Carly Johnson has been busy. In addition to starting law school in September, she spent the months leading up to the 2018 midterm election working as Deputy Finance Director on a congressional campaign, serving as Campaign Manager for a Minnesota House candidate in a competitive district, and running for city council herself. All three of those campaigns were for pro-choice women candidates and all three were successful.
Now, as the youngest member in the history of the Oak Park Heights City Council — and the only woman currently on the Council — she reflects on her experience as a participant in Women Winning’s Political Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) Internship Training Program, the mentorship of Congresswoman Betty McCollum, and the supportive community she’s found among other women elected officials.
Women Winning: In 2016, you participated in Women Winning’s Political Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) Internship Training Program and then worked as an intern on Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s campaign. How did PLOT prepare you for that experience?
Councilwoman Carly Johnson: I’ve been involved politically since I was in middle school. Coming out of an internship in Congresswoman McCollum’s official office in 2014, I was interested in gaining campaign experience, which drew me to Women Winning’s PLOT program. I wanted to work with a candidate who was focused on the environment and women’s rights, so when I was connected with Congresswoman McCollum’s campaign, it was a perfect match.
The resources Women Winning gave me at the first PLOT training were so helpful. I learned how to set up a good campaign timeline — what you should be doing and when. I learned how to use voter databases. We trained on how to raise money — at the city council level, you have to think about “how are you going to fund your lawn signs? How do you call through your network and ask friends and acquaintances for their support?” I also learned how to write a script for door knocking and phone banking.
We learned the nuts and bolts of working on a campaign and running for office, which really set me up well. I started as an intern through the PLOT program and the campaign kept me on in their finance department. I was promoted to Finance Assistant and then all the way up to Deputy Finance Director by the end.
WW: What has it been like for you to work with a trailblazer like Congresswoman McCollum?
Councilwoman Johnson: I would not be where I am today without Congresswoman McCollum and her guidance. Watching her go from being the second woman ever elected to Congress from Minnesota, to the Chair of an Appropriations Committee…and now being one of three women from Minnesota in the House of Representatives…it’s incredible. Seeing how she can work a room and make sure that everyone knows that their voice is important — that’s something that I’ve taken with me on every campaign I’ve worked on and as a member of the City Council. I also admire her bravery. It’s powerful to see women being brave — it inspires other women to own their own power.
WW: In addition to working on Congresswoman McCollum’s campaign and running for office yourself, you also managed the campaign of another Women Winning endorsed candidate — Shelly Christensen who ran for Minnesota House of Representatives and flipped a seat from an anti-choice incumbent. You’ve had a very successful — and busy — year!
Councilwoman Johnson: Yes, it was a busy year! I couldn’t have managed Shelly’s campaign or run myself without the PLOT training and the experience I had with Congresswoman McCollum’s campaign. I have amazing mentors and I had great foundational training with Women Winning.
WW: What did it mean to you to have Women Winning’s endorsement for your City Council campaign?
Councilwoman Johnson: Having Women Winning’s endorsement, I felt there was a sense of legitimacy. I wasn’t just someone that was putting their name on the ballot. There was actually support and I wasn’t alone. When you start a campaign, especially at the local level, when it’s small, it’s really easy to think that no one cares. To have Women Winning acknowledge that my race was important gave me confidence. It was really helpful to know that someone believed in me and thought that I could do it.
WW: In addition to being the youngest member of the Oak Park Heights City Council, you are the only woman on the council. What has that experience been like?
Councilwoman Johnson: Our mayor, Mayor Mary McComber, had been on the City Council for about 20 years, and for the longest time, she was the only woman on the Council. The way men responded to her was different. Now, having me and Mayor McComber, there’s a new energy and a new perspective in our city government. We are both very motivated. And yes, being the youngest member of the council and the only councilwoman, there are expectations. This is a serious responsibility and all perspectives are worthwhile in policymaking. My seat on the council, like every elected seat, must be put to good use.
WW: What advice would you give to a young woman who’s thinking about getting involved in politics or running for office?
Councilwoman Johnson: In short, “do it”. Reach out to other women. No matter what, no matter which party, women are excited to see other women getting involved. I know County Commissioners who are excited to see women Councilmembers, and it’s such a supportive community among women elected leaders — because there are so few of us. So reach out, get involved. Talk to your representatives to see what it’s really like. And fight for the issues you care about, because you’re the only one who can truly represent your perspective.