Women's History Month

Inside The Search For The First Female President

"I believe there is a president in this group. We just don’t know who she is yet.”

Stephanie Schriock could tell that Elizabeth Warren was a fighter.

In 2011, as Republicans in Congress made it clear they would never let Warren lead her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Schriock decided to bring the fight to their doorstep. 

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"I said to her, 'What better payback than to go onto the floor of the U.S. Senate and look at all those Republican senators who would not give you this position and say, 'What are you going to do now?','" Schriock, the president of Emily's List, a political action committee that helps elect Democratic women, told A Plus. "You have to understand this is someone who had never run, had never taken anything like this on. And here we are trying to convince her to run for the United States Senate."

What happened next is a legendary success story for political operatives: Warren caught fire, raised $39 million — the most of any Senate candidate in 2012 — unseated Republican Sen. Scott Brown, and became the first woman that Massachusetts ever elected to the U.S. Senate. Schriock and Emily's List were credited with recruiting her. In the years since, Warren has become a household name, a progressive hero and one of the most feared Democrats in Congress. If it weren't for Emily's List, though, there's a good chance none of that would have happened.

Sen. Warren campaigns for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com.

Although Sen. Warren was the subject of widespread 2020 speculation, she told CNN she is not going to run for president. Now, Emily's List is looking for its next Elizabeth Warren — and potentially the first female president in United States history.

Since the 2016 election, Emily's List has seen a paradigm shift: it no longer spends the bulk of its time finding eligible women and recruiting them. Instead, women are coming to Emily's List with the intent of running for office. These days, they're just looking for the resources to make their plans real.

"The fact that we have had over 30,000 women — 30,000! — come to us [since Election Day in 2016] and get over that first obstacle and say, 'I want to run,' is unprecedented," Schriock said. "We've never seen anything like this. It is the next decade of leadership in this country."

Stephanie Schriock (right) at the Emily's List offices. Emily's List

While Schriock acknowledges President Donald Trump's role in motivating this wave of women running for office, she also says there's more to it. She described the impetus as a one-two punch that started with the cautious excitement that surrounded former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's run, and then the disappointment of watching her lose to someone with a questionable history of treatment of women. The second punch, Schriock said, was the Women's March and series of large-scale protests that happened across the country.

"The sea change that this has resulted in is the women seeing their power, then seeing that they were not alone in this desire to make change," she said.

Asked if any current Emily's List candidates have the potential to be "the next Sen. Warren," two names came to Schriock's mind: Veronica Escobar and Mikie Sherill.

Veronica with a young supporter poll sitting on Election Day Veronica Escobar

Escobar is running for Texas' U.S. Congressional District 16 in El Paso, Texas. The seat has been vacated by Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who decided to run against Sen. Ted Cruz. If elected, Escobar will become the city's first woman in Congress and the second Texas Latina in the U.S. House. A former county judge, Escobar was born and raised in El Paso and opted to leave a stable job in local government to jump into the volatile world of politics. But she has no doubts about her decision. 

"I left a job that I love. I've been without a paycheck ever since then. I have two kids in college and I jumped into this race," Escobar told A Plus. "But I did it primarily because I really love this community and I love El Paso. I know we need a voice for the border and for El Paso in Washington D.C."

Chief on her agenda is driving the national conversation on immigration, which Escobar says diverse border communities like El Paso should be leading. Escobar said she's had "incredible angst" watching misinformation about immigrants spread from Washington D.C. across the country.

"Most El Pasoans believe this is a country of opportunity and immigrants make our country better," Escobar said. "We are an immigrant-rich community and we are one of safest communities in the country."

She credited that safety both to law enforcement and to the fact that immigrant families in El Paso have worked hard to integrate themselves into the community and make it stronger. Escobar is also focused on improving access to health care in her district, an issue she became familiar with during her tenure in county government. So far, the message seems to be resonating. She earned an endorsement from the El Paso Times, a well-read local paper, and on March 6 easily won the Democratic primary with 61 percent of the votes tallied for six different candidates. That was considered the "big battle," as a Republican has not been elected to represent El Paso in Congress since 1963. The 48-year-old is unanimously tapped as the favorite to win the November midterms.

"I look at someone like Veronica and say, 'I don't know, the sky is the limit,'" Schriock said.

Sherill has, so far, seen similar success. She served 10 years in the Navy as a helicopter pilot, worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, and most recently worked to advance criminal justice reform. Now, she's running for Congress in New Jersey's 11th District. As support for Sherill grew, the Republican incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen announced that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for Sherill to flip the district blue. In February, Sherill announced that she had brought in $487,155 in the fourth quarter of 2017, bringing her fundraising total to more than $1.2 million.

Mikie Sherill out on the campaign trail. Mikie Sherill

"She's really taken the lead in the primary so much so that the Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen — he decided not to run," Schriock said. "The sitting Congressman was like, 'I'm out, I'm not going to do this.' That's a testament to Mikie."

Sherill believes her experience in the Navy will help her overcome some of the bitter partisanship that has infected Washington D.C. in the last decade. She noted that when she was born, 70 percent of Congress was made up of veterans. Now that number is less than 20 percent.

"Polls have shown veterans are more likely to reach across the aisle and to work in a bipartisan manner," Sherill said. "A lot of that stems from the fact that all of us have worked with people from across this country. I've worked with people from rural Alabama to inner-city Detroit… we are all comfortable working with people who probably have different views from us, but we're all very mission driven." 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a woman with a storied military career who is now serving as an Illinois senator, shared a similar sentiment with A Plus. In a previous interview, Sen. Duckworth noted that a shared history in the military "provides [members of Congress] with a place to meet, a starting point where we can take our military service and work on other issues."

Veronica at the El Paso Women's March Veronica Escobar

Sherill's platform is heavy on reforming New Jersey's tax laws and the state's health care system. The recent tax cut, pushed through Congress by the GOP, disproportionately hurt New Jersey compared to other states. She says high taxes and the cost of healthcare have left the quality of life for people in her district falling behind other states. 

Her motivation for running, though, comes from somewhere else: an image she can't get out of her mind as a woman and a mother.

"What was really concerning to me was to see the all-male health care committee in the Senate," Sherill said. "That image is kind of seared into my brain. To think that was the group of people that was going to decide the health care needs of 50 percent of the country, without anybody at the table that I felt like might understand some of my needs."

The image of an all-male health care committee was something Sherill, Escobar and Schriock all referenced when discussing the current state of Congress. Each shared their enthusiasm about the idea of more women in Congress, and Schriock went a step further to say she hopes to see more conservative women elected, too. While Emily's List exclusively recruits women to run as Democrats, she said she hoped to see the Republican Party form a similar organization to recruit women and get them to run for office.

"I'd much rather have Republican women in office right now than the slew of Republican men,"  Schriock said. "This country will be better when Congress and our legislators are 50-plus percent women, and the only way we get there is if the Republican Party makes changes."

Part of Schriock's hope comes from her admiration for Sen. Susan Collins, who she believes has shown a willingness to work across party lines. Much like Sherill sees veterans as being more capable of bipartisanship, Schriock thinks more women in Congress would mean more working together. 

More than a year after the 2016 presidential election, Schriock and Emily's List are starting to reap the rewards of their work. In the November 2017 local elections, women across the country scored major victories running for city council, mayor's races and state senate positions. The visibility of those victories, Schriock said, has encouraged another wave of women to run for office. 

"The power of the successes is actually speeding up the sea change," she said. "And it's not going away, it's just going to get better and bigger and bigger and not just in 2018, but for years to come. These are our next senators, our next governor. I believe there is a president in this group. We just don't know who she is yet."

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