How a one-day school in Connecticut is shaping political candidates across the country

Nov 29, 2023

Originally published in CT Insider on November 19, 2023.

WESTPORT — Patti Russo, executive director of The Campaign School at Yale, allowed herself a short victory lap on recently, after graduates of the nationally known five-day program won seats in local government from Fairfield to Philadelphia, from Weston and Avon to Houston, Texas and Wayne, Indiana.

What started as a women-only summer program at the Yale Law School 29 years ago has evolved into an experience for people from around the country who want to get acquainted with the reality of elected politics and public service. It’s hard work, she said to the perspective candidates and campaign managers. You have to love people and listen to them. You have to raise money, not for yourself, but for your campaign so you can represent your contributors and constituents. And please, don’t even think about a neck tattoo.

Hence during a recent one-day program before a mostly female crowd of 50 in a meeting room at the Public Library here, Russo allowed herself, briefly to celebrate and stress its nonpartisan goals. It was a few days after the election, but she was sure that Bill Gerber – a graduate of this year’s five-day course – was going to win the upcoming recount in the Fairfield first selectman race. He did, by 37 votes.

Samantha Nestor, Class of 2018, won the Weston first selectman’s campaign. Julia Pemberton, Class of 2001, won the selectman’s race in Redding. Gabriela Koc, Class of 2023, won a seat on the Stamford school board. Jacqueline Cabrera of Danbury, another Class of 2023 member, was elected to her local zoning board.

Russo, a career political operative, stood before the crowd of interested political neophytes, emoting like a stand-up comedian of political reality. And while the name of the program has changed from the less-inclusive Women’s Campaign School at Yale, it’s no secret that it’s much harder for females to win elective office in the public service patriarchy.

Almost on cue, another Campaign School veteran, First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker strolled in from between local Veterans Day events. She took a pulse of the room, homing in on the wide-eyed lack of political experience.

“What I can tell you is running for public office is not for everybody, and once you get in, the actual work is not for everybody, especially not for women,” Tooker said. “We think about the risks and we think about the pros and cons and you know, it goes on and on. Our processes to getting to run for office can be very, very different, depending on who we are and what we think of the job and just what we think of the job, and what we think of campaigning in general. I don’t think there is another profession that puts you out there personally in such a way that running for office and then if you’re successful, being in political office and public life, does.”

“It’s about service in a variety of different paths,” Russo said after admitting that at age 10, growing up in New Jersey, she expected to become a Catholic nun. “Not every woman was born to run, but every woman was born to lead. That’s what I hope you take away today.”

In a sense, the five-hour session was a recruiting trip for the June, 2024 five-day intensive immersion at Yale that costs students $1,800 plus accommodations. But there was plenty of advice for budding candidates and their managers. First, hydrate, eat well and exercise daily. “Every woman in America is dehydrated,” Russo quipped. Introverts need not be discouraged. “You know why? They listen,” she said. “They’re alert. They pay attention.”

When you’re attending a public event where you should be meeting people and listening, keep the phone under wraps. Neglect the buffet. Do not drink alcohol, period, during a campaign cycle. A photo of you holding a glass of cabernet can be a gift to your opponent.

“People vote for people that they like,” Russo said. “It’s important that you know this is not about you. It’s about you being a leader in your community for people who have problems. I like telling people what to do. I love telling our grads how to be more fabulous than they already are. Do more listening than talking. Know your constituents. Know what the problems are in your district. You are the answer to those problems. People love telling you their opinions.”

And yes, there is an element of your appearance.

“Years ago, a young student comes in the room, from the neck down covered in tattoos. I thought she was lost,” Russo said, recalling the subsequent tough love. “She did not like it, but I told her that unless everyone in your district has tattoos from the neck on down, it’s not happening for you. You want to be able to walk through that door and people to look at you and say ‘look at her, she looks like she ‘s got it together, I can’t wait to hear what she’s got to say.'” Russo said that after the woman lost her election, she posted a social media notice to raise donations to laser out some tattoos.

Another basic hint is to put your own name in Google, to see what comes up. “Your opponent is going to do it,” she said. “You have to make sure that everything that’s out there on the internet you know and you can speak to it, because you’ve opponent is going to find it. Be prepared. The opposing campaign will find it.”

The biggest obstacle to elective office is raising cash.

“The number one and number two reasons why we don’t have enough women in office is fundraising,” she said. “Fundraising is daunting. You have to achieve a level of confidence and competence in fundraising. The language you use when fundraising is so critical. You have to have enough money to get your message out. ‘Here’s my vision. Here’s why I’m running. Will you make an investment in our community, to make our community a better place to live? Can I count on you for $500? Can I count on you for $100. It’s that level of confidence I’m looking for. You’re really not asking for yourself, You’re asking for your campaign.”

And while the Campaign School is nonpartisan, candidates have to be realists. For instance, a Republican hoping to win election in an overwhelmingly Democratic city should prepared for heartbreak, or a move to a GOP town.

“These are the tough-love conversations you’ve got to have with the people that you trust and people who know politics,” Russo said. “Do I have a compelling message? Going to every festival in your hometown. Reading the newspaper. Reading news online so you know what’s going on. What is happening in your town? You want to be an inspiring leader.”

Russo is proud of the demographic shift over the program’s three decades, from predominantly white women in their mid-to-late 40s. “Now the median age is 28, 29 and the majority of the women who come to our school are women of color,” she said. “There is an interesting osmosis happening. When you truly have a sense of yourself, you can rock your world. You can do anything.”