Time’s Up. She Is Back!

| Ally Cummings

Erica Vladimer is no stranger to the world of politics. She was on a career path within the government arena before she made the decision to leave. Why?  She accused a senator of forcibly kissed her one night in Albany while she was working for the Independent Democratic Conference. Following her departure, Vladimer became a part of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which found success in pushing state lawmakers to confront the state Capitol’s culture of harassment. But once a “government geek” always a government geek and Erica is back in the political game, pledging a run for New York State Congress.

In this interview, Erica Vladimer tells her inspiring journey that led her towards a run for office. From her years as an attorney to her ability to find her voice to speak out against sexual harassment, Erica is here to tell everyone that we have a voice worth hearing, we just need to speak up.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a 32-year-old advocate and attorney, born in New York City and raised in New Jersey along with my twin sister. My parents were born and raised in the Bronx, and are two of my closest friends– I know a lot of people say that, but I really do mean it. I also have a 14-month-old niece who is truly the light of my life and has given new meaning to all of my work as an advocate, survivor, and now congressional candidate.

I love iced-coffee (even in the winter), true crime (shout out to all SSR Murderinos!), and really baggy sweatpants. I’m a firm believer in self-care, although practicing it doesn’t come naturally (I know I’m not alone in that). I’m also extremely passionate– there is no such thing as half-assed for me; when I choose to do something, I throw my entire self into it.

The Incubator program helped me turn some of the initial gut feelings into more of a logical process, something that I really needed to take that first step of officially saying yes to running.

Tell me about your educational and professional background.

After graduating from the University of Connecticut and joining AmeriCorp’s Public Allies program, I realized how valuable a legal education would be. As a Public Ally working in Hartford public high schools, it was clear how little our laws and policies did to lift up our students. I wanted to find a way to dismantle a broken system, not work within it. 

Prior to declaring my candidacy, I worked as an education policy analyst for New York City’s Independent Budget Office for three years, evaluating federal and state policies that affect the lives of students and their families. Before that, I worked as counsel in the New York State Senate, partnering with advocates to develop comprehensive education policies, drafting legislation, and representing theirs and the Senators’ interest at the budget negotiation tables. 

Honestly, I thought I’d stay in state government forever. But I resigned in 2015 after a Senator I worked for forced himself on me; it would take almost three years, and the reigniting of Tarana Burke’s “Me, Too” movement before I decided to speak out about my experience and the systemic culture of harassment that allowed it to happen. In the months that followed, I co-founded the Sexual Harassment Working Group (SHWG) along with six other former state legislative staffers who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or retaliation at the hands of elected and appointed officials. We connected with experts, advocates, and other victims to learn more about the gaping holes that exist in New York employee protections.

Using this knowledge and our own experiences, the SHWG released a set of policy recommendations in June 2018, and successfully advocated for the first New York State hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace in 27 years. In August 2019, Governor Cuomo signed the Harassment-Free New York agenda, a package of reforms championed by the SHWG and other advocates that have long fought for stronger workplace protections.

When was the first time you thought about getting involved with politics, even if you later brushed it off?

I realized while working for the NYS Senate that there really is no governing without politics. Elected officials–politicians– are the ones who set the tone and the precedent for how the government institution will govern. I found myself wanting to get more involved in the politics of government so that I could help support (or even one day become) the elected officials who were seeking to create a system that really worked for the people, not to garner as much power as possible. But that desire was quickly taken from me when I was assaulted; I didn’t just brush off the idea of getting involved in politics, I walked away from it, and firmly shut the door.

We cannot expect to achieve societal equity if we are not equitably represented. It is the least we deserve.

Has anyone ever made you feel like you CAN’T be a leader? If so, how did that make you feel?

The Sexual Harassment Working Group was told numerous times that we were getting in the way of elected officials and their work. When we announced our demand for public hearings on sexual harassment, we were told it would never happen, certainly not within a year or two. It would’ve been easy during this time to let powerful, institutional gatekeepers tell us how to advocate: we all had full-time jobs on top of our SHWG efforts, and it was emotional and triggering work. At many points, I tried to adjust my idea of what “success” would look like. I cried a lot during those 18 months; at first, I tried to “keep it together,” and hold back the tears. But I quickly realized how toxic it was to pretend I was okay because I wasn’t. So I cried- sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. But it was the best way for me to emote, and I needed that outlet. 

I’m not sure I would be able to deal with my feelings throughout my campaign thus far if it weren’t for my time as an SHWG member. When I talked with a few people about my run for Congress before announcing- even some electeds- I was made to feel like I couldn’t be a leader in that way. My feelings then, and even now, continue to oscillate between being even more determined to prove them wrong and the dreaded imposter syndrome: do they know something I don’t? Was I wrong to think I could be an elected official? I still battle that imposter syndrome on a daily basis; sometimes I shove it to the back of my head, other times I allow myself to feel it. But then I check in with myself and remember why I decided to run in the first place. I’m a very heady person, but deciding to run for Congress was more than just a logical decision. It was a mental and emotional one, one that I felt in my gut and in my bones. That feeling always overpowers being made to feel like I can’t be a leader, so I hold onto it fiercely every day.

What drove you to participate in the She Should Run Incubator/cohort program?

The Incubator program helped me turn some of the initial gut feelings into more of a logical process, something that I really needed to take that first step of officially saying yes to running. It was a space to turn my thoughts, feelings, and emotions into something tangible that I could work from, and to share with others who were going through the same thing. It was so validating to hear other Incubator participants express so many of the same things I was thinking and feeling.

Why do you think it’s important for women to step up and get involved in different areas of politics?

Women make up a little more than 50% of the U.S. population, and this does not include transgender women and gender non-conforming people. Yet we only have 23% representation in the House of Representatives, and only 25 women currently sit in the U.S. Senate. Only 28.7% of US state legislators are currently women. I’ve seen first hand — we’ve all seen first hand especially recently — how cis-gendered men legislate on our behalf with only their self-interest in mind. We cannot expect to achieve societal equity if we are not equitably represented. It is the least we deserve.

We know you stepped away from the political world for a little bit. What inspired you to return?

I returned to the government before I returned to politics. After the former senator assaulted me, I left government work altogether and accepted a position with my law school as director of alumni and donor relations. I was excited to be back in a place I loved, supporting an institution that supported me for three years. But I found myself missing government service, especially education policy work, which is why I accepted a position with the New York City Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan fiscal monitoring agency- very nonpolitical. It wasn’t until I knew I needed to break my silence about being assaulted that I decided to return to politics. Telling my story was the first step in finding a way to help create systemic change, but it also meant taking on a powerful(ly corrupt) institution and the politicians that put the integrity of the institution before the dignity of their staff. The small chance that I could help other survivors find their voice, or protect other workers from becoming victims, inspired my return.

We know it’s common for women to face stereotypes and sexism in the political field. What’s your advice to women to persevere past this barrier they might face?

Don’t persevere past the barrier- break the barrier. Address its very existence whenever you can. I don’t mean that we should scream it from the rooftops each and every time. Sometimes it means having a conversation with the person perpetrating the stereotypes and sexism; other times it means checking in with someone else who experienced harassment or discrimination. It can also mean talking to your friends, your therapist, a mentor, etc. about your experiences and finding ways to address it that you’re most comfortable with. It’s so important to remember that you are not alone, and breaking the barrier does not fall only on your shoulders. By sharing your experiences with others, you are taking the first step in finding a collective solution.

Supporting candidates who embody similar values and beliefs is another way to get involved. By volunteering for their campaign, you have the chance to help educate other voters on gender inequality and the proposed solutions. 

Who is a woman leader that you look up to?

I don’t think there’s one woman I look up to. I have been inspired by, and in awe of so many women, each one who’s been leading in their own way. To name a few: Stacey Abrams, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama, Anita Hill, Tarana Burke, and Christine Blasey-Ford.

What unique perspective do you think you can bring to our government?

I have a unique combination of experiences that I can bring to our government. I spent my career working as a public servant in government, so I know first hand that most people would be horrified at how the sausage is made. I also advocated from the outside, so I know how important it is to have elected officials we can trust to carry our message and efforts into the negotiating room, while also making space at the table for those who’ve been systematically marginalized.

What advice would you give to someone who isn’t sure if they want to run for office but wants to be involved in solving gender inequality?

Research local groups or local chapters of organizations that seek to address gender inequality. There may not be an organization that’s solely dedicated to gender inequality, but they might have a working group or policy committee you can join. 

Supporting candidates who embody similar values and beliefs is another way to get involved. By volunteering for their campaign, you have the chance to help educate other voters on gender inequality and the proposed solutions. 

Most importantly, stay educated. One of the greatest aspects of my advocacy work is the amount I’ve learned from other advocates and experts: gender inequality is a cross-sectional issue that cannot be addressed in a silo.

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