Montana Books: Stephanie Schriock on Women Changing the World
Over the past decade, Butte-born EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock has redefined American politics by igniting the campaigns of Democratic women candidates with her no-nonsense, sexism-be-damned strategy: Run to win.
Little wonder that her first book, “Run to Win: Lessons in Leadership for Women Changing the World,” is prefaced by our first female Vice-President, Kamala Harris, and peppered with praise from Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Georgia State Legislator Stacey Abrams and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. ELLE Magazine concurs, naming Schriock to its “10 Most Powerful Women in Washington” list.
Who’s Emily, you ask?
Women’s activist Ellen Malcolm founded EMILY’s List in 1985, naming it after the acronym “Early Money Is Like Yeast” (as in, it makes the dough rise), as early donations have proven key to funding successful candidates. In 2010, Malcolm named Schriock as her EMILY’s next-gen successor, based on Schriock’s success as finance director for Howard Dean’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004, campaign manager and chief of staff for Montana Senator Jon Tester and chief of staff for SNL comic-turned-Minnesota Senator Al Franken that included running his successful eight-month election recount.
Under Schriock’s reign, EMILY’s List now has more than five million members and $600 million in funds to help elect the thousands of pro-choice Democratic women it has recruited and trained to run for office.
Schriock admits that while she toyed with following her father into medical technology, even majoring in pre-med at Minnesota State University in Mankato, her passionate pastime in public service ultimately pointed her in a political direction.
Montana Press Monthly: As a kid growing up in Butte, did you sense that politics somehow would figure into your future?
Stephanie Schriock: I was definitely a striver. I wanted to do everything, everything I could do. I was a straight-A student, and probably to my classmates I was the annoying one who just kept running for class president and never won. I talk about that in the book; you have to get over your losses, it’s just a step in the process, you’ve got to keep going. But I did decide to run for student-body president going into my senior year because I recognized that the electorate was different, though probably not in that term at the time, so I could just get the freshmen and sophomores engaged and forget about the seniors. (laughs) And I won!
MPM: Did you translate that into politics at the time?
Schriock: No. I was raised in the church; we went to St. John’s Episcopal Church, and between the church and Girl Scouts and my parents, it was very clear that public service and helping in the community and helping your neighbor was a critical piece of who you were. My dad was a medical technologist and ended up being the lab director at St. James (Hospital) and my mom was one of the librarians at that beautiful library in Butte, so I would spend time in the library and time in the lab and I was torn between this love of politics – which at the time, my parents would think, where does this kid get this? I was a volunteer for Pat Williams, who was running for Congress, and the student-appointed member of the committee to get the bond issue through for the high school. When I say I wanted to do everything, I just was that kid. I was the super-volunteer.
MPM: It’s remarkable that you’ve been able to so greatly increase the number of women political candidates in your first decade heading up EMILY’s List. What’s the secret?
Schriock: Well, what was so great for me, coming in as the second-ever president of EMILY’s List following the founder, Ellen Malcolm…
MPM: Did she recruit you?
Schriock: That’s a very funny story. At the time, I had just gotten back to Senator Tester’s office as his Chief of Staff. He was super generous in lending me out to manage Al Franken’s Senate race in 2008. Initially, I went out to Minnesota in May for an election in November, so it seemed manageable for Senator Tester, but then of course we were in a recount and then there’s a trial and I’m on the phone with Senator Tester saying like, “Well, this is going to take a whole year!” and it literally did. It was almost exactly a year when I came back, and I was very loyal to him.
I think of Jon as family and I had just gotten back to start laying out his re-election, which was coming up the next cycle, and starting to lay that groundwork when I was called by the search committee of EMILY’s List.
I had heard that Ellen Malcolm was stepping down, and, for someone like me, a younger woman who came up in Democratic politics, Ellen Malcolm is an icon so her stepping down from EMILY’s List, certainly the earth shook for Democratic women, because what were they going to do? So I didn’t even pause. I got this call from the search committee and I just assumed that they were calling to see if I had any suggestions of maybe elected officials or former elected officals. I talk about this in the book, women not thinking that they’re ready or they’re not the ones. I literally went through that process because “Oh, you want to talk to me about this?! You’re kidding!” It took me like five to 10 minutes on the call to go, “Oh, you’re actually asking if I’m interested in it?"
MPM: What did it take to adapt your campaign skills to a NASA launch like EMILY’s List?
Schriock: Well, I walked in realizing that I had some of the skills, many of the skills, that they needed to be successful, but there were also skills that I didn’t have, and I knew that walking in. In fact, it was a moment where I was like, can I do this job when I have very little media experience at all?
When I was a campaign manager, most campaign managers will hire a finance director first, because they’re usually not money people and they want to have somebody to raise the money. I know how to raise money because I was a finance director for years. But I hired the comms (communications) person first because I didn’t want to talk to the press, because I was so scared! It was just not a comfortable place for me. And part of it is, we tell fundraisers, "Oh, don’t talk to the press!"
So coming in, I knew that one of the things I had to do was to step in from being the person behind the scene, handling the talking points and doing the quick pep talk to the person who was going up to the podium or standing up in front of the lights, to becoming the principal. The lessons that we lay out in the book are lessons that I myself had to go through in a lot of ways, for stuff like what are my skills and then what do I need to learn?
One of the most important things about any of these leadership jobs or anything is, are you willing to learn?
We hired media consultants and media trainers; one of them, Christine Reynolds, actually is the co-author of my book. She came in the first month as a consultant to help me do this process of figuring out how do I do these things? I can raise money; I don’t know how to go on television and not make a squishy face.
MPM: You clearly had the experience to know how to build a working team.
Schriock: Yes, I could put together the right team. When I came onboard, it was really on the backend of the recession, we weren’t out of it yet, and we had this running sad joke that everybody’s portfolios went down by a third but their contributions were cut in half. So we were really struggling to just get back on our feet as an organization. Plus we had had a couple hard election cycles prior to me getting there because things happen, so we were in a critical moment to kind of figure out the new path forward. I think about sometimes you have to just do things differently and you have to break out of the box and you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again because it’s not going to work. And part of that is, so many folks were saying, “Well, how are you going to fill Ellen Malcolm’s shoes?” and I finally got to the point of saying, “Well, I’m not.”
MPM: I think that’s what Ellen Malcolm recognized in you. You were the new generation that EMILY’s List needed.
Schriock: Well, thank you. I’d like to think that that’s what she saw. I think that’s true. I always tease her like, like, this isn’t going to work. I’m going to bring my cowboy boots instead and we’re going to wade through this a different way.”
MPM: Did working with Al Franken help you appreciate the humor of campaign management?
Schriock: Well, he would tell you that I’m not funny. He says that I have a good laugh but I can’t tell jokes. Which is actually legit true; I can’t. (laughs)
MPM: Any thoughts of running for office yourself one day?
Schriock: I never let anybody say no to that question when I ask them. You can say “Not now,” but you’ve got to leave it open. So at this moment in my life, I would say “Not now, I’ve got other work to do,” but I would never rule it out, nor should anybody. No one should rule it out. It means a lot of different things; it could be the school board, county commissioner, parks commissioner. It’s not just Congress and Senate and the Presidency. The jobs that actually affect our lives more than anything else are those local offices, and that’s where we’re seeing so much change happening. Particularly under the (former) Trump administration because we couldn’t get anything done.
MPM: How was the experience of writing the book for you?
Schriock: I was so blessed to have Christine as a partner in this endeavor. I can’t imagine doing something like this on my own; I don’t consider myself a writer by any means. She was able to guide us through these stories, because we wanted to lay out at its core some fundamental lessons that anybody could take in their lives to engage in change.
Yes, we want everybody to think about running for office, but we also wanted to give some lessons that could help in any way. Like how do you make the ask, because we have to ask for things all the time. We also really felt strongly about sharing the stories about the incredible women that we’ve worked with over the years, the (Illinois Congresswoman) Lauren Underwoods and (Wisconsin Senator) Tammy Baldwins and (Illinois Senator) Tammy Duckworths and the list just goes on and on and on.
The hardest for me was, I too had to tell parts of my story. And after being with EMILY’s List for a decade, I’ve gotten used to telling my story in speeches and other ways because that’s what you do. I always tell all of our potential candidates, “I’m telling you, you can learn how to do this. I had to learn how to do this.” But it was interesting to think about some of the moments I personally had that may have helped me get to where I am and may help others find their own journey.
MPM: What’s your two-minute summary for those who don’t understand the goal of EMILY’s List?
Schriock: Just that missing half the population’s perspective is a mistake. It just doesn’t make any sense. One African American or one Latina or one Israeli woman cannot represent the entire community of their race or gender, it’s just impossible, particularly with the intersectionality of all of that. We need these perspectives across the board, so we need more women; we need more Black woman, we need more Latinas, we need more Asian-American women.
In Montana, we think about it all the time. With Indigenous women, with what’s going on particularly with women in our Native American communities.
I have lots and lots of proud moments but I just broke down in tears when I saw (New Mexico Congresswoman) Deb Haaland and (Kansas Congresswoman) Sharice Davids get sworn in as the first two Native American women to serve in the United States House of Representatives, and I thought, I’m done now; I don’t need to do anything else! (laughs) I feel great! It’s just this incredible moment.
It is about perspective and it needs to happen rapidly and here’s the good news: just EMILY’s List alone, there are over 60,000 women who have said, “I want to run. I may not run today but I’m going to do it, I’m going to figure it out.” And that is definitely a sea change, and it’s our way forward, not just in the United States but all around the world.
MPM: I’m going to call that Dr. Stephanie’s prescription.
Schriock: (laughs) Finally! Finally I’m getting that Dr.!