Betsy Crone

“I was Fortunate to Have Opportunities”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, October 2020

BC:  My name is Betsy Margaret Crone. I was born in 1945, a week after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. The story (or legend) is that I was born a month early because my mother was so upset about Roosevelt’s death. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland.

JW:  Tell me briefly what your life was like as a child and before you knew about the women’s movement?

BC: I grew up in Baltimore. I was always interested in history and politics. We came to Washington a lot when I was a kid. We would go to the National Archives, the Smithsonian and all the other museums. My parents weren’t particularly involved in politics. Our Congressman lived a block away and I knew him, but not personally. As a kid on the block, he probably knew who I was and knew my parents.

I had a good friend whose father was a pretty low-level person in the political machine. I remember once going to a board political meeting.  I spoke up and I was told never to come back again because I guess I wasn’t supposed to speak up. Politics was always what I was going to do. I was going to move to Washington. I was going to do something political, that was always in the back of my head.

JW:  And what was your ethnic background?

BC:  My family was Jewish and I grew up in a Jewish community but went to public school. We weren’t particularly religious but went to services on the High Holidays. I was confirmed. I went to Sunday school, although reluctantly. I did all the things that one was required to do. Our Rabbi was a progressive leader who was involved in interfaith activities and a strong civil rights supporter.

JW:  And when did you learn about the women’s movement?

BC:   I got involved in politics first. My parents weren’t donors; they weren’t particularly involved at all. At one point, my father said to me that I could no longer go to summer camp and be a camp counselor, which I had done for many years. My plans changed and I was free for the summer. Thus, I became a campaign volunteer in 1964 after my freshman year of college.

John Kennedy was president while I was in high school. I think that’s really important because I paid a lot of attention to politics and what was going on. In these times, I wonder if kids pay attention to politics and what kind of role model they have. This is pretty disturbing to me. But I paid attention. I followed politics. I greatly enjoyed my social studies and current events classes in high school. 

In 1964, there was a whole slew of young men who had been in the Kennedy administration at different jobs. Once President Kennedy was assassinated, they sought elective office. Joseph Tydings was one of these men; he had been United States Attorney for Maryland and resigned to run for the U.S. Senate.

I volunteered in his campaign. I was there every day and I just thought, that’s what you’re supposed to do. I didn’t know that was unusual. My father drove me downtown at nine o’clock in the morning and I went home with him at five o’clock at night. 

As my reward for coming every day, I went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. Jo-Ann Orlinsky who was in charge of the volunteer interns was very supportive. She’s a feminist. She’s gone on to work in Maryland state government and for non-profit organizations. Going to the Convention was the most exciting thing I’d ever done – it certainly “hooked” me on politics.

The 1964 convention was meaningful, at least to me, for two things. One, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (an integrated delegation of Blacks and Whites) was not seated at the Convention. They were outside on the boardwalk protesting. This was my introduction to the civil rights movement. I was called a “Johnson girl” (named for President Lyndon Johnson) and we got these little red, white and blue uniforms. We sat in the absolute worst seats as far away as you can be from anything. One of the high points of the Convention that’s often mentioned is when Bobby Kennedy introduced a film about President Kennedy. People stood and clapped and cried for over half an hour. I’ll never forget that. I’m 19 years old and it was an incredible, memorable moment. 

Joseph Tydings was elected in November and the next year I got to work in his U.S. Senate office in the summer after my sophomore year in college. I always used to joke that I was the only intern in the office whose father wasn’t a major donor to the campaign. I didn’t know the system, but I’d been a loyal worker and I got invited to be an intern. That was thrilling.

There were lots of things going on in the Senate in 1965. These were the civil rights bills, one man, one vote, Baker v. Carr. Consequential legislation was happening. A big freshman class of Democrats in the Senate was elected in 1964 including Bobby Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Fred Harris. There was a whole spirit, freshness about it.

JW:  What about the women’s part?

BC:  The women’s part came later. I had women mentors who were my bosses in different jobs, and they were very encouraging of me. I went to the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, for a graduate school program focused on campaigns and politics. It was a much more about practical politics.

Then after I graduated I worked for Matt Reese, who was the founder of the professional political consulting business. He was also very much tied to the Kennedys. 

I became a fund-raiser for Matt Reese & Associates completely by accident.  Because I’d gone to graduate school and had studied statistics, I knew how to deal with numbers and how to measure results. The office needed somebody to raise money for campaigns. My skills were helpful and I became the office fund-raiser for our clients. 

Matt was nothing but a good businessman. He wanted to work for some women candidates, but they couldn’t afford to hire him because they did not have any money. I happened to know a couple of the women from graduate school and other activities. We were hired by a couple of women candidates and assisted with their campaign fund-raising.   

Through those women’s campaigns I met some of the women who were involved in the National Women’s Political Caucus. That’s a long version of how I got to where I was. I’d like to think it was planned and plotted and I had deep feelings as a young child, but that’s not true. It was just a series of circumstances. I was fortunate enough to have a skill that other people didn’t have. I was a fund-raiser. I knew how to raise money. 

This was before fund-raising became a profession, really. I had a unique skill and I was a fund-raiser because I had learned the techniques. I wasn’t a fund-raiser who had wealthy friends that I went to and raised money from. That’s what I call a “peer” group fund-raiser. They’re the bundlers for the presidential campaigns and serve on finance committees. I was a “technical” fund-raiser. I knew the strategy, the techniques (direct mail, special events, personal solicitations, etc.) and how to measure results. I knew how to count it. It came in extremely useful. 

I worked for the NWPC as a consultant. I never worked as a staff person for any of my clients. I was a little ahead of the times in the gig economy. I worked as a consultant for a variety of groups, but I never worked for anybody I didn’t know. There were always connections. Somebody would introduce me to somebody who would introduce me to somebody. I almost never worked for a complete, total stranger, which is how networking worked. Since I’d worked with the Caucus, I got to know people around the country. 

Then I worked on the Equal Rights Amendment for ERAmerica. I was always the fund-raiser. My skills and experience evolved over ten years into laying the groundwork for my involvement with EMILY’s List.

I’m proud to call myself a “founding mother” of EMILY’s List.

Many of the people who were the founders of EMILY’s List were connected in some way to the National Women’s Political Caucus. That positioned us well to do something like EMILY’s List. There were things that we were frustrated with in terms of the way the Caucus worked and there were not many women in elected office. That was our problem. We had to figure out how to solve that problem. 

Women were running for office in low numbers at that point and the conventional wisdom was that women couldn’t raise money. The “good old boys” were not going to support women because they couldn’t raise the money. It became a vicious cycle. EMILY’s List, which was founded in 1985, was created to try to figure out how to solve that problem. .

My background and my interest have always been electoral politics so the Caucus fit in with that. Certainly, because it was a women’s organization, I had much more opportunity as a woman. Had I gone to other places; I wouldn’t have had such opportunities. 

I worked for the Democratic Study Group on Capitol Hill as a fund-raiser. I did projects on and off at the Democratic National Committee as a fund-raiser because of Matt Reese — he had the connections there. I didn’t go to the Caucus, in all honesty, because I had a driving mission growing up that I really wanted to advance women’s rights. I probably didn’t even know what women’s rights were growing up. I probably really wasn’t aware enough to realize that there weren’t any women in these places.  

When I worked on Capitol Hill for Senator Tydings, Jo-Ann Orlinsky was in charge of the interns and we were pretty well split between girls and boys, and we were girls and boys at that time. There is one story I always tell about how I realized being a woman put me at a disadvantage. I applied to graduate school at a prestigious program and got accepted with a fellowship. I was very excited. They told me that I would be the first woman in the program. I thought I was very sophisticated and smart, but I didn’t go because I thought that women didn’t like the program. How could I be the first woman? Only years later did I realize that they previously did not accept women students.

When I went to graduate school at Eagleton Institute of Politics, there were 10 students in our program, half men and half women. Eagleton’s founder Florence Eagleton was the head of the New Jersey League of Women Voters. It always had a women’s base because the initial seed money to get it started was from a woman. I think that make the program more sensitive to women. The Institute for many years was led by Ruth Mandel, who sadly just passed away. But when I was there, it was headed by a man, Don Hertzberg, who had been very much involved in Democratic politics. 

So, EMILY’s List again. I knew Ellen Malcolm from the Caucus. She is the founder of EMILY’s List; and had been the press secretary at the Caucus. I did research before EMILY’s List was created, for Ellen and for the Windom Fund, her private foundation, on what the statistics, analysis and problems of women getting elected. 

1984 was the first year we sort of created something, it wasn’t really EMILY’s List, it was kind of an informal “let’s do something”. A group of women wrote to their friends around the country asking them to give money to a candidate named Joan Growe, who was running for the US Senate in Minnesota. We didn’t raise very much money, between $5,000 – $10,000. We thought we were “whiz-bang” kids. But we lost. 

At that point, we realized that we needed to really do something more formal. We needed to get our “act together” and create a structure to see if we were really serious. Can we put together an organization? Can we help solve the problem of women not having money to run?  That was the big problem. Hence the founding of EMILY’s List to support pro-choice Democratic women candidates. 

Before 1986 a Democratic woman had never been elected to the Senate in her own right. There were a couple of women who had been preceded by their husbands as widowers, but no one had ever been elected in her own right. 

Both Harriett Woods and Barbara Mikulski were running for the Senate in 1986 and supported by EMILY’s List. I knew Barbara Mikulski and actually I worked on her campaign as a fund-raiser. At EMILY’s List we used to say, “Please let us win just one of these two races.” We have to win one. If we don’t win anything, we’re doomed, but we have to win one.

Harriett Woods had run for the Senate against Senator John Danforth in 1982. She lost. David Broder, who was a very prominent political columnist for The Washington Post, had written a very insightful article about how she lost because she ran out of money, in the last ten days forcing her to pull her television ads. So, we knew that money was the problem. 

Barbara Mikulski was involved in a Democratic primary against Congressman Michael Barnes and Governor Harry Hughes. She was completely the underdog. Nobody thought she would do anything. She was an ethnic, short, slightly stocky politician from Baltimore. She didn’t look like a Senator;  she was completely written off. EMILY’s List helped raise the seed money for her campaign. The March the Federal Election Commission report showed she had raised serious money, more than her opponents. People were shocked; the Maryland political establishment was dumbfounded. 

That was when we knew we were onto something. Our mission at that time was to elect a Democratic woman to the Senate. That’s what we’re all about, right?  Barbara Mikulski won and then the next election year, 1988, there were no women running for the Senate. We were flexible and decided to do House races.

Here’s how EMILY’s List was different from other political action committees.  PACs at that time could give $5,000 dollars to a campaign – for the primary election and for general election. EMILY’s List could write a $5,000 check but that really wasn’t going to fund a campaign. 

What EMILY’s List came up with is a process called bundling. People joined EMILY’s List for $100 membership and then they also pledged to give $100 to two candidates. We only had two in 1986, but members had just to give $100 to each candidate — not everyone did, but certainly most did, and some people gave more than $100. It was very purposeful; it was a real commitment. We didn’t make the threshold $25 because we wanted to be apart from some of the other groups. We really wanted to be single focused on what we were doing. 

Members basically made a $300 commitment. We had 300 or 400 members the first election cycle and some political action committees also gave us money — some labor unions and some other Democratic political candidates. What was different was that people made a contribution to EMILY’s List to become a member, but they also made contributions to the candidates directly. They made that contribution directly to Barbara Mikulski and Harriett Woods. They sent the checks back to EMILY’s List and we bundled them together and sent them to the campaigns. 

This enabled us to raise a lot more money for these candidates than the $5,000 PAC limit because EMILY’s List was not giving the money. It was individual donors who were contributing directly to the candidates. Today, that doesn’t sound revolutionary — but at that point, people didn’t give money to candidates who weren’t in their state. How would you even know about somebody that was running if they weren’t in your state? 

The women’s movement taught us that if there weren’t women running in your state – and there weren’t very many – then let’s look at women who were running around the country. It didn’t explode, EMILY’s List had a couple hundred members then. We went through the 1986 election cycle supporting Senate candidates and the 1988 election cycle supporting House candidates. 1990 included governors’ races. That was the year Ann Richards ran. We had the flexibility to focus on different kinds of races as they evolved. 

The explosion of EMILY’s List was “the year of the woman” in 1992. I always think that if we hadn’t had the three election cycles before that happened, we wouldn’t have really been positioned to be able to take advantage of events. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill confrontational hearing awoke America to the fact that there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. There were women in the House, but Barbara Mikulski was the only Democratic woman in the Senate and she was not on the Committee. It was shocking to watch the all-male Committee. There was really the explosion of interest for Democratic women candidates and that’s when Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray and Carol Moseley Braun entered the scene, winning races for the Senate.

60 Minutes did a piece on EMILY’s List. I always say it’s the most favorable piece that 60 Minutes has ever done on anything. They followed Ellen Malcolm all over the country talking to small gatherings and recruiting members for EMILY’s List. They did an incredibly thorough, favorable job of explaining what we did. The days after 60 Minutes aired, we went from about 3,000 members to 10,000 members virtually overnight. 

Remember: no internet, no widespread use of computers. We knew they were going to do a story and we had plan. We had letters positioned around the country that we were going to drop in the mail right after 60 Minutes if the show was favorable. Of course, we didn’t know in advance. I’ll never forget the next day, the Monday after 60 Minutes, the office phones were ringing off the hook. We had extra people to answer the phones. We got additional phone lines and – everything to try to deal with it all. At the end of the day, a telephone operator called the office and said, “I’ve been getting calls all day for people wanting to know the phone number of EMILY’s List. What is EMILY’s List? “That’s when we knew we had struck a chord.

JW:  We didn’t hit on what the criteria are for taking a woman as a candidate on EMILY’s List.

BC:  You have to be a pro-choice Democratic woman and have a viable campaign. The candidates must have some ability to raise money and something that told us it isn’t just a fruitless venture. Many of the founders of EMILY’s List came from the National Women’s Political Caucus where we spent a lot of time arguing about a lot of different issues. Issues aren’t an issue with EMILY’s List. Its about electability and being a pro-choice, Democratic woman. 

Here’s another classic story. We had a candidate questionnaire written by several women who were very well-established policy experts. It was very serious and detailed on a wide range of issues and sought candidate’s positions. Ellen looked at the questionnaire and said it’s not a test; the goal is not to flunk; there are not supposed to be hard questions. We want information about the candidates so we can send that to our members. But it’s not a screening test. It’s not a criteria. You don’t have to pass this test. 

EMILY’s List did not get involved in issues except for pro-choice and that is the bedrock of who we were. EMILY’s List is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast”. The second half of that is: it makes the dough rise. The colors of EMILY’s List are red and yellow and, for people who bake, those were the colors of the Fleischmann’s yeast package.

JW:  What kind of things did you look at to see if a candidate was viable?

BC:  Mostly, if she had any ability to raise money. We talked to the political players, but they were mostly men. We didn’t go to the regular establishment Democratic political players because they were too dismissive. We went primarily to women political people in the state to find viable women candidates.  The candidates would come in for interviews and we’d meet with them. It wasn’t a hard question like how do you feel on these issues? It was really much more a sense of how are you as a communicator? 

In additionEMILY’s List obviously started out raising money for candidates, but certainly early on we knew that we had to do more than raise money. We needed to work with the candidates to make sure that they had successful campaigns. To think of EMILY’s List just as a fund-raising mechanism is really not accurate, because it really is a full service campaign consulting organization. We help candidates with everything.

As EMILY’s List has evolved over the 35 years, the involvement in campaigns has expanded. The campaign laws have changed greatly. We train candidates; we work with them on how to talk about issues and how to raise money themselves. We train fund-raisers; we train press people; we train issue people. There’s an enormous amount of training of staff so that people would learn how to do these tasks. Again, a lot of this we had learned at the Caucus. We had some level of experience.

JW:  How large is EMILY’s List now?

BC:  When EMILY’s List was started in 1985, there were 12 Democratic women in the House and none in the Senate. Today (2020), there are 101 Democratic women in the House and 17 in the Senate. It has just exploded; it has grown cycle by cycle and has gotten much more involved in Women Vote! which is a big part of EMILY’s List. Also, we focused on lower level races, races up and down the ticket — any statewide race, legislative races, mayoral races. It’s really across the board and there’s an enormous amount of training that goes on. 

Campaigns are much more expensive than they were, and the level of professionalism is vastly different. EMILY’s List has been well positioned to be able to grow and explode and take advantage of all these opportunities. There are now, I think, 5,000,000 members of EMILY’s List. The staff is probably maybe 100 or more. There are regional offices across the country. The skills of the people who have led Emily’s List over the years is the flexibility to go with the opportunities.

EMILY’s List has become a very attractive place to work. It’s become a terrific training ground for women and men, but primarily women, to go off and run other candidate campaigns. If you look at the women who are running the Biden campaign, many of them were staffers at EMILY’s List. If you look at the DNC, DSCC and DCCC, all the Democratic Party organizations, many of the women on the staff, and some of the men, “cut their teeth” initially at EMILY’s List. Also it’s become fabulous for networking.  We’ve stretched our tentacles all through the political system, which is really amazing.

When I look back on those early days, I always say we’re smart but we’re not geniuses. How come nobody else thought about this? Nobody else figured this out. Now it’s not so unusual what EMILY’s List does, but at the time it was very unusual. We were at the right time, at the right place. We had people that had some level of experience. We were young, willing and flexible to try things.

JW:  And we need those pro-choice Democratic women wherever we can put them.

BC:  I worked for EMILY’s List as a consultant for about 20 years, and I’m now involved as a volunteer, but not involved as a consultant anymore. I’ve gone on to work for many other organizations including the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, which is now the National Partnership for Women and Families, ERAmerica and other women’s organizations. I worked for the National Women’s Education Fund, which was a big training program in the early 1980s. 

I’ve worked for many Democratic women candidates and probably every Democratic entity in Washington. My clients have included many progressive organizations – from labor unions to environmental groups, for public policy, equal justice and pro bono legal service organizations. I’ve been very fortunate to take the opportunities and the skills that I developed at EMILY’s List and have been able to expand that to a whole wide range of other things. For probably 30 years I worked for the District of Columbia Bar Pro Bono Center that raises the money for the pro bono activities of the DC Bar, which is the second largest bar association in the country. I’ve done a lot of other things that are all spin offs of connections that I’ve made over the years.

JW:  So, what would you say to the women’s movement then for your life?

BC:  It gave me enormous opportunities. I’ve been able to work with wonderful people and to work on issues that I cared about. I may not have gone in having a deep sense of the issues, but obviously I cared about them. My issue involvement has expanded because of that. I think it is what really shaped my life. Something that kind of gets lost in all of this is as I was growing up in the 1960s and entering the workforce in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there weren’t a lot of role models for us. 

People often say to me, why didn’t you go to law school? Women didn’t go to law school. I didn’t know any women who went to law school. My father actually had gone to law school and never became an attorney so that was clearly not something I was ever going to do.

There were no role models of what professional women were doing. I had a distant relative, Esther Lazarus, and she was the only professional woman I knew. She was head of the Department of Social Services in Baltimore. I would go to family gatherings and talk to her. I found her very interesting and fascinating. I’ve described this brother, who’s a couple of years older than I am. He doesn’t really remember her at all. How could this be since she made such an impression on me?   

You just don’t ever know what influences people have on you. I didn’t go to graduate school right after Chatham College (now Chatham University). I didn’t think I was smart enough. At my first job, my boss, Dr. Jean Spencer, was a professor at the University of Maryland. Two of the women that I worked with were PhD candidates. I didn’t know anybody like that before. Jean Spencer, said, “Go to graduate school, you have to go to graduate school.” Really?  Once I got my first job I did have some role models.

It’s hard to envision a career if you don’t see people who are doing such things. You just don’t know the impact other people will have on you. My mother didn’t work outside of the household until much later in life. I didn’t really know working women.

I always considered myself a behind the scenes person. I’m not a person that’s up front. I’m never going to run for office. That’s not anything I ever wanted to do. With my personality and my sense of who I am, I’m much more comfortable being a behind the scenes person and empowering other people.

JW:   And you apparently did quite a lot of that for that.

BC:   I was fortunate to have opportunities and to have a skill. I knew how to fund-raise, which I learned completely by accident at first and then developed by experience. Certainly fund-raising became a very useful skill.

JW:  At the time, and NOW!