Former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (from left), former speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn, and former U.S. senator from North Carolina Kay Hagan are Spring 2015 Fellows at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

Photos (1, 3) by Jon Chase, (2) by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographers

Nation & World

Three strong women

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IOP fellows Coakley, Hagan, and Quinn talk candidly about politics, gender, and governing

“I always thought I was winning,” said Kay Hagan, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina, as she sat in a quiet nook at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) reflecting on her re-election defeat last November. “I knew it was going to be a close race, but I really thought that, at the end of the day, I would prevail.”

Hagan, a Democrat, ran what many analysts considered a flawless campaign for her second term against Republican challenger Thom Tillis. The Democrats had counted on Hagan to be one of the few bright spots for them on election night, and to survive the tide of conservative anger at President Barack Obama in the 2014 midterms that pulled down Democratic candidates nationwide and gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress. But the undertow was too much even for Hagan’s well-executed effort.

In hindsight, she blames herself, the Democrats, and Obama for not talking up positive economic indicators such as low gas prices, declining unemployment rates, and record stock-market gains more aggressively. News coverage of the Ebola pandemic and hostage beheadings by ISIS “sucked the wind out” of the Democrats’ strong economic message, she said.

“We ceded that message. We did not take hold of it,” said Hagan. “Had [Obama] given his State of the Union address in October, I would be in Washington.”

Instead, Hagan is in Cambridge as a Spring 2015 Fellow at HKS’ Institute of Politics along with former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Christine Quinn, the former speaker of the New York City Council. The three women have been in the trenches of American politics for decades and have the battle scars to prove it. They’re all “firsts” — the first woman in their city, state, or party to hold their elected post. Each recently ran in tough, high-profile campaigns for top federal, state, and city office, respectively. And each stumbled.

Each of them sat down with the Gazette recently to talk candidly about their experiences, and to discuss the hard-won advice and encouragement they’re offering students, particularly young women, about what it takes to make it in political life.

“There was a narrative that I was a horrible candidate,” recalled Coakley. “And I agree, we could have done some things better, but I think the narrative was useful to people to explain why there was now a Republican senator in Massachusetts.”

Few outside Boston’s insular political scene knew much about Coakley before she entered a special election in 2010 to serve out the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate term, running against a little-known Republican state senator named Scott Brown. Coakley’s shocking defeat in the historically blue state came at a precarious moment for passage of the Affordable Care Act. Undaunted, Coakley went on to run a much stronger race for governor in 2014, losing narrowly to Republican Charlie Baker as the first woman Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

After harsh criticism from across the political world for her loss to Brown, Coakley said she gave a lot of thought to how that might affect her candidacy for governor in 2014.

“So I purposely said, ‘I’m not going to do it unless I can put the team together, [and] I have time to ramp up; I’m going to get my husband and my family out on the trail with me’ — all of the things which we didn’t have time or didn’t do in the last race. In the end, we came very close; we lost by 40,000 votes,” said Coakley of the governor’s race. “Given the outside money and the outspending by the Republican Governors Association, a lot of people would say that Baker should have won by more than he did.”

As NYC Council speaker, Quinn was the early front-runner in the Democratic primary race for mayor of New York City in 2013, enjoying crucial support from Michael Bloomberg, the popular, outgoing mayor. The only woman and openly LGBT candidate in an all-male field, Quinn’s initial momentum appeared strong, with The New York Times producing a documentary about her run called “Hers to Lose.” Quinn would eventually place third to public advocate Bill de Blasio, now the current mayor.

Some theorized that Quinn’s unexpected flameout came because she was an openly gay woman.

“The first person responsible when you don’t win a race is the candidate,” Quinn said. “I think we need to talk about the realities of sexism and homophobia more — to admit it, to understand it, to overcome it. [But] that wasn’t always my philosophy. I used to think there was no point in talking about it a lot because if you were talking about it, you were wallowing in it. And if you were wallowing in it, you weren’t overcoming it. So that played out in the campaign.”

As a gay woman running, Quinn said, it was only natural that “there was going to be extra scrutiny; there was going to be sexism and homophobia. And being the frontrunner, you have the wind at your back, but you also have a target on your back.”

The three say that, as in everyday life, female candidates are still held to different and often higher standards than male candidates. They are also expected to present themselves to voters in ways that either comport with narrow, stereotypical expectations of how women should act publicly or counter negative assumptions.

“I’ve been called a lot of things in my career,” said Quinn. “‘Ladylike’ was never one of them — and that is fine, in my opinion. I’ve always been proud to say ‘a big, pushy broad is who I am,’ and I think we needed to own that more and put that out there earlier on” in the campaign. “I think we didn’t find a way to make that the positive that it was.”

Coakley believes that female candidates are frequently caught in a double bind and are more quickly and easily criticized when they make a mistake.

“Being competent or working hard has never been an issue for me. I’ve been in jobs that people deem I’m competent in, think that I work hard at, and I’m good at. I’m proud of that,” said Coakley. “But then it is: ‘You have to smile more,’ which is true. I think the expectation is that men may or may not smile, but if a woman isn’t smiling, that’s a different image. If you’re too competent, then you don’t have a heart. But if you’re too emotional, ‘Oh, my God, how are you going to make tough decisions?’”

During a televised debate one week before the election, she and Baker were asked, “When was the last time you cried?,” a question some observers thought was designed to accentuate Coakley’s steely mien. Coakley spoke of attending a memorial service that day for a friend who had died of leukemia. Baker offered an emotional tale of an unnamed New Bedford fisherman whose two sons had to give up college football scholarships in order to work in the state’s dwindling fishing industry. After reporters tried unsuccessfully to verify the fisherman’s identity and noted that Baker had told the same tale years before, Baker allowed that he might have misremembered some of the story’s key elements.

Coakley doesn’t think the question targeted her, but it did underscore a double standard. The fisherman story was “an amalgam at best. But he was given a pass on that, and I never would have been.”

When Hagan first arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2009, she made waves after insisting that the Senate’s men-only pool be opened up to women. “I’d have guys come up to me and say, ‘Why do you want to use the pool? It’s kind of small,’” said Hagan. “And I’d say, ‘Because you do and I don’t.’”

Despite such retrograde traditions, Hagan said she hadn’t encountered the kind of sexual harassment that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and others have said they’ve experienced, and that sexism on Capitol Hill stems from ignorance rather than spite. “I wouldn’t say that it’s unfriendly; I would say it’s an unrecognized issue.”

“I think, with anything, you’ve got to pick your battles,” said Hagan. “You’ve got to figure out what battle is one of the most important at that time, and you’ve got to go after it aggressively. You can’t pick a fight with every issue, because then I think women tend to be seen as: ‘She’s just somebody who complains.’”

Although more women are winning elected offices than ever, men still vastly outnumber them. The three said there are several factors that keep more women from throwing their hats into the ring, from the burdens of fundraising to the relentless and increasingly vitriolic tone of political media.

“I think that keeps good people from running. Does it have more of an effect on women than men? I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I think the viciousness of campaigns nowadays is certainly affecting the overall candidate pool, and that has an effect on women, without a doubt,” said Quinn.

“I think there are two or three key issues. One is, for women, they want to wait until the time is right,” said Hagan. “I tell them, ‘There’s never going to be a perfect time, so don’t wait on it.’ And the second thing is, women typically need to be recruited, even in 2015. Women want to be the most qualified person at whatever it is they do. Men don’t think that way.”

The soaring costs of running a viable political campaign mean that candidates have to be able to call upon supporters who can — and will — write bigger and bigger checks.

“I think that’s daunting for women, particularly if they haven’t had to raise money” before, said Coakley. “It’s hard, and it takes an enormous amount of time to be on the phone. In Massachusetts, where the limits are very low, every candidate spends a huge amount of time just raising money. And if you don’t have a network of people who can give money and raise money for you, it almost becomes a barrier to getting involved.”

Despite the difficulties, all three say they still counsel and encourage young women to get into politics, but to go in with their eyes open and with a full understanding of the challenges ahead.

“Well, this is true for men and women: You have to have a reason you want to be the elected official,” said Quinn. “What is it you bring to the table; what is it you’re passionate about; what is it you believe you have the unique ability to fix that someone else doesn’t have? You need to be willing to work hard, and you have to be willing to bear up under scrutiny, and you have to accept that you will operate, for better or worse, in a field where things will get unpleasant.”

“They’ve got to get experience, like to work on campaigns, work for candidates, develop issues you care about, understand the mechanics of what it means to be a candidate, and how you put a campaign together. And then figure out if that’s something you can do, or you want to do.” said Coakley.

Hagan says Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, “Lean In,” is instructive in that it identifies how many smart, ambitious women sometimes feel twinges of self-doubt just below the surface. She advises young women to recognize this is probably a gender-related commonality, but then to, “Get over it. Get over it! I’ve been telling women this here at Harvard: Be one of the first people to ask questions in your class. Don’t sit back and let the guys ask all the questions. … Don’t always feel like you have to do the grunt work.”

As for their own political futures, Hagan was undecided about whether she’ll go after Republican Sen. Richard Burr’s seat in 2016. “I’m really being encouraged to do that, but there’s a lot out there, and I’m not saying yes nor no at this time,” she said.

Coakley said she isn’t sure what’s next, but thinks her days in elected office are probably over. “I think [that] for now. I never say never, but I’ve got so many other things I want to do and I’m interested in.”

Quinn said she hopes to be a candidate again one day. In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced that Quinn will serve as a special adviser, focused initially on extending the State University of New York’s (SUNY) new comprehensive rape and sexual-assault policy to all private and public colleges and universities statewide. New York state currently has the largest number of schools in the nation under federal supervision for Title IX compliance.

“I haven’t started yet because I’ve been here, but I’m continuing, as I say, to annoy people in Albany,” she said.

Taking Down DOMA | PolicyCast

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a spring 2015 fellow at the Institute of Politics, recounts the legal journey that ultimately led to the US Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act — a major victory for the LGBT rights movement.