NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Beth Little joined tens of thousands of women in Washington when they marched to protest the presidency of Donald Trump, whose election in November unsettled the stay-at-home mom and community volunteer.
Just a few weeks later, Little joined 250 women at Rutgers University here to take the next step in her plan to push back against a political climate that she says threatens the country’s progress toward diversity and equality for women and minorities.
Little, who lives in Summit, N.J., has decided to run for local office, and she and two friends who also are planning to hit the hustings attended a weekend workshop to learn about the basics of waging a political campaign.
The 1½-day workshop is called “Ready to Run,” and last weekend’s attendance was more than 66 percent higher than usual, said Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Walsh, who attributed the increased interest to concern over the outcome of last fall’s elections, said she had to close registration and turn women away because of overwhelming interest.
“This is the 18th year we’ve held Ready to Run and never before have we seen this kind of turnout or energy,” Walsh said. “The challenge now is maintaining this level of engagement for the long haul. Changing the face of power is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Little, 49, plans to run for an at-large seat on the Summit Common Council. She attended the training program with Marjorie Fox and Lacey Rzeszowski, who also live in Summit. The women became friends through their mutual community work. Fox is running for the Ward 2 seat on the council and Rzeszowski plans to challenge Summit’s representative in the New Jersey General Assembly.
“I feel really reassured. I think it’s really a helpful learning experience,” Little said of the workshop. “And just being in this room with women who are all smart and passionate and care about making our state and our cities a better place is really exciting.”
The passion was palpable as women who announced they were running for office drew applause and cheers. Breakout sessions included tutorials on raising money, developing a digital strategy, doing media interviews and how to maneuver into a leadership role in New Jersey’s closed-party system. A separate set of workshops aimed to help women who are not ready to jump into the candidate pool but want to up their advocacy game.
Discussion leaders reminded the women that their storm-the-castle enthusiasm is great, but that they need to learn and master the rules of the game to win elections; just being a woman won’t necessarily garner victory at the polls.
“You have to learn to navigate the system the way it is,” Walsh said, a lesson that has been paying off. Walsh said that when the center started Ready to Run, New Jersey ranked 43rd nationally in the percentage of women in its state legislature.
“This northeastern, highly educated, high-income state ranked in the bottom 10 percent,” she said. “Now it’s ranked 14th in the nation and it had been 11th.”
Little is a former child-abuse prosecutor who met Rzeszowski and Fox through their work in Summit, a city of 22,000 about 40 minutes outside of New York City. The median household income is $129,583, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Rzeszowski, 42, a stay-at-home mom, is running for the New Jersey General Assembly, going up against her district’s incumbent, Nancy Munoz. She became active in the effort to curb gun violence after the Sandy Hook shootings and clashed with Munoz and other Republican Party leaders over their resistance to stronger gun-control measures.
So Rzeszowski, who had been a Republican, will be running this fall as a Democrat, having changed her registration just weeks ago.
“I felt like the party had left me. That’s what the Women’s March has done for me,” she said. She and Little started a group called Summit Marches On to keep up the momentum from the Women’s March.
Fox, 51, did not make it to the march in Washington but says she has long been “interested in good government,” and has been active in local party politics and served on various city commissions.
“I feel the current council has not been responsive to citizens,” she said. “I feel I can do a better job of listening to and addressing the needs of the community.”
The Summit women said they are not naive about the challenges. The electorate is almost evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents. Rzeszowski estimates she will have to raise more than $150,000 for her race, and the women note that they are in the New York City media market, making paid advertising expensive.
At least they won’t have contentious primaries, because they have been chosen as the Democratic Party’s candidates for their seats. But they acknowledge that going up against the Republicans in the fall will be not be easy.
“A win for any of us or all of us would be quite a coup,” Fox said.