On a rainy, blustery Friday afternoon in Asbury Park, New Jersey, chatter fills the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall as Monmouth County Democrats find their seats. A few blocks away, Mariel DiDato parks her Subaru SUV and touches up her lipstick in the mirror before making a run for it. The first-time Democratic candidate running for New Jersey Assembly Legislative District 13 isn't going to let the weather get in the way of meeting voters.
DiDato, 25, planned to arrive early for the rally, headlined by newly-elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, but a last-minute change to accommodate a larger-than-expected crowd set her back a few minutes. By the time she gets inside the buzzing hall, a halo of frizz frames her long, dark curls and her white blazer is spotted with rain.
“Made it!” she shouts. Standing around 5’2” in modestly heeled pumps, DiDato greets the new but familiar faces with a “Nice to see you!” as she shuffles along a packed row toward her seat.
“You look great, damp hair notwithstanding,” she's told.
“It’s gonna get frizzy and curly regardless. I might as well embrace it,” DiDato says with a laugh.
DiDato is hoping her candid, passionate approach to issues and her background in political activism will help get her elected. Running for the first time, she’s part of a growing group of women feeling an urgency since November’s election to ditch the political sidelines.
While it’s still early to gauge whether more women will ultimately run for office, there has been a definitive uptick in interest, according to Debbie Walsh, the director of the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. In the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency, more than 11,000 women reached out to EMILY's List, a nonprofit that helps get pro-choice Democratic women elected to office. That’s compared to 900 who expressed interest in running in all of 2016. And unlike previous years, registration for this year’s Ready to Run campaign training in New Jersey had to be capped at 250 and moved to a larger venue to accommodate the crowd. “We were turning people away,” Walsh says.
“We had some concern that women would be so discouraged both by the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the tenor and tone of the campaign itself, the way gender played out in that race,” Walsh says. “We thought we might have women crawling into bed, pulling the covers over their heads and not wanting to participate for a while. But really, what we saw was the opposite.”
The proportion of women holding office at various levels currently hovers at around 20 percent, despite women comprising slightly more than half the population. But whether through showing up at town hall meetings, signing up for campaign training, supporting someone else’s bid to unseat an incumbent, or running themselves, Walsh says, women are taking steps to turn the volume up on their political voices.
DiDato didn’t always know she wanted to enter into politics — especially not this soon. However, by the time she graduated Rutgers in 2015 with a degree in nutritional sciences, she had decided science and medicine wasn’t for her.
Instead, she started volunteering as a crisis response advocate at Rutgers’ Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance. DiDato became a clinic escort for women’s clinics, and eventually a lead volunteer for Planned Parenthood, helping to lobby, write letters to senators, and organize volunteers.
Didato recalls a moment last year, when she was lobbying to restore state funding to family planning at the state senate budget hearing in Newark, that she realized she had more work to do. While some senators engaged with constituents, DiDato says others were “talking amongst themselves, laughing."
Witnessing that hit her hard. "In my opinion, that's the one time of the year when you get to hear from multiple people at once about their concerns, and to not even pretend that you're listening to them was really insulting," DiDato says.
After that incident, DiDato took up political and advocacy writing, penning a column on women’s issues for Huffington Post. She also led the charge to reactivate the National Organization for Women’s Monmouth County chapter. But by far the most pivotal moment came in November, when Donald Trump defied media pundits and pollsters to defeat Clinton.
“As someone who's put my whole heart and soul and time and effort and energy into these efforts, then being faced with the possibility that everything you've worked for could be undone with the stroke of a pen, there was just a lot at stake," DiDato says.
In just over 100 days in office, Trump has posed a threat to some of the causes and groups closest to DiDato's heart.
In January, he reintstated the Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Order, an executive order banning federal funding for international health organizations that include abortions in their family planning services or even offer information on the procedure. Two months later, another executive order of his revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, aimed at ensuring federal contractors comply with labor and civil rights laws.
DiDato says her desire to run has, in part, been fueled by her anger with the administration. Her friends know her as one who posts lengthy political rants on Facebook, and she fills her Twitter feed with various injustices she encounters, each labelled with the hashtag #RAGE.
“I consider myself to be a very passionate but angry person,” she says. “I think politics is one of the areas in which that's a good thing.”
Politically and financially, winning a seat in November would be big for DiDato, who’s beginning a part-time graduate program this fall. However, the odds aren’t exactly stacked in her favor. District 13 in New Jersey is historically red, and running against an incumbent makes the challenge that much harder.
Still, with the backing of key Monmouth County Democratic Party members, DiDato’s prospective political career seems bright. According to a study from American University’s School of Public Affairs, women are equally as likely to run for office as men if they’re recruited for the job. And considering 12 of the last 20 presidents launched their political careers before they were 35, DiDato’s youth is also a long-run advantage.
“It's been kind of a whirlwind, but it's a really exciting whirlwind,” she says.
After working to make change as a constituent, she’s ready for the opportunity to create change from inside the government. Overall, DiDato says, “I want to show people that the closer you get to politics, the more impact that you have in the policy around you.”