WOMEN IN POLITICS: Kicking into gear the drive to lead, Mollye Barrows, Bella Magazine
WOMEN IN POLITICS: Kicking into gear the drive to lead
Mollye Barrows, BellaMagazine.comPublished 5:19 p.m. CT Oct. 30, 2018 | Updated 10:57 a.m. CT Oct. 31, 2018
(Photo: Photo Special to Bella)
Blair Castro, the 31-year-old owner of Shook PR which specializes in campaign management, has known since middle school she would somehow end up in politics. Maybe it was her interest in the law, foreign policy and political science that drove her passion for civic engagement — she did end up earning college degrees in all of those fields. Perhaps it was growing up on the West side of Pensacola in Warrington, where she felt somewhat removed from the economic growth and prosperity of other area neighborhoods and disconnected from the local power structure that could help her change her community for the better. However, without hesitation, she can point to one distinct event that cemented her interest in government and the political process.
“I was driven to politics when I was 13-years-old,” Castro remembered. “We took a field trip to Tallahassee at the height of the hanging chad debacle after the 2000 Presidential election. There were people protesting the election outside the capital building, and I was just fascinated. I was 17 when the next Presidential election came, and I volunteered on John Kerry’s campaign. Even though he lost, it was a good experience.”
Castro volunteered on a variety of other campaigns over the years, from county commission to state senate. She loved the opportunity to go door-to-door, talking to people about their hopes, dreams and concerns for their community, and watching those opinions sometimes become legislative policy when heard by a candidate who cared. Her desire to change the world also took her to Israel, where she lived for a time and earned a graduate certificate in religious conflict mediation from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. That gave Castro insight on how different cultures, at the center of the world, related to each other, and perspective on how conflicts closer to home pale in comparison to the destructive volatility seen in the Middle East.
Years later, despite her numerous degrees, including law, Castro still felt she had not quite found her calling. She pursued another degree, this time adding a master’s degree in entertainment businesses from Full Sail University in Orlando. The single mom of two lived there seven years before deciding to move back home to Pensacola, and eventually launched her own public relations business with a specialty in campaign management. The move meshed perfectly with her education, experience and passion.
“I thought I wanted to be a mediator and help people, but found I didn’t really like litigation, I was saddened by it. I was good at media, messaging, publishing content and getting the word out. Now I feel like I have found my place and calling. We have won two awards for project and team management and media publishing and distribution,” Castro said.
The busy PR executive is also among a growing number of young women who have joined the Institute for Women in Politics, a local non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated exclusively to getting more women involved in local campaigns and elected to office in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. The organization, which offers a slew of resources on every aspect of running for office, started five years ago with a handful of members. It has now grown to just over 100, with about 10 percent being men, some who are running for office. Younger women, like Castro, are also part of their ranks. They enjoy taking advantage of the numerous workshops, like ethics in government, public leadership and running a campaign, resources which are free for Institute members. It’s covered by their annual dues, which are $100 for most and $50 for those 18 to 25.
Institute president Myra Van Hoose says the organization is not just about supporting women in politics, it’s about supporting quality politics and equitable distribution of leadership. She joined the institute two years ago after working as campaign manager for a local congressional candidate during the 2016 general election. She has been drawn to politics most of her life, beginning when she was twelve and canvassing for a candidate’s run for school board in Westmont, Pennsylvania. Van Hoose has since worked on several campaigns, including volunteering for her brother, Mark Singel, in campaigns for positions from state senator to governor of Pennsylvania. Before moving to Northwest Florida, Myra also supported many candidates in Virginia, including her husband’s political endeavors.
Van Hoose has degrees in business and public administration and she has worked professionally as auditor and chief financial officer in both public accounting and for private industry. She has shared her talents with the non-profit world as well, running the finance department for a United Way, Chamber of Commerce and other community groups. Locally, she has volunteered as treasurer for the Pensacola Museum of Art Guild and financial consultant for the Escambia County Public Schools Foundation and she is currently the Treasurer for the Escambia County Democratic Executive Committee. Van Hoose and her husband Larry also founded an independent political action committee that aims to promote political collaboration through networking and education.
Van Hoose is now channeling some her passion for politics and public service into the Institute for Women in Politics, with the goal of helping women recognize and develop their leadership. She says women need a voice on the issues that impact them and their families, especially women’s issues. Joining an organization like the IWP is a good way to assess your skills and learn what it takes to run for office, pursue a political appointment to a local or state board or work behind the scenes on a campaign. Van Hoose says women offer a variety of assets that are beneficial to government, especially in light of the partisan angst and divisiveness that plays out in politics today.
“Let’s talk about partisan politics and think about women taking a little bit more control,” explained Van Hoose. “I’m not trying to create a girls club, I love men. This is about creating a level playing field. I think when women are in the group, outcomes are more collaborative, instead of win-lose or win-at-all-costs, women look for a win-win for everyone. There has been a lot of research over the years that shows when women are in a group, even men tend to collaborate more.”
Former Pensacola City Council member Diane Mack agrees with Van Hoose. She founded the Institute for Women in Politics in 2013 and she has been committed to seeing it grow even when membership numbers grew slowly the first few years. Although she recognizes that the negative climate deters many would be candidates, since a barrage of insults and accusations against campaigners seems to be par for the political discourse, Mack believes women possess a leadership style that is often more effective. They usually don’t walk into a meeting with their minds already made up.
“One of the things we realize about women in the Deep South, those that are involved already, they get a lot of satisfaction through charitable efforts as opposed to public service and legislation,” said Mack. “One of the concepts we’ve been hard at work, is that it’s important to cover this public service aspect, too. Local legislative bodies often affect what happens with the charities that you support, the work that they do toward them.
“You look at the issues with homelessness, the controversies. The rules that the city passed several years ago were punitive and had to be retracted. If the legislative bodies undercut charities and make it difficult to do the work, that’s two bodies fighting against each other. When you have more women in the legislative body, those things don’t get neglected, they get more focus. They bring greater congeniality and a more broad based effectiveness.”
Institute leaders say one of the biggest barriers to women running for office is the difficulty they have raising campaign funds. They can do it for charity, but they have a hard time going to a donor and saying, “invest in me.” The institute offers information including resources and guest speakers on how to do a better job at that. Locally, Mack says statistics show there were fewer women candidates in our local three-county area in 2016 than in 2014 and she believes this year they will see an increase, similar to what’s going on across the state and nationally. In Florida this year, 62 percent of all elections have a woman running for statewide offices. Institute leaders hope more women will recognize the need to qualify and run.
“We had a small, professional survey done, funded by a grant, of frequent, women voters,” said Mack. “I suppose we shouldn’t have been shocked in this area, but to the question ‘do you think there should be more women in elected office in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties,’ 30 percent, including men and women, said ‘no.’ We have a little work to do to change some hearts and minds.”
“It has been 100 years since women got the power to vote,” Van Hoose said. “Wouldn’t they be amazed and ashamed of us for not getting any further than we have? In 1970, 2 percent of federal office holders were women, now it’s 20 percent, and it’s hardly worthy of 50 years of work and 100 years since we, as women, got the right to vote.”
Young women like Castro are already sold on the idea of women in leadership, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, whether it’s working on campaigns or in government. She is hopeful about the future of politics, especially locally, where she feels she has seen first-hand how much the political power structure has changed.
“I feel like I can talk to my government officials, and before I didn’t feel like I could do that,” said Castro. “There’s more transparency and authenticity and people are definitely more civically engaged. I think the whole of Escambia County, we can’t leave anybody behind. We need to raise it as a whole. Being a part of these campaigns, I see citizens advocating for it and I see politicians advocating for it, and I love it. They are forgotten voices. We can’t leave it up to other people. I’ve always been of the mind set if you want something done you have to do it yourself.”