You Go Lead, Girl!

Dan Dineen

State Senator Patricia Torres Ray (D – Minn.) has experience with media bias in America’s political landscape. 

'Women are often leading in their community,' Johnson says, 'but not sitting at the head of the table'

In 2006, when the first-term official was running for office out of her home-based campaign headquarters in Minneapolis, Torres Ray says that her relationship with the media was an issue that I struggled with.” 

But her campaign got a needed boost when she attended a conference in Bloomington, Minn., put together by the New York-based White House Project. 

Founded in 1998 by women’s rights advocate Marie C. Wilson, the White House Project has been trying to improve public perception of female leaders and close the gender gap in elected office. 

Over the years, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has conducted focus groups to compare the response to male and female candidates in political advertisements, contrasted the media coverage of women’s campaigns with that of male counterparts, and tallied the number of female guests on influential Sunday morning talk shows. 

The White House Project, which has regional offices in Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota and Michigan, is hosting conferences in 10 states nationwide this year. 

At the Go Vote, Go Run and Go Lead conferences, project staff and guest speakers train attendees in civic engagement – from how to conduct effective voter registration drives to community organizing to networking to fundraising. (or for those considering elected office). Go Vote is primarily held during election years, while Go Run and Go Lead are annual, nationwide events. 

Torres Ray, who had attended the Go Run conference in 2005, came full circle when she was invited to speak to a group of 75 women about her personal and political experiences at the Jan. 25 conference in Bloomington, Minn. 

They give you the book, but they also understand how the information in the book needs to be delivered,” Torres Ray says. 

Growing up in her native Colombia, Torres Ray never considered moving to the United States, much less running for public office. 

Her life’s path diverged when she met Jack Ray, an exchange student from the University of Minnesota, who was working in her hometown of Pasto in southeast Colombia. The two began dating and were later engaged. 

In her 20 years in the United States, Torres Ray worked in a factory to learn English, raised two boys (ages 11 and 13), earned a bachelor’s degree in urban studies and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota and then entrenched herself in Minnesota politics. 

I work very hard to get my message across about the work that I do as a legislator, not just a Latina legislator.” 

Despite her success, Torres Ray says the media often typecasts her. 

I have not been able to publish my papers relating to education or health care,” she says. But when I talk about immigration or issues related to the Latino community, I get coverage.” 

Bolstered by 18 years of experience in various state offices, Torres Ray says she is more optimistic about life inside the state senate: Internally, I have had an amazing experience.” 

This sort of story is typical of many women running for political office, says Liz Johnson, Midwest regional director of the White House Project in St. Paul, Minn. Women are often leading in their community,” Johnson says, but not sitting at the head of the table.” 

But Johnson is optimistic. 

What is so fascinating about this time,” she says, is that people are more open to women’s leadership and I think they actually want it.” 

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Dan Dineen, a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, is Deputy Publisher of In These Times.
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