Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced their plans to run for public office. And we want them to win. So we're giving them a monthly example of a woman who has run. The point: You can too.
Erica Vladimer has never been in elected politics, but she’s no stranger to its downfalls. After law school, she worked in the New York Senate, first as a fellow and then later as a policy analyst and counsel. She was there from 2013 to 2015, until she says State Sen. Jeff Klein forcibly kissed her outside a bar. At the time, Klein denied the accusation, and Vladimer left Albany. (In 2018, Klein was unseated by Alessandra Biaggi, one of the women who defeated members of the IDC, a group of New York Democratic lawmakers who caucused with Republicans.)
But Vladimer's work wasn’t over. Along with six other former New York state legislature staffers, Vladimer helped start the Sexual Harassment Working Group. The group was able to convince New York lawmakers to hold a public hearing on harassment—their first in almost 30 years, according to the Times.
In June, she announced she’s running for Congress in New York’s 12th district, hoping to unseat longtime House Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Here, she explains why she decided to jump back into politics full force—and how advocating for sexual assault victims gave her the push she needed.
I have always believed that government was a force for good. A lot of the reasons why so many people don't get into government and politics are the same reasons why I wanted to get in. But our government is maintaining the status quo while society and our communities and our cultures are in this dramatic shift. And our elected officials need to catch up, keep up, and then start leading.
Before the midterm elections, I hadn't been thinking about running for Congress. I had thought about possibly running for office, but I wasn't sure if that was going to be a space for me. But watching the IDC fall, surrounded by such supportive women in the Working Group, that was really the moment I thought, "OK, this is possible."
As someone who was, and still is, invested in what happens in our state, it was so personal to me. As a group, we were supportive of candidates and elected officials who are looking to change. There was definitely a small part of me, and I don't think I realized this until I saw Alessandra Biaggi win, who was dying for it to happen.
It really took that for me to think, "OK, I'm finding my voice. I'm recognizing that I really want to get back, not in just a government work, but the political side of things." And running for office is something that I should really start considering.
I think government, government buildings, elected officials and the culture they create, this space that they create, breeds an abusive power. I was warned. I was told plenty of times that you would never move up in the IDC because you're too pretty. I was told that that there were specific men, other members in the Senate, in the assembly, who wouldn't be allowed to hire me because they're not allowed to have young staffers.
In 2015, Senator Klein assaulted me. I packed up and left Albany, moved back to Long Island in a matter of two and a half weeks. And I really thought I was OK.
"I was told that that there were specific men, other members in the Senate, in the assembly, who wouldn't be allowed to hire me because they're not allowed to have young staffers."
I always pride myself on being someone who's stood up for myself and for other people. I had reported someone else for harassment of my colleagues before the senator assaulted me. But when it happens to you, it feels different.
I spoke to a colleague about it because I didn't know what to do. And when someone who's been there longer than you, and understands that culture better than you, says the way you handled it—the fact that you didn't walk away immediately, the fact that you stood out there and finished your cigarette—is going to make it harder to come forward and will make you less credible, it just felt like a status quo. Who am I as this young staffer, who's two years out of law school, to think that I myself can change the status quo?
I never looked at the assault as a problem to solve. I saw it as an event that was very personal, and I needed to leave it in the past and move forward. Then when the Harvey Weinstein stories came out and women started breaking their silence, that's when I recognized that I was not OK, and I found myself, at first, on my kitchen floor, sobbing. I realized that this was a problem, not just personally but across society. And getting away from it was not the solution that would make me whole again.
"I realized that this was a problem, not just personally but across society. And getting away from it was not the solution that would make me whole again."
I knew that I couldn't fully be the advocate that I wanted to be for other women if I didn't own what happened to me. How could I possibly tell other people that it's OK to step up and tell your story, that we're here to support you and you're not alone, when I myself wasn't willing to face that fear? I had every reason to continue to stay quiet. I could've easily started to build myself a new life in New York City, but it didn't feel right. This isn't just about me. There are so many other people, even to this day, who work in the state legislature, in Congress, in so many other workplaces that dealt with what I did and even more. It needed to change.
And we created the Working Group. We sprung into action because we felt like we had no other choice, that our stories were not enough and that we came from policy backgrounds and wanted to do the research. We're called the Sexual Harassment Working Group, but then we took it a step farther and started working with employment attorneys, and it was about all harassment and discrimination and understanding the intersection of the different types of harassment and discrimination that exist beyond sex and gender and gender identity.
On June 19, 2018, we rolled out a white paper with over a dozen policy proposals. And on June 19, 2019, they passed a bill that was partially crafted off of our original white paper. And it was because other people—men, women, elected officials, advocates—were willing to stand up and stand with us.
Through all of that, through the research, through working with these advocacy groups and writing the paper, and negotiating things with elected officials, it made me realize how much I really wanted to be in that room. It helped me see that I do belong there, and these men and an institution have no right to take that from me. And by reclaiming my voice and the path that I was on, I'm able to get back to where I want to be and where I think I can help affect the most change.
I think when you see people like Lauren Underwood and Katie Porter, and obviously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they are getting us there, but they're still having to push. And the more of us with these new thoughts and the bold willingness to stand up, the quicker we're going to get there. And we have to do it.
There's always going to be this power dynamic. There are going to be members who have been there much longer than me. It does make me nervous, but that's why I have to go to Congress. For a few years of my life, I did the reverse, but I'm back to who I was before and stronger than that. I need to face this head on because it's not just about me.
We are so ready on so many levels of society to change things and that means we need more of those changing voices in Congress. It's about moving society where it needs to be and where it should be now. I'm ready, and I know the district and New York City and the country's ready.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison Feller Madison is a staff writer at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture.