Wave of women running for office in Butte County and beyond

Jessica Holcombe woke up five times the night of Nov. 8, 2016. The Auburn-based attorney couldn’t sleep as she thought of what she believed a Donald Drumpf presidency would mean for the United States and the world.

“After the results of the election, I knew that I had to do more than just talk about the issues with people who were like-minded and, of course, vote,” Holcombe said. “I realized more had to be done.”

She turned to activism to address issues important to her, such as wealth inequality and access to health care. It was after a visit to the office of incumbent Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, with a group of fellow activists that she considered seeking office.

“We realized he wasn’t listening to his constituents. He was just going to toe the party line and do what his donors wanted him to do,” Holcombe said. “We realized that someone needs to run. Someone in the group said, ‘I nominate Jessica,’ and a couple people in the group said, ‘We’ll help you.’ That effectively was the deciding point.”

Holcombe is now one of three Democratic contenders — all women — vying for the District 1 congressional seat held by LaMalfa.

Holcombe actually outraised LaMalfa in the last months of the year, with $147,000 to LaMalfa’s $130,000. All told, however, LaMalfa has raised a total of $343,482, twice as much as Holcombe.

The voters of District 1, and the past iterations that represented Butte County, have never elected a woman to Congress, but that doesn’t scare Holcombe, who said this is a year for change.

“I think this is a great year for us to take back Congress and finally replace the old boys network and these establishment politicians,” she said. “There is the momentum we need to get representatives in office that really listen to people.”

Holcombe’s story is representative of what is happening across the United States where women are running for office at record levels. As of this month, there are 420 women — 332 Democrats and 88 Republicans — running or likely to run for the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Most of those women are running as challengers.

At this point in 2016, only 212 were running or likely to run.

There are 50 women running for or likely to run for the Senate, twice as many than at this point in 2016.

For Audrey Denney, the seed to run was planted around Thanksgiving last year.

Denney, an educator from Chico with an agricultural background, is also running in the Democratic primary for District 1 Congress. She recalled a transformative moment while having a conversation with her sister, Amy, about how incredible it was to see an unprecedented amount of women and young people lining up to run for office.

“I had this gut feeling, a visceral sense that this is something I could do,” she said.

When her sister left, some self-doubt crept in. At age 33, Denney wondered if she was too young, had too little experience. Part of what pulled her out of that was inspiration from reading an article about Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton — and one of America’s youngest mayors, elected in 2016 at the age of 26. Frustration about the passage of the tax bill, which LaMalfa voted for, and knowing how it would negatively affect her neighbors also provided a push.

“I believe the job of our representative is to represent working families here,” Denney said.

She thought if not now, when?

Since launching her campaign Jan. 3, Denney has shored up her core staff, secured over 300 volunteers and raised $80,000 for her campaign. To declare candidacy, an oath or affirmation of office is required, which will be taken again if the candidate wins. Denney took her oath last week, showing goosebumps on her arm when she talked about it. That happens every time, Denney said.

“That oath was the biggest honor of my life,” she said.

Marty Walters, another Democratic District 1 congressional candidate, is an environmental scientist and single mother of three from Quincy. Walters said she was stunned by the negative talk surrounding women throughout the campaign of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and that it was a motivator for her to run.

One of seven siblings, politics was a large part of her upbringing in Hawaii because her father was a politician and state auditor. She grew up drawing on the back of bills in the car — yes, like proposed legislation. Walters said she has considered running for political office for some time.

“People always say I’m just like my dad,” she said. “My mode is pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.”

Will this be the year a district that has long voted red votes blue? Will a woman win the seat? Even if not, Walters said it’s a positive thing that the conversation was moving into the mainstream.

“The needle is moving already,” she said. “It takes that momentum and pushes it forward.”

There is not yet data available on the number of women running for state offices, but if races in Virginia and New Jersey are any indicator, this year could see a record number of women headed for statehouses. More women were on the ballot in those states than at any other time in the last decade and in Virginia, the number of women in the House of Delegates went from 17 to nearly 30, according to Vice News.

Sonia Aery’s campaign for Assembly District 3, a seat held by Republican James Gallagher, has its roots in 2016. The Chico native was one of the organizers of the Women’s March in Chico which drew between 2,000-3,000 people on Jan. 20. Holcombe and Denney gave speeches there,while Walters spoke at a sister march in Mount Shasta.

The original Women’s March on Washington, which took place the day after Drumpf’s inauguration, has been called the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history.

Driven by the results of the presidential election, Aery announced in late January that she was running for Assembly.

“In November 2016, I kind of had this sinking feeling in my stomach,” Aery said. “I realized I was more afraid for my safety in November 2016 than I was after September 11, and that was totally unacceptable to me. It felt like we were going backwards.”

Aery, the daughter of Indian immigrants, felt unsafe because of some of the rhetoric used by Drumpf about women and immigrants. She voted, then she marched and donated, but it never felt like quite enough, she said.

When Aery found out there wasn’t a progressive candidate running against Gallagher, she saw an opportunity to contribute and be of service, she said. The insurance agent spends her days learning her clients’ concerns and fears, something that has given her an understanding of what matters to the people of the north state and how she can serve them.

While Aery has never held public office, she believes now is the time.

“I think there is a tremendous amount of energy around new candidates,” Aery said. “As a business owner, if I was to ask why we’re doing things a certain way, and you tell me, ‘Well, that’s just the way things have always been done,’ that’s not acceptable. It’s time for a new energy, for a new perspective.”

Tami Ritter, who is running for the District 3 seat on the Butte County Board of Supervisors, also said that this year feels different.

Ritter, who previously served on the Chico City Council for four years before losing her bid for re-election in 2016, said there seems to be increased energy and interest around politics this year, among both candidates and voters.

Candidates are declaring their intention to run earlier than in previous years, Ritter said, and people seem to be more interested in learning about local offices.

“I think people are energized. I think people are excited to know that they can make a difference locally,” Ritter said. “We’ve seen so much energy with a lot of the marches that have happened and I think that has really energized people to say, ‘I want to take a bigger role.’”

That interest isn’t just reserved to government office, Ritter said. More young women in local high schools are speaking up for causes they are passionate about, including at a recent school board meeting, and running for student leadership positions, a marked change from when she was that age, she said.

“They are getting involved and engaged about the issues that are concerning to them,” Ritter said. “That’s not something back in the ’80s, when I was in high school, I would have contemplated. I wouldn’t have even known that was an option.”

Debra Lucero, who is running against Supervisor Larry Wahl for his District 2 seat, said she has imagined running for office since she was 12 years old. Lucero has a diverse background, starting out as a reporter, then working for a Hispanic lobbyist group in Washington, D.C. She currently serves on several boards including the Chico Arts Commission and two state boards representing the arts and also community media.

“I thought it might be time. I felt I had something to run for,” Lucero said, adding that she would like to encourage more collaboration between the county and the city of Chico on issues such as homelessness.

Lucero grew up with two teachers for parents and her father in particular was an activist, which inspired her as a child.

“I’ve always been interested in governance,” she said. “I don’t think I ever thought it wasn’t available to me.”

Lucero spoke to the stark disparity in the United States between the percentage of women in political office and the general population. According to the latest Census data, women make up just over 50 percent of our nation’s population. However, women take up about a quarter or less of seats in state legislatures and Congress.

As it stands, women hold 19.8 percent of the seats in the 114th U.S. Congress, 22.8 percent of statewide executive elective offices and 25.3 of state legislature seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. And it doesn’t look much different at the local level. Just 20.4 percent of mayors of cities with populations of 100,000 or greater and 21 percent of mayors representing populations of 30,000 and above are women.

“It is time. It is time for our voices,” Lucero said. “I hope we can be inspiration for the next generation.”