(From left) Gina Ortiz Jones, Claire Barnett, and Celina Montoya are all first-time political candidates.
(From left) Gina Ortiz Jones, Claire Barnett, and Celina Montoya are all first-time political candidates. Credit: Composite / Scott Ball / San Antonio Report ; Claire Barnett campaign facebook page ; Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Stephanie Phillips is an unusual candidate for Texas House District 73. The Democrat, who faces incumbent State Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) in the general election, is a musician and teacher with no political experience who signed up at the very last minute to run for office.

Phillips recalled hovering at her county clerk’s office, waiting for someone – anyone – to file candidacy challenging Biedermann. When no one did, she signed up to run one hour before the filing deadline. It felt like her civic duty, she said, because people need choices in their candidates.

“It just became apparent to me that no one was running this race as a Democrat,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh God, it’s me. I’m the one that’s got to figure it out.’

“If I get elected, I will be thrilled to serve, but it was not my plan in life or what I wanted to do this year.”

Phillips is the first Democrat in a decade to run in House District 73, a Republican stronghold covering mostly rural areas in Comal, Gillespie, and Kendall counties. She is also one of 67 women – including incumbents – running for the Texas House in November.

This year, Texas women have flooded the ballot. Former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), is one of 24 women running for U.S. Congress. Seventy-nine women are running for State Legislature seats, and four are running for statewide office. Democrat Lupe Valdez is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott, Democrat Kim Olson is running against Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, and Democrat Joi Chevalier will face off against Comptroller Glenn Hegar in November. Republican Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick is seeking a second term in office.

Women currently hold 29 seats in the 150-seat Texas House, and eight seats in the 31-seat Texas Senate, an all-time high.

Annie’s List, a Texas organization dedicated to putting Democratic women in office, offers training and other support to women interested in politics. Program director Kimberly Caldwell said most of the women she encounters through her work at Annie’s List decide to run to better their communities.

“That’s what gets women to step up, that sense of connection and obligation,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell referenced research by Rutgers University professors Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll, who found that women frame their decision to run differently than men. Women look outward and think about how their relationships are affected, she said, making them more cautious about running for office.

“There’s a lot of positivity and excitement and energy around [the question]: ‘Why run for office?’” Caldwell said. “When the question becomes, ‘Why not run for office?’, you hear the concerns: ‘I don’t have time, I don’t know if I can put myself out there, I don’t want to expose my family to this risk.’”

But at some point, the desire to do something outweighs the concerns and pushes women to run, Caldwell said.

Claire Barnett, who is running to represent North San Antonio’s House District 122, found herself worrying about the consequences of a campaign. She talked to a political consultant, who told her that she wouldn’t have as much time for her children – but that she should still do it. Her mother echoed that sentiment, Barnett said.

“She said, ‘You know what, Claire? Sometimes we do hard things because we can. And not everyone can,’” Barnett recalled.

A 2013 study by American University professor Jennifer Lawless and Loyola Marymount University professor Richard Fox found that the gender gap in politics could be attributed to five key factors that keep women from running. While young men are more likely to be given the tools to foster political ambition, young women are less likely to consider themselves qualified to run for office and less likely to receive encouragement to do so.

Celina Montoya, who is running for the seat in House District 121, said it took her a while to realize her experience qualified her to be a state representative, and it took a lot of outside encouragement as well. When longtime House Speaker and Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) announced he would not be seeking reelection, Montoya said many friends texted her asking when she would announce her candidacy.

“Like many women, someone else asked me [to run],” said Montoya, who founded the education nonprofit Literacy San Antonio and is vice president of community and government relations at Alamo Fireworks. “Even though I had the leadership skills, it took someone else asking me.”

Phillips also had friends who nudged her to file for candidacy.

“I was asked several times by people, who were saying, ‘Well, you could do it,’” she said. “I laughed them off.”

Barnett expressed frustration at the illusion of “viable candidates.” It’s a Catch-22, she argued – candidates have to rake in significant contributions to be considered viable, and only then will organizations throw their support behind them, both financially and in name.

“There is not the structural and systemic support for women candidates that there still is for male candidates,” she said. “From what I observe, men running for office now, in similar positions as me, have a far easier time raising money and building a network because of that.”

Barnett said when people think of viable candidates, they often think white, older males – people who “look like a politician.”

“Viability is a perception, and that perception becomes reality because of where we decide to put our money and energy,” she said.

Chevalier threw her hat in the ring after she, like Phillips, realized no one else would challenge the incumbent. She wrote a check for $3,750 and started her campaign on the last day of filing. Though the women running for office in Texas will not all win their races, they represent a “rebuild,” she said.

“If not you, then who?” she asked.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.