Record number of female directors run Iowa caucus campaigns

Record number of female directors run Iowa caucus campaigns

Brianne Pfannenstiel

Des Moines Register

Published 6:28 PM EDT Sep 11, 2019

Kirsten Gillibrand was struggling with a line in her speech.

The New York senator was in the car and making changes to remarks she’d give at the Women’s March in Ames during her first trip to Iowa last January as a still-undeclared presidential candidate. But when her male campaign manager jumped in with a suggestion, Gillibrand stopped him.

“I want to hear from the ladies in the car,” Lara Henderson remembers Gillibrand saying as she turned to face the women in vehicle.

“At that moment, I knew I was going to work for this woman,” Henderson said. “It was so incredible.”

Shortly after, Henderson signed on to direct Gillibrand’s now-ended Iowa caucus campaign as the director of her campaign in the state, helping to lead one of the most unabashedly feminist, woman-centric presidential campaigns in history.

Henderson is among seven women who have earned the title of Iowa state director on a Democratic presidential campaign this election cycle. That’s a marked shift in a field that men have long dominated. In the past three caucus cycles, just three women have held the same title on Democratic caucus campaigns in the state.

The list: Who is running for president in 2020? An interactive guide

The transformation in state director ranks comes as a wave of women has jumped into politics at every level — a movement that fueled Democratic gains in Congress in 2018 and now is helping propel the presidential candidacies of a record-breaking number of women.

“We all do better when we can see what we can be,” said Teresa Vilmain, an Iowa native and longtime Democratic operative. She is believed to be the first woman to run an Iowa caucus campaign, leading Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign here and then becoming Michael Dukakis’ state director after Hart exited the race.

“Those were lonely days as the first female state director,” Vilmain said, adding that much of the press and the political world considered it a “novelty” at the time.

“But it’s becoming the norm,” she said. “I think one of the most drastic, biggest changes is there are men and women lifting up these women that are running these state campaigns. So the sisterhood is stronger. There are more women managing. There are more women helping women. And that is, I think, good for everybody — men and women.”

In addition to Gillibrand, two other female candidates have hired women to lead their Iowa operations: Lauren Dillon is state director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Janice Rottenberg runs the Iowa team for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

But several male candidates also have tapped female leaders this year. Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland hired Monica Biddix, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont chose Misty Rebik. Cynthia Sebian-Lander is state director for former U.S. housing secretary Julián Castro, and Megan Simpson leads Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s Iowa team.

“In any of their next endeavors, these women will not take a back seat,” said former Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky, who was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 women’s engagement director and in 2020 has endorsed U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. “They won’t be quiet. They won’t wait their turn. They won’t do the things that my generation of women did — and it will change conversations.”

Biddix said that after Republican President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, “a lot of women, myself included, woke up the next day and just felt like they’d been punched in the face.”

That anger fueled the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and a surge of female candidates running for office. But Biddix said the campaign world has felt that surge of enthusiasm from women as well.

“Now there’s more of a clamoring to have a seat at the table — and not just be there, sitting quietly, but to be listened to and have their voice and have their ideas taken seriously,” she said.

An August review of FEC data by Politico found that women account for nearly 60 percent of senior leadership roles on presidential campaigns headed by a female candidate and 54 percent of senior leadership roles on the presidential campaigns of the three top-polling male candidates.

A campaign’s state director oversees everything happening on the ground in Iowa — from its political department to its communications team to its field organization — and she communicates with the campaign’s national team outside the state to keep everything moving in tandem.

“When you are the state director, you have a full picture of what a campaign is,” Dillon said. “You’re just trying to make sure that everything is running in the right direction.”

But many said they run into issues their male counterparts don’t often have to contend with.

“I’ve changed my appearance. I’ve changed the clothes I wear. I have changed the way I talk to people my whole career so that I would be taken more seriously,” said Rebik, adding that she cut her hair short at 26 so that men would stop talking about it.

All of that has fed into her direct, no-nonsense leadership style, she said. And she resists pressure from people who think she should soften her approach.

“I’m not going to change back the other way to make someone feel warm and cuddly,” she said. “That’s just not who I am.”

For others, this campaign was the first time they recalled being presented with substantial paid maternity and paternity leave policies. The pace and demanding hours of campaigns make any kind of work-life balance difficult, but especially for working parents.

Rottenberg said that working with Emily Parcell, now a top adviser to the Warren campaign, in 2018 was the first time she’d seen someone so involved who also had children.

“I never envisioned it before, because I just didn’t have an example of what it was like to be like, ‘Oh, I could be a woman in my 30s with kids and a husband and still be involved in this type of work if I wanted to be,” Rottenberg said. “I don’t have to be, and I know that. But it is possible, because I’m seeing it happen.”

That kind of representation matters, Dvorsky said. But it’s also incumbent on these women to expand the conversation further.

“When more women are at the table, then the job is to get more women who have different life experiences at the table — whether that’s cultural, whether that’s racial, whether that’s socio-economic,” she said. “And these women are part of what’s making it happen.”

These are the women running the campaigns:

Monica Biddix, Iowa State Director, John Delaney

Biddix said she originally went to school intending to be a history teacher and entered politics only after finding she hated teaching. She got her first campaign job in finance and, “within 36 hours, I found myself doing a gubernatorial primary.” In Iowa, she managed Andy McGuire’s 2018 gubernatorial primary campaign and, before that, was the communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party.

On the importance of mentors: “I’ve had several female mentors in my life. But I really didn’t have that mentor until later on in my career. And I was starting to look around and be like ‘My gosh, the guys, they always have this.’ Sometimes, for every female mentor I had, they had like six or seven — and just because that’s the nature of the industry. And I can tell you that having mentors helps. We need more of them, I think. … I’ve tried to mentor every person that has been on a campaign I’ve managed.”

On seeing women in charge: “Congressman Delaney was in town last week, and someone at an event thought that I was a member of his family. They’re still not used to seeing that. … The default is what it was 20 years ago: to see a male leading the charge. So I think it’s good to kind of shift and say, ‘Hey, women can do this too.'”

Lauren Dillon, Iowa State Director, Amy Klobuchar

Dillon grew up in Brooklyn, Iowa, where she started arguing politics with her Republican parents, and she got a job as a page in the Iowa Senate when she was a senior in high school. She was a research director for the Democratic National Committee and most recently was the deputy director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

On the growth of female leaders: “When I started at the DNC in the research team, it was mostly all guys. … But I remember one day, when we were helping with a really important Senate race … and I looked around and noticed that the room, it was like 18 people and maybe two of them were men. So thinking about how we are planning the strategy for the Senate race and helping them out and it’s just a room full of women going and strategizing and kicking ass — you could tell that this was not where I started. This has changed a lot.”

On being excluded: “There was a time where I worked for a principal that would have poker games. … And I play poker. I love playing poker. I like beating guys at poker. I was never invited to one of their poker games. And it was clearly because I am a woman. … It definitely can mean that when I’m competing against one of (those men) for a different job or to try and move up, they know that (principle). … And that is a cost to not being there.”

Lara Henderson, Iowa State Director, Kirsten Gillibrand

Henderson made her mark in Iowa politics as the finance director for Fred Hubbell’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018 — the most expensive governor’s race in state history. She previously was finance director for Patty Judge’s 2016 U.S. Senate primary and campaign manager for Brad Anderson’s 2014 secretary of state race.

On having more women in campaign leadership: “(When women are in charge), we’re able to talk about issues that women are talking about and talk about them from a way that women would. … It just makes our campaigns so much stronger — and also well-organized and color-coded.”

On women taking charge beyond campaigns: “When I started out, there were not nearly as many women, and you can kind of still see that in the consultant class. … We’re slowly starting to have more women rise through the ranks of leadership. So I’m also really excited for when it gets to the world — when we’re getting older and these consultants, not just the campaigns, are finally reflective of the party we are trying to be.”

Misty Rebik, Iowa State Director, Bernie Sanders

Rebik got her start in organizing by organizing workers for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement before co-founding the nonprofit Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, where she was the executive director. Rebik managed Cathy Glasson’s gubernatorial primary campaign in 2018.

On growing up in a working-class household: “My mom was one of the few white women working in a factory full of Latino immigrants and Asian immigrants who were just trying to get by with their families who were being exploited all the time by the company. Thank God the union was there. So I grew up with that. She was always kind of this woman who stood up for other people, stood up for herself, didn’t take a lot of sh–. I’m a lot like that.”

On the power of organizing: “I became totally addicted to issue-based organizing. To me, it was the only thing I saw that worked. Because even if you didn’t win the end goal, the way that people experience their life after going through a struggle like that with other people and taking collective action together completely changed who they were. It really taught them about power and their own power. So I am very into that. I love to see people realize their own power.”

Janice Rottenberg, Iowa State Director, Elizabeth Warren

Rottenberg got her start in politics by working on Barack Obama’s campaign as a summer fellow. She caught “the bug” for working on campaigns, she said, and worked for the Iowa Democratic Party as a field director in 2014, and in 2018, worked at the party with many candidates across the state.

On being one of the youngest people in her first campaign job: “I realized very early in my time as a fellow and then as an organizer that my age was not an impediment. … Old, young — no one cares. It’s sort of like — if you come in, you are hungry to learn, you take to the training, you try, you push yourself — it doesn’t matter whether you’re super introverted or super extroverted. … And for me, it was empowering.”

On the barriers women face: “I still think that, because of the nature of how we work, there is no good way for us to go scout talent and say, ‘You’re really awesome; you should be working for a campaign,’ other than volunteers coming in. So, I think there’s still a ton of people — and, disproportionately, women — who don’t find their way into campaigns because it does take a certain level of knocking on the door of a person, who feels like a big deal, to say, ‘Please, pay attention to me.’”

Cynthia Sebian-Lander, Iowa State Director, Julián Castro

Sebian-Lander intended to work in environmental advocacy but found she loved getting people elected who could speak about the issues she cared about most. She’s worked on political campaigns in Virginia, Alaska, Illinois and in Iowa, where she managed Deidre DeJear’s 2018 secretary of state’s race.

On building a pipeline of leaders: “How do we make sure our interns, our organizers, our entry-level folks represent who we want to be leaders in five or 10 years? I think we really need to start thinking about that — just like we need to think about it at the candidate level. A lot of time is spent making sure we have folks to move into Statehouse, congressional, Senate races — and we need to be thinking about it at the staff level, too.”

On the effect voters have had in making politics more inclusive: “I think voters want to see that candidates are living their values, whether it’s hiring more women or a more diverse staff or unionizing. I think that’s something we have not seen in past campaigns. And, absolutely, I think people are talking about it more.”

Megan Simpson, Iowa State Director, Steve Bullock

Simpson knocked on her first door for an Iowa political campaign at 3 years old. Her aunt and uncle are state Sen. Pam Jochum and former state Rep. Tom Jochum, and politics was a family affair. She created the “Students for Kerry” group at Simpson College and got her first professional job organizing for Obama. She ran the 2018 coordinated campaign for the Montana Democratic Party.

On getting back into politics after 2016: “I was working at a tech company in ’16 in San Francisco and was living a very cushy life. … But I found myself being around a bunch of people in the Bay who were, like, ‘What’s wrong with that part of the country?’ and ‘I can’t believe we lost.’ And I was like, ‘I’m upset, but I’m not going to sit here and complain. I’m going to leave this job and go figure out how I can be helpful.'”

On her aunt and mentor, state Sen. Pam Jochum: “It’s been incredible to just be able to grow up and watch her continue to be an advocate for all the right reasons. I got to go and sit at her desk in 2013 to watch her lead the Medicaid expansion debate on the Senate floor when she was Senate president. So to see that throughout and her growth and to see how she didn’t take anything — any crap — from anyone was incredible.”

Brianne Pfannenstiel is Chief Politics Reporter for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.

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