One of the newest members of Shelburne’s selectboard, Cate Cross, knew she wanted to get more involved in the community after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.
Cross became aware of Emerge VT through Jane Kunin, former Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s daughter-in-law, and was immediately intrigued.
“I felt like I needed to do something, so I applied for the program and got in, and then trained. I ran for Justice of the Peace first here in Shelburne before I ran for select board so that I had a little bit of practice,” Cross said.
Emerge America, now in 28 states, was founded in 2002 in California with the goal of increasing the amount of Democratic women holding public office positions. The organization invited the elder Kunin as a keynote speaker in 2008, and she was inspired to bring the program back home.
In winter of 2013, Kunin founded a chapter of Emerge America in Vermont after a conversation between fellow female lawmakers. The women successfully raised more than the $25,000 needed to be recognized officially by Emerge America.
“A man will look in the mirror in the morning while he’s shaving and say, ‘I can run for the Senate’ and a woman will look in the mirror and say before I run for the school board, I have to take two more courses,” Kunin said about women and politics.
Most women feel they need a diploma to feel confident when talking about politics, even in Vermont, Kunin said. Although Vermont has a high percentage of women in the legislature, there have still been no women sent to Congress. Kunin wants to try and change that.
Emerge VT provides three programs for Democratic women: the signature program, candidate boot camps and step forward training.
The signature program is a six-month program offered to any Democratic woman looking to become more involved in their community. The candidate boot camps are for women running in the current political cycle. The step forward training are two, six-hour training sessions for women thinking about running for office. This session is shorter for those who may not be able to commit to the longer signature program.
Women can apply for Emerge Vermont’s Signature Training Program, a $750, six-week course that equates to more than 70 hours of training. Once accepted, an applicant has to pay $750.
However, there are systems in place to prevent money from being an issue. The fundraising the group does throughout the year normally pays for at least one spot.
The group then receives thorough training on various topics such as public speaking and communication, fundraising, media and messaging, networking, campaign strategy, field operations, labor endorsements, technology and media, cultural competency and ethical leadership. Class sizes range from 13-29.
Thinking big, locally
A few years later, Cross graduated from the six-month program in 2018 with the intent to run for Justice of the Peace, which she accomplished. In addition to serving on the selectboard, she is on the town’s diversity, equity and inclusion task force.
On top of that, Cross works a full time job as the senior director of marketing for a cybersecurity firm.
“I will say that the women that I met and got to train with were, and still are, an amazing network.” Cross said. “Throughout history there has always been a male network because men have been in power, and so the idea was for women to have a network of their own so that we could help each other grow and be in office.”
Other successful Emerge VT alumnae are a great example of the support the program creates, and can be found in Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and her Campaign Manager, Samantha Shannon, who were members of the same class.
Throughout the six weeks, training is led by alumnae of Emerge VT as well as leading women in public positions in Vermont.
One of these women is Joan Lenes who served as a Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives from 2005-2017. She and her husband currently live in Shelburne, with her two children close by.
Lenes was approached in her last year in the Legislature to be on the advisory board for Emerge. Not long after that, she became a board member and now she has been the chair for almost four years. Her role as chair is to keep the board informed and on task, as well as to support the executive director.
Normally the women currently in the program would meet once a month in various locations around Vermont, possibly staying overnight. However, this year the program has pivoted to a virtual setting due to COVID, which may have opened up opportunities for women to apply that may not have been able to due to the travel.
Since Emerge VT is a chapter of the national organization, Emerge America, they only accept people who identify as women and are registered Democrats.
The organization focuses on women because they are highly under-represented among elected officials.Lenes said more women must be at the table making decisions so laws and policies reflect women’s priorities, like education, healthcare, the economy and education.
“Training for Democratic women who have Democratic values is helpful for society. I think we’re more open to a bigger picture, to understanding,” Lenes said. “They’re policies that help women and everyone in society.”
Democratic Rep. Jill Krowinski recently stepped down as executive director when she became Speaker of the Vermont House.
Kunin said that the board members, advisory board and executive directors have all been amazing at Emerge VT, but the program works so well that people have to step down to fulfill their public servant roles, just as Krowinski is doing.
Lenes said that Emerge VT will announce its new executive director shortly.