When it comes to women running for public office, 2018 is already shaping up to be a historic year. The Associated Press reported that as of April 6, the number of women who filed to run for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives was 309. That surpasses the previous record set in 2012 of 298. 575 women have announced their intent to run for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, or for a gubernatorial seat.
Women candidates are clearly energized, but how about women voters? Will the enthusiasm for women running for office translate into women exercising their right to vote? Isabel Dominicis Dewey, President-Elect of the Junior League of Tampa is leading a voter education and mobilization effort focused on identifying important public policy issues; creating opportunities for voter education; and getting out the vote, utilizing tools like voter registration drives.
Discuss how this effort got off the ground.
This was a labor of love for me. What I did was collect a list of 40 to 50 local, non-partisan women’s organizations, or organizations that had women-affinity groups or special interest groups such as our local Chambers of Commerce, League of Women Voters, African-American sororities, Hispanic Bar Association, women lawyers, black women in construction, [Tampa Chapter of] The Links, Jack and Jill. I compiled this list and then reached out to their President or President-Elects and said, I’d like for us to have a meeting to discuss issues that we may want to collectively mobilize around and do education of our members. And to make sure that our members are going out and voting.
What are those issues?
So those issues ended up being public safety, and it included things like gun control and human trafficking. The second issue was public education. The PTA was at the table. And the third issue was diversity and inclusion. How do we gain a seat at the table for women and help individuals? The more we spoke, the more it revolved around getting out the vote. There is a group here called Tiger Bay that does candidate forums, and so we thought, rather than reinventing the wheel, let’s get people to candidate forums. We talked about making sure that anything we do, that there is no cost to it in order to be as open as possible. Then we have a little slogan that was developed called Activate 813, 813 is the area code of Hillsborough County. For me, it was important that the League didn’t just invite people over and then just dictate what we were going to do. That it was very much a community dialogue and that is what it came to be.
How do you conduct a get-out-the-vote effort with different organizations without it being partisan?
The goal is education, so people are capable of making those decisions for themselves. That is the important part. For example, voting restoration, which is coming up on the Florida ballot through our constitutional revision commission. That’s a poverty issue. People can’t get access to the right to vote, much less to apartments to rent or to jobs, because when they were 18, they were arrested for having marijuana. Some people think, oh felons, felons are all violent criminals. Why should they have a right to vote? They’re not thinking about the complexity of the issue. So, I think framing those discussions that way, helps our members, helps our civic engagement, and makes our voters smarter.
What are the one or two challenges women face when it comes to voting?
I think it’s just whether or not voting is part of their personal culture. Whether it is a priority or not. Whether it has been instilled in them or not. I am Cuban American, my parents came to the US in the 1960s. For me, voting is an obligation. We are now at a point where, especially as women, we take [having the initiative to vote] for granted. What has been really interesting is that, and this isn’t a partisan thing, when women vote, they can significantly effect an election. The Alabama Senate Race [where Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore] was won by women. That’s a really powerful statement. So, we are registering people to vote. The Junior League of Tampa has something called the Family Food Fest to serve in an underserved, economically disenfranchised area, and we had a table for people to register to vote.
What issues are you finding to be the most cross-cutting?
Public education is one. With the recent Parkland shooting, there have been many security mandates, which have been positive. The negative side is that [district officials] have not really increased school funding. So mandates have increased, but then the per pupil spend is 47 cents more per child this year, which results in schools cutting teachers to pay for security. Now PTAs of schools that have the means are paying for the gap. The ones that cannot are suffering more. Those are the issues that are resonating. We see a lot of movement around gun control and gun safety, which has very much transcended party lines.
Generally speaking, how has the Junior League served as a place where important conversations can be had and mutual ground can be reached?
I think we have done a great job of making the Junior League of Tampa a place where members and the community can gain a 360 degree view of issues or topics. We recently hosted a panel discussion on the opioid crisis, where we heard from a neonatologist and representatives from drug treatment and crisis centers. We work hard to present very different points of view and people respond positively to that. They recognize that this as a place to learn and grow. We want to be leaders and advocates of change.