2018 is undoubtedly a watershed moment in American politics, particularly for women. A record number of women have filed for races across the country and we all have an eye on candidates who are speaking out on equal rights and progressive values during the midterm elections. With so much focus on the candidates, we may forget that there is more to “the resistance” than women turning out to march in protest and run for office. We also need to shatter the glass ceiling in political consulting.
In my own political consulting experience, I was often one of only a few women working behind the scenes in message strategy, in the field and fundraising. Luckily, I worked in politics in New York, where the ratio of women to men is much more balanced than in other states — but the field of political consulting is statistically male-dominated, comprising an estimated three-quarters of the industry.
Enter Seneca Strategies, founded by NYC-based political mainstays Elana Leopold and Monica Klein, who met in 2011 as the two youngest women working on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaign. The duo decided it was about time for a political consulting firm run by women that was designed for female candidates. They aptly named it after Seneca Falls, the first women’s rights convention.
They are also cofounders of The Broad Room, a nonprofit training camp for young women to take political action and resist the right-wing agenda, a cause that is near and dear to my heart. With Leopold’s campaign finance background and Klein’s communications acumen, it is no surprise that Seneca Strategies is creating buzz as the next big thing.
In only six months from their launch, the powerful duo behind Seneca Strategies has been profiled by major publications like Elle Magazine, and they have signed on to be the driving force behind many high-profile candidates, including Cynthia Nixon’s much-talked-about Gubernatorial bid.
I had the pleasure of working with Elana Leopold on citywide campaigns in 2013, so I was excited to catch up with Elana on how she and her cofounder Monica will be changing the game this election cycle.
Renee Cafaro: First off, I love the name Seneca Strategies and it’s perfect for you as a women-run, full-service political consulting firm. Do you exclusively hire women?
Elana Leopold: We’re just six months old, so right now it’s just Monica and me, but yes, as we expand we fully intend to hire women!
RC: Did you overcome any setbacks when setting up Seneca Strategies or The Broad Room?
EL:I think as women, we’re conditioned to believe that we’re not as capable as our male counterparts (although that’s far from the truth!) When you’re starting a new business, it’s very easy to second-guess yourself. Having a business partner can hold you accountable and remind you that you’re far more competent than you give yourself credit for.
RC: What can you credit for your very quick success? In one year, you have already been profiled in Elle and scored the most high-profile female statewide candidate in ages!
EL: Monica and I met working on de Blasio’s first campaign for mayor. We were the youngest and most junior members of the campaign and bonded over grunt work. When you’re willing to put your head down and get work done, people notice and that work ethic propelled us to start our own successful business.
RC: What would you like New Yorkers to know about Cynthia Nixon that you think they may not have heard?
EL: Many people know Cynthia as one of the stars of Sex and the City, but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her as a fierce advocate for working people. She’s a born-and-bred New Yorker who started acting to pay for college when her mother told her she couldn’t afford it. She’s spent the last decade fighting for funding for public schools and was at the forefront of the fight for marriage equality in New York State. She certainly exemplifies the type of person I’d like to see as the governor of our state.
RC: For those looking into running for office or getting politically active for the first time, would The Broad Room be a good place for them to start? What do you have planned for this election year? For those who cannot attend the events in NYC, are there other resources that they can access?
EL:The Broad Room is an all-female training camp focused on building a collective of women who take political action. We do free monthly trainings on topics including phonebanking, fundraising, and community organizing. If you think you may want to run for office, or just want to figure out how to get more politically involved, The Broad Room is a great place for you!
Over the next several months, we’ll be focused on the midterms and will be phonebanking and canvassing for some incredible female candidates. If you don’t live in NYC, you can still sign up for our weekly newsletter. We tackle a variety of issues and give you tips on how you can take action. (Sign up here!)
RC: I know that you are focused on raising the number of women who are elected to office. Do you exclusively represent female candidates or is it more about being in line with progressive values?
EL:All of the candidates that we currently work with are women, but we also work with some incredible progressive organizations. Ultimately, we’re committed to working with clients who understand the importance of talking about issues like income inequality, and protecting the rights of women and immigrant communities.
RC: Aside from American politics being a male-dominated field, what would you think is the greatest obstacle facing women in the political arena?
The political system isn’t set up to support women. Liuba Grechen Shirley is one of our clients running for Congress who just filed (and won!) a petition with the FEC to include childcare as a campaign expense. It’s ridiculous that in 2018 women have to fight for basic rights that would never even be up for debate if men were up against the same obstacles.
RC: is there a common concern or misconception you hear from female candidates that you would suggest they disregard?
EL:When a woman with a child decides to run for office, they immediately have people questioning their ability to be there for their children while meeting the demands of a campaign. Don’t listen to the haters! Mothers uniquely understand the need for paid family leave, universal healthcare and pay equality and are exactly what we need more of in all levels of government.
RC: What is your advice for women who are interested in becoming active behind-the-scenes, in roles like political messaging or fundraising?
EL: We need more women in every level of government and campaigns. There are a record number of women running this election cycle who need good staffers to help get them over the finish line. If you think you might be interested in fundraising or communications, joining a campaign is a great way to figure it out!
RC: What are the most “boss” qualities you see in your clients?
EL: All three of our candidates are working moms who were born and raised in the neighborhoods they’re campaigning to represent. They manage school drop-offs and piano lessons while simultaneously attending campaign rallies and making fundraising calls. They’re held to an expectation that the men they’re running against just aren’t, and they continue to be tenacious and focused. If that isn’t boss- I don’t know what is!
RC: Last question — what is something you wish you had known 10 years ago?
EL: Don’t second-guess yourself. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in (especially early on) when I had an idea or an opinion that I was too afraid to bring up only to have a male colleague present my exact idea five minutes later. It’s ok to be wrong and people aren’t always going to agree with you, but don’t let that hold you back from having your voice be heard.
For more on the women behind Seneca Strategies, follow @monicacklein, @elanaleopold, and #senecastrategies on Twitter.