Elizabeth Tulasi Supports Democratic Women Running for State Office in California
Elizabeth Tulasi, who brings 15 years of political and non-profit management experience to her Board role for California Women's List, a political action committee that supports Democratic women running for state office in California. She started her career as a Capitol Hill staffer in Washington DC. Upon returning to California, Elizabeth worked at a Food Bank, advocating to make healthy food more accessible and other programs that serve families living in poverty. Most recently she managed issue campaigns at California's largest business advocacy alliance as COO.
More about California Women's List.
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Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. Today we're talking with Elizabeth Tulasi who brings 15 years of political and nonprofit management experience to her board role for California Women's List a political action committee that supports democratic women running for state office in California. She started her career as a Capitol Hill staffer in Washington, DC. Upon returning to California, Elizabeth worked at a food bank advocating to make healthy food more accessible and other programs that serve families living in poverty. Most recently, she managed issue campaigns at California's largest business advocacy alliance as COO.
So please welcome to the show Elizabeth Tulasi.
Elizabeth Tulasi: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Passionistas: Thanks for being here. What are you most passionate about?
Elizabeth: I'm most passionate about, I think finding the truth and everybody recognizing what is the truth and what is real. And I think that if people have information and people recognize what's going on, then we can all make better decisions. I think a lot of things in our economy and our society and our political processes are hidden and obfuscated often on purpose. So if those things come to light and people have that information, then we can all make better choices that I think are better for everyone better for our clinic.
Passionistas: How does that relate to the activism that you do?
Elizabeth: Well, I think a lot of people don't know what decisions are made at all various levels of government. I think a lot of people don't even know what the various levels of government are.
The presidential campaigns take up a lot of space in people's minds and they are of course, very important, but the decisions that affect your and my everyday life are usually made much closer to home. And we also have more control over those things. So, you know, thinking about schools, if we want good schools in our communities, those decisions are made by local school boards. The funding that schools have are determined because of state and local taxes that are also determined by state and local representatives. If you have good parks in your neighborhood or in your state, those again are determined by local and state elected officials. So a lot of power resides much closer to wherever you live. And I really want people to know about that and to insert their voices into those conversations. You know, Nancy and I were talking just a minute ago about the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she has so many quotable nuggets of wisdom. But I think that I think a lot about is one where she said women belong in all places where decisions are being made and decisions are being made all around us. And we need to know what decisions those are, who's making them. And how do we be part of that? Let's go back.
Passionistas: When did you get interested in politics and activism?
Elizabeth: I remember as a kid, I was even in girl Scouts, which wasn't necessarily political, but it was public service. And a lot of the things that we were working on, it became a question of why is this problem? You know, like when we would go make sandwiches and give them out to homeless folks, living in our area as a kid, you're always asking why are there so many homeless people, why do we need to clean up the parks? You know, like all of the little service projects that we did, it was kind of, the question is always like, well, why is it this way? So I think that that really leads to understanding what factors govern our lives. And then in high school, I was in the, I think 10th grade or 11th grade when nine 11 happened. And so there was a lot of political choices that led to that and were coming out of that. And so I became more active at that point. And then I think also, you know, even things like LGBT rights, I mean, in high school, I was involved in drama in a theater. So I had a lot of gay friends. And at the time, I don't know that I knew that much about the politics of that, but, you know, you become kind of an activist in defending people's rights to just exist.
Passionistas: You actually worked in DC early in your career. So what did you do there?
Elizabeth: I went to DC to do AmeriCorps. So AmeriCorps is like our domestic peace Corps program. So I gave a year to work for a foundation that promoted public service and volunteerism. So I did that for a year. And then I worked for a member of Congress who is actually from Los Angeles, Grace Napoitano. So I worked there as her scheduler. What did that entail? I definitely had a lot more power than I knew I had at that time. I did not capitalize on that as well as I should have a member of Congress is just constantly in demand by their constituents by special interest groups by lobbyists. They're always, time is just of the essence. And so my job was to manage her time and to assess all of those requests that were coming in all the time and assign them to other staff members or make the time on the congressman's calendar. There's just a lot of balancing of priorities.
Passionistas: Did you like being in the DC system?
Elizabeth: No, I did not like it there. I left after that second year. So a few reasons why I don't like D C one, weather it's terrible, there's like three nice weeks in the spring and three nice weeks in the fall. And then the rest of the time it's either like sweating, like anything you've ever experienced. You're trudging through sleet. And it's not like pretty glistening white snow and I'm from LA. So I, you know, you can't hang with that for a long.
Then two is the, I felt just professionally. The first question anybody asks you in any setting is who do you work for? And it's very much about assessing how valuable you are to them in that moment. And I just felt like people just talked about work all the time. And when I came back to California and I remember my lunch break at my, my first day at work and, you know, there's people in the kitchen, you know, microwaving their lunches or whatever. And people were talking about what they did on the weekends. People were talking about their, you know, how they went, kayaking. People talked about a meeting they were going to after work. I mean, I just realized like, Oh my God, you people talk about other things besides just what happens in this building. And I thought that was very impressive.
Passionistas: During your time in DC. was there something you learned there that you've sort of taken through your career?
Elizabeth: I mean, it was also the very beginning of my career. So I think there's a lot that you just learn from being new in a professional workplace. One thing which may or may not be specific to politics, but is, you know, know your audience and understand what does this person, or what does this group want and how can I address that with whatever I have. And sometimes that doesn't necessarily mean giving them what they want, but it means like making them feel heard. And I think that that is applicable in a lot of different industries. I guess, making people feel heard without actually giving them anything or committing to anything is a skill that is useful.
Passionistas: Did you come straight back to LA or did you go to San Francisco first?
Elizabeth: I went to San Francisco after DC. I wasn't quite ready to move back home or move back to my home area. And I lived there for five years. What did you do there? I worked for a food bank there. So actually I lived in the East Bay. I lived in Oakland and Berkeley for some time, but I worked in San Francisco for the San Francisco Marin food bank. And I started out as an executive assistant, which was a good kind of transition from a scheduler type of role and also great for being able to see all the different parts of the organization and the business, how things run. And also at that organization, deep policy and advocacy stuff really happened with the CEO and in his office, out of his office directly. So I was useful in that space. Then I transitioned to become a major gifts officer, which is basically you talk to high net worth individuals and try to give them money for things that you're trying to do for the community.
Passionistas: Was there a part of being of service in that job that you connected to?
Elizabeth: I think what was really cool about that job is that I was basically Robin hooding, you know, like I was taking money from rich people and using it to buy food for poor people. And that, you know, just in a very simplistic way, it feels like a good use of time, energy. And we were really making a huge impact, even in a place as wealthy as San Francisco. One in four people are at risk of hunger and don't know where their food is. Next meal is going to come from. Most of those are children and the elderly, and that's true for a lot of places across the country. So we did, I think, really good work also on the policy front, there's a ton of policy that affects whether or not people have enough money for food and can afford to pay rent and pay for medical bills and pay for food. So I did some cool stuff there. I think that ultimately as a service organization, the amount of time that they could spend on advocacy is smaller than what I was interested. And so eventually I left because I wanted to get more into politics.
Passionistas: So then you moved back to LA at that point, you worked for the Los Angeles County business Federation. Talk about that job and what you did there.
Elizabeth: So the LA County business Federation is an Alliance of a bunch of different business groups. So if you think about every industry has an association, every ethnic or minority group basically has a chamber of commerce. Every city has a chamber of commerce. So you think about the national association of women business owners or the bicycle coalition or the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce or any of these kinds of groups that are operating in California. We kind of organized all of them together so that we could be advocating for economic policies. When, when we all agreed on them, we represented 400,000 business owners across California. And we're the largest association of associations basically in the country.
Passionistas: While you were doing that, were you also volunteering at nonprofit org?
Elizabeth: Yeah. I had all of these volunteer roles while I was working. So over the course of my time at that job, I also served on the board of the United left, the next fund. I also served on the local democratic club, our Stonewall young Democrats here in LA, and I'm started on the board of California women's list.
Passionistas: Tell us about the California Women's List and what they do and what you do for them.
Elizabeth: California Women's list is a political action committee. So we raise money for and support democratic women running for office here in California. And we're very focused on state level offices. So the state legislature, and also there's a lot of constitutional offices. So think about things like the treasurer, the controller, the secretary of state, the governor, those kinds of directly elected positions.
We are a fully volunteer run board and organization. So I'm the external relations chair. And I help to create partnerships with other organizations and to work on a lot of our kind of more public facing campaigns right now, for example, we are starting selling merchandise that sends electrical women. And so if you go to CaliforniaWomenPlus.org, you can shop our store and buy cool merch that is professionally designed by an awesome graphic designer that we have on our board. I mean, it's unique and very different from a lot of the other kind of political t-shirts that I've seen around there and hats and whatnot. So, you know, we had to get that store up and running. So that was a project I worked on.
Passionistas: What is California Women's List most focused on as we get into crunch time leading up to the election?
Elizabeth: We have endorsed 24 candidates for state office this cycle. So we are very focused on raising money for them and giving it to them right away so that they can spend that on mail on the technology that they need to, you know, transition and have transitioned from a lot of door knocking and in person events to now everything is digital. So those digital tools cost money, some cases, depending on their market, they might be doing radio or TV ads. So they need money for all of that kind of thing. Also in California, especially important for women running for office in California is now finally you can use campaign funds to pay for childcare. There are only 17 States that allow candidates to pay for childcare campaign funds and California just became one of those States last year. So if there are, you know, some, a lot of our candidates are moms and childcare is really important to make sure that more women who have kids are able to run for office and be successful.
Passionistas: Tell us about The Grace Society and what that is.
Elizabeth: Grace Society is the donor circle for California Women's List. So if you want to help elect more women in California, then you can be a member of our Grace Society. It's only $50 for a year. And so you can pay that all at once or you can do $5 a month or whatever you need to do, and it helps you be a part of the fabric of our organization and a more consistent way. We have a little lapel pin that we send. That's nice. You get early access to our merch when we launch new products and also to our events that we have, you get early access and discounted tickets and all that sort of thing. So it's just a way for folks who want to support our work to help us sustain this effort, because it is a lot of fundraising around campaign cycles, but the work is ongoing and particularly for a lot of local and state races, those are not always happening at the same time as kind of these more well known races like the presidential. So that organizing work is happening all year.
Passionistas: Why is it so important to have more women in politics?
Elizabeth: When we see more women in elected bodies, those elected bodies have more transparency and they aren't, they tend to be more effective. So it's really important that everybody is represented at the level that they are in the society. You know, so not just women, but also people with disabilities, people who are immigrants, people with different kinds of work experience, people of different ethnic and language backgrounds. All of these folks are part of our society, but they are not all represented commensurate to their numbers and society. So that is a symptom of a problem. You know, if all things were equal, then everybody would just be part of the process. But because they're not in California, only 33% of our legislature is women. And that's basically an all-time high in the early two thousands, California ranked sixth in the nation for the percentage of women in the legislature.
But by 2013, we fell to the 32nd place. And that's not because other States made a ton of progress. It's because the number of women in California state legislature went down. So it's really important that we have equal representation. And it's important that we are all fighting for it all the time because the number went down because we took our eye off. The ball progress is not linear. You know, I think we see that, especially that has become very clear as people over the last four years, we can't just count on it happening.
Passionistas: Why don't more women run for office?
Elizabeth: Women do win their races basically as often as men do, it's just that they don't self-select and run that much. Women have to be asked to run for office multiple times before they start. So I really want women to know that you have just as good of an opportunity to run.
And I also want women and men to know, and everybody to know that a big challenge that women candidates face is raising money. And that is because women can also raise as much as men do. We just tend to do it in smaller chunks. So men generally have access to wealthier donors and business circles and things like that. And so they are often able to raise more money faster. Whereas women have to spend longer cultivating more donors who are giving at smaller or lower amounts. And so I say that because I want everybody who's listening to, this can be a donor, not everyone's going to run for office and that's fine, but everybody can be a donor. Everybody can be a volunteer. And so really think about how you can give as much as possible, how you can encourage other people to give to political candidates. Women give a ton to charity, but we do not give as much to political campaigns and investing in a political campaign is investing in the future that you want to see your list.
Passionistas: You’re listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Elizabeth Tulasi. Visit californiawomenslist.org to find out more about the organization. And join The Grace Society to receive an exclusive annual pin, a members only quarterly newsletter discount to tickets, to CWL programs and access to special members only events.
Now here's more of our interview with Elizabeth.
If there was a woman that wanted to get into the political arena, what would you want her to know?
Elizabeth: I want women who are interested in politics to know that there are organizations out there to help support you to get you involved. So you don't have to feel intimidated. I think so many women feel like they don't know enough. And frankly, I wish more men recognize that they don't know enough because they don't know more than we do. They just don't care that they don't know more than we do now. And so I wish women would recognize that just because you don't know everything doesn't mean that you cannot be an effective leader in your community. It doesn't mean that you don't know good solutions. There are organizations out there of other women who can help support you as you learn more and figure out how to make change in your community.
Passionistas: Why is it so important for women to get involved in all levels of government?
Elizabeth: It's important to have women in all elected offices, but a thing that I want people to know about, you know, state and local is that those are the pipelines for higher office. So you look at somebody like Kamala Harris who ran for president. She's now the vice presidential nominee, but right now she's a Senator or US Senator. Prior to that, she was serving at the state level. She was California's Attorney General. And before that she was serving at, in her city. And a lot of the women that we heard of that were vice presidential contenders worked at various levels of government before they get up to that level. So it was great because of this democratic primary. There were a bunch of women who were running and had very viable campaigns, but obviously in the past, there was always hope putting all of our hopes and dreams on one woman.
And that's because the pipeline to get to that level was so sweet. So if we have more women serving at various levels, then we have more opportunity for them to go higher. There are great women serving in state legislatures all across the country. So a couple of that, I just wanted to shout out Sarah Innamorato is elected in Pennsylvania. She's been serving since 2018 and she's from the Pittsburgh area. She's 34. And she beat an incumbent in a landslide by fighting for progressive values in a state that is very ideologically diverse. So she started her own marketing firm previously. And then she decided to run for office in Texas.
There's a woman named Gina Calanni. She was a paralegal and a mom of three boys, and she ran. She's the first woman to represent her area in the state, Texas state legislature. She beat an incumbent Republican, and she's already passed 11 bills. And she's only been in the state legislature for a year. She's focused on the minutia of processes that slow things down like forensic testing or allowing school funding to go towards these big separate packages for fired administrators. So these are kind of unsexy details that really matter to how well your government works in Virginia.
There was a woman named Masha Rex Baird, and she was the youngest woman ever elected to the Virginia House of delegates. When she won in 2015, she was 28 years old at the time. She's so active in her community. When you read her bio she's on so many different, you know, volunteering and serving on so many different boards and commissions, and she's focused on her service on economic development and education so that her community has good jobs in it. And then the folks in the community have the skills to be able to get into those jobs. And just this week, she passed a bill banning, no knock warrants in Virginia, which is the kind of warrant that police officers used when they murdered Brianna Taylor.
So all of these women in different parts of the country are breaking barriers in their own ways and making really important change. You can see how important that is to their state. And so I share all of these examples because if you started looking at some of the women that are serving in your community in leadership roles, you will see that they're women just like you and your experience is important to bring to bear in California.
Somebody who's now become a national figure is Katie Porter and in her first term in Congress. And she's the only single mom serving in Congress right now. And so she brings a lived experience that is really important because obviously there's so many single moms across America and the people who are making the rules and govern their lives, have no idea what they're doing. And so whatever you have, if you know anybody else who has that same kind of experience, then that voice deserves to be heard.
Passionistas: Why are state and local governments so important?
Elizabeth: That is keeping you up at night these days, or that's, you know, you're really stressed out about and state and local government have a huge impact on that. So COVID obviously is really on the top of everyone's mind. And the hospital capacity in your area is a function of probably your County government or, you know, what the kinds of facilities and specialties that they have in your area are also determined by state policy. Every community has a public health official and how much the politicians listen to that public health official. That's all determined. I mean, that's all happening at the local level. I think another thing people are really stressed out about right now is money. So how much you earn and how much it costs to live, where you live, that's all determined by local factors. A lot of money stuff is happening in your area.
And it's very specific to where you live national policies affect these things, of course, but the bulk of the economic policies that affect your day to day life are happening in your city or in your County or your state. I think a lot of folks right now also are paying more attention to family policies and also to unemployment. And that is handled at the state level. And so if have not yet received your unemployment check or you had the system was down when you tried to apply, that's because of stuff that's happening at the state level education and childcare education is handled by your local school board. How much money they have is determined by state and local taxes. Policing and prisons are really top of mind for folks right now, your city council and your mayor determine how much money the police are going to get in your city.
If you are in a place where you, you don't have municipal police, you might have a County sheriff. The sheriff is usually in elected position all across the country. So that's a directly elected person who's handling those policies and jails. I just learned in California that there's a bill going through the state legislature right now that is focused on how we in California treat people who are in jail and prison who are pregnant and whether or not they can be handcuffed to their hospital bed during childbirth, whether or not they get preference for the bottom bunk in, in their jail, you know, or have to climb up to the top bunk, whether they can be put in solitary confinement while you're pregnant. So there's a lot of policies that have to do with how we treat prisoners in our States that really matter and voting is another big one.
There's a lot of concern with the integrity of our various voting systems. And every one of those voting systems is controlled by your state government and your local elections. Or so if you're concerned about who has access to voting or who doesn't have access to voting, or how easy or hard it is to vote in your area that is completely determined by your state government, why is voting important to you? Really broadly voting is important to me because so many people have died for this, right, and have died, or, you know, really put their wives at risk for this democracy. And this democracy only works if people participate in it. So that is very motivating to me. And then I think specifically right now, why it's important that everybody vote is because I think we think of ourselves as very polarized right now as a country.
And that is certainly true, but there are so many more people that are not participating in that at all, that I think their voices don't matter, but they do. We often hear people saying that it doesn't matter. Who's elected all the politicians are the same. And I think we can see now that that is not true, that people who are elected have power over our lives. And we need to make sure that those people have values and lived experiences that are similar to ours. And I think that government is created to be hard for people to get engaged. A lot of our systems right now are, are designed that way. And similar forces want us to believe that our votes don't matter, that our voices don't matter. And that again, is to achieve certain goals that I don't agree with. And I don't want, I think we've also seen how much, particularly for women, the power and the status that we have as women now that certainly my mother's generation didn't have. My grandmother's generation did not have. That was hard fought recently won and backsliding.
As we speak, women are still mostly responsible for what happens at home. So when we are all home all the time, now that means we're responsible for everything all the time. And a lot of women who are also trying to work, but then they're not able to spend as much time at work or working because of all of this kind of unpaid domestic labor that we're involved in. And it's going to have long-term effects on women's economic mobility. And then I think there's also, you think about maternal mortality, maternal mortality is going up in America. We're one of the only countries where maternal mortality is increasing and it's particularly a problem with black and indigenous and women of color. If our government is worth anything, it should be that it doesn't let women die while they're giving birth.
We see like the number of elected women is going up right now, partly because of the rates that women feel. So we're taking to running and supporting each other. But again, that is not guaranteed, that kind of progress. And we need women in all rooms where decisions are being made. So in state legislatures at your city hall, in board rooms and CEO's offices in the white house, we need women's voices and all of these places. And that again is not guaranteed. And when people say things like make America great, again, this kind of backsliding is exactly what that means to them. And that is very motivating to me to not let that happen.
Passionistas: How can the average person have an impact on the upcoming election?
Elizabeth: All of us have spheres of influence and all of us have people that listen to us and care about what we're saying. A lot of people feel like helpless right now, or they don't know where to start. And like I said, it is confusing on purpose, but you can vote and you can get three other people to vote. You can check your voter registration today. You can encourage three other people to check their voter registration. You can call your friends. Everybody who is getting a Christmas card from me is also getting a phone call from me, asking them, what is your voting plan? Because asking somebody, what is your plan? And having them just verbalize that to you is actually a really proven, effective way to get people to actually vote. And so in that scenario, you're not even telling them like, Hey, you should vote for this person that I care about. Cause sometimes those are awkward conversations or, you know, whatever, even though that's what's necessary right now is have those conversations with people in your life. But at the minimum, what you can do is just ask people to vote and encourage them and make sure that they have the information.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to our interview with Elizabeth Tulasi, visit californiawomenslist.org to find out more about the organization. And join The Grace Society to receive an exclusive annual pin, a members only quarterly newsletter, discounted tickets to CWL programs and access to special members only events.
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Until next time, stay well and stay passionate.
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