Conversations with the CTGCA Team: Sr. Political Consultant Rose Kapolczynski
CTGCA Sr. Political Consultant Rose Kapolczynski tells us about her early introduction to organizing and activism, why after 40 years in politics she’s still an optimist, and more.
This interview has been edited for brevity. We interviewed members from our team to learn about their roots in the gender equality movement. To learn more about our Interview Series and read other pieces like this, please click here.
When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn’t have a specific profession in mind. When I got into high school, my parents urged me to consider being a doctor because I loved biology.
At that time — I was growing up in the 60s and 70s — there was an expectation that women were going to be in support roles in the American economy. You were a nurse rather than a doctor. You were a secretary instead of an executive. As a teenager, you would look at the Help Wanted ads and there were jobs listed for women and jobs listed for men. Society funneled women into certain roles.
I grew up in a working-class household, so in college, I did a little bit of everything to make ends meet. I was a keypunch operator for a professor who did bird counts, and the predecessor to computer data entry. I worked at a motel one summer as a maid.
Were your dreams at all modified because of limited opportunities for your gender, race, abilities, sexuality, religion, etc.?
It was very normal to be one of very few women in the room in the first decade or two of my career. I started my career as an environmental organizer and lobbyist working for small organizations, and later for the Sierra Club in one of their regional offices. And when there would be a strategy session, there might be one or two women in a group of 10. I remember when I interviewed for my job at the Sierra Club in 1979, of about 20 people I spoke to, there was only one woman.
I was often the only woman at the table. And now there are many, many more women involved in advocacy and political campaigns, but it’s still a male-dominated field. There are organizations that are largely staffed by women like Close the Gap, but overall, the field is still very male. And it’s just a fact that when you are the only woman or the only person of color at a table, you’re looked at differently and it’s hard to even get a seat at that table.
When there are so few women, it discourages women from trying to change things by joining. We see the same thing in the State Legislature, which is why the work Close the Gap does is so important. The other thing is that relationships and connections are so important in hiring in any field. So if you’re a woman trying to break in, you need people to take a chance, and go outside their comfort zone. I was lucky to have enlightened men who gave me that chance early on, and who looked at my skills and my accomplishments, rather than my gender.
What drew you to political work? What inspired you to continue?
I caught the bug early on, and never ever lost it. When I was growing up, it was a tumultuous time in America. The civil rights movement was central and Earth Day happened when I was in high school in 1970. The women’s movement was in full force, and then assassinations of political leaders Martin Luther King, and John and Robert Kennedy, along with unrest in cities around the country. So it was a time of activism, but it was also a time of deep concern for the country.
I was very interested in biology in high school, and had a wonderful young biology teacher, Ned Gatzke, who, in the wake of Earth Day, suggested we start an ecology club. The great thing about Ned was that he understood that in order to protect the environment, you needed to be active, so he slowly educated us on how government policies were made. I remember going to my first county council meeting with him where they were talking about recycling. In our school, we heard that the soda machines were changing from returnable bottles, which were very common and obviously better for the environment, to aluminum cans, which were not that recyclable at that time. So we started a petition and ended up winning, and they kept the returnable bottles. It’s a tiny little thing, but I realized that people working together to bring pressure on decision makers can make a difference.
In 1972, I got inspired by George McGovern. I was a high school senior in Wisconsin, which was an early primary, so I volunteered to walk precincts — something I’d never done — and he won the Wisconsin primary. It was so exciting that I went on to organize busloads of my fellow high school students to go to later primary states, Michigan and Indiana. And we learned so much about canvassing and get out the vote and phone programs. And even though McGovern obviously lost the general election, those early state primary victories showed me that volunteer organizing can really make a big difference.
How did your community and family influence your passions?
My parents weren’t overtly political. My mother was actually a Republican voter, and my father was a Democratic voter, but they both read the news and thought that public debate was important.
We lived in a working class suburb, a relatively new housing development, and on the edge of town, there was a chemical plant that burned its waste in an open pit. The prevailing winds led it away from the main town but right into our new subdivision, and my mother thought, “This isn’t right.” So she complained to the County and the City Council, and to the Environmental Protection Agency, and they all said there was nothing they could do. So my mother went door to door in our subdivision with a petition that she created herself, and started showing people that she had 200 residents saying that the fumes from this burning waste are terrible.
In the end, the plant agreed to stop the burning, but only if the community wouldn’t claim credit for it and that the change wouldn’t be publicized. It was another life lesson in mobilizing a community to make change — sometimes you can win if you don’t care who gets the credit, and sometimes you have to compromise to achieve your goal.
What has been your proudest accomplishment?
One of the things I’m proudest of is electing Barbara Boxer to the Senate in 1992. She was the underdog, underfunded, and a woman running for the Senate when there were only two women serving in the Senate. It was a very tough campaign when California was a purple state, so I’m very proud of that and of helping her while she was in office and getting her reelected.
I’m also proud of all the people who I’ve hired and worked with over the years and watching them thrive in their careers, whether they stayed in politics or not. And knowing that I played some role in encouraging them and helping them reach their potential is really satisfying.
What’s your perspective on Close the Gap California and our campaign’s strategy to achieve gender equality in the State Legislature?
Close the Gap’s focus on recruiting is crucial. Many other groups do training and do direct assistance to candidates in campaigns, but Close the Gap also fills a gap in the political world by focusing on recruiting. So many women want to run but aren’t sure they can do it. If they look at the legislature, two-thirds of them are men.
Close the Gap plays a really important role by taking women through an exploration process and helping them figure out if this is the right time to run.
Sometimes women decide, “No, it isn’t the right time for me and my family and my career,” or that they need more preparation. But working one on one with women who have the potential to run for the State Legislature and helping them figure out whether it’s the right time is a unique and crucial step in the process.
What gives you hope for California’s future?
After 40 years in politics, I’m still an optimist. And that’s because I’ve seen California and America become more just, more inclusive, and more determined to fight existential threats, like climate change. Watching that evolution over decades gives me hope that progress is going to continue.
It can be frustrating to see progress move slowly, but in my experience, all progress in America has been incremental. Women got the right to vote very late, but we did get the right to vote and that wasn’t the end of progress on voting rights. Women have doors opened to professions, they’re able to go to law school, they’re able to go to business school, which was very unusual when I was growing up. That isn’t the end of the struggle for equity. Sometimes progress is one step forward, two steps back. So we need to celebrate the victories, but always understand the progress we’ve made and we can continue to make if we mobilize and organize and never stop pushing.
What advice would you give to the next generation?
One of the keys to having a successful and satisfying career is to figure out what you’re good at and go for it. It may not be what you love the most.
Stay close to your work and maintain your circle of connections. As I look back on my career, nearly every job or contract I got was based in some way through a connection. So I always tell prospective candidates and prospective political organizers to maintain their contact list and stay in touch with people because they may be just the person you need to reach to get in contact with an elected official, help mobilize a community, or get you your next gig.
Never stop learning. Even if you’re at the top of your career, there are still things you can learn. A little humility goes a long way.
Close the Gap California is committed to building on progressive women’s historic momentum by recruiting them statewide and achieving equality in California by 2028. Join us!
About Close the Gap California
Close the Gap California (CTGCA) is a statewide campaign launched in 2013 to close the gender gap in the California Legislature by 2028. By recruiting accomplished, progressive women in targeted districts and preparing them to launch competitive campaigns, CTGCA is changing the face of the Legislature one cycle at a time.
One in every four women in the Legislature is a CTGCA Recruit. Our Recruits are committed to reproductive justice, quality public education, and combatting poverty, and eight of nine serving today are women of color.