Candidate gives course credit

by Patrick Johnson

Mary Olberding

Mary Olberding worked for the Obama-for-president campaign in 2008 and the David Sullivan for Northwestern District Attorney campaign in 2010.

She said she would have gladly joined the Elizabeth Warren for Senate campaign but she latched onto another campaign instead.

That other campaign is Olberding for Hampshire County Register of Deeds 2012. Olberding, 44, has been active in politics previously, but, with the exception of her service on the Belchertown finance committee, being a candidate herself is something new.

She credits EmergeMassachusetts, a Boston-based organization that prepares women for political careers, with giving her that little push to toss her own hat into the ring. "It gave me the confidence that the transition from being woman on a campaign to being a woman candidate was not that big of a leap," she said.

EmergeMassachusetts is a political leadership training program for women across the state. It is a part of a national organization, Emerge America, and each seeks to address the under-representation of women at all levels of elected office.

Though women make up slightly more than half the population, the 93 women in the U.S. House and Senate make up about 17 percent of the 535 total members of Congress.
In Massachusetts, the ratio is a little better. Thirty-eight percent of the 160 state representatives and 11 of 40 state senators are women, or about 23 percent overall.

EmergeMassachusetts Executive Director Judy Neufeld cautions that both the state and national Emerge organizations are partisan. The goal is to recruit, train and encourage Democratic women to run for political office, she said.

"We look for leaders in the community," she said.

Over six months, Emerge provides training on topics that are integral to being a successful candidate, including public speaking, fund raising, working the media and meeting the general public, seeking endorsements, ethics and campaign strategy.

The cost is $500.

In five years, EmergeMassachusetts has graduated 74 women. Fifteen have run for office and eight have been elected, including Holyoke at-large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, a member of the 2008 class.

The most recent graduates, the class of 2011, had 23 members, but only two, Olberding and Ayanna Crawford, of Springfield, were from Western Massachusetts.
Crawford could not be reached for comment.

Olberding, who was selected to be a speaker at the Dec. 3 commencement ceremony in Boston, said her only regret about the program was that it ended too quickly.

"I was one of the people who was hoping it could be longer," she said. "It was pretty intensive, but it was all good."

The training covered subjects big and small, from fund raising and networking to having a proper headshot available for the press.

Olberding said she also valued the built-in mentoring component, where women going through the program are introduced to women who have successfully run for office.

She met U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, the only woman in the Massachusetts delegation, and her group one night got to meet Rep. Jen Benson, D-Lunenberg, over dinner.

Olberding said the dinner gave her a chance to ask Benson, the mother of three children, about balancing campaigning and kids.

Neufeld said the organization is looking to expand to offer additional programs and even refresher training for graduates.

"We are feeding the pipeline with Democratic women who are looking to run. Over the next five years, we have to look at how we can support them at all parts of the pipeline," she said. "Maybe we won't just have Politics 101. Maybe we'll do Politics 201."

Olberding said she made an impulse decision to sign up after hearing representatives give a presentation at last year's state Democratic Convention.

Until then, she had never thought of running for office.

She has a master's degree, has been active in her community and managed a business, but "I just assumed someone else was better qualified."

Originally, she thought of running for the Belchertown Board of Selectmen. But then longtime Register of Deeds Marianna L. Donohue retired in September. The post is filled on an interim basis by Patricia A. Plaza of Westhampton, who has said she will not run for the permanent post.

So far, Northampton City Treasurer George R. Zimmerman is the only other announced candidate. Olberding said she was able to draw on the confidence given her by EmergeMassachusetts to launch her campaign.

Women who run for office, she said, sometimes have to defend themselves in a way male candidates never do against the A-word: ambitious.

Olberding said there is nothing wrong with a female candidate having ambition.

"We're not ambitious for ourselves; we're ambitious about improving the community in which we live," she said. "That's not a bad thing."

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