From governor to city council: UT program helps 6 Texas women launch campaigns

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Elections coming up later this year in Texas will include some first-time candidates who all share one thing in common. Each of these women launched her campaign — seeking everything from the governorship to a seat on Austin City Council — after attending the same, relatively new program.

They all went through the LBJ Women’s Campaign School, a months-long bipartisan program housed within the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Altogether, the first two campaign school cohorts included 120 women who enrolled with the ultimate intent to either become a candidate or a campaign manager. Joy Diaz chose the route of running for the highest office in Texas, launching her bid late last year for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination about a month after graduating from this program.

“I am here because, in the end, we’re going to make the state better. Texas deserves it,” Diaz said. “I truly believe that change is coming. Positive change is coming, and I want to be a part of that.”

Diaz, a former Texas Public Radio journalist, described learning about the LBJ Women’s Campaign School as just one in a series of “miraculous events” that led her to leave her job and jump into politics. She said she began thinking about a new path after she and her young son survived a COVID-19 infection before they could get the vaccine.

“For us, it was one of those things where we couldn’t breathe,” Diaz said. “It taught me that I have to live life with no regrets — and that if the state of Texas needed a champion, and I wanted to be that champion, that I should jump in the ring and say, ‘I think Texans are worth it.'”

Joy Diaz launched her campaign on Dec. 8 for the Democratic nomination for Texas governor. (Photo/Sandra Dahdah)

With those thoughts circulating in her mind, a news release asking for coverage about the application period opening for a new class of the LBJ Women’s Campaign School landed in her reporter inbox seemingly at the right time.

“It was serendipitous,” Diaz said about that email. “I think this is a message for me. This is a place where I can grow and develop and find like-minded people, and like-minded people doesn’t mean party affiliation because it’s a bipartisan school. Learning from and cross-pollinating from a variety of mindsets was very enriching.”

Training the next generation of elected leaders to start down that path inspired Amy Kroll to create the program. She said she brought forward the idea while starting her master’s degree at UT Austin and noticing the political activism among women erupting in 2018.

“Women were engaging in their democracy in record numbers. They were reaching out to their members of Congress. They were running for office in record numbers, and people were calling that the ‘year of the woman,'” Kroll said. “I saw all of that happening, and I knew that there was this opportunity to get more women elected into public office.”

The first cohort of the LBJ Women’s Campaign School, which included 50 women from across the U.S., launched in January 2020. Then, 70 more women joined the program’s second cohort in April 2021. Now, almost two years after the campaign school began, 11 graduates have launched campaigns of their own — in Texas, Arkansas and Maryland.

“I feel so incredibly proud of these women,” Kroll said. “I always love the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt where she says, ‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’ These women are really stepping into the arena. They are doing the thing.”

The latest numbers published by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that women make up 50.3%, a slight majority, of the Texas population. However, they remain a minority in the share of elected leaders statewide, though numbers are trending upward.

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University took a look at the current numbers. The center found that women hold seven of the 38 Congressional seats in Texas. Meanwhile, women fill 48 of the 181 seats (26.5%) in the state legislature — the most in the center’s database going back to 1975. Outside of the state’s judicial positions, only one woman currently holds a statewide elected office: Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick.

Graduates running for office

Here in Austin, Stephanie Bazan announced a run to represent District 5 on city council. She did so after going through the campaign school. She applied for the program after hearing about two of her friends’ experiences in the first cohort.

Stephanie Bazan announced she’s running for Austin City Council after graduating from the LBJ Women’s Campaign School. (KXAN photo)

“I just thought this would be a way for me to get some more tools in my toolbox,” Bazan explained. “I really like to be prepared before starting anything and get everything organized and together. This felt like a good piece for me to move forward.”

In addition to learning things like the need to apply for a campaign treasurer to officially set the groundwork for a campaign, Bazan said all the information she got about raising money proved most helpful.

“Fundraising is hard for a lot of folks,” Bazan said. “Through Women’s Campaign School, I was able to get some tips and tools about how to go about that — what to do for call time; how focused you really need to be about fundraising; and how to bring your whole family and circle of friends into that to make it fun.”

In one primary approaching in March, two campaign school graduates will face each other to become the Democratic nominee for Travis County’s 261st Civil District Court judge. Pam Davis and Daniella Deseta Lyttle, the two candidates in this judicial primary, are both attorneys in Austin who credit disapproval with actions taken by the Trump administration for fueling their desires to seek elected office.

Daniella Deseta Lyttle, Democratic candidate for Travis County 261st Civil District Court judge (KXAN photo)

“It was a time where I had to be very creative and innovative to protect my clients, and it was a time that really told me that what we needed was systemic change at a higher level, where people can go into a court of law and feel seen,” Deseta Lyttle said. “No matter how you look at it, the reality is that when judges have shared lived experiences with the people that end up going before the court, I think the results are better.”

“I basically said, ‘Enough is enough,'” Davis explained. “I have this experience. Now is the time for me to use my experience on a — I guess you would say — just a different platform because I’ve always wanted to serve, and I felt like now was the perfect opportunity to move forward.”

Both women said the campaign school helped with tangible skills, like sharpening their stump speeches, teaching them about political organizing and how to maximize votes. However, the more abstract benefits came from the connections they made with the other women in the program and building up confidence that they have what it takes to dive into the sometimes slimy pool of politics.

Pam Davis, Democratic candidate for Travis County 261st Civil District Court judge (KXAN photo)

“One of the things we learned is that women normally have to be asked several times before they ever venture out into the field of politics, whereas a man, they just jump out,” Davis said. “It’s really good to have a program that will help you build your confidence; to know that your voice matters; that diversity matters; that you have something to offer.”

“The number one thing that I learned from it is that it’s possible — you can do this,” Deseta Lyttle said. “Just being surrounded by positive women who were encouraging and made it seem like, or feel like, a dream could be a reality, it was really the most helpful part of all of it.”

As founder and executive director of the campaign school, Kroll said everyone leading the program is specifically interested in and tracking how going through the school affects the participants’ confidence levels. She pointed out a survey taken after the first cohort graduated showed that 100% of the women said the program helped to increase their confidence to reach their career goals.

“Some of the different ways that we do this is through building the skills of the women through helping them see that they can do it — by introducing them to mentors, by showing them role models, by bringing women into the classroom who have been successful,” Kroll said. “And then also through building that sisterhood of support. I think you feel a lot more confident, and like you can do it, when you see your friends, other people in the cohort, making that change, making that difference.”

Other campaign school graduates running for office this year include the following:

In 2021 two graduates won offices that they sought. Jaynie Schultz now sits on the Dallas City Council, and Jessica Davila-Burnett won a seat on the Boerne ISD school board.

What the curriculum includes

If someone is interested in enrolling in the LBJ Women’s Campaign School, Kroll broke down what they’d learn through the program. She explained the campaign school has three main pillars: classroom learning, mentorship and networking.

The classroom component, she said, included teaching different campaigns skills. Those include everything from fundraising and talking to the media to grassroots organizing and stakeholder engagement.

“Every possible campaign skill that you can think of, we are covering as part of our curriculum,” Kroll said, “so that the women feel really confident when they do enter the political arena, that they’ve at least had some exposure to every type of political campaigning.”

Each woman enrolled in the program is also partnered with a mentor. Kroll said half of these mentors are either current or former elected leaders. They’ll provide tailored support, she said, so that the women have another sounding board to figure out the next steps in their career.

Bazan, the Austin City Council candidate, said the program paired her with someone who currently works at City Hall. She said that mentor shared some invaluable advice about how to better engage with the community.

“One of the things she said is, ‘It’s okay to be out there and be assertive and to tell people more about what you’re doing.’ They want to hear that,” Bazan said. “That was a helpful little nugget that I got.”

Additionally, the campaign school focuses on building relationships among the participants themselves so that they support each other during — and after — the program. That’s what the women now running for office all mentioned as one of the best takeaways.

“The connections that were built through this virtual space were priceless and something that I didn’t realize that I would get above and beyond all of the technical knowledge and exposure to other politicians,” Bazan said.

“I think that women in general, as a whole, we are connectors, and we are naturally that way,” DeSeta Lyttle said. “If we reach out to other women in the community and say, ‘This is my dream,’ my experience has been that many will lend a hand and say, ‘Well, let me tell you how I think you can get there.’ Then, you accumulate all of those little tips, and you get out there and you make it happen.”

“That sisterhood is something that I think we will all continue with throughout [our careers],” Davis said.

How to apply

The application period to join the third class of the LBJ Women’s Campaign School is open until Jan. 16. Applications can be found online here.

The next cohort will then begin in April and last for about eight months. Tuition costs $1,750, and financial aid is available.

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