Mayor Rachel Hundley slipped on her “Nasty Woman” tank top on Saturday morning and joined 3,000 people, many of them her constituents, outside Sonoma City Hall for their own mini-Women’s March.
A 33-year-old single woman born and raised in the Deep South, Hundley had only a passing interest in politics most of her life. But a combination of gumption and curiosity led her to run for public office in a town she barely knew.
Since the Women’s March on Washington, and the hundreds of sister marches across the country and the globe, there’s now a lingering question of how to channel that energy and keep the participants, many of them first-time activists, engaged. Part of that calculus includes encouraging women, and men, who may have never considered running for office before to do so. That message was also part of President Barack Obama’s farewell speech: “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself,” he said.
What spurred Hundley to pursue elected office wasn’t a response to the 2016 presidential election — though that motivates her now — but a desire to connect with her community in a meaningful way. Lately she’s been heartened to see that same passion emerging in others.
“One of the things I was proud of was I heard from other young adults that they want to be more involved,” she said in an interview. “I sensed a greater commitment from younger people to get involved and stay involved. [The march] was a successful way to energize.”
Hundley’s road to public service was unconventional. She had been laid off from a high-pressure, high-paying law firm job in New York City during the economic recession when she decided to pick up and move across the country to California to open a Southern cuisine food truck business. While figuring out her next steps after the layoff, she had worked in a Manhattan cupcake shop. Food service was about making people happy, she reasoned, and that’s how she wanted to spend her life.
What she found in Sonoma, a picturesque, bucolic town, known for its rolling vineyards and stunning views, was a community at odds with itself, with the competing interests of residents and tourists, and a reputation for wealth clashing with a desire to be more economically inclusive. Hundley envisioned a Sonoma with affordable housing options where people who work in the town could actually live.
Eager to immerse herself in her new community, she decided after about a year to run for an open seat on the Sonoma city council. She googled “how to run a campaign” and taught herself the ins and outs of financial disclosures and raising money, she said. She reached out to everyone on the council and asked them out for coffee. She would pepper them with questions about what it was like, and what issues arose, and then she would ask for four or five names of other local people she should meet. She said she followed up with all of them, and listened to their concerns about the community.
“Through the process, not only did I meet a lot of people who invited me into their networks, I learned from these people what the most important issues were and all about the history,” she said. “It was a fact-finding mission in addition to meeting people that I’d have to later convince to vote for me.”
Her campaign slogan was: “Fresh perspective with a long term commitment to Sonoma.” She made campaign signs and canvassed across town. On Election Day 2014, not only did she win a seat on the council, but she ousted a 16-year incumbent who had been a former mayor.
From her new position she learned that even Sonoma, with a population of just over 10,000, has a homelessness problem. Blocks from the main square is a small three-bedroom shelter.
Kathy King, the executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support, said she had been trying to convince the council to allow a parking lot in town to be used overnight for “safe parking,” so the local homeless who live in their cars would have a place to go. She asked for a pilot program, just five parking spots over six months. The council wasn’t having it, King said. Then, after one meeting, Hundley approached her and asked if she could come by the shelter and meet some of the people there, King said.
Hundley helped King show the council that there was a real homelessness issue to deal with, even in their quaint storybook town. In September, with Hundley’s push, the council approved the program.
“Rachel stood up for us. She read the material, she did the homework so when she asked questions they were good and then she spoke for [the homeless], King said. “This is a very rich city, let’s face it, it wasn’t a popular thing to do, but she did it. We need people with her energy and time and smarts.”
That’s become harder to come by in public service. In 2012, just before that year’s presidential election, Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, co-authored a study examining young people’s interest in running for office. At that time, 89 percent said it was something they never intended to do. Though the data is four years old, Lawless fears that given the vitriol of this last campaign cycle, it could be much worse now.
It’s particularly less appealing to women who are turned off by a system that still feels like an old boys’ club. But Lawless said Hundley is an example of how young women can make a big difference at local levels of governments.
“There are certain things you can’t do from behind the scenes, there are things that require legislation so if you want to effect those outcomes this is the only way you can do it,” Lawless said. “All you have to do is throw your hat in the ring and you have as good a shot as all these men who have been doing this for centuries.”
Groups like Emily’s List, a left-leaning organization that seeks to get women elected, hope the renewed desire for action after the Women’s March will inspire women of all kinds to run for office at every level of government.
Who knows where it may lead?
In December, two years after Hundley was elected to the city council, it was time to choose a new mayor. The five-person council voted unanimously to appoint Hundley.
That night they handed her the gavel. She took the mayor’s seat and immediately got to work.
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