Organization works to recruit progressive women to run for office

Last week, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research ranked Pennsylvania as 31st out of the 50 states in terms of female representation in elected positions. The Keystone State had previously ranked 45th.

And, while different factors contribute to Pennsylvania’s climb, one organization is committed solely to making that happen: Emerge Pennsylvania.

“Our organization is committed to having a more reflective democracy and a huge part of that is having women at the table with diverse experiences,” Rebecca McNichol, executive director of Emerge Pennsylvania, said. “Our whole goal is to recruit Democratic women to run up and down the ballot.”

In this election cycle, 31 Emerge Pennsylvania women graduates are running for office, including Amanda Cappelletti, whose seeking the 17th state Senate seat; Deb Ciamacca, who’s vying for the 168th state legislative district; and state Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, D-165, of Springfield.

With the Pennsylvania chapter established in 2016, the organization has had an impact on Delaware County politics in those four years.

Graduates have seen success at the polls, including Delaware County Councilwomen Dr. Monica Taylor, Elaine Paul Schaefer and Christine Reuther; Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer; former Upper Darby School Board member Heather Boyd, current district director for U.S. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5, of Swarthmore and chair of the Upper Darby Democrats; Rutledge Borough Councilwoman Samantha Newell; Ciamacca and O’Mara. Even Ciamacca’s primary opponent, Brittany Foreman, participated in the Emerge Pennsylvania training, and is now supporting her adversary in the general election.

“It’s really unbelievable the amount of success we’ve had in Delaware County,” McNichol said. “Women who go through our program are our best ambassadors. In Delaware County, you really saw that.”

Emerge Pennsylvania was founded by Mary Jo Daley and Tina Davis, based on the national Emerge organization.

“They realized there was a huge need for a training program,” McNichol said.

Prior to COVID-19, Emerge Pennsylvania would admit 25 women into a six-month in-person training program where the women would meet together one weekend a month, rotating among Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh for intensives focusing on particular subject matters such as campaigning, fund raising, and even public speaking.

As of March, the program has switched to an online module, something that’s being planned for next year as well, although McNichol said they hope to be able to have the last couple of sessions in person, if possible.

Although different, she added that there is a silver lining. “I think there is an opportunity to get women who couldn’t before make the time commitment,” she said.

McNichol explained that the program is primarily designed for women who had not previously considered public life and the goal is to strengthen their confidence to have the skills to run, to continue to open the door for other women and to build a community.

That networking, she said, is what makes Emerge Pennsylvania different.

“What’s really amazing about Emerge is the women form a really close knit group,” McNichol said, adding that it creates a peer-to-peer support network. “In Delaware County, I think it’s a great example of that.”

In 2016, when Emerge Pennsylvania was a brand new program, Keefer, Boyd, Reuther and Schaefer participated in the training. They, then, encouraged other women, such as O’Mara.

“It was really helpful for me because I was a first-time candidate,” O’Mara, a 2018 Emerge Pennsylvania graduate, said. “The training gave me skills for campaigning, like fundraising … We went over what we should wear and we practiced giving speeches. That was probably the best public speaking training I ever did.”

The program’s value, she said, was a community of women, many of whom were or are first-time female candidates in a predominantly male world.

“When you’re doing it alone, it’s really scary, but Emerge gives you this whole network of women,” O’Mara explained. “As soon as you graduate, you are part of a network that’s across the country and has a vested interest in helping you.”

She shared her own story as her background isn’t a traditional political one. At the time she was considering running for office, she was working at the University of Pennsylvania and had a side cleaning business to help pay her bills. She had also recently gotten engaged and was going to graduate school

“I didn’t have the money, I didn’t think I could afford it,” she said. Then, she was encouraged to apply for an Emerge scholarship and received one. Since then, O’Mara said she’s been able to give back to the program financially.

She’s glad she was able to participate.

“It basically gave you all the resources you need to run a grassroots campaign and do it all yourself,” she said, adding she was concerned she wouldn’t be able to commit the time to run and then was concerned about raising funds.

She said the first two questions she received from people after announcing her campaign were, “Why would you want to do that?” and “How are you going to pay to do that?”

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to self-fund,” she explained, adding that Emerge Pennsylvania gave their participants the resources and taught them how to fund raise, how to budget and what needs to be included in that and different versions of it – the Cadillac versus the skinny budgets.

And, now she’s among those giving it back.

“We sign a contract that we commit to helping other Emerge women in their runs for office,” O’Mara said. “It’s so nice to have that network behind you.”

In fact, that support continues, even amongst adversaries. McNichol spoke about the uniqueness of the 168th race, in which two Emerge Pennsylvania graduates – Deb Ciamacca and Brittany Foreman – faced each other.

“We’re a training organization, we don’t do endorsements,” she said. “We had incredible women running against one another. We support both.”

And, part of that is the long run.

“When challenging sitting incumbents, most people lose,” McNichol said. “Running for office is really a long-term career. We also talk about setting other goals on our campaign. There’s other goals for building your career in public service.”

She noted four women running in rural state senate districts this cycle.

“We think it’s very valuable to have women running participating in districts where Republicans are not used to having anyone running against them,” McNichol said.

The program costs $750 per participant; however, tuition assistance is offered.

“We never want the financial obligation to be a barrier,” McNichol said. “We work with everyone to be a part of our program. We want to make sure anybody who wants to participate, can.”

Applications for the next session just opened and will remain so until the middle of January. They are available at The next session is anticipated to run from March 2021 through August 2021.

“It’s a really fantastic program,” McNichol said. “It’s really amazing what the results have been.”

O’Mara gave it a solid two thumbs up and encouraged progressively-leaning women interested in public service to go for it.

“You should absolutely apply for Emerge,” the state representative said. “It will open doors for you. It will help you figure out what you’re interested in doing – and it will connect you to a whole network of women who want to make a difference.”