At Cafe Sasso, Park Avenue [Photo: David Kramer]
Recently, I had the chance to meet with Rachel Barnhart at Café Sasso on Park Avenue to discuss her book, Broad, CASTED: Gender, Media, Politics and Taking on the Establishment (2016), and where her political future lies.
Broad, CASTED — part memoir/part campaign biography — reviews Rachel’s recent candidacy in the Democratic primary for the 138th state assembly seat. The early sections offer a glimpse into Rachel’s journalistic career that began just as the internet was radically reshaping print and tv media in the late 90s. We see how far we’ve come from one of her first jobs at an Elmira station that used Microsoft Word to produce the news and didn’t even have email to the 24/7 news universe in which journalists like Rachel communicate through the whole twitter/facebook/blog gamut — including Rachel’s online magazine The Rochestarian that broke new ground when she started in 2008.
Broad, CASTED also revisits Rachel’s Rebel Roots, the story of her days writing an underground and unapproved newspaper at Marshall High School. Back in June, following a conversation in Washington Square Park, we wrote about her youthful rebellion in Rachel’s Rebel Roots.
The election itself was hotly contested and bruising. After finishing the book, my initial impression was Rachel felt deeply — if not irrevocably — alienated from the Democratic party. From the beginning, she was warned that the local Democratic party deeply frowns upon primary challenges to incumbents, in this case Harry Bronson who received the endorsement of the Monroe County Democratic Committee.
At one point, the Bronson campaign sent out an inflammatory flier insinuating that Rachel wasn’t really a Democratic by linking her with Republicans, Libertarians and the conservative talk show host Bob Lonsberry. At the end of the book, Rachel says the Monroe County Democratic Committee “tried to do irreparable harm to a qualified, idealistic woman who wanted to serve her community . . . My own party tried to destroy my reputation for integrity, honesty and transparency. My only offense was that I dared challenge the status quo. Rachel also writes; “both the Gannt and the Morelle-Establishment are equally bad.”
So I was pleasantly surprised at Sasso to see Rachel upbeat and reenergized. Yes, the campaign had taken a psychic toll, but — despite the mailers and other incidents — she was as committed to the Democrat Party as ever. She assured me she was not “banned” from the party. If anything, the many people who reached out to her after the campaign with support only deepened her commitment to public service and challenging the status quo. Far from ending her political career or Democratic affiliation, Rachel said she was forming a committee to explore a run for Mayor.
I mentioned the fighting words she had said about the Gannt and Morelle wings of the party. Rachel didn’t shy away from the call she makes in the book: “Let’s stop choosing leaders aligned with Gannt or Morelle” — whose politics she describes as toxic.
Especially in light of its inability to win county wide, Rachel believes the Democratic party needs a third way, or really, a better way. As Rachel said at Sasso, she may be running as an outsider, but her goal is to become an insider, an insider whose “only interest is protecting the public’s interest.” (Broad, CASTED) Her idealism intact, Rachel is not giving up.
I also thought Rachael might be discouraged because of the gender-based attacks that came her way. The book describes how in various guises Rachel was characterized as an airhead, bitchy (too aggressive), a drama queen and flashy — all cast as sexist tropes.
In the summer, I had canvassed with Rachel for On the electoral road with Rachel. Then we discussed the blatantly sexist facebook page “Rachel for Prom Queen.” The blog has a photo shopped image of Rachel wearing a prom queen crown and makes disparaging comments. In On the electoral road , I wrote:
At the same time, as Rachel writes, pervasive, disguised or unconscious sexism (by both men and women) is more diffuse and common than the outright offensiveness of “Prom Queen.” For example, especially when challenging an incumbent, women face balancing acts that are less of an issue for men.
At first I chuckled at the image, but as Rachel talked about it, I realized anew the culturally embedded sexist tropes any female candidate faces, especially an attractive single woman. The blog itself is riddled with negative stereotypes: women as shallow, attention-seeking and vain, in which Rachel is merely a TV personality engaged in a self-indulgent, ego-driven popularity contest.
On the one hand, women are usually expected to project a “warm and fuzzy” persona — not the most apt description for Rachel the investigative journalist. But if a woman challenger comes off as too nice and accommodating, she seems to lack decisiveness and strength. But, if she aggressively goes after her incumbent opponent from the same party, she may come across as a “bitch” or a “mean girl” — that is, a threatening female.
Rachel admits the attacks hurt, but she’s undeterred. In any future election, she is already planning what might be called anti-sexist strategies, especially strategies keeping the conversation away from her personally and more on for what she stands.
Rachel’s discussion of sexism and politics raise a perennial question. How can we gauge how determinative is gender-based thinking and sexism in elections? For examples, in recent years Monroe County and Rochester have seen many successful women candidates: Maggie Brooks, Cheryl Dinolfo, Louise Slaughter, Sandra Frankel, Loretta Scott and Lovely Warren. Furthermore, a race that matched a progressive gay man against an even more progressive Jewish woman in a district whose city precincts voted for Bernie Sanders would not seem ripe territory for sexist politics.
However, as Rachel writes, “that argument [against claims of sexism in the campaign trail] assumes all campaigns are similar and all elected officials experience the same type of attacks. They don’t.” In Rachel’s case, the attacks — often subtle — consistently implied that she is unqualified and not serious. In short, her 17 years as a investigative journalist can be undermined by tacit insinuations that maybe she is just a shallow, pretty faced, tv celebrity personality, i.e. the prom queen.
At the same time, Rachel says she wants readers to decide for themselves. Fair enough. You can get Broad, CASTED at Broad-casted.com.
I am looking forward to the sequel.