The challenge of running for elected office is similar whether one is vying
for federal, provincial or municipal office. Female candidates face special
and additional challenges. In this article a former Mayor of Winnipeg offers
some advice for women contemplating a career in politics.
I start from the premise that our country needs more women in politics.
Our society needs more women in leadership positions. Many years ago I
attended a conference with Justice Rosalie Abella, an incredibly dynamic
speaker. She said I cannot believe that the women of Canada are the majority
of the population and we still act like a minority. We must bring gender
balance to our governments. That was in the mid-80s and I already knew
that I would run for mayor of Winnipeg, I just did not know when. She was
right; we needed more women in government.
Women, I believe, offer balance, a more caring society, a more cohesive
team approach. I think women understand societys needs and embrace lifes
realities more pragmatically. I do not believe women go into politics for
power. They go into politics to make things better, to make a difference,
to improve things, to plan the future and to leave legacies for our children.
When we express our views, we need to be respected for our views, listened
to, and our ideas need to be embraced. Our perspective is critical. So
how do we get there, and how do we win?
You cannot enter politics or be a successful candidate if you are not rock
solid with your reasons for entering. You have to know who you are, why
you are running and what you want to achieve. Do not go into politics unless
you have thought these questions through and are very comfortable with
One of the very first questions a reporter will ask you is, why are you
running? The first question people will ask is why should I support you?
The first words that come out of your mouth must be short and succinct
and straight from the heart. So when a reporter first asked why I was running,
I replied: It is my destiny. You should have seen the expression on the
faces of my advisors. What did you say? No, thats not the answer. It
was a moment in time and it was the truth.
I went into political life because it was my calling. It came to me and
I knew I was meant to be mayor. I am sure that everyone at some point in
time has a feeling about what he or she is meant to do. It does not matter
how far-fetched this is. Here I was the owner of a cowboy/saddlery store,
and in the middle of the night in 1982 I heard a voice that said Youre
meant to be the mayor of Winnipeg. It was one of the most phenomenal experiences
of my life, but, I did not doubt it.
I was raised an entrepreneur. My family owned a small saddlery store. Nowhere
on my lifes screen was it obvious that I would be a politician. Yet I
knew I had to listen to what had come to me. We often hear about men who
knew from an early age that they would be Prime Minister one day. Not so
for women. But I encourage women if they have that feeling or that experience
to never dismiss it.
Taking the Plunge
I was raised in St. James, Manitoba and came from quite a middle class
family. My parents instilled in me the idea that you could do anything
you set your mind to. I have never been afraid to fail. To me, failure
is simply a lesson learned. It just took hard work and perseverance, perseverance
being the operative word, and please do not ever forget that word. It is
the key to political success. Nobody could ever have convinced me that
it takes so long to complete things in government. I never ever would have
All the tremendous things that women have accomplished are because we have
persevered. I think tenacity is one of the greatest strengths that women
in politics have and it is always underestimated.
Many people go into politics because somebody has asked you to run. Others
go because they are angry at the current party or person in power. It is
amazing to see how anger motivates people to serve. Still others go because
they have a commitment to public service and they believe in a partys
Once you feel comfortable with why you are running, make sure that you
know what you want to achieve. You must have quantifiable goals in order
to stay focussed during the hard times. I also highly recommend that you
visualize the beginning and the end of your political career. You should
decide when you want to enter politics, and you should decide when you
want to leave. You should plan your own exit, for if you do not, the voters
will plan it for you.
If you are a woman in politics now or are contemplating politics, you should
realise that it is not an easy road.
It has been said that being a woman in politics is like being Ginger Rogers.
You have to do all the same dance steps as Fred Astaire, but you have to
do them backwards and in high heels.
Women have always had to work harder, longer and smarter in order to be
successful. Holding public office is about public trust. To be successful
in politics, one must be very respectful of that public trust and put your
own due diligence in place to make sure that you never betray that public
trust. A successful candidate will be pulled in a thousand directions trying
to please everyone. You must stay focussed and do the daily test. My daily
test was every morning when I woke up and looked in the mirror, if I liked
what I saw then I knew I was doing the right thing. If you look in the
mirror and you do not like what you see, then you are off track. Remember
in the end, and political life will come to an end, all that you own is
your name, and your name is everything.
How to Win
The first challenge for women in politics is raising the money. Next is
name recognition and third is what I call coping with the old boys club
or the corruption of power. It is only when you get to experience power
for the first time in your life that you realize how corrupting power could
But money is probably the single biggest obstacle for women and the biggest
challenge. Women are not prepared to risk their familys money or income
and rightfully so. How do you overcome that hurdle? My first priority was
to build an incredible fundraising team. I remember getting some very good
advice from a former mayor of Ottawa. She said it is the men who can raise
the money, so when you build your fundraising team, utilize the men. This
is their assignment. They need to raise money for you. Recruit the best
fundraisers you know. Try to have co-chairs of fundraising, one woman,
one man but men clearly have better and more access to money so they need
to be assigned to raise the money.
I tell all budding female politicians to make themselves aware of a wonderful
organization in the United States called EMILYs List. It stands for early
money is like yeast; it makes the dough rise. It is the largest grass-roots
political network in the United States. It works at the local, state and
federal level. EMILYs List helps fund progressive women candidates, organize
campaigns and mobilize women voters.. There are some tremendous opportunities
and lessons from EMILYs network. It was formed in 1985 by a network of
25 women to raise money for Democratic women candidates.
There are currently over 100,000 members in the EMILYs List organization.
It is now the largest grass-roots political network in the United States.
Since its formation, it has helped elect 67 candidates, and it is the largest
resource for minority women seeking federal office. They recruit. They
train. They fund candidates at local state and state levels, and they have
four programs to help build candidates for campaigns. They have a program
called Women Vote. It is the get-out-the-vote division of the organization.
They have another area which is called Campaign Core, and it provides training
for campaigning workers. They have a Training and Campaign Jobs Program
which gives candidates access to the best campaign staffers for organizing
and fundraising. They have a Political Opportunity Program which recruits
and trains and supports women who run for office, and EMILYs List is the
current No. 1 supporter for Hillary Clinton in her presidential campaign.
There are many things we can learn for an organization like EMILYs List.
Another good bit of advice is not to spend the money unless you have it
and to have the toughest financial controller possible. There is many a
story of people who have risked their own money and spent years paying
off the debt in order to finance themselves in a campaign.
When it comes to name and face recognition there is lots of scope for creativity.
I went into my first campaign with less than 5 percent name recognition.
Nobody knew me but I was a retailer and marketer and I knew what to do.
MediaCom had all the billboards in Winnipeg and I met with the general
manager and asked him to show me the most important billboards in the city.
He drove me around and said there were only 19 billboards that needed to
be sewn up in order to blanket the city. So I booked them all in 1989 even
though I did not run until 1992.
Of course you cannot totally book them unless you put the cash up-front,
and you can only do that within the election period. But I had those sites
sewn up the day that we were allowed to put the billboards up. I had the
city covered. My name and face recognition went from 5 to 99.9 percent.
I also developed postcards. I am a former Eatonian, so the Eatonian retirees
helped me blitz the city with a hundred thousand postcards. All of these
volunteers went and put my postcard in peoples mailboxes. It was a great
tool for blitzing because on the front it had my picture and Time for
Change, Susan Thompson for Mayor. Then on the back it had what I stood
for and my experience.
A third stream was television. We raised significant money and had one
television blitz during the World Series. It had a huge impact and allowed
me to be a serious candidate. The incumbent mayor had retired and I was
running against the deputy mayor, the chair of finance and the chair of
parks and protection, the three strongest city councillors. Each had over
10 years experience. I had none.
Another important detail is to always remember to say thank you. In a campaign
you get very busy and you have no sleep so you tend to overlook some obvious
things. So I established a Thank You committee whose sole task was doing
thank-you notes and keeping on top of who had to be thanked. That committee
was also the place to go for hugs because when you are in a campaign you
need a safe haven where somebody will nurture you.
It is important to accept advice but not if you are advised to change or
hide your personality. At one point I was advised to be less exuberant,
less emotional. You know, women are emotional, and somehow that translated
as a weakness. I found that I was being stifled so my advice is to show
your passion, show your imagination.
Changing the Culture of Politics
Another fundamental change that must take place, in my opinion, is the
culture and behaviour of politicians. Sixty-two percent of Canadians voted
in the last three elections. Therefore, 38 percent of Canadians did not
vote. There is a cynicism out there and people are reluctant to vote. Part
of it, I believe, is the behaviour that occurs within Question Period that
I sincerely believe we should consider ending the televising of Question
My experience was at the municipal level but city council was televised
for a while. I was totally shocked by the behaviour that occurred, and
afterward said to the speaker: What the heck is going on? He turned to
me, and said: Madam Mayor, its show time. I said: What do you mean its
show time? We are here to do the business of the government; that person
gave misinformation during the session. It was such a disservice to why
we are in public office. We are there to do the job of the government,
and all you can say is that it is show time. Getting the cameras out of
every level of government is highly recommended.
Shortly after I became mayor, I had a private meeting with my Executive
Policy Committee in the mayors office. It was our first meeting. They
did not know me. I did not know them. To say the least, it was not a cohesive
group and I was the outsider. The message was clear. They had already decided
that they were going to get rid of me as quickly as they could. I had defeated
their friends. I was an outsider. I knew nothing. They were the power.
They would control the committees and I would be gone as soon as they could
get rid of me. It was a delightful introduction into politics.
However I was there to assure accountability of government. So I called
the meeting to order. It was unruly to say the least, but from the get-go
I believe it is leadership that has to set the tone.
Those first three years of public life were excruciating. The media was
against me; my city councillors were non-supportive; my administration
was doing everything to get rid of me. The support I had was from the citizens
because they were so annoyed with council. After my re-election it was
fascinating to see the Executive Policy Committee come in and just simply
by action tip their hat and go, all right, you now have the power. Then
they were willing to co-operate.
Speaking of the media I remember some advice I received from former Liberal
MP and cabinet minister Iona Campagnolo. She said, Remember, the media
simply builds you up just to tear you apart and bring you down. That perspective
certainly helped me and I never forgot her words. I always tried to take
the high road and never get into any kind of attack politics or negative
politics. I was sometimes criticized by my advisers who urged me to get
in there and take the gloves off. But I would not. I always tried to say
to the citizens what I was trying to accomplish and what I would be accountable
I learned the lesson that nothing is off the record. It is a hard lesson.
Also, I never did leaks; never believed in it. I always protected confidentiality
and I felt if you do not protect confidentiality you will not last. Whatever
I learned stayed within the confines of the four walls of my home.
You also have to know how to deal with crises. There will be times when
you have to draw inner strength from very deep down inside. One of those
moments was during the flood of 1997. It was the biggest flood to hit our
city in a century.
I had received a call from Mayor Pat Owens of Grand Forks, and she was
very emotional. Her city had flooded and burned. She had been told wrong
numbers as to how high the water would come. She called me on my cell phone
and said Susan, dont trust the numbers. Get the numbers checked. Our
pumping stations had been tested to 19.5 feet. We were looking at a flood
of 26.5 feet. We did not know if they would hold. If the pumping stations
did not hold, we would have 100,000 homes, which translates into 300,000
people, with six feet of sewer water in their basements.
Panic was even a bigger issue. As I went to the first press conference
I was filled with anxiety over the state of the pumping stations, the flood
gates at the floodway, the saturated sandbags, how much water was really
coming at us. How would I find the strength of leadership? As I heard the
director going to live television counting 10-9-8, I can say to you that
God wrapped his arms around me and gave me strength. Through those 21 days,
I had total belief that we would survive. So when those moments happen
I can only encourage you to embrace that strength.
Let me conclude with the idea that in politics you will need to develop
your coping skills, particularly how to cope with criticism. Most people
do not handle any kind of criticism well and public criticism can be mortifying.
Here are some tips that were given to me.
First, focus clearly on the criticism, visualise it as if it were a baseball
and then decide whether to hit it out of the park or leave it alone. Some
criticism is better left alone. That is hard to do but sometimes there
is a lesson to be learned. In that case learn it and move on. Second, keep
a sense of humour. That is often easier said then done but it is very important.
I also kept a lucky charm on me and it helped. Finally, do not be afraid
to cry. But keep it short, maybe ten seconds, and then get on with the
Political life is not easy for anyone and especially difficult for women.
But it can be extremely rewarding and I hope some of my comments may, in
the coming years, encourage more and more women to run for office and be