Empowering Women in Politics & Leadership–A Conversation with Washington State Senator Mona Das & Executive Director of The Campaign School at Yale University, Patti Russo–Part 1

A Desi Woman Podcast
Empowering Women in Politics & Leadership--A Conversation with Washington State Senator Mona Das & Executive Director of The Campaign School at Yale University, Patti Russo--Part 1


Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello and welcome to a very special edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale and today we are delighted to be joined by two women who are single-handedly changing the US political landscape and paving the way for more women politicians in this country and globally. Today, we are so excited to be joined by Patti Russo.

Soniya Gokhale (01:07):
Patti Russo serves as the executive director of the campaign school at Yale university, a non-partisan issue neutral political campaign training program for those interested in running for office, as well as for those interested in campaign management and embraced the schools mission of increasing the number of women in politics and government at the local state and federal level. Based at Yale law school, it is the leading program attracting individuals from the United States and internationally and the school recently celebrated its 25th year in 2019.

Soniya Gokhale (01:45):
We also so excited to be joined by Washington State Senator Mona Das. Mona Das was born to Indian parents who immigrated to America Rust belt when Mona was just eight months old, Mona graduated from the university of Cincinnati with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and earned an MBA in sustainable business from Pinchot University she also attended the women’s campaign school at Yale University. Elected to the Washington State Senate in 2018. Mona now serves as caucus vice chair, the vice chair of the Senate housing affordability and stability committee and as a member of both the Senate transportation committee and the Senate environment energy and technology committee. Mona and Patti, welcome to the show.

Senator Das (02:33):
Thank you. Such a pleasure to be here.

Patti Russo (02:35):
Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Soniya Gokhale (02:37):
Well, I am so incredibly excited to speak to you and you are two of the most dynamic empowering women whom I have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting and one of the striking commonalities that you share is that you are both committed to bettering those around you, society at large and especially being a catalyst for other women to do so in leadership and specifically the political realm and I have to add that, this is applicable both in the past tense and present tense for both of you.

Soniya Gokhale (03:11):
So, I want to start with you Patti and ask you what drew you to this incredible role at Yale and the campaign school. I know you’ve had your choice of world-class opportunities in the public and private sector and you have such a deeply impressive background with over 25 years of experience in numerous leadership positions and public, private and not for profit organizations really centered on women’s leadership, as well as serving in leadership positions on federal state and local political campaigns. And I found this out when I was researching you, you even worked for the incredible pioneer Bella Abzug who became the first Jewish woman elected to the US Congress in 1970 and was so notable for her tireless work on behalf of civil rights and feminist issues to name a few. But so, I want to ask you what made this role and the program rewarding and worthwhile for you and continues to do so in 2021 and onwards?

Patti Russo (04:12):
I think that our school is more critical, the work that we do is more critical now than ever. Pre pandemic I felt that we were creating life transforming experiences for our grads and now more than ever. So, a little bit about Bella, I had been very active politically growing up, went to George Washington University I was a political science major and one of the prerequisites at the time was to work for a member of Congress. And as a young feminist, the only one I wanted to work for was the late great Bella Abzug. She had so inspired me in high school and I was “This would be my dream, my dream would be to work for Bella.” So, make an appointment in Bella’s office I have my new Macy’s pantsuit on and my paper resumes in my little briefcase and I go marching off to Capitol Hill to Cannon House Office Building which is where her office was at the time, nine o’clock I go in and it’s crazy. Those of you who’ve been on Capitol Hill during the day it’s wild everybody’s so busy.

Patti Russo (05:20):
And I go in and I meet with a woman who’s not much older than myself telling her what an honor and joy it would be to work for the Congresswoman and then she said to me, “Well a lot of young feminists like you want to work for Bella, we don’t have any spaces available, but we’ll call you if we do.” So, that took all of 30 seconds and as I was leaving… we wouldn’t even sit down we just stood in the lobby of Bella’s office. And as I was leaving, I saw her toss my resume in the trash and that was a real confidence booster as you can just imagine. And I ran to the ladies room just to collect myself because I had 10 or 12 other interviews that day. I got to get it together, there’s got to be somebody who’s going to have room for me. So, off I went to Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s office, no room. Liz Holzman’s office, no room. Barbara Mikulski’s office, Barbara Jordan’s office. These are just the pioneer women that we had in Congress at the time, even fewer women back then than we do now.

Patti Russo (06:29):
And so it’s now almost five o’clock and I’m feeling beleaguered because I’ve got no commitments and I’m back in Cannon House Office Building where I started eight hours prior. And I head into the ladies room before I go back to GW to figure out who I’m going to try to reach out to the next day. I remember thinking there’s got to be a guy that I’d be excited about working for. So, I was going to go back to GW, to the library and do my research. I go to the rest room and they’re at the vanity is a woman sobbing, a young woman sobbing.

Patti Russo (07:06):
So, my fabulous Italian mother from Jersey has taught me, well, I went over to comfort her” Are you okay?” I said to her, she is, “I will be, I just quit my job, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m going to work it out, I’m not going to tell my parents, I’m just going to waitress, but I just couldn’t take the pressure, it’s too much stress.” So the punchline here. So, I said to her, “I’m so sorry to hear that, who did you work for?” “I worked for Bella.”

Patti Russo (07:31):
I handed her a tissue, I wished her well and I raced back to Bella’s office. I raced back to her office. So, now it’s 5:30 by now most of the staff are gone and it’s just the key staff that are there because the Congresswoman is there. And so I see, even though I’m seeing my resume still in the trash from eight hours prior, I gave her a new resume and I see the same woman that I had interviewed with. And I say, “Before I leave today, I just want to reiterate what an honor and thrill it would be for me to work for the Congresswoman.” Just as I was saying that the late great Bella Abzug comes barreling out of her office and those of your listeners who know and recall Bella, Google her, she was such a force of nature, she had such presence and there she is she’s got her papers under one arm and her handbag under another and the phones are ringing off the hook and she turns to me and she points and she says,” You sit, answer those phones.”

Patti Russo (08:33):
And that was the beginning of my amazing political career. So I love sharing that story because I think it’s so important that people understand especially women that you’ve got to create your own moment. You’ve got to create your own magic. That certainly is what Mona Das has done and she will be sharing her fabulous stories of leadership in a few minutes. But, that’s what led me to doing the work that I do, I’m so grateful to do the work that I do to lead this organization, because it’s the only way we’re going to change the world electing more women on the local state and federal level.

Soniya Gokhale (09:12):
That is an absolutely incredible story and you are right it gives me chills, but it does run parallel to some. I spoke with Mona before interviewed her on a podcast so, I’m pivoting now to you Mona, because I know when I interviewed you, you’d indicated that you really didn’t think you’d be able to gain admission to the campaign school at Yale, its highly competitive, but you said, I will try. And along those lines, you also asked me a question. You said, “Soniya, how many times do you think I was asked to run for office?” I guessed mistakenly numerous times and the answer is zero, which is just so astounding to me, but I think it sets up the segue into understanding exactly who you are and what makes you so incredible.

Soniya Gokhale (10:01):
Not only to apply to the campaign school at Yale, get accepted and then have the audacity to run against all odds as you described as many naysayers pined at the time, you ran against one of the most well-liked Republicans in the state of Washington, and then you won. No dynastic familial political legacies here came to this country from India as an infant and here you are Washington State Senator, graduate of the campaign school at Yale and tireless advocate for other women seeking political office, which we will get to, but lead us through this story and how the TCS program, Patti Russo and other amazing women you’ve met on this journey have led you to this moment.

Senator Das (10:50):
Well, thank you. It’s such a pleasure to be here again and I want to say Patti your story just brought me to tears that was such an incredible story and that’s really how we do it. Women have to do it differently. We have to think outside of the box. What I loved about your story is that you showed empathy, leadership and drive all in the same moment, right? Realizing that this was your opportunity and you seize the day and I love that. And I have many stories very similar too. I’ll tell you my campaign school at Yale story, how I came about and it’s very similar. I had this crazy dream, I don’t know about you all, but I do my best thinking in the shower. And I was in the shower, I was visiting my brother and I got out of the shower and I said to him, “I’m going to be a Senator.”

Senator Das (11:42):
And he and his girlfriend at the time, who’s now his wife said… we all just laugh because it was preposterous as Soniya mentioned, I have no political family members or anything like that. So it was just this crazy dream. And it was that dream that I put on the shelf and we just laughed and I moved on, this was 12, 15 years ago maybe. And I literally said I’m going to be a Senator. And I kept that dream there on the shelf. And then I was in grad school and somebody had said that there was a training program for the Center for Women and Democracy, which was a local program here and so I did that program and I thought, that’s interesting. And then I went a step further and I met with the ED and she was actually a graduate of this program.

Senator Das (12:35):
And the minute she mentioned the program, Holly Davis is her name, I knew instantly I needed to go, I had to go, I had to be there. It just sounded so fabulous and for it to be at Yale and for it to be such a prestigious program, I knew I had to be there. And so my story is funny. So, I thought at the time I had heard that there were 300 applications, three to 400 applications and there were 80 slots. And I thought, it’s really competitive, I don’t know if I’m going to get in, but if I get in, that’s a sign and if I don’t get in, then I’m just going to keep shelving this idea it’s just not the right time. And so then I got in and I just was so elated, so excited and then I remember thinking, it’s a five-day program.

Senator Das (13:28):
If anything on this program is something that I can’t do or won’t do or uncomfortable doing or is out way, way outside of my comfort zone then I’m going to really think about this as a potential career for me or next step. And every day, every day of that training program, I was, “I can do that, I can do that, I can do that, I can do that, I can do that.” And by the end of the week, I was I can do all of these things, none of them are outside of my comfort zone or outside of my reach and I’ll tell you the program was so monumental in teaching me. Every industry has a whole new language, every industry has a whole new set of acronyms and politics is exactly the same, right? What’s your win number? What’s your door knocking? What’s your fundraising goal? All of these things are things that you have to learn and the program was so incredible in bringing amazing professors to teach you what all of that meant to speak with you in English and not in plain words so that you could grasp it.

Senator Das (14:43):
I’ve never taking so many notes, I just thought it was an incredible intro into what is needed to run for office as a woman and when, and that’s the ground in which my foundation was built was at this campaign school and spoiler alert I’ve now had the honor of coming back and teaching fundraising to the students twice and it has been a deep, deep honor of my lifetime. Fundraising is something that is a natural fit for me and my career in sales and it’s something I absolutely love to do and so to be able to come back and give back in that way and teach the next generation has been a true, true honor.

Soniya Gokhale (15:27):
Well, thank you so much for that response and absolutely your enthusiasm and your attitude. I don’t know that there’s much that you wouldn’t say yes, I can do that if that was posed to you, which is really indicative of what’s required of what about to get into. The campaign school at Yale University for those that may not be aware is a nonpartisan issue neutral leadership program, whose mission is to increase the number and influence of women in elected and appointed office in the United States and around the globe and as the executive director of the program, Patti Russo and with Senator Das as a graduate, in my humble estimation, you really both represent the best that this country has to offer as it pertains to leadership, empowerment and politics. But the fact that you’re also impassioned about helping other women achieve their political or leadership aspirations is so inspiring and not connotative of what one might expect from the notoriously and stereotypically cut throat historically male dominated domain of politics in this country.

Soniya Gokhale (16:38):
So, having had the great privilege of attending the back to basics course at TCF, I can unequivocally state the program is a revolutionary game changer for women and it’s as though women in the program are finally being given access to a coveted playbook that will give them the tools they need to succeed. And thus far, this playbook has been sorely inaccessible to women and people of color. However, I would state it is a no hold barred candid program that really explores the rigor, hardships and challenges associated with politics and political campaigns and so, I do have to ask you both for women who might be listening right now, who run the gamut, those you think I would like to be an active participant in the democratic process, but how? And maybe even those thinking, perhaps I would contemplate running for office or getting engaged in campaign management. How do you go from the hopeful, hardworking private citizen, Mona Das for example, to Washington State Senator Mona Das or is that realistic? What would you say to them and would really like your input on that first Patti executive director of TCS.

Patti Russo (17:54):
Everywhere in our country and really in the world, our systems were built for men. They were built for men to be successful. Every woman, no matter what she wants to achieve professionally has to deal with a patriarchal system, that’s just the bottom line. That’s the reality as I like to say at the school, we deal with reality at the campaign school at Yale, because we want to skew you for success. As Deb Sofield our rock star former president and speech coach shares every year at the school, women have to learn how to do things afraid, do it afraid. Don’t overthink it. When you overthink it, you stay small. We want to help you give you the skills and the techniques that you need to secure yourself for success so that when you run for office, you win.

Patti Russo (18:45):
So overthinking things keeps you small. We want to magnify your magnificent, powerful people take up space, that’s our mantra at the school. We created the school after 1992, it’s the first year of the woman in our country. I like to say every 20 years we cycle out, we get our own year, I’m hoping that will change soon, but it was an amazing, amazing year in 1992, there were so many women, both Democrats and Republicans running for Senate and Congress. That year, the numbers were phenomenal, there were so many women running for Congress who were coming to Connecticut we were very flushed back then it was easy to raise a lot of money in our small state and I remember Ann Richards who was running for governor of Texas at the time first woman to ever run for governor in Texas and ultimately won, came in twice she raised so much money. So after 1992, the majority of the women, both again, Republicans and Democrats who ran that year won. So, many of us who have been working on campaigns who had been active in the women’s movement, were feeling smug.

Patti Russo (19:55):
We were feeling really excited and hopeful. We’ve really smashed that glass ceiling now with all these women serving in Congress and the Senate, that was the year that Carol Moseley Braun first African American woman again, running for the United States Senate from Illinois, ran and won. We felt we have really leveled the playing field here. So now we’re going to start seeing all these women stepping up and looking at these women and saying, “why not me?” But we didn’t, 1993 it was as if 1992 never happened. So, a group of leaders in Connecticut led by our founder Andre Brooks, along with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who still serves in Congress to this day and represents the third congressional district here, as well as Nancy Johnson, a Republican former Congresswoman here in Connecticut, got together and started thinking about what will it take to get more women in the pipeline?

Patti Russo (20:55):
What are the challenges that women face that men don’t even have to think about? And so, we started working for a year prior to the first class, we knew we wanted a five-day intensive. We knew we wanted it to be issue neutral. We knew we wanted it to be nonpartisan. We knew we wanted it to be not only for women interested in running for office someday, but also for women who are interested in campaign management. And we knew we wanted it at Yale, we knew we wanted an international component, and that is something that Mona can speak to between eight to 10% of every class is comprised of women of the world. One year we had a woman by the name of Kah Walla who was running for president of Cameroon. She was detained from coming to our school that year for a day because she had been kidnapped by her opponents.

Patti Russo (21:46):
Now, we have many challenges that American women face. Fortunately, that’s not one of them yet, but as soon as she arrived, I said to her, “You have to take the podium and you have to talk to your class about the challenges, the risks that international women take in order to run for office, literally putting their lives on the line each and every day.” And so, we went to Yale law school made our case and the Dean at the time, Dean Calabresi says, “Sounds extraordinary, let’s see how it goes I’ll give you one year.” And that was 27 years ago. And so the other thing I want to mention is the evolution and the demographics of the school. When we first started the median age of a woman attending our school was mid-forties, predominantly white women tending of school, fast forward to 2007, 2008, during which I call the Obama phenomenon.

Patti Russo (22:45):
We started seeing more women of color coming to our school. They had taken time off from work and from school to work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and they caught the bug and they said, “Why not me? I could see myself running a campaign someday or I could see myself running for office.” And that’s when we started to see the shift. And so now the median age of a woman attending our school is early thirties, late twenties, early thirties. And the majority of the women who attend our school now are women of color. And I’m really proud of that, that it doesn’t just happen and it’s the Mona Das of the world that our number one referral source are our grads, our rock star grads that know women will be able to achieve attending our school, the skills, the confidence and the mentoring and the coaching.

Patti Russo (23:39):
Mona will tell you, I am a phone call, an email away. I don’t know any other campaign school that offers the mentoring, coaching component. We don’t want you to just have a phenomenal five days. You’re going to have a phenomenal five days. You’re going to be exhausted and exhilarated. We want to stay in touch with our grads. We love knowing our grad’s, hearing from our grads. So, fortunately I’ve started to travel again, post pandemic and so I’m going to say, I’m going to DC next month and I’m sending them an email, I’m going to be in DC who wants to have breakfast with me? If you’ve got good news, I’d love to see you. If you’re floundering, you need to see me. If you think you’re going to hide from me, I will find you.

Patti Russo (24:23):
We like staying close to our grads because that continues to instill confidence in them so they don’t feel isolated, they don’t feel alone. Mona will tell you, this is a very, very brutal business, brutal, you have to have a thick skin, but you also have to have a political love tribe that’s always going to be in your corner. And that’s what we are for our grads.

Soniya Gokhale (24:47):
That is absolutely amazing. Well, Mona, same question and any comments that you have on all of that. Absolutely amazing.

Senator Das (24:55):
I think Patti hit the nail on the head. These institutions were not built for us. I feel that every day, especially as a woman of color, where I work I called out the racism that I was seeing because it was profound and people don’t even realize it because they hadn’t started examining that these institutions were not built for us, they were not built by us. And I really think that the more women we have in this year in the Senate in Washington we are now 50% women as of last year. And one of the things that I do and I spend a lot of my time doing is training the next generation, right now I’m coaching 13 candidates.

Senator Das (25:45):
I’m putting in place what wasn’t there for me, I call it political therapy because when you’re running for office, you can’t talk to your friends, you can’t talk to your family, you cannot talk to your campaign staff or your consultants about the doubts you’re having, the struggles you’re having, when you’re having a down day, there’s so many nuances to running for office that in order to explain why you’re upset about an endorsement interview to a friend who’s not in politics, it would take you 20 minutes to explain what is an endorsement and why it’s important before then you could talk about how upset you were. So, this is a place we meet weekly and this is a place where the candidates can come, they can be themselves, they can talk about their fears, they can talk about their disappointments, they can talk about their successes and it’s a supportive community that is having been someone who ran and then realized it’s lonely.

Senator Das (26:44):
Last week, here’s what we talked about for 20 minutes, how lonely it is to run for office. And it is absolutely isolating. You think you’re surrounded by all these people, yes you are and it’s also your own solo journey. And so that is for me, what I’m doing with my time is turning around and giving back what was missing for me. And these campaigns schools are wonderful and there’s so many of them and The Yale campaign school is extraordinary and it does give you a great resource. I’m still friends with many of the women I went to school with and we still communicate. In fact, one of the women from Colorado Daphna and I, I’ve proposed legislation that she’s proposed in Colorado because I thought it was so awesome. And so there is that, but you do need your local folks that are going through what you’re going through and people who can be there for you and support you.

Senator Das (27:47):
So, that’s really where I see any bonding, any collaboration, any community building around running for office. I tell my candidates all the time, we are unique. We are unicorns. We are doing something that none of our friends would ever consider doing and this is why they will support you and this is why you have to ask them. And the biggest thing I teach them is not only do you have to bring them into your campaign, your campaign has to be inclusive. We are teaching our friends and colleagues and champions, how to be great advocates for us as we run for office because many people are new to the political process and that is something I know you are really trying to highlight to Soniya. So thank you for that.



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