A little over a year ago, I was the communications director tasked with submitting two video scripts to be filmed by Dana Nessel, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general.
One script was a straightforward, if not sardonic, take on the systemic sexism in politics and its intersection with the #metoo movement. The other was the same, turned up to about 11, and included the now well-known quip, “… Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?”
None of the men working on the campaign wanted us to say “penis.” By and large, most thought it would be candidacy-ending for Nessel.
It was bad enough to pull back the curtain and speak openly what had been whispered by insiders and communicated to the candidate in coded (and not-so coded) language: We couldn’t have an all-female Democratic ticket, and so the candidate who would be sacrificed to make room for a man would be Nessel.
It was even worse to do it while reminding people that the politicians who were abusing their offices (and losing their seats as a result) were men.
We wanted to call the question: Why is it so important to make room for a man when men are causing us a lot of problems right now?
You can imagine how well that went over.
I stood in my kitchen the night before Thanksgiving 2017, making cranberry sauce and arguing for the better part of an hour with a male staffer, who said we would piss off men and establishment power players if we put the video out.
My answer was: When have they ever cared about pissing us off? And why were they so sure that their formula was going to work this time when it hadn’t for decades? Michigan’s last Democratic top elected state official was, at that time, Gov. Jennifer Granholm. She hadn’t been the establishment choice, either — but she served two terms.
In a can’t-make-this-up, pot-kettle-black moment, dozens of operatives were telling pundits that Gretchen Whitmer couldn’t be the nominee because the GOP would just tie her to Granholm. And they argued that somehow tying those two women together would cause Dems to not vote for her.
Here’s what we knew: Women were pissed. We saw the national misogyny on display during the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016. We saw it in the election of now-President Donald Trump, despite bragging on tape that he liked to “grab ‘em by the pussy.” And we saw it in the constant, seemingly daily revelations of sexual misconduct (or worse) against powerful men.
The day the now-former U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) sexual harassment story broke, my friends and peers were practically screaming the same thing: “They say we can’t elect women, but when we elect men, this is what happens. And we still don’t have equal pay, or justice for sexual assault survivors, or, or, or …”
The list, and the rage, was endless.
In the end, Nessel filmed the more straightforward script, but added the quip to the top of the video.
That didn’t stop another male staffer from insisting, just as the video was going viral, that we should quickly film another spot in which we would apologize for “the penis video,” and make it clear that we didn’t mean to offend men.
Several male peers, unaware of my role in the video, messaged me that next morning, explaining to me why this was a terrible idea and it would flop and it would alienate men and we weren’t supposed to talk about the problems with an all-woman ticket and it’s not OK to say “penis.”
The video quickly went viral, amassing more than 1 million views in a 48-hour period. The Onion AV Club called it “the most savage political ad of the year,” and it catapulted Nessel and her bold message onto the national scene in a way that endures even now. John Oliver used it in a recent HBO show.
Nessel won the Dems’ AG nomination in April. I left the campaign in June and settled into a full-time gig shortly after. Nessel went on to win tough general election and became the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in Michigan’s history.
Our government in Michigan now looks a lot more like the people it represents. And for that, we have women to thank — women who were told now was not the right time for them to run and women who had to yell to be heard and demand their subordinates listen to them.
Yet the election post-mortem analysis all too often relies on male pundits and lifts up the opinions of consultants who didn’t have a meaningful role in any winning campaigns — essentially taking credit for our work.
As heartening as it is to see so many of my colleagues adopting the mantra, “I believe women,” I’d like to ask that they also adopt a new modus operandi: Listen to women.
We know what we’re talking about. We know what we’re doing. And we are winning.
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