One thing has become abundantly clear through this election: we need more women in public office. Even in 2016, women still make up only about 20 percent of the Senate, the House, and mayoral offices. That’s where She Should Run comes in—the talent incubator and motivation-minded organization is dedicated to reminding women that they should be tossing their hat into the electoral ring. We talked to 2016’s youngest congressional candidate, Erin Schrode, about what it means to run for office at 25, how to move beyond defeat, and why America needs more millennials in office. As told to Hillary Kelly.
I don’t see myself as a politician. Never have, never will.
But in early March of 2016, I gave a speech in my hometown—I’ve been working as an environmental activist and entrepreneur for a dozen years—and I talked about the impact of place. It was about my life, my values, my professional path, my identity. I walked offstage and people said, “How do we get you to run for office?” I looked at them like they were out of their minds. I don’t fit the mold of a politician.
I thought, I’m a 24-year old woman. I don’t have any pedigree. I don’t have family who’s ever run for office. I haven’t spent decades in corporate boardrooms or law offices. I haven’t previously held elected office. There are so many reasons why I shouldn’t run. There were 11 days between that speech and the filing deadline to run for Congress in my home county, and 70 days until the election itself—and I’d be running against a longtime incumbent for the Democratic seat. In fact, I’d be running against three people almost twice my age. Dale Mensing, the Republican candidate, is 58 years old. Jared Huffman, the Democratic incumbent, is 52 years old. The Independent, Matthew Wookey, is 39. All of them are white men.
For 11 days I was calling up mentors and friends and leaders in the space, and people I really trusted, as well as my close friends. I expected my friends to smack me down to size, to keep my ego in check. Instead, my best friend said, “There are a million reasons why you should wait, but why not run while you wait?” I haven’t said them out loud in a long time, but her words hit me.
I wrote an open letter to the world about why on earth a 24-year old woman would run for Congress at this moment in history—when the political landscape is so broken, so stagnant—and I had no idea how people were going to respond. I posted it on Facebook, I sent one tweet, I sent one Instagram post, and I put it on Medium. I filed with the FEC, I learned how to code, and got somebody to help me finish up the website. Then I pressed “post” and walked away.
Five days after that, we launched a video. It got six and a half million views. We went viral. It’s so weird to say that, but we did.
Eleven years earlier, my mom and I had co-founded Turning Green with a group of other active, passionate young people. Marin County had the highest breast, prostate, and melanoma cancer rates in the world in 2002. A study had come out, but no one knew precisely why that was the case. We were told there wasn’t enough money to do the testing. That didn’t sit right with my mom, and she organized a grassroots door-to-door campaign to go ask people that very simple question: Why? Nothing correlated. It turned out that a study linked the ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm. Suddenly these issues of health epidemics, of climate change, of resources, of toxins, became very personal.
I couldn’t put back together melting polar ice caps, I couldn’t take my house of the grid, but I could shift my personal care products. This was universal—soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste. Not anti-aging stuff. Not skin lighteners. These were very, very basic things that you and I, men and women of all ages and all backgrounds, were using every day. That was the impetus. My response was outrage. What do you mean no one’s looking out for my health and well-being? What do you mean there’s no government oversight? What can we do? What can my peers and I do?
The first time I lobbied in Sacramento, in our state capital, I wasn’t even old enough to vote. I was looking at these legislators, who I had not elected, and talking to them. We started small. We worked on bag bins in our county, worked on sustainable agriculture and organics legislature in DC, worked on green chemistry at the state level. Then I started working with large companies: Nestle, Coca-Cola, Chipotle. Then Apple reached out to me to work on a green project my freshman year at NYU. And then earlier this year came the speech in Marin County that brought me toward politics.
I was well aware when we started that the chances of winning were negligible. Incumbents win 92-93 percent of the time—especially if they haven’t done anything catastrophic, which our congressman had not. Our goal became second place. People said to me, “Erin, if you get 2,000 votes, nice work. If you get 5,000, bravo. If you get double digit percentages, oh my gosh.” That’s sort of what we were thinking.
On June 7, I went to the polls with my campaign manager to cast my ballot. It was so funny. I just walked into the polls, got my ballot like everybody else did, and filled in that little bubble next to “Erin Schrode.” I was definitely wondering if the people around me were voting for me.
That evening, I went back to my house, and a bunch of our strong supporters and a bunch of our staff and campaign team were there. The numbers started coming in, and it became pretty clear pretty quickly that we weren’t in the top two, but then it started to shift and the polls started to close.
I had to take a minute. I really did. I went into my bedroom, and I got a little pep talk from my campaign manager about what we had done, what we would continue to do, that this really was just the beginning, and how proud we all should be and how much everyone had contributed. Basically, that there are all these people out there who have supported me. There are many, many more, and we’ll see.
At that point, there were a couple thousand votes that had been cast for me. I thought, “Really? That’s it? After all this work?” But the votes kept coming in. We knew we hadn’t taken second place, but we kept the incumbent to his lowest total to-date ever. We came up 6.6 points short of second place. We ended up with 21,000 votes, and 21,000 votes is no small feat in 70 days, starting from literally nothing. No money, no name recognition, no support.
Honestly, I cried so much on that campaign trail. I felt useless at times. I felt like it was all futile. I wanted to stop. I mean, I cry a lot—I think it’s very healthy. But for me, the loss wasn’t sad. It was really tough, the sting of defeat. I put everything I had into this. Any moment that I wasn’t devoting 6,000 percent to the campaign, I felt guilty. I really did. We didn’t lose by that slim of a margin, for sure, but I was thinking if I’d had more days, if I could have reached out to more people…
I also knew that there was going to be a whole pity party. I had gotten umpteen million texts that day from people, “How’s it going? What are the results?” I didn’t feel the need to write back to every single person. In fact, I didn’t even know even know them all. Some people started sharing the links and the ballot links and all this stuff, saying, “I’m so sorry. Oh, you were so close.” I was like, “No. We lost, but we did a hell of a job in 70 days.” And there were all these people coming up to tell me what our campaign meant, and to say, “You’re going to do it again. Right? Next time, we’ve got your back.”
The answer is yes. That’s my knee-jerk reaction, just to show up. I cannot do everything, but just because I cannot do everything does not mean I will not do something.
The decisions we make today will disproportionately affect young women, affect our generation, yet we have zero representation. Not just low representation: We have no representation. There’s no one under 30 serving in Congress right now. There’s never been a woman under 30 elected in the history of our country to Congress.
The most talented, capable people I know—those who I would want to run for office—won’t touch politics with a 10-foot pole. They are changing the world through disruptive startup models, they’re taking media to new heights and using nonprofits in ways we have never before seen. Where is that same innovative, entrepreneurial spirit in politics? It doesn’t exist. Period. That’s a problem.
Before my loss, I’d been persona non grata to the Democratic Party. I ran against another Democrat, the incumbent. That’s no-no. That’s taboo. In fact, the only member of Congress who talked to me during my campaign was a Republican, Elise Stefanik, who at 32 is the youngest congresswoman to date. I spoke with her chiefs of staff, and their whole office was so excited. I got a tweet from one of their interns who was so excited that I was running because she too believes that we need more collaboration across the aisle. People that have been entrenched in power structures for decades—be it in corporations, be it in law offices, be it in halls of government—are just not willing to do that. This doesn’t mean just introducing new people into politics. This means introducing young people into politics. We are more willing to reach across the aisle. Then, as we grow, as we age, as we rise in seniority, so too do those alliances in that collaborative thinking, that willingness to reach across the aisle.
Real talk, I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton simply because she’s a woman. But the fact that she’s a woman is not lost on me. I think about what that will mean for so many women in our country and around the world, so many young women. The way that Barack Obama’s presidency opened the realm of possibilities for so many young black men, for people of color across the board. Hillary Clinton is putting that—I’m not going to say final crack, but the biggest crack yet in that glass ceiling.
We need more women to run at all levels. One of my best friends has a daughter, Liz, who is seven. Liz thinks it’s totally normal for a woman to be running for president. That’s extraordinary! That cannot be underestimated. I just got chills. That is exceptional.