Six Who Dare: Emerge Tennessee’s Inaugural Class of Democratic Women Candidates From Knoxville

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2016will always be remembered as the year the first major-party female candidate for president skidded to defeat.

But 150 other Democratic women candidates in 16 states had an entirely different outcome. They won races from New Jersey to New Mexico, water board to state Senate to township trustee.

Their common link? All were alumnae of Emerge America, an intensive candidate-training program for Democrat women intending to seek office. The group operated in 16 states in 2016. This March, Emerge Tennessee made it 17.

Twenty-four women make up the inaugural class that’s now a few months into a 70-hour, five-month campaign-training program. A solid six hail from Knoxville or Maryville, heeding the call that drew 50 women total to apply for the ET training program in January.

These pioneers have centuries of history working against them.

In Tennessee’s 220 years of statehood, only two Democratic women have held office in the U.S. House of Representatives, and no woman in Tennessee has ever served as governor or been elected to the U.S. Senate. Just two Democratic women serve in Tennessee’s 33-member state Senate, and seven Democratic women in the 99-member Legislature.

Noting these facts on its website, Emerge Tennessee puts “recruiting women to run for office” on the top of its list of missions. Former Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson and Cortney Piper, president of Piper Communications in Knoxville, helped select the candidates for its inaugural class.

“We believe it is important to increase the number of women representation proportionate to the number of female constituents,” says Emerge Tennessee Executive Director Kristal Knight. “What we have seen here in the state and across the country is when women aren’t properly represented at the legislative table, issues that arise that directly affect women aren’t properly legislated.”

According to Emerge statistics, women comprise more than 50 percent of the national electorate but hold only 29 percent of the country’s elected offices.

The parent group of Emerge, founded in 2005, is all about identifying potential candidates among the female population and encouraging them to run. But even in red-dominated Tennessee, they will stick to Democratic women. “We train Democratic women because we want Democrats to win,” states its national website. “Health care, reproductive rights, working families, equal pay, education—there is too much at stake. We must put women on the ballot trained to win and ready to support our issues!”

Some 214 Emerge-trained women Democrats ended up on ballots across the nation in 2016, and 70 percent of those won their races.

The results in the steadfast red Volunteer state may not be as stunning, at least not right away, but the past success of our neighbors in Emerge Kentucky may set a baseline.

“Last year, 61 percent of the Emerge Kentucky alumnae who ran for office were elected, despite the state voting heavily for Donald Trump and Democrats losing the state House for the first time in almost a century,” Knight says.

Here, the five women representing Knoxville and the one representing Maryville share what drew them to the Emerge program and, to borrow a phrase from Emerge headquarters, Why She Runs.

Kristina McLean
Courtesy Kristina McLean

former online merchant, McLean’s volunteer work includes service for the Church of the Savior, United Church of Christ as Deacon of Communications, state communications work for UniteWomen.org, and work for the Alliance for Healthcare Security and the University of Tennessee Medical Center Cancer Institute’s Survivorship Steering Committee.

Why I stepped up now:
This Molly Ivins quote kept running through my head after the election: “It’s about political courage and heroes, and when a country is desperate for leadership. These are times when regular politics will not do, and this is one of those times.”

I have been so heartened by many people’s resistance to the policies and values of the Trump administration. I believe we’re witnessing the creation of a grassroots movement that could be unstoppable. I would be honored if I could help lead this movement as an elected official.

My political role model:
Gloria Johnson has been a wonderful mentor to me. She embodies so much of what I aspire to be as a woman involved in politics. She did a wonderful job representing our district in the state Legislature. What I admire most about her is the fact that she never gives up. When she was narrowly defeated due to a obscene amount of money that outside groups and special interests pumped into the race, she just kept on going. She’s still fighting to make sure Americans can keep the healthcare they’ve come to depend on, and she’s fighting for all the people in our state that don’t have healthcare, She does all of this while keeping a great sense of humor and a spirit of grace.

How my gender has affected my past:
I’ve experienced what so many other woman working have: I’ve been harassed, condescended to, and left out of events and denied opportunities and relationships that would help further my career.

Steps along the way:
I gravitated to the Democratic Party from a very early age, and getting to “vote” for Geraldine Ferraro when my mom let me pull the lever in the booth just thrilled me.

I want to help outstanding women candidates get elected and I’m hoping Emerge will help me with that and also when it comes time to start my own run for political office.

In 2013, cancer blew up my life. I’ve been forced to rebuild it brick by brick. While discouraging at times, it made me reevaluate my priorities. Through a strange turn of events, a picture of me holding a sign stating that Joe Biden was my spirit animal was reported on by the White House press pool, and I got my five seconds of Internet “fame.” I realized when local news stations interviewed me, I could turn a silly sign into an opportunity to talk about how the Affordable Care Act has helped me. As a cancer survivor, I understand the fear that diagnosis can bring and how important having access to affordable healthcare is. I want to continue to be an advocate for other cancer survivors and those suffering from health problems.

What I would bring to a candidacy:
I’ve been a member of Church of the Savior for more than four years, and the spirit of love and advocacy for those in need that I see there encourages me on a daily basis. I expect those values to be even more important if I ever run or serve in office.

As a Christian, I believe that we should never build our country on the backs of the poor, children, seniors, minorities, the LGBT community, the disabled, or any vulnerable population.

Comments on the process:
Developing pregnancy complications and caring for an infant put a damper on my political activity, but I now feel that my daughter has given me a new reason to speak out and fight. When I don’t feel brave myself, I can be brave for her.

I’ve gotten a small taste of the privacy you lose as a public figure because you lose a lot of personal autonomy and privacy going through cancer treatment. I feel like I’ve been battle-tested. I’ve been the victim of sexual assault. I’ve battled breast cancer, infertility, and pregnancy complications. Political smears and attacks can’t compete with the obstacles I’ve already faced.

Evetty J. Satterfield
Courtesy Evetty J. Satterfield

An employee of ProjectGRAD Knoxville as a college and career access coach, Satterfield co-founded the TENSE Summit six years ago to combat youth crime in East Knoxville.

Why I stepped up now:
I am extremely passionate about education, specifically access to higher education. I desire to one day push policy on a national level. Education and politics go hand in hand—which is not a favorable thing, but it is what it is. I figured going through this program will give me much-needed insight on how politics work!

It’s so fascinating that anyone can run for office. Of course, you know this intellectually, but when you really see the requirements up close, anyone really can do it. I might take my stab at something next year. I want to get my Ph.D. and push educational policy. That’s the main goal. If I take a detour and run for office, it’ll be well worth it.

I tell you, I’m fresh to this scene, but that’s to my advantage. It’s hard to “play politics” when you don’t even know the rules.

Who would be proudest of me if I succeeded in public office:
I kind of shared my interest with my family over dinner. My sister said, “No, we don’t want to be in the news all like that. They’re going to put our business out there!” So I’m unsure if I have her vote. More seriously, for most proud, I hope in everything I do I make my loved ones proud and I believe I do.

I think I am the one that would be the most surprised if I got on a ballot or won a race. Everyone else is kind of like, “Yeah, I can see that.” Me, on the other hand, I’m thinking, “Are you sure, girl?”

Steps along the way:
There have been so many opportunities for me here in East Knoxville. People are dedicated to our community. I know I would not be where I am today had I not gone to Austin-East Magnet High School. The faculty and staff, particularly Dorothy Brice, and organizations such as Project GRAD, Urban League NULITES, and National Achievers Society changed my life. Drastically.

Thoughts on the process:
If I decide to run, the betterment of our youth will always be at the top of my agenda. Has to be. Holding public office will only amplify what I’m currently doing and provide me with more resources and access.

I have a tattoo on my arm that reads, “I am the community.” To me, if I live, work, or play somewhere, it’s my responsibility to improve it. Thinking “Let someone else do it”—I wish that was even an option for me, but it never has been. God doubled up on the passion when he created me.

What makes me unusual for politics is that I’m black. A millennial. And a woman. In that order. I am fully all three of those, all the time. My boldness is what makes me an unusual candidate, but that might also be what makes me the perfect candidate.

With that, I can come off as “too much,” or so I’ve been told before. A lot of times in the political scene they tell you to “wait your turn.” Nah, my turn is right now.

Jamie Ballinger-Holden
Courtesy Jamie Ballinger-Holden

An attorney with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, Ballinger-Holden is a member of the firm’s health care, employment, and intellectual property practice groups. She is a founding and current chair of the East Tennessee Lawyer’s Association Women and Leadership Committee and a member of the United Way of Greater Knoxville Health and Basic Needs Committee.

Why I stepped up now:
This is the least diverse cabinet our country has had in years. It isn’t okay. We need women at the table. We need a government representative our diverse and wonderful population. After the November election, many of my friends of both political parties felt galvanized to see more women run for office. As a part of that effort, I went on a campaign of trying to talk my friends from all walks of life to run for office. I applied for Emerge because I can’t ask my friends and family to run if I am not willing to be bold and do so myself.

How my gender has affected my past:
Thanks to the hard work of generations of women before me, there are fewer professional impediments for me than for women of earlier generations. But I have never forgotten that the fight for rights for women was long and hard, and is not over. Being a lawyer means I typically work with a very educated and thoughtful group of men and women who strive to treat all equally. But, in general in our society, sexism is alive and well. I think I am still always trying to prove I deserve to be in the room. I am always trying to show that there are more ways to lead and that women are effective leaders. Women get interrupted a lot during meetings, and sometimes we are not heard.

Steps along the way:
I have always leaned Democratic and my first presidential vote was for Al Gore in 2000. But my family is Republican. It is interesting and helpful. When we have tough conversations, which are critical, I have always had to try and step in their shoes and they in mine. We don’t always agree, but we keep talking, and that is the key.

Comments on the process:
So far, the Emerge training has been both inspiring and intimidating. Inspiring, because the data shows that when women run, they win. We just need more women savvy in the political process. Intimidating, because it is new. I have never put myself out there and asked folks for their vote. There will be lots of personal scrutiny when I do. It takes courage, but I know I can do it.

I haven’t gotten any blatantly sexist questions yet, and I have only had two naysayers. They say you can’t run as a Democrat in East Tennessee. I do not believe that. I think East Tennesseans are reasonable folks. If they think you have the best ideas to improve our city, county, and state, they will give you their support.

I will have to overcome my fear of failure to win a race. I might not win and that is okay. But I remind myself, “You cannot win if you are not in the race.

Melissa Nance
Courtesy Melissa Nance

The executive director of Friends of Literacy in Knoxville, Nance is a mother and cancer survivor who lives in Maryville. She has been an executive with the Knoxville Opera and the Little River Watershed Association, a board member with the Maryville Arts Coalition, and a member of the Leadership Blount County Class of 2006.

Why I am stepping up now:
Just in the past year, I became a volunteer for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network Tennessee and a policy advocate for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I was responding to my own cancer, asking, “How can I turn some of this into a positive?” The two organizations were working on bills that were both held for 2018, but I got a look into the legislative process and what it takes for something to come to pass. That’s when I decided I wanted to go further.

I have a couple of possible offices in mind. I am really interested in something on the state level and I’m already investigating a few—definitely the state level or above.

Steps along the way:
What’s changed for me, through working with community groups, is realizing that you can keep your core beliefs but sometimes you have to compromise. When I was younger, I thought, “This is the way, it has to be this way.” But now I realize there really is a middle ground.

If you look at national and state politics from the media, you would think there are just two sides, and they hate each other. But I don’t think that’s true.

What I would bring to a candidacy:
I think I am a good spokesperson, although I do not say that in a cocky way. I’m not afraid to talk about my personal experience and I have public speaking and media experience throughout my career, which would help me in public office.

Politics is definitely a different experience than my career so far and I’m still struggling with that. It’s easy for me to say, “Come and support X organization.” It’s harder to say, “Come and support and believe in me.”

As part of the Emerge group, you do a lot of talking about yourself to prepare to go out in the community and basically talk about yourself.

I felt like applying for Emerge was a test. I thought, “If I can’t get in this class, I probably shouldn’t run for politics.” But then I did get in and I knew someone who knows something about politics thought I could do a good job.

Who would be most proud if I succeeded in public office:
I’d hope I’d be setting a good example for my daughter. She is in college running for the SGA this year. I hope that I can show her an example of what women are capable of doing. We’re underrepresented in most political arenas and I want to show her we can go for our dreams. I’m proud of myself and these other women just for risking it—just seeing what the potential is.

Thoughts on the process:

The few I’ve told about my intentions respond with, “Yeah, I can see that. It’s like all your experiences are leading you to that.” I thought people would be more surprised.

Still, I can see why people don’t want to go into politics. It’s hard to gain entry. You’re putting yourself out there to get punched at. It’s scary, but after having cancer, I’m like, “Bring it.”

Vivian Underwood-Shipe
Courtesy Vivian Underwood-Shipe

A career lead sales associate for the United States Postal Service, Underwood-Shipe has served as president of the National Alliance of Federal and Postal Employees Local 406 for 25 years. She is a great-grandmother and class president of Austin-East Class of ’73.

Why I stepped up now:
We were fighting to create a safety center in Knoxville when I began to see the decision-makers for us were the same ones who passed laws. That’s when I could see me being a voice on another level. This is important—you have to see it in the spirit and the mind before you ever see it in the physical.

I have never had a problem being a pioneer or dreaming of making a change. When I was in high school in the ’70s, I ran for Ms Y Teen. I was asked what did I want to be when got older and told them I wanted to be the president of the United States. They seemed shocked. I didn’t know why then and I still don’t.

Who would be proudest of me if I succeeded in public office:
I believe both my mom and dad would be proud and back me. I am the oldest of five. Both my parents were college grads. I am second-generation in postal work; my father was one of the first African Americans hired here in Knoxville. He, too, was the union president of Local 406. Can you imagine the cases he had to handle? Plus, I was a daddy’s girl so he always had my back.

My father died when I was 17, so my mom raised us alone. She was strong and quiet. She had breast cancer twice and when she passed at age 48, was fighting bone cancer. She was a teacher who had taught in a one-room schoolhouse up in the country, all grades from kindergarten to 12th grade in one room. When we were little, she opened a daycare in our home so I always had a strong female figure to emulate. She had a goal that all five of us would be college graduates—and all five of us are college graduates. I hope to complete my doctoral journey this year.

My siblings and I are the Fantastic Five, as our collective group of children call us. We support each other. My family has my back. That is a mighty force field right there!

What I would bring to a candidacy:
I live by Matthew 25:40. I truly believe what we do for our fellow man, we are doing for the Lord. I try to walk accountable to Him.

I have a true passion to help those who are mentally ill and I do not like to see the elderly abused, and want to see stronger laws to ensure they are taken care of. I realize the gap between the generations is widening. We need to make sure the aging baby boomers are cared for and this will require some new policy going forward. 2018 is going to see a tsunami of change in this country.

My beliefs have not changed in my 61 years. I believe if you are elected to office you remember those who elected you. You try to fight for the issues they sent you to take care of. I believe we must answer to a higher power for what we do on Earth.

Comments on the process:
I feel my years as union president for 25 of my 33 years at the post office will be a great advantage. I have held countless mediations, I have represented and written cases against discrimination, and I have developed the gift of the power of the pen.

I am not intimidated by any title, I work for a win-win, and I am dogged about righting a wrong. I have a favorite saying: “The persistent flea can bring down the biggest dog.”

Kate Trudell
Courtesy Kate Trudell

Executive director of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Knoxville, Trudell sits on the State of Tennessee Human Trafficking Advisory Council, the Women’s Fund of East Tennessee Advocacy Committee, and the Knox County Homeless Coalition.

Why I am stepping up now:
I’ve been growing more and more concerned about the current interpersonal climate—the environment where a room full of men have the power to determine the rights of women. It also involves a culture that systematically paves the way to greatness for some while closing the door to others because of where they are from, what they look like, who they love, or where they worship. That is a society that does not uphold the values of love, respect, empowerment, generosity, and partnership that I hope to instill in the lives of my children. I want that so badly I am not content to leave that work to someone else.

How my gender has affected my past:
I have felt the sting of misogyny and sexism in the workplace in the past and I regret not standing up to that behavior appropriately. I normalized it, brushed it off, or stayed silent—and then vented about it afterwards, of course. Over the years I have learned ways to confront that type of sexist behavior in more effective ways and Emerge is giving me more tools to be proactive to those challenges.

And as a women, of course, sometimes I have felt strange about the balance of working full-time and being a parent. I have had people express surprise that I work “outside the home” and it used to bother me but it doesn’t really anymore. I tried being a full-time stay-at-home mommy and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t great at it. I love my kids—I’ve just found a different way of making the world better for them.

Steps along the way:
The first election I voted in was the 2004 presidential election, Bush vs. Kerry. It was a strange time. I was a student at Furman University, a Southern, private, historically Christian, school. I was kind of this little closet liberal activist, because I was certainly in the minority. And during that time any dissent of the current administration was seen as unpatriotic. 9/11 happened on my very first day of college classes as a freshman. We were at war, my guy friends were enlisting, and the sentiment was very much “stand united”—don’t ask questions, don’t push back.

I think so often we assume ownership of our parents’ beliefs without questioning or learning for ourselves. And that provides the space for people to think differing opinions are not only simply different, but invalid and discredited.

The 2016 presidential election essentially blew up my whole concept of politics and American leadership. True leadership should be about raising up voices, bridging gaps, and bringing families, children, individuals, and communities forward. Not about being the loudest voice in the room or the strongest fist in the ring.

Thoughts on the process:
My hope is that training with Emerge will enhance my work combatting human trafficking. In Emerge we are not learning “issues,” but ways to advocate for issues. I also think my work against human trafficking will absolutely influence my approach to running for office. I have essentially dedicated my career to giving voices to those who need it the most within the criminal justice system, social services, and so forth. A public office would allow me to continue to do that, but on a broader scale.

On a more personal level, one of my two children has special needs, and that gives me an understanding of how challenging it can be to navigate the system. I have time and flexibility in my job, my husband and I have financial resources (although modest), and we have family who are supportive and helpful. But it still can be hard to get our son the help he needs. Many of the systems in place to support families and communities are challenging to utilize and often leave the very people they are trying to serve feeling marginalized and disregarded.

Whether I like it or not, women are held to a different standard than men. We have to work harder and longer to receive the same pay. Powerful men are praised for their success and thought of as decisive, controlled, and wise, while powerful women are often described as shrewd, bitchy, or cold. With that double standard, women have to work harder and smarter. Providing training and resources dedicated to women is a way to level the playing field.

Rose Kennedy came to Knoxville to work as an editorial assistant on 13-30’s Retail Appliance Management Series and never saw a reason to leave. Her “so uncool I’m cool” career among the alt weekly newspaper crowd has led to award-winning articles on Dr. Bill Bass and the Body Farm and cyber-bullying at West High School, and treasonous food columns about preferring unsweet tea and feeling ambivalent about biscuits.

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