Changing the Face of Texas Politics

by Ellen Davis

Brian Diggs

Bree Buchanan ’85 makes the ‘dough rise’ with Annie’s List

While most people are focusing their attention on the presidential election this fall, Bree Buchanan ’85, has her eyes on some more local elections—namely, the ones for the Texas Legislature.

Since 2007, Buchanan has been the executive director of Annie’s List (www.annieslist.com), a nonprofit organization devoted to getting more women elected to the Texas Legislature. The organization is modeled after a national organization called EMILY’s List, which helps women get elected to Congress.

Buchanan was recruited to lead Annie’s List after a 17-year legal career that included stints as a litigator, lobbyist and law professor.

After graduating from UT School of Law in 1989, Buchanan landed what she called her “dream job”—a position with Legal Aid of Central Texas.

“I really wanted to do social justice work,” she says. She spent eight years with the agency, working on cases involving family violence in Travis and Williamson counties.

Buchanan says she developed a passion for social justice during her days at Southwestern, where she majored in political science and earned a minor in French.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but my professors at Southwestern really opened my eyes and helped form how I view the world,” she says.

She also says that former Texas Gov. Ann Richards was a “huge” role model for her.

“Governor Richards showed me what it looks like for a woman to step out and take the tremendous risk of running for office. And what it looks like to win and go on to be a great leader,” she says.

After her son, Ronan, was born in 1996, Buchanan opened her own family law practice, but it was short-lived. In 1998 she was offered a position as public policy director for the Texas Council on Family Violence. She accepted the opportunity to lobby state and national officials for better laws and funding for family violence.

“At Legal Aid I helped women one at a time, but at some point you have to go up river and try to address the root of the problem,” she says. Her work with the TCFV earned Buchanan the Outstanding Young Lawyer in Austin award from the Austin Young Lawyers Association in 2000.

In 2002, a former law professor from UT called and asked Buchanan if she would be interested in joining the faculty as co-director of the Children’s Rights Clinic, a program in which advanced law students represent children who are in the foster care system. She did that for four years before deciding to enter politics herself and run for a seat on the Third Court of Appeals. Buchanan says her experience running for that position (she narrowly lost the race) made her realize the need for an organization such as Annie’s List.

“I had never run before and I tried to do everything myself,” she says. “In many cases, I didn’t know if what I was doing was correct. A group like this would have made all the difference in the world to me.”

Annie’s List helps candidates hire campaign staffers and negotiate contracts with consultants such as fundraisers and political consultants. And most importantly, they provide funding for candidates they support. “The viability of candidates is greatly determined by money,” Buchanan notes.

One of Buchanan’s achievements as executive director of Annie’s List has been to set up seven regional steering committees to build support for the organization across the state.

“Bree’s ability to calmly look a donor in the eyes and ask for five, ten, twenty-five thousand dollars or more has helped make Annie’s List a power player in Democratic politics and serves as an inspiration for our women candidates across the state,” says Robert Jones, who works with Buchanan as political director of Annie’s List. Jones notes that EMILY’s List—which Annie’s List is modeled after—is an acronym for “Early Money is Like Yeast . . . it makes the dough rise.”

Since Annie’s List was founded in 2003, the organization has helped eight women get elected to the Texas Legislature. This year, the organization is working to elect four candidates, and to re-elect the incumbents it previously elected.

While most people tend to focus on national politics, Buchanan says it is important to pay attention to local politics as well.

“In their day-to-day lives, most people are more affected by what the Texas Legislature does,” she says. “We need to put good people in place to make good policies for the state of Texas.”

Buchanan says her organization hopes to capitalize on interested generated by this year’s Texas presidential primary. “The primary brought many people into the process who have never been active before,” she says. “If we can just maintain some of the excitement from March we will do well.”

But even if all the candidates they are supporting this year win, Buchanan notes her organization will still have plenty of work to do. There currently are only 35 women in the Texas Legislature out of 181 members. The state ranks 37th in the country when it comes to women in elected office.

While studies show that women who run for public office are just as likely to get elected as men are—and perform just as well if elected, Buchanan says there are several reasons more women do not run for public office. These include the fact that they are less likely to be recruited, they don’t feel qualified (even if they really are), they feel burdened with family obligations, and they have a distaste for getting into the political fray.

Is another run for political office in her own future?

“Perhaps, but it has to be the right time and the right race,” she says.

Bree Buchanan ’85: Three Things You Can Do to Improve Local Politics

  1. Register to vote and encourage your friends and family to do so, as well. This is done through your county’s voter registrar.

    To find the voter registrar in your county, go to: http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/voter/votregduties.shtml.
  2. Learn about upcoming elections and candidates. Go to the web site of your state political party.
  3. Contact the candidates you wish to support and ask how you can get involved in their campaign. most can be contacted through their web site or through your county political party.