People mill around a small room in Acqua Al 2 for a PAC fundraiser. It’s a standard political soiree at the Italian restaurant near Eastern Market, people catching up with old acquaintances and making new connections.
But unlike other political action committee fundraisers, the people in this room aren’t all from the same party, nor do they support the same candidates.
Rather, they have one cause in common: to elect women 40 and younger to office.
The idea behind the Women Under Forty PAC is to get women into politics early, said founder Susannah Shakow, a Democrat and veteran of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform.
Women who are 44 years old and younger make up 58.8 percent of the female population in the United States and 29.9 percent of the total U.S. population. But, as has always been the case, their representation in Congress is disproportionate: Only seven female Members are 44 and younger (in comparison, 49 male Members are 44 and younger).
“Some people say that these women are too young to run for office, but no one questions it when men run when they’re 25,” Shakow said.
The trick is there is no litmus test for an endorsement from the PAC. You can be against abortion or for gay marriage, and as long as you fall into their age criteria, you’ll receive an endorsement.
The lack of an ideological or partisan component has made fundraising more difficult.
“It’s an interesting challenge, running a bipartisan PAC,” said President Katie Vlietstra, a Republican who once worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The PAC boasts that it was one of the first to send checks to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) when they ran for Congress, but its endorsement list also includes Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.) and Martha Roby (Ala.), Republican women who were elected during the GOP wave of 2010.
So far in the 2012 election cycle, the PAC has made six endorsements. The candidates run the gamut of the political scale: from Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, the 30-year-old Honolulu City Council member running in Hawaii’s 2nd district (Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono is running for Senate in 2012) to Republican Rep. Kristi Noem (S.D.), a 40-year-old tea party favorite who became the most recent incumbent to receive a WUFPAC endorsement last month.
The PAC isn’t about ideology, Vlietstra said, but about getting younger women to bring their perspectives to Congress.
“These are women who are in the workforce and are married with children,” she said. “They bring a different life experience to Washington.”
The other part of WUFPAC’s mission is to get women into office while they’re young and encourage them to stay so they will gain seniority and lead committees in the future. “Career politicians” are not currently in vogue, but seniority retains certain advantages on the Hill. If women stay in office longer, WUFPAC leaders say, they eventually will join the leadership ranks.
A couple of Members who have been endorsed by WUFPAC in the past have already risen through the ranks. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) serves as vice chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, making her the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) serves as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
In the past few years, the PAC has begun making endorsements on the state and local levels to build a deeper bench of younger women who will eventually be ready to run for national office.
Wasserman Schultz understands this part of WUFPAC’s mission; after all, she first ran for a seat in her state Legislature when she was 25.
“Women usually aren’t in a position to run at that stage of our lives,” she said. “WUFPAC has made it easier.”
One such woman is Heather McTeer, a Democratic candidate for the House in Mississippi’s 2nd district.
Currently the mayor of Greenville, McTeer said she first heard of the organization when she was contemplating her run for Congress. As she stood around the PAC’s event at Acqua Al 2, she explained why she had just applied for a WUFPAC endorsement.
“Young women can do it all,” the 36-year-old said. “Walk into a woman’s house, and she’ll be making dinner, balancing the budget, putting the kids to bed. These women are problem solvers. They should be in Congress.”