A growing wave of women are guiding top aspects of the 2020 presidential campaigns in the Granite State, and those female staffers credit pioneers on the trail and New Hampshire Democrats for having paved the way.
The majority of presidential campaigns say at least half of their New Hampshire senior staff — a term that generally refers to those with managerial responsibilities in a department of the team — are women, with key seats at the table not just as state directors, but also running field organizing, communications and digital operations.
Elizabeth Warren’s New Hampshire team, for example, has women running just about every key department, led by State Director Liz Wester, Political Director Kate Moore, Digital Organizing Director Elice Rojas-Cruz, Organizing Director Kat Rogers, Operations Director Victoria Lee and Voter Contact Program Director Hannah Bristol.
On Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, three of the six senior staffers in New Hampshire are women: Communications Director Kelsi Browning, Deputy State Director Sondra Milkie and Digital Director Megan Carter-Stone.
And Pete Buttigieg’s state director, Victoria Williams, leads a senior staff at gender parity as an alumna of then-Gov. Maggie Hassan’s 2016 campaign for U.S. Senate.
Nationally, the female 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls had just shy of 60 percent women in senior-level positions as of late August, according to a POLITICO analysis of federal elections records and internal campaign data. The top three polling men — former vice president Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Buttigieg — weren’t far off at 54 percent.
To get to this point, women on the campaign trail faced challenges familiar to those in other traditionally male-dominated industries, from double standards in acceptable workplace attire to having to work twice as hard as male counterparts to move up in the system, according to interviews with more than a half dozen top-level female staffers and longtime N.H. Democratic Party operatives.
And while by no means perfect, today’s relative equity is owed largely to the mentorship of trailblazers going back to the 1980s, and the bounty of elected positions across the Granite State, many said.
“I think especially in a place like New Hampshire, where Jeanne Shaheen — who basically rejuvenated the Democratic party in the state — when she was elected, she had women around her,” Kathleen Sullivan, former chairwoman of the N.H. Democratic Party, said.
Many of those who worked on Shaheen’s late ’90s gubernatorial campaigns and her 2008 and 2014 U.S. Senate bids continue to pollinate statewide and presidential campaigns, Sullivan said, building a deep bench of hardworking, talented women who can run first-in-the-nation primary operations with extensive local knowledge.
Shaheen “was a mentor to all sorts of people, both women and men,” Sullivan continued. “... And I think today, when you look at some of the women who are managing campaigns in New Hampshire, like Erin Turmelle and Liz Wester, I would call them sort of second- or third-generation Shaheen people.”
Turmelle and Wester, the state directors for Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Warren, respectively, were two of the earliest New Hampshire hires in the 2020 campaign cycle. Both credit their breadth of experience to what they learned ascending the ranks under Shaheen and other leaders.
“New Hampshire has empowered women throughout the field, so I have always felt like these strong female role models have helped pave the way for me to take the steps in my professional career that I have,” Turmelle, 31, said. “I think to some degree, people can always say that, but I feel really lucky and incredibly blessed to have strong women in my professional life, in my personal life and in my family who have really helped me push through any barriers that I’ve seen in my way.”
A Granite State native from Stratham, Turmelle started organizing in high school for former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s presidential bid in 2004.
Wester grew up outside Boston, but has spent most of her political career in New Hampshire since 2010, despite the shellacking Democrats took that year.
“Senator Shaheen is definitely a mentor,” Wester, also 31, said “... She has been definitely an inspiration to be able to see someone who started serving in an organizer-type role.”
In 1984, Shaheen ran then-Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire, leading him to an upset victory in the Granite State over better-known candidates like Walter Mondale and John Glenn. Prior to that, she ran then-President Jimmy Carter’s New Hampshire primary campaign, fending off neighboring state challenger Ted Kennedy.
One of the only women running campaigns at that level in the early ’80s, Shaheen began earning what a New York Times reporter described as “an aggressive, take-no-prisoners campaign style.”
“I think at that time, I was one of the few women in the country who had run a campaign at that level for a candidate, and it’s been heartening to see more and more women do that,” Shaheen said Friday. “And I think it’s because women have seen other women do it and think, ‘Well I can do that, too.’ ”
She and other Granite State women, like former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly of Harrisville — who cut her teeth as the Cheshire County chairwoman for Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign — paved the way for today’s women in a heavily male professional culture. Kelly was unavailable for comment for this report.
Carli Stevenson, the communications director and deputy state director for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, did not mince words in describing holdover traits from the days of the proverbial “old boys club.”
“We want to end this culture of the sort of hard-charging, like, ‘Yeah, he’s an a--hole, but, you know, he gets the work done!’ kind of thing that I think is so destructive,” Stevenson, a 35-year-old Hampton native, said of what women have been up against working on the trail. “In many fields, but certainly on campaigns, there’s kind of like that caricature or archetype of the grizzled man who’s the hotshot guy who yells and screams, and [people are] like, ‘Yeah, but he’s tough, and he gets results.’ And I think that’s honestly a lot of nonsense.”
After working as the New Hampshire deputy communications director for Sanders on his 2016 campaign — later going on to run the comms shop in Ohio and Minnesota — Stevenson said she was in a closed-door meeting with top brass from the national team to discuss the culture of the Sanders hierarchy, and how things could be improved for women and other marginalized groups going forward.
“I was really, really proud that I was able to be a part of that discussion to say, ‘Let’s talk about this openly, and let’s see what we can do to really change the culture of campaigning and make it more sustainable and something that people can do as a long-term career,” she said.
A lot of that has come in campaigns codifying basic rules for the workplace and adding human relations departments, which were not common in the past and remain a rarity in other parts of the country, according to Stevenson and other operatives.
Campaigns are particularly vulnerable to a hyper-macho workplace culture, Stevenson explained, because of the basic ingredients.
“Adding in the fact that it’s a very kind of high-adrenaline, high-stakes [atmosphere] — and then it ends, right?” Stevenson said. “It’s hugely competitive, and I think it tends to attract, just by its nature, people who are more aggressive or have big egos, if you will.
“And a pathway to power, right?” Stevenson added. “Campaigns are all about, you know, winning — winning for your candidate, so they can hold power. So I think people who are attracted to power for the wrong reasons, I think certainly campaigning is a place where all of those things can come together in a perfect storm.”
While many women used to be frozen out of those circles of power, Stevenson noted that for the few who managed to get a seat at the table, the incentives could lead one to believe the only way to make it in politics was being just as ruthless or more so than male colleagues.
But in the modern era, with more diverse staff and — particularly in this presidential cycle — more diverse candidates, both younger and older staffers say many of those attitudes have changed.
“The biggest thing I’ll say is that working on this campaign and getting to work for Kamala Harris every day is a dream come true,” Pavitra Abraham, the New Hampshire organizing director for the California senator’s presidential campaign said. “I get to get up every day and go to work for a candidate and with a team that are reflective of our country and our democracy, and that’s really exciting and something that is new, right?”
On the Harris campaign, Abraham, a 25-year-old from Farmington Hills, Mich., noted that she is “never the only woman in the room, [and is] constantly on calls led by women, people of color.”
And feeling the historic nature of both the campaign and her own role in a leadership position, she said she’s looking forward to what comes next.
“Moving forward and thinking about what do future generations of organizers and organizing directors — what are they looking for, and what do they need to be successful?” she said. “I feel really proud of the work we’re doing every day to make this space and this work more inclusive for anybody who wants to get involved.”