A new political action committee has one question for straight white men with political aspirations.
"Dude, can you not?"
It's a question embedded in the name of the organization. The Can You Not PAC plans to discourage straight white men from running for office in Colorado's diverse districts. They hope that will clear the lane for female, minority and LGBTQ candidates.
Democratic activists Jack Teter and Kyle Huelsman registered the organization last month. So far they've raised $120 from six donations.
"It's the counterbalance to the classic intervention where people ask, 'Have you thought about ever running for office?', " says Huelsman. "We want to ask, 'Have you ever thought about not running for office?' "
In the short term, the pair plans to focus on Colorado districts that have large blocs of minority voters but tend to elect "traditional" candidates. That includes Aurora and parts of Denver.
Taking On "Overconfidence"
Long term, they hope to tackle what they call a "crisis of overconfidence" among straight white men. A 2004 study found that among professions that most generally produce candidates for elected office, more men than women feel they are qualified. Political scientists think that helps explain why U.S. legislatures are mostly male.
"We're pushing back against the notion that looking like a Ken doll makes you uniquely qualified to run for office," Huelsman said.
"We know that men are more likely to look in the mirror in the morning and think, 'Wow, I'd be great at Congress.' Women need to be asked over and over by their communities."
Teter said studies show that women and people of color tend to produce more progressive policies than liberal white males.
"So African American state legislatures are more likely to introduce measures that combat racial discrimination," he said. "That seems obvious. But they also produce measures improving education, healthcare, social welfare and the economy. If I support those policies, don't have an obligation to like the most-qualified person -- who evidence would suggest isn't a straight white man?"
Progressives Push Back
The group plans to enlist humor to get its point across. One idea on the table? A staged press conference where a studly white man with wife and kids at his side declares his non-candidacy.
But some progressive activists aren't laughing.
"I always take the approach that it would be better to be pro- something rather than anti-something," says Halisi Vinson, president of Colorado Black Women For Political Action. "It appears they are taking a negative approach and that's never the way to create a movement."
Huelsman admitted they've gotten pushback from white males who are eyeing a future in politics. But he called that a "positive first step" of starting conversations about privilege.
Read the transcript:
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. White men shouldn't run for office in districts where women or people of color stand a chance of winning. That's according to a new political action committee called the "Can you Not PAC." Backers want to discourage white men from entering races in cities like Denver and Aurora. But that's a bad strategy according to some of the very people the group aims to help. This is the creation of Jack Teter and Kyle Huelsman, both Democratic activists from Denver and both white guys. Welcome to the program.
Kyle Huelsman: Thanks so much for having us.
Jack Teter: Thank you.
Warner: Isn't it discriminatory to discourage anyone who wants to run for office, Kyle?
Huelsman: Look Ryan, we have on our hands a truly epidemic at the moment of overly confident, under-ly qualified white guys running for office. We seek to be an equalizing force of really bringing down white men to their actual level of competence and not to their perceived level of qualification. And so it's here that we think we can envision a world, maybe not in your lifetime, maybe not in my lifetime, but a place in which white guys are actually running as qualified of candidates as women and people of color and LGBTQ candidates.
Warner: What do you base this assertion on that white men are overly confident, Jack? Do you have anything to back that up?
Teter: Yeah. There are some amazing studies that tell us this actually. The Donald Kruger Effect [sic - "Dunning-Kruger Effect" is the correct term] tells us that men disproportionately to their confidence are more confident. We know that men are more likely to look in the mirror in the morning and think "Wow, I'd be great at Congress," and women need to be asked over and over by their communities. There's a great study that shows that when someone in your community says "Hey you should run for office," it takes men about three weeks for men to say "Oh, yeah, that's a great idea." Whereas it takes women three months on average and on a political timeframe I think that's something that matters.
Warner: So that's not exclusive to white men, but to men you are saying.
Teter: Yes. And I think that we are intending on pushing back on privilege generally. So straight white men being a great example of someone who's probably very well represented in government and we'd probably do fine if we elected a few fewer of them. And we are trying to support women, LGBT folks and people of color running.
Warner: But if it's an issue of who's qualified, fundamentally, why not support qualified candidates no matter their race or gender?
Huelsman: Right. So what we have is a situation with men feeling over qualified compared to their level of competence. So something that Jack and I have named the Competency Gap and that is the discrepancy there between qualification and confidence. It's something that we see often in Colorado in the caucus process, you have a situation where you need to get 30% of the vote in the caucus, two-maybe three people come out of that. So when you have more and more men feeling that I think I would be the most qualified person in the world to represent this district, we have a crowding out effect happening in our caucuses.
Warner: I see. And so you'd like this to apply to those who are running for specific offices but also those who are involved in the more grassroots level? Is that right, Jack?
Teter: I think it's a conversation between white men pushing back on other white men and saying hey, why do you think that your voice is so needed here? I don’t necessarily think that you're the hero Gotham needs. I think all of us had a class in college where there's someone who wanted to answer every question the professor asked even though lots of people in the class could have answered that question and I think we see a similar effect in politics as well. And part of it is learning, as hopefully some of us learned in college, but maybe not all of us, that like hey, man, you're going to be fine. We know you know the answer. You don’t have to answer it right now.
Warner: But just because white men don’t come forward doesn't mean necessarily that people of color or women fill the vacuum. So aren't you only treating part of the problem as you see it, Kyle?
Huelsman: Yeah absolutely. I think that there's organizations out there that we love and respect so much, such as Blueflower, such as Emerge Colorado, who are doing incredible work training women, training women of color to run for office and really get into positions where we have more and more qualified candidates. At the same time, we're looking at a situation where the United States, 10% of our governors are women, 12% of our mayors in large US cities are women. So men here are over represented by something close to 500%.
Warner: Well you say here, and yet Colorado's legislature has a very high proportion, I think one of the highest in the country, if not the highest, of women, Jack.
Teter: Yeah, it's actually the highest and we're at 50% which is amazing. That's our state legislature. We've also never had a woman as governor. So that's important. There are no black people in the Colorado Senate right now. So I think that this is more of a broad issue going on here, right. It's about a crisis of mediocre white men who are running over and over again. And to be honest, as a progressive person, I want to support progressive candidates and there are lots of studies that show that people who aren't straight white men, produce more progressive policy, even if the candidates themselves are progressive. So African-American state legislatures are more likely to introduce measures that combat racial discrimination and the socio-economic and political status of black folks elevating that. So that seems obvious. But they also produce measures improving education, healthcare, social welfare and the economy. So if I support those polices, don't I have an obligation to elect the most qualified person, who evidence suggests isn't a straight white man.
Warner: You say that there are too many mediocre white men in office. I'm tempted to ask you to cite a few examples and yet they wouldn't be here to respond but you clearly see this as endemic, what in both parties, Kyle?
Huelsman: Yeah, absolutely. There's a great study out of American University, 2013. What the researcher did was took a group of equally qualified potential candidates. So similar age, similar background, similar professional experience and asked them, "Are you very qualified to run for office?" And unsurprisingly men in that study said 60% more likely that they were very qualified. And so what that tells us then is we're in a situation where men are over, overly confident in their abilities and their worth and that we're really in a situation where equally qualified great candidates, women of color, people of color, all over the place, are being crowded out by men's level of confidence in their ability.
Warner: We are talking to Jack Teter and Kyle Huelsman. They are Democratic activists from Denver and they're behind a new political action group that asks white men not to run for office in diverse districts. It is called the 'Can you Not PAC." And you are not targeting the entire state but specific regions. Is that right, Jack?
Teter: Yeah I think what we're really really looking at right now are super diverse urban districts. I think Aurora is a fascinating example. Aurora is a white minority, I think it's 40% white people, something like 130 different languages spoken in Aurora Public Schools. High community of black and brown folks, high community of immigrants and refugees and yet the mayor of Aurora has always been white, over and over again. And so do we think that in terms of representative government, in terms of elevating the voices of the community and representing them, that makes sense at all? And I don't think it does. So we're looking right now at urban districts. I think it would be fascinating to look at districts in sort of far-flung rural corners of the state or even of the country that have high proportions of low-income Latino folks during lots of work for example, who are consistently represented by white folks in government over and over again. But we haven't looked at that in Colorado.
Warner: So is this about encouraging white men to look inside themselves and dissuade themselves from running or do you think that you target them, and say "Get out of the race dude."
Huelsman: Well we're pushing back against the notion that looking like a Ken doll makes you uniquely qualified to run for office.
Warner: Right. But is it that you want to push the Ken doll out actively or that you hope the Ken doll sees this himself?
Huelsman: We hope to sit down with the Ken doll, look him in the face and say "Can you not run for office as a potential option?"
Warner: So have you had that conversation with a candidate yet?
Huelsman: Not with a candidate. We've been really focusing right now on a little bit of the younger folks, the folks who have a trajectory towards politics.
Warner: And how have they reacted?
Huelsman: They've reacted generally negative, negatively. Which we think is a positive first step of addressing privilege and really getting into those conversations. But saying hey, maybe in the long term you can use those talents and those abilities and everything that you have to support and raise up the voices of people who are marginalized.
Warner: Right. We reached out to what would seem to be a natural allies of Can you Not. This is Halisi Vinson, who runs Colorado Black Women for Political Action. She's also a chair of Diversity and Outreach for the Democratic Party of Denver. Here is what she has to say about this strategy.
Halisi Vinson: I cannot disagree that it would be nice to have more women and more people of color in office. However, I always take the approach that we should be pro-something as opposed to anti-something. And it appears that they are taking the negative approach and that's never a way to create a movement.
Warner: We should note that's her personal opinion, not speaking for the Party there. What do you think, Jack?
Teter: Yeah I think that's super interesting. And Halisi is great and I love the work that she does with candidates. I think this is not about us telling, so there are great groups that recruit and support women and people of color. There's no group by white men for white men, asking white men to really look inside of themselves and figure out why they think they're so uniquely qualified. I don’t think that's negative messaging. I think it's going to be positive for the Democratic Party, I really hope. And I think that it's about having these tough conversations about privilege and about representation in government and figuring out why men are so over-represented. And I don’t want to put the burden of that conversation on black and brown folks and women and LGBT folks. I mean speaking as a trans person, it is exhausting to explain to people over and over again why this is problematic, how I'm affected by these laws, what's going on. And so I think it'd be really great if privileged folks take that upon themselves and have those conversations among themselves and call each other out. Or call each other in. I think that Kyle and I reaching out to white folks that we've worked with, white men who work in politics initially people are like oh, this is so dumb but I want to run for office. And then we talk about these studies that show that it actually leads to better progressive policy and if that is our mission, is it not our obligation to figure out the best way to do it, which in some ways might mean not running for office.
Warner: This is a political action committee. How much money do you have, Kyle?
Huelsman: We just started raising money. We officially launched the PAC as of last week, which is an exciting feat for us that we're up and on the ground.
Warner: And how much money?
Huelsman: We're raising money and I think we have as of last night starting out, a whole $120.
Teter: It's true. It's from six people.
Warner: From six people. Which naturally leads to the question, is this a meme or is this a true political movement?
Huelsman: This is a true political movement. I think that we are in a place of starting from humor and really getting people to understand where we 're coming from, from laughing about this but in a very serious way we're going to raise real money. We're putting together an advisory board right now who's going to make endorsements for us and we're going to put real money into both the primaries and the generals in this year's elections.
Warner: I will say, a lot of this election cycle is sort of not cast in cement exactly but a lot of ballots are already set after the state party conventions.
Teter: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think that with the timing of this year, this is not about telling someone to drop out half way through the race. These are more conversations about how we can get people involved or not involved before any of that even happens. And I will say too, that this started from a position of humor and it was after people reached out to us, especially lots of straight white men who we work with in politics who are disproportionaltely represented in the people who are managing political campaigns for example, who said "this is hilarious. Can I give you money? The whole reason I do this work is to elevate the voices of people that aren't like me." So it started out as a joke and then people started offering us money and I think it became a more serious thing. And I think also talking to groups like Emerge Colorado, we had a beer with Jenny Willford last night who's their executive director who said this is hilarious and great. And I think that we decided that it had to be a serious thing.
Warner: Thanks for being with us.
Huelsman: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.
Warner: Jack Teter and Kyle Huelsman. They're Democratic activists in Denver and they're behind the new "Can you NOT PAC" which asks white men not to run for office in some Colorado districts. And we'd like to know what you think of this approach. You can email us, News@cprnews.org. or tweet at Colorado Matters. This is CPR News.