On a dreary Saturday in late September, Kim Olson is building to the conclusion of her stump speech in front of a small crowd at a brewery in Wylie. She avoids mentioning her opponent — Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, whose Stetson and misogynist humor makes him the very picture of the Texas good ol’ boy — and instead focuses on her support for the free and reduced lunch program for public school kids, her appreciation of Meals on Wheels and even lands a joke about the Texas lottery, which the state’s ag department oversees. “By God, we check the balls of the lottery. Who knew I’d be checking balls?”
After the laughter dies down: “Do we sound like an important agency that needs a serious, professional leader to run it?”
“Yes,” the room shot back. Olson: “I’m your girl!”
Though Olson is eagerly campaigning to take over the ag commissioner post from Miller, she’s also working a side-gig as a mentor to other Democratic women candidates. An Air Force veteran, beekeeper and former school board member, Olson is running a campaign that’s heavy on a kind of rural feminism.
Olson said she learned how to maneuver in a male-dominated arena when she was part of the first generation of female pilots in the military. “When you’re the only female you’re always in the limelight. … I cut my teeth in the world of aviation and combat,” Olson said. To pass on those lessons and support other women running for office, she helped organize the WomenWin conference, which provided women candidates a chance to meet one another, get tips on safety concerns and speech-making and learn how to manage the physically taxing aspects of campaigning.
Olson said she’s slowed down on giving advice now that candidates are in “battle rhythm.” But she’s frank about the need for this crop of women candidates to continue to build a political infrastructure for 2020 and beyond. Those who don’t get elected can use the experience to run again, train others, volunteer and work in politics, she said.
Though the number of women running for the Texas Legislature this year has increased from 2016, gender parity is a long ways off. In 2016, about 23 percent of legislative candidates were women; in 2018, the figure increased modestly to 30 percent, according to a report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Still, by 2024, Annie’s List, a political action committee aiming to elect progressive women, hopes to nearly double the number of Democratic women in the Texas House, from 21 to 40. Only three of the state’s 36 congress members are women — two Democrats and one Republican.
Women face hurdles that men don’t, said Kimberly Caldwell, the program director at Annie’s List. Men only have to appear credible while women must also be likable, she said.
“It can be really challenging to have to decide how long of a skirt to wear or needing to come across with a certain tone,” Caldwell said. “It does impact the way voters look at you. That’s not something that men have to be as aware or intentional about.”
For her own race, Olson is trying to contrast her middle-of-the-road approach with the buffoonery of Miller, who has made a name for himself with a combination of offensive Facebook jokes and policy faceplants.
“He doesn’t engage,” she said. “He won’t debate. He doesn’t really seem to be campaigning except to his hard-right base, which leaves a lot of space in the middle for me to go. In visiting probably 50,000 people, I’ve met probably one person that thinks Sid is doing a good job.”
Outside of town halls and conferences, Olson’s offered advice through a private Facebook group of mostly first-time women candidates as well as sit-down discussions with them. One of the women Olson has coached on how to sell her story is Julie Oliver, the Democrat taking on Roger Williams in Congressional District 25, which is anchored in Austin and stretches north through rural towns toward the metroplex.
For Oliver, a self-described “Medicaid mom” who attended college on government assistance, Olson suggested she connect with voters by describing how she dug her way out of poverty.
Oliver dropped out of high school her senior year and ran away from home. During the three months she was homeless, she became pregnant and decided to return home. With her mom’s help raising her child, she went on to finish her education.
Oliver has also learned the lessons of being a female candidate. While blockwalking, she met someone who thought she was in her 20s, and too young to be in Congress.
“I just started telling people I’m 46,” Oliver said. “I’m not aware men get asked that question.”
Her background as a single mom and her experience in the medical industry has informed her positions on health care (in favor of Medicare for all), immigration policy (abolish family detention and end private immigration jails) and gun violence (ban assault weapons and require universal background checks).
“If we had more mothers in Congress, we could legislate to prevent these tragedies from happening,” Oliver said.
But being a mom can be a political liability. Some on Facebook have suggested that she should be home with her children, even though three of her four kids are in college and her 10-year-old daughter often attends campaign events. Beto O’Rourke, whose three children are all elementary-school-age, hasn’t caught much flak about family time during non-stop statewide campaigning.
“I think people get this idea that a woman’s place is, ‘Y’know it’s fine if she has a job but she needs to be home at night cooking and getting her children to bed,’” Oliver said.
Jana Sanchez, the Democratic congressional candidate running against Ronald Wright in the deeply Republican Congressional District 6, said she had a stalker at one point during the campaign. Now, she carries a gun in her car for security.
Despite the challenges, women candidates just make good political sense, Caldwell said. “When you look at who voters see as the most credible and capable to deal with health care and education funding and ending harassment — that’s women candidates, specifically Democratic women,” she said.