With disruption in mind, Women for The Future of Pittsburgh widens candidates’ donor base

The PAC has a launch party Monday.

Ashleigh Deemer, Marita Garrett, Natalia Rudiak and Chelsa Wagner

Ashleigh Deemer, Marita Garrett, Natalia Rudiak and Chelsa Wagner

Incline Photos | Allegheny County Controller's Office / Flickr
MJ Slaby

Women are ready to run for political office, but that preparation doesn’t matter if a candidate doesn’t have funds and endorsements, said founders of Women for the Future of Pittsburgh.

The new political action committee — a purposeful WTF Pittsburgh for short — launched in November and its first event on Monday aims to build a financial network that will help progressive women candidates break into the “boys’ club” of Pennsylvania politics.

It can be frustrating to hear that women need to spend more time perfecting their resumes or that it “isn’t your time,” said co-founder Natalia Rudiak, an outgoing Pittsburgh City Council member. What it comes down to, she said, is money and who you know.

“We’re going to be disruptive,” added co-founder and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, who previously was a state representative from 2006 to 2011.

Along with Rudiak and Wagner, the PAC was founded by Ashleigh Deemer, a candidate for city council in the primary, and Marita Garrett, Wilkinsburg’s mayor-elect. The team is still figuring out how many candidates to endorse and fund ahead of the 2018 primary, but aim to have the most possible impact — regardless the size of the race. Wagner said raising at least $50,000 in the PAC’s first year seems reasonable.

“In some smaller races, it could be $500 that makes a difference,” she said.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak in Beechview.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak in Beechview.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Why fundraising matters

The first time she ran for office, Rudiak made a list of every person she knew — from her high school guidance counselor to classmates from graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University — so she could call and ask for their support of and donations to her District 4 campaign.

The first call she made was to a college classmate she hadn’t talked to in nine years. They lived on the same floor freshman year and Rudiak said she knew he was wealthy because she saw the realtor in an episode of “House Hunters.” Rudiak said he’d made campaign donations to Hillary Clinton in 2008, so she called his New York City office.

“He was totally taken aback,” Rudiak said, remembering the call — but he donated.

She said that experience shows the challenge that women candidates can have. She used an HGTV show to find a donor, while male candidates often rely on their “family, their golf buddies, drinking buddies and fellow union members” for donations, she said, adding that again and again, she found “men keep their money in the family literally and figuratively.”

Rudiak said there’s a misconception that women aren’t good at raising money, when it’s really that they don’t have the same access to funds as men.

As the PAC founders thought about ways to encourage women in politics, fundraising was both needed and an area of expertise.

In a way, Wagner said the PAC is a companion to programs that train women to run for office like Emerge Pa. for Democratic women and Ready to Run, a bi-partisan training at Chatham’s Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.

When a candidate runs, the first question is “Who is supporting you?” Wagner said.

Often, powerful people are more willing open their checkbooks if they like the answer to that question, Deemer said, adding that donors don’t always want to listen to a candidate detail her values and platforms, even if they agree with them.

Candidates aren’t going to win if they don’t have those endorsements and donors that lead to more donors, she said.

Without donations, PAC founders said candidates can’t hire staff, print flyers or advertise, have an office and food for volunteers, or pay for polling, which tells them where to focus funds.

WTF Pittsburgh plans to provide funds and endorsements early, hoping the money will build support and reduce the time they spend fundraising.

“Every minute you’re on the phone fundraising, however important it is, you’re not talking to voters.” Deemer said.

Launching women forward

Monday’s launch is not just for candidates and women thinking about running, it’s to build a donor base and a like-minded community, founders said.

The event starts at woman-owned Dinette in East Liberty for food and wine from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $100. The party then migrates to the Ace Hotel from 7 to 10 p.m. and includes drinks and a lineup of women-led entertainment including Who’s Nexter Jacquea Mae. Tickets are $49.  (Get tickets here. If you really want to go, but can’t afford tickets, the PAC wants you to email them.)

“We want this to be a funding platform [and] a place that really pushes out inspiring stories and lessons from female elected officials,” Rudiak said, adding she sees WTF Pittsburgh as a hub of community and education.

It’s about creating a space to get people together to organize and network, Wagner added.

It’s also about finding new donors, Deemer said, since candidates often exhaust the same donors, though new contributors are willing to kick in, too.

She and Rudiak also said women who are passionate about social change will donate to an advocacy organization before a candidate. But there’s a catch, they warned. While a donor could give $50 to Planned Parenthood, they could also give that money to a candidate who becomes an elected official and secures 100 times that in government funds for Planned Parenthood.

Having the PAC means donors don’t have to worry about personal connections. Pittsburgh is a small space, and a donor might like one candidate, but feel they can’t donate because the opponent is a friend, family member or co-worker, Wagner said. Instead of giving to a certain candidate, donors can give to  progressive women candidates through WTF.

While needing to increase the number of women in politics is not new, Wagner said she’s noticed an awareness that wasn’t there before the election of Donald Trump. She said she wants to take up the torch from older women who’ve fought this fight for years.

“We don’t want to lose the momentum,” Wagner said.

Although the numbers didn’t show a slew of women candidates in 2017, as some may have expected, the successes are there, Rudiak said, pointing mayoral wins from Garrett, Stacie Riley in Carnegie, Nickole Nesby in Duquesne and Emily Marburger in Bellevue. Multiple women who were first-time candidates won their 2017 municipal races and more women are challenging state legislators in 2018.

In the end, one thing will make the difference, the founders said.

“We need to win,” Deemer said.