As a candidate for public office, Jessica Vega Pederson already had a compelling life story. She was raised in a Mexican-American family in Chicago, where her mother was politically active and Pederson got involved in Latino issues.
Now a project manager for a tech company, Pederson spent this year running for the Legislature in East Portland—and a victory she said would make her the first Latina elected to the Oregon House.
What Pederson lacked was practice in telling her story.
But this year Pederson took part in what's become a secret weapon for Democratic women: Emerge Oregon.
The organization is in effect a boot camp for Democratic women who want to gain the necessary skills to win at the game of politics still largely dominated by men. Without the training, she says, "I wouldn't have had the confidence to go out and talk to people."
Pederson won her race Nov. 6, and she's not the only woman who says her electoral victory is due in large part to skills she gained from Emerge Oregon.
Six other graduates ran this year—and they all won. They include four candidates for the Oregon House. One, Shemia Fagan, beat Rep. Patrick Sheehan (R-Clackamas) to help give Democrats a 34-26 edge over Republicans.
Oregon will now have 24 women in the Legislature (18 Democrats and six Republicans), three more than in 2011—plus two Democratic women re-elected to higher offices, 1st District Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici and Secretary of State Kate Brown.
Emerge Oregon executive director Laura Coyle says studies show women often feel less qualified to run even if they have better credentials than their male counterparts.
"What we really want to do is help those women translate their career résumé, their life résumé and all of their experience into an idea that they're qualified for office," she says. "We really give them the tools."
The organization is a branch of Emerge America, which started in 2002 when Bay Area Democratic women sought a way to help increase the number of women running for office.
The program has since expanded to 12 states and moved into Oregon in 2008. Since then, 78 women have gone through Emerge Oregon training, and more than half have gone on to win elected office or be appointed to a state board.
The 70-hour program trains participants in public speaking, crafting messages for the media (including social media), and designing campaign strategy and field operations. Trainees write fundraising scripts and practice on target donors—with the money they raise going to Emerge Oregon.
Emerge Oregon trains only Democratic women and is funded through tuition ($350) and contributions. Campaign finance records show donations range from $50 to $2,500. Donors include unions, such as the Oregon Education Association, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). State records show Democratic lawmakers and other labor groups have given $24,000.
Elisa Dozono, a lawyer with Miller Nash and a co-founder of Emerge Oregon, says the organization also helps identify women who would make good candidates.
"The recruitment piece is key because many women believe they don't have the right experience," Dozono says.
State Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland) was in the middle of her Emerge Oregon training when classmates and the groups' alumnae urged her to seek appointment to a state House seat being vacated by Rep. Ben Cannon.
To get the seat, she had to woo 27 precinct committee members. "[Emerge Oregon] gave me advice on how to spend my time and get my message out," she says.
Emerge Oregon alums have also faced off against each other.
Jennifer Williamson ran against Dr. Sharon Meieran in the 2012 primary for the Oregon House seat being vacated by Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland), who ran for Portland City Council. And Pederson ran against Thuy Tran, an East Portland optometrist, for the seat opened up by Rep. Jefferson Smith when he ran for mayor. Williamson and Pederson won both their primary and general election races.
The effort to prepare Democratic women to run for office so far has no counterpart among Republicans.
"I don't think that having a program like this is necessarily an advantage," says Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn), assistant minority leader, who says many of the Emerge Oregon graduates were running in safe Democratic seats. "You could always find ways to bring women into the community and a political conversation."
But Parrish sees the value in having a similar GOP training ground for female candidates. "I don't know if there is anything on the horizon," she says. "I think that there is a benefit to what Emerge is doing, and it's valuable for women to have the kind of training that it provides.â