As Trump Inspires More Women to Run, This Mayor Explains How She ‘Googled’ Her Way Into Office
The question facing the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for the Women’s March is what to do next. The answer for some participants is to pursue public office.
One marcher, Gari Ann Dunn from Cincinnati, Ohio told Time: “I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I could run for political office.’”
Even before Saturday’s demonstrations, Trump’s victory was motivating women to consider careers in politics. Organizations that train future female politicians—such as VoteRunLead, Emily’s List, and Emerge America—have recorded an increase in participation. “In a 48-hour period after the election, we had 1,100 women sign up for our next webinar and we had to close it and start a wait list,” said Erin Vilardi, executive director of VoteRunLead, told the Guardian.
But even with the added motivation that some have found in the incoming administration, the prospect of running for office—with its fundraising requirements and public relations obligations—can be daunting.
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Rachel Hundley wants to dispel that fear. She has a clear message for anyone considering a career in politics: do it. In the matter of about two years, the 33-year-old went from lawyer-slash-fried chicken food truck owner to the mayor of Sonoma, California—population 10,800. When she first ran for city council in 2014, “I didn’t know the first thing about politics,” she says. As she tells it, she “Googled” her way through the campaign.
And she ended up winning.
Hundley’s journey to the mayor’s office started a few years ago when she moved from New York City to California. She was in the midst of a career switch from a corporate lawyer to the food business after discovering that she didn’t find her legal work “particularly inspiring.” Plus, she was laid off during the recession.
She settled on Sonoma after visiting the Napa wine region on a previous trip with her mom and launched a food truck called Drums & Crumbs that sells fried chicken.
A year into this new chapter of her life, she noticed that there were openings on the Sonoma City Council. “At first I was just joking about running, but incumbents not seeking reelection was an opportunity I wouldn’t necessarily see again,” she told Fortune. So she entered the race, becoming one of eight candidates vying for three open seats on the five-member council.
Until that point, Hundley’s political activism had come through her legal work. In law school, she trained as a domestic violence advocate. As an attorney, she engaged in pro bono work that supported same-sex marriage.
But she was anything but a political prodigy. “My family never talked about politics when I was growing up. This past presidential election season was the first time my mom and I really talked about what was happening in the country and who we were supporting,” she says, noting that both voted for Clinton.
So how did the political rookie get her start?
Her very first step was emailing the current Sonoma mayor and asking him to coffee. Then she talked with other city council members about what was happening in the city. She also asked each of them to recommend other community leaders she should talk to, and she built her network out from there.
At one point, she persuaded a good friend to serve as her campaign treasurer, but he also lacked political experience. “We turned to Google and looked for information there” about campaign disclosure filings and the need for a separate campaign bank account, she says.
Sonoma hosted five public forums ahead of the election. “The comment I got after all of them was that I looked nervous,” she says.
But she’d nailed down a campaign message that focused on three issues—affordable housing, water sustainability, and economic diversity—that she could “feel passional about.” She also found that her experience as a lawyer and a local business owner “were enough for a lot of people” when it came to qualifications.
But there were missteps along the way. For instance, she knocked on every door she could. “I found out later that there’s a more strategic way to do it by finding likely voters. I’d probably been knocking on the doors of unregistered voters,” she says. She also attempted to schedule live events where voters could meet her. “That was not a good strategy; my campaign launch party had like 10 people,” she recalls.
She also had to get resourceful. She ended up receiving free campaign advice from consultants she met at Burning Man, and she roped friends from her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina into making phone calls on her behalf, “which was hilarious because they have all Southern accents so it was a little confusing,” she says.
Asking people for money, she says, was “terrifying,” but it was her only option since she’d cashed in her 401(k) to start her food truck. Because Sonoma has a campaign finance cap of $10,000, she ended up raising about $5,500, which was enough.
“I think that’s the amazing thing about small towns—you just have to have enough money to reach as many people as are in your town,” she says. “There are 6,000 to 7,000 registered voters in Sonoma, so I didn’t have to have a huge budget.”
On election night, she and a group of friends gathered at a wine bar to watch the results roll in. The first round of results showed her in the top three. It was “electrifying and terrifying,” she says. That night, she secured a four-year term on the city council. In her first two years, she spent about 10 or 15 hours a week on duties connected to the job—which pays a small stipend in addition to providing healthcare.
Sonoma does not have an independently elected mayor; rather, the city council votes one of its own members into the position. In December, Hundley was named mayor by a 5-0 vote. “Yes, I voted for myself,” she says.
As mayor, her vote carries the same weight as the other council members, but she gets to sent the agenda. Her goal right now is to “survive the next year.” She’ll likely seek a second term on the city council and then decide if she’s interested in higher office.
For those interested in getting into politics, Hundley recommends starting on city or regional commissions as a way to get a sense of the issues, and to move on to elected office from there. “The worst thing that can happen is you lose,” she says, “but even in the process of campaigning, of meeting people you can take something away that’s positive.”