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Women in Politics: What Does Success Mean to You?

Librada Estrada

Si Tu Quieres is excited to highlight an incredible Latina that has been very active in the world of politics for 20 years and is doing great work to develop others who desire to impact and transform their communities and organizations—Patricia Campos-Medina.

Patricia Campos-Medina is a leadership development professional with the Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University. She is currently the President of Latinas United for Political Empowerment (LUPE PAC) in NJ, and a founding Board Member for PODER PAC, a national political action committee by Latinas for Latinas.  She served as political and legislative director for several unions including UNITE, UNITEHERE and SEIU.  She also worked as a campaign consultant in many local, state and federal political campaigns including US Rep. Bill Pascrell, Mayor Cory Booker and Senator Cory Booker. In 2008, she served as part of the Transition Team for President Barack Obama.  She was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the USA at the age of 14 years old and now resides in NJ. You can follow her on Twitter at @pcamposmedina or e-mail her at patriciaLUPEPACpres@gmail.com


It has been quite a year of presidential politics already.  And as the attacks on Hillary’s record continues, I cannot help but think about the challenges that women who work in politics face daily as they attempt to be engaged and win on their own terms.  Not all women might like Hillary, or might connect with her like some of us do, but what her experiences reveal is that in politics, acting like a man can be an “asset and a curse.”  How we learn to navigate this duality is what helps us stay in the game and succeed on our own terms.

I have been immersed in Democratic and labor politics for the majority of 20 years of my professional life.  I have run labor political programs and have been part of teams that run national presidential campaigns, local mayoral and city council campaigns.  I worked at the highest levels of policy making in Congress, and developed sharp elbows getting resolutions passed at the local city councils in cities across the United States.  I have also been in the backroom cutting deals, and I have been in the streets protesting those who are behind closed doors making those deals.  Through all of these experiences, I accomplished a lot but I have also gotten burned and deflated, been excluded and vilified, and I have been told at times that if only I knew how the game is played, I could have more power and influence.

Learning the Game

So, what is the game?  And what does success in politics looks like for women?  I don’t think there is one easy answer for either question, but let’s start by stating the fact that being successful in politics is not necessarily a measure of your level of financial success or your access to power.  There are some women in politics that have both and yet they still feel as outsiders, constantly fighting for recognition for their contributions.  

Learning to negotiate for your interest and for your agenda is a crucial component of learning the game, but the most important one is your ability to build alliances and make those alliances help you build a record of accomplishments.  You also need thick skin to survive the ride and to accept that the qualities that help men be recognized as leaders, do not automatically work for women.  

Why? Because there is a double standard in politics. Qualities that are seen as positive in men, such as confidence and aggressiveness, are seen as negative in women.  Hence, in order to use those qualities to our advantage, we must master the complex art of duality; you must be self-assured and at the same time intentionally learn to transform your confidence into determination and purpose.

So what is the first step in achieving success in politics?  It starts with having a clear purpose.

Your Purpose for Politics

If your goal is to have a future in politics then you must have a plan and a strategy, and be clear about why you are here, in the game.  Why do you want to get into politics?  Is it to build power for yourself?  For your community?  Or is it to accomplish a policy change you care deeply about? 

There is nothing wrong with wanting influence and power.  Men want that all the time and no one vilifies them for it.  But you must know that the stakes are higher for you. If you are a woman, more often than not, you don’t have a “Godfather” to show you the ropes.  You must negotiate the rules on your own and along the way you must learn to develop men and women as allies who will take an interest in your success. (Look for my next piece on cultivating male allies.)

Politics is a Male-Dominated Field

Once you have defined your purpose, you must understand that politics is a male dominated field with access to the inner circle granted more easily to those who are close to money and power.  For Latina women, those two access points are limited given that most of the time we have neither.  We come to politics from the outside, as activists trying to break down the walls and demanding power by mobilizing our community. 

I came to politics as a union/community organizer, someone with a demand.  I believed, and still do, that politics is a tool in our arsenal to fight economic inequality and to have a voice in the future of our country.  Because I was a good organizer, I was recruited to lead union members political activities and to convince them to contribute their hard earned money to politics.  I had people power and that could not be ignored.

But even with people power, I still had to battle the sexism of politics.  I am after all, an immigrant woman with a thick accent. Even with two Ivy League degrees, I had to prove constantly that I didn’t get the job because someone did me a favor.  In my 20s and 30s, I sometimes chose to brush off sexual advances, ignore sexist jokes, and hold my feelings close to my chest so I wouldn’t be labeled too sensitive and or irrational. 

My constant battle was always to be able to cultivate professional relationships with powerful men that were based on my union’s agenda, my campaign skills and my intellect.  I played the game and while I survived and thrived, I always felt a sense that maybe if I had been a man, I would have gotten more done.  Despite this feeling, though, deep in my soul I always knew I had made the best of every situation.

When I entered my late 30’s and 40s, I decided to take a leap of faith and try something new.  I stepped aside from my union political career to have a family, build my own consulting practice and to focus on helping union members become effective leaders.  Politics is a passion for me so I am still engaged in it as an advisor to campaigns and to other Latina women trying to make a mark in politics.

So, if you are a Latina who loves politics, a Latina who wants to run for office or just a political activist who wants to shake up the status quo, I offer the following tips based on what I have learned in the last 20 years of political and campaign work:

  1. Be clear about why you are in the game and be proud of it: You want to run for office? Awesome. Own it.  Learn from the best political candidates and develop a strategy for yourself so that you can run your own campaign. 
  2. Raise your own money: But if you want to run for office, then learn how to raise your own money so that you can be independent and drive your own agenda.  My grandfather, Papita Chema always said, “el que te da el dinero, te controla,” or “whoever gives you the money, controls you.” So, raise your own money. 
  3. Identify your tribe: You want to change the world?  Fix the educational system in your district?  Great causes.  Organize your tios and tias and all your cousins, high school, college friends and your fellow church parishioners. They have to be your first round of volunteers and supporters who help you both with money and by getting others to join your cause.  Than, map out your next round of supporters based on your agenda and your interest.  You grow as a leader when your base of supporters keeps expanding.
  4. Be prepared and always be willing to learn something new: Learn everything you need to know about your issue(s) and be twice as prepared than the men in the room.  And if you don’t know something, listen to what people are saying. Show empathy but don’t fake it.  Be honest that you are not an expert and that you will research the issue and come back with answers.  Faking it or lying about knowing something doesn’t work for women.  We must find the balance between being knowledgeable and not acting like “know it all’s.” 
  5. Be aggressive on defining your expectations to others: You want to learn a new skill in a campaign?  Ask for the job.  Be confident that you will learn it and be clear that you will not get stuck doing the same thing over and over again.  Even if you start at the bottom, by the end of a campaign, you should be in charge of something.  Don’t just hang around waiting to be recognized for your hard work.  If you are a political consultant, find out what other consultants are getting paid for the same type of work.  You have a skill they need so don’t allow them to undervalue your work.   
  6. Open doors for others: If you are a Latina candidate or a campaign consultant, identify young Latina/o operatives and put them to work on your campaign.  Build a cadre of young activist so you can tap their skills later and build your own network.  Have you ever noticed most campaigns always look like 20s something young male college kids? Well, eventually those young male kids become the top earning campaign consultants.  We must build our own pipeline of campaign operatives who are women. 
  7. Empower other women:  Be intentional about having other women voices and experiences around you.  Make them part of your inner circle and assign them key roles on your campaign that will build their skills set.  And if you are a staffer or consultant, use the “shine theory” to build other women allies; if a woman has a great idea in a meeting, support it and make a point to give her credit for it.  This practice denies men the opportunity to ignore it and later claim it as their own.  Don’t be afraid to let other women shine. By building others up, we also build ourselves up as authentic leaders.
  8. Trust your instincts: Oprah talks about how women most valuable asset is our “gut feeling,” our instinct.  There is something innate that makes us feel when something is not good for us. We feel it in our gut or that place right above the top of your stomach that tingles when you are not sure about something. When that happens, don’t ignore it.  If you are being pushed to make a decision that doesn’t feel right, to hire someone you know won’t work out, or you are being triggered by aggressive behavior, walk away.

I have failed some times to listen to my gut instinct and it has gotten me into some bad situations.  But if you make a mistake, don’t be so hard on yourself.  My biggest learning moments have come from situations that went south—either because I lost my composure or because I made the wrong decision.  My test for surviving such moments has always been staying true to myself, living up to my values, and knowing that my integrity was never compromised.

At the end of the day, politics is like any other career. If you love it, you will figure out a way to be good at it.  And like any other job, in order to be successful, you must have a purpose and a strategy to get to the finish line.  Give yourself benchmarks to meet and goals to reach. 

Today I am still in the game cultivating leaders as a trainer and adviser, helping other women and labor leaders discover their own power so they can become authentic leaders with the courage to transform our society.  I have accomplished more than I ever imagined I would as a girl growing up in El Salvador.  And as I continue in my path to build a better world for my children, I keep Winston Churchill’s words as a mantra; 

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts.”

So as you find your path, I urge you to have the courage to be authentic, to challenge the status quo, to build other women up and to keep pushing until you get to your final destination.

Your turn: How do you try to affect change in your community?  How do you define success in your life?

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