Meet the Bay Area's Pivotal Power Brokers: the Queenmakers

By Pati Navalta Poblete | November 27, 2019 | People Feature Story Politics Profiles News and Features Features Interviews

These women cultivate candidates, determine how campaigns should be financed, and are changing the face of power and politics in America.

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The small, private elevator leading to the famed penthouse at the Fairmont San Francisco brings up the last of the group. “She will announce she’s running tomorrow,” says one of the six women who arrived just minutes earlier. Another breaks away to take a call in response to her interview with The New York Times regarding a presidential candidate. The women generate a palpable energy in the 6,000-square-foot suite in a hotel that—especially given this group—has great significance.

The hotel atop Nob Hill was built by sisters Virginia Fair Vanderbilt and Theresa Fair Oelrichs, and Julia Morgan, the first female licensed architect in California. It was a rare accomplishment for women in the 1900s.

Today, we have the most female members ever elected to the House of Representatives. Women political donors reached an all-time high following the 2018 midterm elections. For the first time, 100% of S&P 500 companies have at least one woman on their board of directors. This is all due in part to the efforts of the women in this suite. They understand the impact San Francisco has on the country and seek to harness and distribute that power.

But despite the gains, there are still glaring gaps. Women face unique challenges when running for office, particularly women of color. And more and more, reproductive health rights and immigrants’ rights, which disproportionately impact low-income minority women, are at the forefront of ongoing, heated debates. That’s why these women say their work is critical. Perhaps this is also why the following women-led organizations have become more visible: Emily’s List, Close the Gap, Emerge, She the People and How Women Lead. There’s also the National Federation of Republican Women, Maggie’s List and Susan B. Anthony List.

From boardroom seats to legislative seats, these women are doing everything possible to recruit, train and empower other women to these roles­.

These are the queenmakers and the change-makers.

And collectively, they are changing the face of power and politics in America.

Aimee Allison: The Game-Changer

SANF_CR_JUSTIN_BUELL_Queenmakers-Final-12_HIGHRES(PE).jpg"The courage of women of color to tell the truth and set standards for democracy for our leadership has been for generations ignored and dismissed," Allison says. "What does it mean to be united if there’s no courage among our leadership to do their Constitutional duty and check the president? What women of color have been doing is representing millions of us who want to unite around asserting the rule of law, asserting the way you treat people in this country with dignity and humanity.”

On Sept. 24, breaking news flashed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump after reports that he pressured the leader of Ukraine to investigate political opponent former Vice President Joe Biden. Soon after, Aimee Allison released a statement that read in part:

“Today’s news has shown what we have long known: that women of color have the political and moral courage this country needs. From her first days in Congress, #Squad member Rep. Rashida Tlaib has been one of the first elected officials to raise her voice and unapologetically advocate for Trump’s impeachment. Rep. Tlaib is not alone in Congress. Her colleagues Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Maxine Waters and Pramila Jayapal have repeatedly joined Rep. Tlaib in her relentless pursuit of accountability, pushing Congressional leadership to exercise their duties under our constitutional system of checks and balances...”

It was a bold statement meant to ensure that the representatives’ early calls for impeachment would not be overshadowed by Pelosi’s announcement. And it’s a move consistent with Allison’s mission of She the People, a national network she created in April 2018 that connects women of color for the purpose of transforming our democracy. A year after launching the network, Allison put together the first-ever presidential primary candidate forum focused on women of color at Texas Southern University. Eight of the 2020 presidential candidates participated in the event, which was moderated by Allison and MSNBC host Joy Reid.

“My biggest dream was the presidential forum,” says the Oakland resident. “I remember standing with Joy; there was a sold-out crowd; we had 150 media outlets; it was a huge thing. We peeked out at the auditorium an hour-and-a-half before it started, and there was so much energy. It was so beautiful. I caught my breath and thought, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”

Join a discussion—The Queenmakers: Women Power Brokers in San Francisco—Dec. 4, 7pm, presented by the Commonwealth Club in association with San Francisco magazine, tickets $30-$45, 110 The Embarcadero, 415.597.6705

Allison was instrumental in elevating Stacey Abrams’ much-publicized run for governor in Georgia. When Allison reached out to her, Abrams was not well-known outside of Georgia. Allison worked with Abrams and helped galvanize African American women voters in a campaign coined Get in Formation. Though Abrams ultimately lost the race, she got on the national radar, as has her cause for voting rights.

“I spent a lot of time helping make Stacy Abrams known outside of Georgia at a time when they couldn’t believe she could be governor because there had never been someone like her,” says Allison. “Their political imagination had to be expanded. Her idea of how to win in southern states involved seeing and speaking to voters who had been ignored by both parties. We had a common cause to expand the electorate and expose the tricks that had been played. I’m now in a position to play that role with a lot of other candidates. There are a thousand other Stacey Abrams in this country. And where are they?”

With the upcoming election, Allison lists her priorities from now through Nov. 2, 2020. “She the People is building a political home for a million women of color and using everything we know about organizing events,” she says. “We are planning a pop-up tour so we can meet women of color across the country, and creating an online experience where people can sign up and be part of the digital experience. Women of color have the power to be the key vote for the White House and the Senate. We can be responsible for delivering the politics for generations to come.”

Gretchen Sisson: The Donor

SANF_CR_JUSTIN_BUELL_Queenmakers-Final-8_HIGHRES(PE).jpg“The traditional idea is that donors give money because they want to be in proximity to power," Sisson says. "I would never deny that being a major donor is a major power and gives me access. But that’s not why I do it. I don’t care about being close to power. I care about changing what power looks like.”

During a May 22 panel discussion called Women Leading the Movement for 2020 at the Google Community Space in San Francisco, a woman in the audience raised her hand and, in an almost exasperated tone, asked: “How do I know who or what to give my money to?”

Gretchen Sisson nodded her head and took the mic. This was her sweet spot.

Sisson, a research sociologist; board member of WDN Action, a sister organization of Women Donors Network; and steering committee member of Electing Women Bay Area, has mastered her own approach toward political giving. It’s what she knows—and how she chooses to affect change.

“The most valuable thing for me is first prioritizing what I want to accomplish through political giving,” she says. “For me, in 2018, it was winning back the House with people I felt would have the unique amount of courage for this political moment, and increasing the diversity of the people that are holding office. That was my short-term goal.”

Now, Sisson says she is focused on her long-term goal: electing a woman president and strategizing on the pipeline of female candidates. “What do we need to normalize in order to make that happen?” she asks. “By normalize, I mean having a woman running for president being historical without that being exceptional. We have that now. But, for voters, having them see women in office and in leadership roles as an expectation, an asset, and not something that needs to be accounted for as a setback. That needs to happen not just at the presidential level, but every part of the pipeline.”

Historically, women have not been as active in political giving. Even with a sharp increase during the 2018 midterm elections, women made up less than half (37%) of all individuals who made itemized contributions above $200 in 2018. In total, women contributed 29% of congressional contributions in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks the effects of money and lobbying on elections and public policy. This, Sisson, says is where change can happen.

“I see part of my role as a donor as being able to leverage resources and money to change the inclusiveness and reflectiveness of our Democracy,” she says. “I think that women have traditionally shied away from that role, and I think that liberal and progressive women have shied away from that role because of discomfort with money in politics. Being able to embrace and realize that leveraging resources is power that is necessary to our current system and moves the needle at this moment in time is important.”

Johanna Silva Waki: The Strategist

SANF_CR_JUSTIN_BUELL_Queenmakers-Final-11_HIGHRES(PE).jpg“The year of the woman? It’s more of a wave, a sea change," says Silva Waki. "This isn’t about creating a moment; it’s about creating a change. We’re not looking for a slogan. That’s where I am with my work. We don’t want a moment; we want a movement.”

The Gov. Pete Wilson era in California was difficult for San Francisco State student Johanna Silva Waki. She felt personally attacked, as initiatives that targeted women, immigrants and education spoke to her directly. It was then that she decided to be part of creating change.

“I got involved mostly because I knew that the sleeping giant—Latinos in California— were going to be eligible to become U.S. citizens. I was one of them because of the amnesty law in 1986. I started work in San Francisco, organizing the Latino community to become citizens. As a result, I then had the opportunity to work for the superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District, then did campaigning.”

From there, Waki started her own consulting public relations and political consulting firm. “I felt that, especially on the political side, behind the scenes, there were very few people of color and fewer women of color doing consulting work as part of a firm,” she says. “We opened in 2002.”

In 2015, Waki joined Emily’s List, a political action committee that aims to help elect pro-choice Democratic female candidates to office. Of the many women organizations, Emily’s List is among the most comprehensive, from recruiting to endorsing female candidates. Today, Waki serves as the organization’s state and local regional director, West Coast.

“My decision to work at Emily’s List was when Hillary was on the ticket. ... The focus of my work is to recruit, train and support pro-choice Democratic women. We’re constantly recruiting, but we also endorse and contribute. We work at state and national levels to build a pipeline of pro-choice Democratic women and also to flip legislative chambers.”

Raising money, she says, is one of the biggest barriers for candidates, and a main focus for Emily’s List. “Fundraising feels like the one thing that becomes the barrier,” she says. “It’s still difficult for women to raise money. I always ask: Are you willing to put in the hard work? Willing to learn? I can train you, but what I need to know is that you are coming from a very authentic and dedicated way to run and represent a community. The rest I can teach, but that’s an important piece because a lot of times, as women, we get caught up in saying we need to be experts at different things before we can do something. You can tell the physical change in their face when we say, ‘I’m here with you.’”

Julie Castro Abrams: The Connector

SANF_CR_JUSTIN_BUELL_Queenmakers-Final-10_HIGHRES(PE).jpg“I think of myself as a propulsion vehicle; we’re propelling these women," Castro Abrams says. "I really am proud of playing a role in propping her up and connecting her. I feel like I can mirror back to people a bigger view of themselves and help people break through their own thinking of what they can do for themselves. She has it in her, but she may not have seen it in herself. I’m the person who says ‘Why not?’”

If you enter a room full of powerful women and ask who knows Julie Castro Abrams, chances are, hands will go up. As founder and CEO of How Women Lead, Abrams has made it her life’s work to elevate women through the power of connection—not just in politics, but in the corporate, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, as well. From panels to workshops to retreats, How Women Lead “provides a platform for women to connect, learn, find purpose and make an impact,” according to its website. The fact that all S&P 500 companies have at least one woman on their board of directors is something Abrams says is a result of the organization’s work.

“I’ve always been a connector,” she says. “I see connections for people, and the gift back is seeing people succeed and have power. We have got to change the leadership structure for all of us. I know how to help people think bigger and different; then, when they’re ready, I connect them. I’m also a money-mover. We have a microloan program, a giving circle. It’s an ecosystem of confidence.”

In fact, it was during one of Abrams’ retreats hosted by How Women Lead and through her connections that Aimee Allison came up with the idea of the She the People Town Hall and was able to get funding for it. After a friend suggested she had Allison moderate an event, Abrams was immediately drawn to her and invited her to join 19 other women leaders on a trip to Cuba in March 2018.

“We posed questions, like, ‘What is the story about yourself that no longer serves you, that you have to leave behind?’’ she says. “It was an exploration with other high-level women. I connected Aimee with someone here who gave her $50,000; then used that to get $50,000 from Facebook; then it was boom, boom. You need someone who’s the first investor; all the women from this Cuba trip invested. Later, we were at our Women Leaders of the World event; we were in the room with women who were doing unbelievable things from all over the globe. The thing we posed was: ‘Whatever your vision is, do it times 10.’ Aimee’s was a presidential forum.”

For Abrams, putting women in leadership roles goes well beyond politics. More women on corporate boards, she argues, translates to companies performing better and culture improving. But timing is crucial.

“Women, for the first time in history, control a third of all wealth globally. They are coming into wealth they’ve never had. We need to get to earlier stage companies. [Venture capital] and private equity are essential for us to tackle because they get women on boards at critical times, when the culture is set. Last year, 2.3% of venture dollars went to women-founded companies. Women aren’t getting their companies invested in. If we’re coming into the greatest wealth we’ve had, instead of asking for a seat at table, we need to assertively use their money for power, invest in women-owned companies and change that.”

Alida Garcia: The Advocate

SANF_CR_JUSTIN_BUELL_Queenmakers-Final-9_HIGHRES(PE).jpg“I think the whole point of promoting more women of color into public office is the hope that they hold increased sensibilities and urgency around the dehumanization of immigrant women and the trauma we are inflicting upon their children," Garcia says. "An elected leader is only as good as the policies they subsequently pass.”

Alida Garcia remains laser-focused on one thing: immigration. As an immigrants rights advocate, and political and public affairs strategist for electoral and issue advocacy campaigns, her expertise is on Latino civic engagement and political power-building. Currently, she is the vice president of advocacy for fwd.us, an advocacy organization focused on passing comprehensive immigration reform. And, in 2012, she served as the national Latino vote deputy director for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

Asked how she fits into the ecosystem of queenmakers and change-makers, she responds, “I spend the majority of my time fighting alongside and for grandmothers, mothers, and young women and girls who don’t have the right to vote, or donate or run for office because of their immigration status. This may seem a step removed from traditional civic engagement—but, in my opinion, they are every bit as American and a part of our communities as those of us who can vote.

“I believe that elevating the issues of all women, regardless of if our current form of democracy structurally welcomes them, is critical in building the world future generations deserve, especially here in California, where our great state is superpowered by immigrant communities from across the globe.”

More women in office—particularly women of color—she says, has helped elevate the issue of immigrants’ rights. “I think that public energy gets boosted when you have a Rep. Veronica Escobar in El Paso in Congress where kids were in tent camps; or a Rep. Nanette Barragan, who literally went to the border and camped out, demanding border patrol admit asylum-seekers at ports of entry; and a Sen. Kamala Harris, who grilled the heck out of now former DHS Secretaries John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen,” she says. “Without these women using their elected offices to demand accountability, the issue would die, but, instead, we’re seeing voters are still very engaged and have an overall view against this administration’s immigration policy.”

Currently, she is focused on making sure the Supreme Court doesn’t side with the Trump administration to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects those brought to the United States as children. As it relates to the presidential campaign, her priority is on steering the narrative.

“I am focused on making sure the president doesn’t win the narrative battle when he chooses to weaponize immigration and immigrants as an issue in the 2020 election cycle, and that all voices—candidates and constituents—feel that they have the facts and moral compasses to respond with a better pro-immigrant vision for America. If we win this battle, I believe one result will be more women are elected to office. It may not all seem related, but it truly is if you study how this president operates and who he harms to increase his power.”

Anna Nti-Asare-Tubbs: The Intersectionalist

Queenmakers-Final-7.jpg“I often find that academic theory, that is quite useful for understanding what we are facing on a national level, is unfortunately kept in the Academy," says Nti-Asare-Tubbs. "My career goal has been to produce work that takes academic discourse and makes it accessible to everyone, Especially when it comes to theory concerning women of color ... .”

The City of Stockton has never seen a first partner like Anna Nti-Asare-Tubbs before. Her husband, Mayor Michael Tubbs, has served in his current role since 2016, and Nti-Asare-Tubbs has made it a point to apply her work as a writer and academic to her role in the community. The result was the city’s first-ever Report on the Status of Women in Stockton.

“It has been crucial for me to contribute my academic training in intersectional theory to my husband’s platform,” she says. “My hope for the report was to bring awareness to the specific issues Stockton women were facing in order to celebrate them and ensure that, moving forward, policies and plans would have their specific needs in mind. I truly believe that when women are doing well in communities, the whole community will do well; similarly, if women are being denied resources, the whole community will suffer. The report has, thus far, led to the hiring of a director of gender equity, who is now in charge of translating the report into direct action.”

Nti-Asare-Tubbs also dedicates her time with local youth and mentoring women of color, which she says is invaluable to both parties. “It is essential that our youth be part of the conversation because it is never too early for them to be involved,” she says.” If they will face the consequences of policy decisions at both the local and national level, then they should be trusted enough to be engaged in the conversation, no matter their age.

“Making sure they have opportunities to volunteer on campaigns while in high school, pursue their dream of higher education and represent the needs of their diverse communities is an asset for our entire city.”

Nti-Asare-Tubbs is also preparing for the release of her book, The Three Mothers, on the stories of of three mothers of three civil rights leaders. In examining the works of these women, and others, she has become determined in her belief that efforts to get more women and women of color in office will require coming together.

“Leaning on one another, creating our own opportunities, educating each other, refusing to accept limitations placed upon us and learning from those who came before,” she explains. “As a researcher with degrees in anthropology, gender studies and sociology, I believe a major source of motivation for women running for office and leading movements today are the many who came before us. We can find paths and strategies for survival from women like Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Soledad Chacon, Loretta Sanchez, Patsy Takemoto Mink and many more. We have been facing different forms of the same challenges for decades. We weren’t afraid of them then, and we certainly are not afraid of them now.”



Photography by: Photography by Justin Buell