An Inside Look at Running for State Office
Dafna Michaelson Jenet is a first-time candidate for the Colorado House of Representatives, District 30. Jenet is married and the mother of two sons and a daughter. One son currently serves in the Marine Corps.
The author of It Takes a Little Crazy to Make a Difference, Jenet consults on community, team building and problem solving. We spoke with her for our #VoteLikeAGirl series about her journey and what it’s like to run for office.
Q: What are you running for and is this the first time you considered running for elected office?
A: I’m running for the State House of Representatives in Colorado. I thought about running for office in the past, but it was not the right time. I needed to get my life in order first. So I embarked on “the 50 in 52 journey” in 2009: I traveled to all 50 states and met with change makers, ordinary people solving problems in their communities. They were racially and socioeconomically diverse and all shared their stories with me. I learned that no matter what you look or sound like, or how much money or education you have, you can make a difference.
Q: Tell us more about these change makers and the 50 in 52 journey project. What was the goal there?
A: The people I spoke with ranged in age from 14 to 94. Some were struggling economically and some were billionaires. I gathered names through social media and just followed the path. The idea was to raise money for this “50 in 52 journey” project, but then the economy crashed. I cashed out my 401k, packed food and slept on people’s couches. People fed me and hosted me for Shabbat. Some even gave me miles for airline travel!
The idea was to use these stories and write a book. But a few months after I completed my travels, I found a lump in my left breast. Then the doctor found another lump. Then I lost the baby I was carrying. I stopped being able to write my book. I had interminable writer’s block. After the baby, I sought counselling support. I had to mourn. Then, after all of that, I was able to write again. Literally a month after I submitted my completed manuscript for It Takes A Little Crazy to Make a Difference to my publisher, someone asked me if I would consider running.
I had participated many years before in a program created by Marie Wilson, the founder of Take Your Daughter to Work Day, called The White House Project. The project trains women, regardless of party, to run for office. I was told that men wake up one morning and say, “I will run for office,” but women wait to be asked. And I thought, “Oh no! I waited until I was asked!” I had committed my life to giving back through volunteerism. And here I was in my pajamas in the grocery store, on a Sunday morning, and my city councilor for Commerce City said, “Hey Dafna, I need you to run for office.” And I said, “Hey Steve, I’m in my pajamas.”
Q: How did you know your city councilor? Why do you think he asked you to run?
A: I was very engaged in my community--Leadership Denver, lots of board service. I had met Steve at a homeowner’s association meeting –when you show up, you meet people.
He wanted me to run for city council, but then I was approached by state legislators and they said if you’re thinking of running, we want you.
In 2014, the Democratic incumbent lost the seat by 107 votes. This is a seat that typically has been held by Democrats, but the demographics changed. We now reflect the state–30 percent Democrat; 30 percent Republican; 30 percent unaffiliated. This seat is won and lost on independent votes, which makes it a difficult, but really important seat. The woman I’m running against made national news after we had a shooting at our Planned Parenthood. She went on Facebook and wrote, “Violence begets violence and violence begins within their walls.” I was already a candidate and my phone rang off the hook. When the Supreme Court ruled against the TRAP laws, she again went on Facebook and wrote, “Once again the liberal Supreme Court defended the made-up right of choice.”
Q: Who lives in your district, and why is your race particularly important?
A: My district has a lot of hard-working families, a lot of working poor. When we go door-to-door, we go from mobile homes to mansions with ranches in between. There is a lot of rural area and it’s almost impossible to hit the rural doors. But we have to educate voters, to have those conversations and say, “Here’s what’s going on.”
I believe this race could determine abortion rights in the state of Colorado. So there’s a fair amount of pressure and anxiety. November 8th is coming at me like a speeding bullet train.
Q: What does your typical day look like?
A: I have two full-time employees–a campaign director and a field director. I live outside Denver, and my house is the base of operations. Most of my day is spent on the phone raising the money we need to reach voters. I didn’t quite understand what campaign money was used for before I became a candidate. I now understand—it’s for voter contact. So I spend half of the day on the phone and half the day knocking on doors.
Q: What’s it like to knock on the doors? What are you hearing from voters about the presidential campaign? Are they turned off?
A: The national ticket deeply impacts the local and I’m facing a lot of voters who don’t want to vote. I’ll say, “If you don’t want to vote for president, then don’t, but vote for local. We’re doing work that affects your community.”
Some close the door and some take literature and look at it like I’m from Mars. Some say, “Tell me more.” I tell them, “I’m a mother and have kids and am concerned about schools and access to mental health care.” And then I ask, “What are you concerned about?” Even if they are not engaged in national issues, they’re thinking about their communities. But if they are engaged locally, then I become a resource. I’m someone who may know who they can talk to about schools or something the state doesn’t work on.
And if we’re really good we’ll hear, “Oh, your candidate just knocked on our door and we’re voting for you and you can put a yard sign on my front yard.”
But it can be scary. One man opened the door with three large dogs and he did not control them. People can also be mean and dismissive when they find out you do not represent the party of their choosing.
I also talk to a lot of individuals from a different party who are open to a conversation, and to them I say, “Please take a look at my website and see what my issues are and if we misalign, let me know, because my job is to represent our community. I believe we need to come together to solve problems and I want to have the conversations and solve the problems.”
Q: Do you have aspirations for higher office?
A: State level law is fascinating. The kind of impact it can make on a community feels so tangible. I don’t know what the possibility is of a window opening at the federal level because we have great people there. Maybe one day, governor. When I was younger, that’s what I wanted – to be Governor of Colorado. But it is so great to make laws that impact our families.
Campaigning is grueling, and I know it prepares you for the pace of holding office. State representatives have a 120-day commitment that pays $30,000. That makes it incredibly hard to run for office unless you’re independently wealthy or retired. My husband and I had to sit down and figure that out. Even though technically it’s a 120-day session, you’re a legislator for your constituents for all 365 days of the year.
Q: Do you have advice for women who might want to run for office?
A: Find a training program where you will build your network of like-minded peers. There are some great ones—Vote Run Lead, Emerge America, the Women’s Campaign School at Yale. They are all phenomenal.
Get involved—become a precinct captain for your party. That will start teaching you the basics of campaigning. What does a precinct captain do? There are a certain number of voters in your precinct and your job is to make sure they feel connected and come out to vote. They become connected to you because you are their access to the process. But, there are so many opportunities to get involved at the party level and you’ll learn a ton.
Or get involved in a campaign. Volunteer to work on the campaign or to be on staff. Find a seat you’re interested in and volunteer. The first seat that many women run for is state house. You’d be surprised what happens when you put your name forward.
Q: Do you have any final advice you’d like to share?
A: Know your “why” – you’re going to wake up every morning and wonder what you got yourself into. So, know why you did.
My “why” is my son, my youngest. He struggles in school and I was never able to get him an appropriate IEP (Individualized Education Plan). I called my contacts for help, all the way to the governor’s office. I interviewed an entire special education team of another school district and I still failed him. At the time I was volunteering at a girls’ penitentiary and the principal told me, “I just spent eight hours working on one IEP evaluation. I’m never getting to the other 40.”
I realized that as hard as I was working for my son and not having success, these girls didn’t have a chance. I internalized that as “It’s my fault these girls are in prison.” The reason the majority of prisoners are in prison is because they were victims first. And we need systems to help. That’s my “why” every day. When you are clear, it’s worth the doors shut in your face and the phones slammed. And today people are pretty disrespectful to the people who are running. The language at the top effects those of us way down at bottom.