Not that long ago, the world of politics was an all-male club that only occasionally admitted a woman into its ranks. But that’s rapidly changing. With two women running for president this year, we decided to talk to a few women who have been in politics for a while, two as elected officials and one who plays an instrumental role as a fundraiser in her clients’ campaigns.
Leticia Van De Putte
Her name is familiar to all of us in San Antonio and beyond. A life-long Democrat, Leticia Van De Putte spent 25 years in the Texas Legislature, fighting for her constituents and Texans in general, and accomplishing much for veterans, children’s health, education, the prevention of human trafficking and a number of other causes. What motivated her to run that first time in 1990, she says, was anger. “I got mad. I didn’t understand why there were no policies to support preventive health care. In the 1980s, every cow in Texas had to be immunized, but there was no such policy for children,” she recalls. “There was no state-funded kindergarten for all, even though data showed a strong link between early education and later educational success. And I couldn’t understand why small business was burdened with endless bureaucratic demands. As a pharmacist, I had to deal with 17 agencies and commissions in order to run my pharmacy. Also, as a state, we were not living up to our promises to our veterans.”
Though she had six children under the age of 9 at the time, plus a business to run, she put her name in the hat for the seat vacated by Rep. Orlando Garcia in District 115 — and won. It was a true grassroots campaign. With the support of family and women friends from the neighborhood and her women’s business club, she literally knocked on doors all over the West Side, where she grew up and still lived. We called ourselves the “Stroller Brigade,” she says, smiling at the memory of herself and friends campaigning with babies in tow. Shoe leather and face-to-face meetings won the day; there was little money or fancy technology involved.
After nine years in the Texas House, Van De Putte moved to the senate, winning one election after another. Given the size of her new district, however, the campaigning style had to change, since “you couldn’t possibly knock on 8,000 doors.” So fundraising became part of the picture. Asking for money was hard at first, she admits. “Like most women, I was taught to be humble. ’Be humble, sweetheart,’ I was told growing up. But I had to get over that quickly,” she quips. Like most politicians, the new senator depended on her campaign managers to help organize the fundraising.
Of her 12 political campaigns Van De Putte won 10 but lost the last two. Many observers felt that she was making a mistake by joining former Sen. Wendy Davis as her running mate in the gubernatorial race of 2014, yet the senator has no regrets. “I learned so much! Running for lieutenant governor I discovered the beauty and greatness of this state and its people,” she comments. “It was a magnificent journey.” That loss was followed by the tight San Antonio mayoral race that led to a runoff election in June 2015, which Van De Putte lost to present Mayor Ivy Taylor.
Asked to elaborate on key elements of a successful campaign, the seasoned politician eagerly points out that candidates must realize that “it’s about the people, not about them and their ego; it’s about making a difference in people’s lives.” If an aspiring politician seeks her advice, she usually asks him/her the following questions: Why do you want to run? Do you like dealing with people? Do you know what it means to work within a framework of strict rules? How do you handle crises — because you are going to encounter quite a few? Can you live with confrontation? She further explains that you can buy technological, fundraising and marketing expertise, but “you can’t buy heart and brains.”
What she found personally most challenging was giving up control in her pharmacy business and at home. Yet there was no choice. Some pharmacy duties she used to perform had to be delegated to staff, and the family had to hire help at home. As for the work in Austin, she loved working on public policy issues and worked well with her Republican colleagues to get things done. “We may have different opinions, but they are still good people,” she notes. When things get really heated, a good politician knows how not to take things personally. “You win some, you lose some,” she adds philosophically.
In person, Van de Putte is so easy to relate to that you may forget that you are in the presence of one of the most prominent San Antonio politicians who remains a force in the Democratic Party. In fact, she chaired the rules committee for the 2016 Democratic National Convention and remains active on many fronts. More recently, Van de Putte joined forces with former Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade to launch a consulting/lobbying firm that’s already gaining momentum. It’s worth mentioning that Andrade is a Republican.
After so much winning, how did she handle the recent losses, especially in the mayoral election of 2015 that she was widely expected to win? “It was devastating … for a short time,” she says. “But my life and value are not in a title. I know that I can continue to be a leader.” Then after some hesitation, she tells me about the near-tragedy that befell her family just days after Election Day. Her daughter Nicole, the mother of three young kids, contracted a serious infection seemingly out of the blue, necessitating 12 days in intensive care and no assurances that she would survive. Nicole made it, but her mother was seriously shaken: “I was so happy that she survived! I took some time to spend with our children and grandchildren. And I realized I can lose an election any day, but I can’t lose a child.”
Like Van De Putte, current Texas State Senator Donna Campbell also got into politics because she was dissatisfied with the way things were going in public life. Though a conservative, she was a busy ER doctor at the time with little involvement with Republican Party activities. “Maybe I went to a couple of Republican meetings at the most,” she notes. However, as her concern about growing government intrusion in people’s lives grew, one day she asked the Republican precinct chair in Columbus, where she lived, what she could do to help reverse that trend. The response was very specific: Run against (U.S. Representative) Lloyd Doggett. And so she did.
“I just jumped in with the passion of concern,” notes the senator. “I started going to Republican meetings to announce that I was going to run against Doggett.” And as in Van de Putte’s case, some people —mostly women — volunteered to help, recruiting others along the way. The candidate visited doughnut shops, gas stations and Wal-Mart stores to introduce herself to voters. In the end she did not win that one, but she came close. “I did not feel a sense of loss,” observes the amiable legislator. “I knew I was going to continue on this path.”
After the family moved to New Braunfels with a 4-year-old adopted daughter (Campbell also has three older stepdaughters), and redistricting changed the electoral map, the path led through new territory. Not deterred, Campbell ran in Texas Senate District 25 against longtime State Sen. Jeff Wentworth and made history as the first person to ever defeat an incumbent Republican senator. She took it as a confirmation that ordinary people were tired of the status quo. Bonding and relating to voters was easy, she explains, because they were kindred spirits. They, too, were upset with government intrusion, Obamacare, the tolling of their roads, the lack of school choice, the scarcity of jobs, the encroachment of development around military bases and other issues close to her own heart.
She did hire professionals to help with various aspects of campaigning this time around, but she also put a lot of her own money into it. Still, in that Republican primary, Wentworth spent $727,568 to Campbell’s $175,000. Campbell then proceeded to score an easy victory against her Democratic opponent. Again, like Van De Putte, the senator emphasizes the importance of message and values in the success of a political campaign. Clearly her message resonated. She was re-elected in 2014.
Born into a military family, Campbell has an impressive education in the medical field, starting with two nursing degrees, including a master’s, and followed by an MD, and board certifications in two medical specialties – ophthalmology and emergency medicine. Working with Christian Eye Ministries, the doctor has performed hundreds of eye surgeries in the West African country of Ghana as a volunteer. She opted for ER work, she says, because it gave her more flexibility, which turned out to be a blessing now that she is a legislator. She still works in three different hospital ERs and travels between three Texas cities. Interestingly, on her first day at the Capitol, she was called to render help to an aide who had fainted.
Though the legislature is not in session all the time, her work as a representative of the people goes on. Meeting with constituents, speaking to civic groups, fundraising and committee meetings continue between sessions. She serves as the chairwoman of the Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee (that she’s especially proud of) and is a member of a number of others, such as Education, Health and Human Services, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations.
For her, one difficult aspect of politics is the lies and maligning that the other side tends to throw at you, and “you don’t always have a forum to explain that it’s not true. As a medical doctor, I am used to working in an arena of truth. If facts are not respected, somebody is going to die,” she observes. “Entering the gladiator sport of politics was very different.” That’s why she decided to avoid negative campaigning, sticking strictly to facts and letting voters compare her and her opponent’s records. Candidates should run on their vision without tearing down their opponents, she says emphatically. “How can I malign someone and pray to God to help me? I am ultimately accountable to the Lord.”
After 11 years of raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Norma Denham chose to explore a new and more perilous territory – political fundraising. “I did it because I had a skill that I think is rare. I have a knack for fundraising, and I like a challenge,” she says. “I had gone to political fundraising events, and I said to myself, ‘I could do this!’”
Launching her firm, Norma Denham & Associates, in 2009 when the economy wasn’t exactly flourishing was risky, but she was ready and eager to take a chance on something new. Today, her roster of clients features many prominent local power-brokers, including Mayor Ivy Taylor; Commissioners Kevin Wolff and Tommy Calvert; State Sen. Jose Menendez; State Reps. Diego Bernal, Diana Arevalo and John Lujan; and Councilmen Joe Krier and Ray Lopez. Some former clients are Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, mayoral candidate Mike Villarreal, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and former Councilwoman Elisa Chan.
It wasn’t easy, however, admits Denham, whose base of operation is an office in the Workery, the nicely repurposed complex on Poplar Street now housing a variety of spaces that individuals and small businesses can rent. The first politico to hire her was former Councilwoman Chan, thanks to a connection Chan had with Denham’s husband, an IT specialist. Next was Kevin Wolff, with whom she established a good rapport right away, and he let her handle his entire 2012 campaign. Things got easier from there.
“Political fundraising is different from the nonprofit version,” observes Denham. “The latter has that feel-good-about-it aspect. We all like to do something good for people in need and the community. Political fundraising is not about saving a life. It’s more businesslike, and businesses are more likely than individuals to support politicians. They expect something in return. In fact, the majority of voters and donors want to see a change of some sort.”
Her firm grew slowly, thanks largely to word-of-mouth and her determination to contact as many people as possible to create a database of contacts. Networking is essential in her business. “I would find any excuse to be seen and say hello to potential donors,” she admits. “My list of contacts is pretty extensive, and I update it on a daily basis.” Still, there was a period a couple of years ago when Denham considered giving up. Luckily she didn’t, as she is now in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose her clients.
In 2015, she further honed her skills by attending the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, a nonpartisan, issue-neutral leadership program “whose mission is to increase the number and Influence of women in elected and appointed office.” While there, the San Antonio fundraiser interacted with some of the most prominent women in the field, learning the finer points of polling, strategizing, fundraising and messaging. “It definitely gave me a new perspective on campaigning. A campaign is really like a short-term corporation,” she says.
Denham sees her business as apolitical, willing to take on both Republican and Democratic candidates, and she defines herself as an independent who votes for candidates from both parties. Her favorite fundraising strategy is to raise a lot of money for her client even before a race gets underway. The money intimidates the potential opponents, sometimes discouraging them from even entering a race. To make that possible, however, the candidate must be involved in fundraising as well, not just by attending events but by actively soliciting funds himself.
Family engagement is another important element. Based on her experience, you must approach a donor at least three times to achieve results. Otherwise people forget. Another crucial thing is to produce fun events that make people feel good and then follow up with thank-you letters and updated information. She knows whereof she speaks. Last year alone her firm raised $2 million for her Bexar County clients.
So, how would she define the role of money in political success? “It’s funny,” she says, “money is most important and then not so important. Sometimes you may raise a lot of money, but if the voters don’t know you, they are not going to vote for you. Money helps you present your ideas and helps you brand yourself, but there are examples of individuals who have won with little money.” Such was the case with Diana Arevalo, who recently won a seat in the Texas House. In an unusual turn of events, Arevalo contacted Denham after the election to help raise funds to cover her campaign debts and future expenses. There are also plenty of examples of well-known politicos who lost despite sizable war chests.
And then there is that thing called charisma that some individuals have and others don’t. Bill Clinton and Henry Cisneros had it, she points out, and “if you have it naturally, it always helps.” From her perspective as a fundraiser, getting to know the politician well through repeated election cycles makes it easier for her “to sell who they really are.”
Denham’s advice to women who dream of entering politics is to get involved with their communities, from neighborhood associations and PTAs to nonprofits, school elections and civic organizations. And she takes her own advice. A member of both the Hispanic Chamber and the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, she serves on the Latina Leadership Institute Steering Committee for the Hispanic business group in addition to being the chair of the Exhibits and Education Committee for the Witte Museum.
BY JASMINA WELLINGHOFF
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELIZABETH WARBURTON