women of color, and LGBTQ womxn) have been disproportionately affected," the initiative's website reads. "Representation matters, and it’s time NYC levels up."

Founded in 2017, 21 in '21 was born from conversations amongst women members of the City Council who recognized the gap between male and female members.

“[Women members] saw that as a crisis and I think it really crystalized for Speaker [Viverito] when she had to do committee assignments and saw how there were not enough women, not just to Chair but even to be on committees,” says Amelia Adams, the Chair of the Executive Board for 21 in '21.

From there, the women identified that part of the problem as to why women weren't holding public office was due to the difficulties that they face when running for office.A study done by POLITICO, American University and Loyola Marymount University in 2017 found that women are less likely to run for office than men, with 35% of Democratic men reporting they have considered running for office compared to 24% of Democratic women. The disparity is even more apparent amongst Republicans, with 41% of Republican men reporting they have considered running for office compared to 20% of Republican women.

Although, a number of organizations, such as Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America, are focused on getting more women to run for office on a national level, very few, however, focus on such local races like that of the New York City Council. According to Adams, they worked together with these national organization to create 21 in '21.

“[These organizations] helped us build the mission and what we should laser focus on because a lot of them didn’t do local races,” Adams said.

21 in '21's process for endorsing a candidate was lengthy and required a lot of members to interview and assess candidates, Adams and Yvette Buckner, the Vice Chair of Executive Board for the organization said.

“We ended up screening like 79 candidates and then based on those screenings we actually offered some training in between [the final selection],” said Adams. “We were really trying to see where the candidates needed help because we didn’t want to just be something that was ceremonial we wanted [the candidates] to be able to go toe-to-toe against other male candidates who had been preparing to run for 10 years.”

Amongst the top obstacles that women face when running for office is fundraising. In a report done by OpenSecrets.org in 2020, it was revealed that “White men running for office consistently dominate in fundraising. Whatever fundraising advantages may help women seem to primarily help white women, and whatever fundraising advantages may help people of color seem to primarily help men.” This is to say that women candidates, especially women of color, continue to struggle to raise the funding necessary to win elections.

Adams and Bruckner knew this was a specific obstacle their candidates would have to overcome so they aimed to make fundraising more accessible to their endorsees.

“As a new candidate you have to kind of open up your Rolodex and see who are the people who will give me $25 dollars, or $50, or $500 or even a $1,000. And a lot of people do not necessarily have those larger donors in their Rolodex,” Buckner explains.

21 in '21 had a bank of people available to their candidates from pollsters to photographers to campaign staff who were willing to give their support throughout the campaigns.

Aside from fundraising, one of 21 in '21's top priorities was making sure that candidates had a solid understanding of how ranked-choice voting worked, which was implemented for the first time in New York City this election cycle. Last summer is when the initiative first set up several workshops and training sessions explaining ranked-choice voting.

We didn’t want to just be something that was ceremonial we wanted [the candidates] to be able to go toe-to-toe against other male candidates who had been preparing to run for 10 years.

Amelia Adams, Chair of the Executive Board for 21 in '21

Jennifer Gutierrez, a first-time candidate and projected winner running as a Democrat in District 34 and who was endorsed as first choice by 21 in '21, says that the ranked-choice voting training was vital to a candidate's success.

“I think unless you were connected to these organizations that were doing education about ranked-choice voting early on as a candidate you had very little understanding of how ranked-choice voting is going to work until very recently,” said Gutierrez. “Outside of 21 in '21 people really weren’t talking about ranked-choice voting. The Campaign Finance Board, the Board of Elections they were not talking about it until very recently.”

Gutierrez echoed a lot of the struggles that women face when running that Adams and Buckner expressed, including childcare.

A couple of months into her campaign, Gutierrez learned that she was pregnant and initially made the decision to keep it a secret for fear of how it might have impacted her campaign.   

“Maybe this was just me in my head, we were just so focused on the end goal and what the field strategy was and I felt like me saying, 'Oh, and I’m pregnant' could distract the kind of people who maybe aren’t reading your platform...some people are just like ‘oh she is pregnant, she might not be able to do this job. Like when is she going to be having this baby, she is going to be on maternity leave,' so that is just how it felt,” Gutierrez said of her decision to initially keep her pregnancy a secret.

However, Gutierrez says that once she announced the news, she was met with support from her community and is now happy to be able to talk about her baby.

Among other obstacles on the campaign trail, Gutierrez says that she was asked her age and if she was married often, questions she felt had little to do with her capabilities to run for City Council.

“When [candidates] knock on my door [my question] is what have you done and what are you going to do community-wise,” she says.

Like many other women running for the first time, Gutierrez said she never thought she would run for office since she loved working in community organizing.

"I distinctly remember being approached about [running] and literally saying, 'hell no.' But I think in keeping with the statistics most women don’t, and we have to be asked several times to consider it," she said.

Upon making the decision to run, Gutierrez found little resources explaining the process, even though she had managed and volunteered for other campaigns.

Voters can start heading to the polls on Saturday to make their top choices for the Democratic and Republican nominees for mayor. With ranked choice voting, voters can pick their top five candidates. NBC New York's Melissa Russo breaks down how it works.

Not knowing where to start is an issue that women candidates have to face every time they consider running and one that Felicia Kalan, a Republican woman running for office in District 22, also encountered.

"I had worked as a legislative aide before, but I had never really worked on any campaigns. I didn't really know the first thing of how to start a committee or doing the fundraising and all the tools that you need to kind of run for City Council. But I'm a go-getter. I just kind of figured it out," Kalan, the only Republican woman endorsed by 21 in '21 this election cycle, said.

As a republican challenger, Kalan says she has faced certain unique adversities mostly having to do with being left out of spaces that her Democratic counterparts are invited to due to her campaigning in a primarily Democratic area.

“The biggest challenge running as a Republican, in a primarily Democratic area, is that you're not invited to some of the really important places of conversation in the community," she said.

Kalan went on to say that the workshops and training by 21 in '21 were helpful to her campaign and that she was grateful to get the endorsement from them.

Voting in the primary in New York City is in the rearview with official results expected later this week. NBC New York's Melissa Russo reports.

“I'm the only Republican in the race to get that endorsement and I hope it's the first of more bipartisan work in getting women elected. I think it was huge for them to endorse me...Some of our core values align. I think that transcended political party, but, also, this City Council district has never had a woman representing them at City Hall. So, I think I think it's a great partnership," Kalan said.

In regard to the endorsement from 21 in '21, Gutierrez says that while it may not have been day-to-day help, the support from the group and other women was essential to her success.

“The whole idea of women supporting women is amazing. I think it really was a welcomed voice to this energy because it wasn’t just that it worked out that they wanted 21 [women elected] in the year 2021 but there were about 30 plus seats empty now and I think there was energy for all kinds of people to run and the 21 in '21 movement helped because it gave people a very focused space to look at," she said.

According to Gutierrez, the candidates spent a lot of time talking to one another and supporting each other, which was beneficial to her campaign.

"A lot of the candidates who were running were talking to each other and kind of keeping our heads up and I think that it was really important. That is just what we were inclined to do, just on our own, and women tend to do this. There were a lot of candidate threads in 2021 and that was really helpful.”

Buckner says that aside from the support provided by 21 in '21 to candidates, the bonds formed between the women has been one of their greatest successes.

“We have a sisterhood. The women who started out in 2017, they started forming bonds very early on...We had women in the same district who were like, 'You know what? Even though we are running against each other, let's work together for ranked-choice voting,' and we did a ranked-choice voting strategy...There was a real sisterhood that took place."

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