Empowered! Five young politically involved women talk activism, challenges and public service

(From left: Sarah Mersky, Mandee Heinl, Molly Amster, Shelley Zimmerman and Madeline Suggs. Photo by David Stuck)

A few months ago, when Donald Trump pulled off his stunning upset of Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, Mandee Heinl decided not to wallow in her disappointment but to take action.

Heinl, 26, of Pikesville, has in recent weeks helped organize what she calls “huddles,” groups of about 25 women in various locations around Baltimore County, to rally in support of candidates who she feels best represent women’s values.

“We had these women saying, ‘We’ve never done anything like this before, but we want to help do something to get a female elected,’” said Heinl, legislative aide for Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-District 2). “I think we’re seeing people take ownership of people who they think will represent them well. Not much positive has come out of the [presidential] election, but this has.”

In Baltimore, as across the rest of the nation, Heinl is just one of many motivated young women continuing to break ceilings for her peers looking to get into the political world.

“It’s interesting when you have meetings with females and the first thing they say is, ‘Would you be the first one?’” Heinl said. “They’re excited and energized by that, and they want to help.”

Public Engagement

Heinl, Sarah Mersky and Madeline Suggs of the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC), Shelley Zimmerman of Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer’s office and Molly Amster of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) are using their platforms to help women develop and use their political voice.

And while it’s too early to know whether the results of the November election will translate into a surge of women becoming more politically engaged, many are seeing early indications.

Zimmerman, 36, of Pikesville, is a newcomer to the political field, having taken her first job in the public sector for Schleifer (D-District 5) in November as his chief of staff. Although she doesn’t consider herself “a political person at all,” Zimmerman said it has been rewarding to have some influence to help people change their lives for the better.

Sarah Mersky, favorite nonpolitical activity: “One of my favorite things to do is to go hiking and to be outdoors. It allows me to get away and spend time with friends and family and experience things I don’t get to do often.” (Photo by David Stuck)

“The day-to-day aspect of this job really drives me, because we really help people,” Zimmerman said. “People have been calling us about these $6,000 water bills they have been getting from the city that are completely false, and they are scared to death because they can’t afford to pay them. So we’ve really been able to get those issues fixed for them, which has been very rewarding. When you have someone calling from a city councilman’s office, they start to take you a little more serious.”

Mersky, 28, director of government relations for the BJC, recently wrapped up her third state General Assembly session in Annapolis as her organization’s lead lobbyist. She said the amount of enthusiasm she witnessed from women fighting for issues pertaining to their rights such as health care and health services, among others, was unlike anything she had previously seen.

“The biggest thing I noticed was that there were way more rallies in Annapolis this year, and it wasn’t just the usual suspects who showed up,” Mersky said. “I think it’s a really good thing that there are people getting more involved and understanding politics and that voting matters.”

Amster, 33, Baltimore director of JUFJ, said she convinced a Pikesville woman who had attended hearings in Annapolis previously to testify on a police accountability bill that was particularly important to her. In her role, Amster noted that many people can feel intimidated by how the government operates and makes decisions.

Molly Amster, favorite nonpolitical activity: “I like to go hiking and camping. I really like being physically active and being outside and being connected to something larger than myself. It’s a helpful reminder that there are other things out there than the drama between people.” (Photo by David Stuck)

“I wasn’t even able to be there to prepare with her,” Amster said. “To see that transformation in her, she now feels she can easily go and advocate for the things that are important to her. And for her to inspire other people to do something similar, it’s really important for what we do at JUFU.”

Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College, said it should be an encouraging sign for women to see how united they have become in a rapidly changing political climate.

Deckman, co-author of “Women with a Mission: Gender, Religion, and the Politics of Women Clergy,” believes the many anti-Trump marches around the world after the inauguration in January prove women are mobilized. In addition, she feels those demonstrations have given way to a new wave of political engagement that doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon.

“Had Clinton won, I don’t think you would have seen all these women marching on the street, because they would have felt that their rights were represented,” Deckman said. “If she had won and had a successful presidency, would that have inspired other young girls to go into politics? I think so, possibly.”

But Deckman expressed concerns that some of the fallout from the election, with its clashes over sex and gender, could further deter women from seeking to run for public office or hold positions of political power.

Nationwide, women make up roughly 25 percent of state legislators, 19 percent of Congress, 18 percent of mayors and 12 percent of governors, according to the Centers for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.

“In general, women are less likely to run for office as is,” Deckman said. “Women are far more likely to say they need to be encouraged to run for office than men. I think that’s part of the problem, that there aren’t the resources dedicated to get women to run at the same rate as men.”

A Different Approach

For women’s voices to be part of the equation, many feel there have to be more women willing to assume those positions of power.

This is something Suggs, director of public affairs for the BJC, has aspirations of fulfilling for herself one day.

Madeline Suggs, favorite nonpolitical activity: “Hanging out with my rescue pit bull, Murphy, which I got from the pound. He was really beat up when my husband and I got him. I’m always with my dog, and I’m always going hiking with him or taking him to the dog park.” (Photo by David Stuck)

Suggs, 25, of Baltimore, said while she doesn’t have any plans to run for public office, she ultimately hopes to lead one of the local chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) as executive director. She pointed to Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the JCRC of St. Louis, as a source of inspiration and someone she hopes to model herself after.

“[Neiss] is amazing,” Suggs said. “She is an absolute powerhouse and someone I can look up to and take a lot from.”

Suggs said the thought had never popped into her head until former longtime BJC executive director Art Abramson told her, with a little more seasoning, she was capable of doing his job. But Suggs noted it took Abramson telling her the same thing repeatedly before she “finally took him seriously.”

“I laughed, because I thought he was joking,” Suggs said of Abramson. “There just aren’t very many executive directors of JCRCs in the nation who are women. It’s really the same thing with women running for office: you have to be asked again and again, because you’re not seeing role models and you’re not seeing yourself mirrored by women in those positions.”

In his time as the BJC’s executive director from 1990 to 2016, Abramson said Suggs “might have been the most socially conscious person who ever worked” for the organization under his direction.

For the most part, Abramson said “women in politics have much more clearer focuses on what needs to be accomplished and how to best tactically go about doing what needs to be done. Their minds are sharper. Maybe it’s less baggage? I don’t know? But I have tended to find, by far, that the women who have worked at the BJC have been superb lobbyists.”

The first lobbyist Abramson ever hired was now-state Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), who he believes could have headed up the BJC had she decided not to pursue public office.

Of the 188 legislative seats in the Maryland State House, Hettleman is one of just 60 women legislators, ranking the state 10th in the country in electing women, according to the CAWP.

Although research has shown women, on average, need to be asked multiple times to run for political office before they agree, that wasn’t the case for Hettleman, who said she didn’t need much convincing when she ran in 2014.

Hettleman, 52, serving her first term in the state House of Delegates, said issues that affect women are likely to be turned into meaningful legislation if there are more women in the room. She also fears that all-male delegations could change the topics that are addressed.

“Women have a different way of getting things done,” Hettleman said. “I think it’s collaborative. Women are used to getting things done outside professional life. They bring all the skills and tools they learned in school and their relationships with their families and different people to policies in a different way than maybe men do.”

In part, it’s one of the reasons she felt compelled to run for her seat. It’s also one of the reasons she has hired many women staffers such as Heinl, who worked as Hettleman’s first legislative director from 2014 to 2015.

“Even at a young age, she knew Annapolis better than most people two or three times her age,” Hettleman said of Heinl. “She just knew people and the way things worked that made my transition for me a whole lot easier than it would have been otherwise. I was very sad — although I completely understand — when she decided to leave and work closer to home.”

Seeking Balance

Mandee Heinl, favorite nonpolitical activity: “I love to cook with my kids. They like making anything where you have to crack an egg. One of their favorite things to make is banana peanut butter muffins. It provides a lot of quality time together, which is sometimes scarce.” (Photo by David Stuck)

In the often cutthroat world of politics, balancing life at work and life away from it has been made easier by supportive bosses and spouses.

One of the reasons Heinl said she left her position with Hettleman was, in large part, to be closer to her son, Sam, 3, and daughter Olivia, 2. Instead of commuting to and from Annapolis every day during the state legislative session from January to April, she now has a relatively shorter trek to Towson working under Almond.

Almond, 66, who has two adult daughters and six young grandchildren, said Heinl possesses a tireless work ethic and commitment to her family and job that distinguishes her from many in similar positions.

“She challenged me, and she challenged me to be better,” Almond said of Heinl. “We have an incredible relationship that works really well. But I would say she presented me with challenges in my own thinking, the way I govern and the way I look at things in general, both personally and professionally.”

Heinl credits both Almond and her husband, Steven, 32, an attorney at the Annapolis law firm of Hyatt & Weber, P.A., for lending their support to allow her thrive.

“I have a husband who, I think, believes in me more than I believe in myself,” Heinl said. “He has picked up a ton of slack. He does laundry and bath time and reads bedtime stories to our kids. He has really become a kisser of boo-boos in our house, because there’s just no other way to make it work. I also have a boss in Vicki who is amazing and understands what it’s like to raise a family.”

Shelley Zimmerman, favorite nonpolitical activity: “I love doing anything with my kids. We go to JTown at the JCC all the time. My passion is volunteering as a certified child passenger safety technician. That’s really cool, because I’ll randomly just have people calling me and asking for car seat advice.” (Photo by David Stuck)

Zimmerman also is raising two children of her own, son Brody, 6, and daughter Ayla, 3, with her husband Garrett, 34.

She said having a boss with two young kids of his own such as Schleifer has allowed her to fully focus on making a smooth transition into her new position.

“My family comes first, and Yitzy knew that when he hired me,” Zimmerman said. “He’s a family man and a father himself, so he understood that. I may have to work a little later some days or come in early on other days, but it seems to be working very well. It’s a lot more hours, but my husband is picking up a lot of slack, especially at bedtime with the kids.”

Schleifer, 28, serving in his first term on the City Council, said Zimmerman checked off all the personal and professional boxes he was seeking in a chief of staff.

“I said to myself, ‘She is the perfect person who comes to mind’ when discussing with other council members and my wife what I needed in my chief of staff,” Schleifer said. “I knew I would need someone who was used to getting the job done and doing whatever it took to improve the quality of life for my constituents. I knew Shelley from business circles, and I saw that she was a very trustworthy person and dedicated to her family and previous job.”

As for Heinl, the fact that her young children recognize that she is doing her part to make other people’s lives a little easier provides her with more than enough satisfaction.

“My son will tell people that his daddy is a lawyer and that his mommy helps people,” Heinl said. “On those long 14- or 16-hour days when you miss picking your kids up at school or you miss dinner and you feel like you’re failing as a mom, like, ‘Holy cow, what am I doing?’ and then your 3-year-old son says his mom helps people — it puts things into perspective.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

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