Back Channels: Building strong, committed GOP women to lead in Pa.

Posted: December 11, 2011

It may be the most successful public-service training ground you've never heard of.

It being the Anne B. Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series. The program, now in its 10th year, is for Republican women in Pennsylvania who want to become more involved in public life, whether as party leaders, elected officials, or community activists.

And check out the batting average: 13 of 14 program alums won their elections last month. One joins a school board, six earned municipal posts, four have county jobs, and - in a first for the program - two will be judges, including Ann Marie Wheatcraft in Chester County.

"We've never had this many candidates in one year," says Christine Toretti, the program's founder, who is also CEO of Palladio L.L.C., and a Republican national committeewoman.

About 50 grads have become elected officials, roughly a third of the participants. And, certainly, politics and campaigns are part of the nine-month curriculum, but participants say good government and service, especially how to serve, are the priority.

State Rep. Michele Brooks (R., Mercer) credits Toretti and Bernadette Comfort, the program's executive director, with setting the tone.

"Christine and Bernie consistently talked about serving and decision-making being more than about politics," Brooks says. They stress that, "when you serve, have the integrity and the understanding to know you're in there representing people and that you have to do it through hard work, dedication, and commitment."

That includes dedication to one another. Ask Ann Wilson. Or any alum, as they all seem to point to Wilson as Exhibit A on the bonding that comes with the Anstine program.

Wilson, from Johnstown, was in the Class of 2004-05 and originally thought of herself as a "behind-the-scenes person." That quickly changed. "The program gave me a different way to think of how I fit into the political spectrum," she says.

Before she'd graduated, she was a candidate for City Council in a town where Democrats have a 3-1 voter-registration edge. But Republicans, who had actually recruited Wilson, weren't too welcoming either. The party's mailings included the opposition, but not her.

"They were more open to Democratic cronies than they were to Republican women," Wilson recalls.

She contacted Toretti, who quickly spread the word. Financial support and volunteers poured into Johnstown.

"About 40 grads descended on the community the last week of the race," Toretti recalls. "They made lunches, took care of the kids, and door-knocked.

"On election night, Ann was the top vote-getter in the county, not just in her race. That really showed the women the power of the network and the power of supporting each other."

It was exactly the message Toretti had hoped to convey. One that she'd had to learn when she took over the family business after her father's death in 1990.

"As a woman, everyone is expecting you to burst into tears or not be able to make it in a male industry," she says. "It's frustrating, and crazy."

So she built her own network, reaching out to female business leaders around the world, and creating an annual retreat for them.

"What I learned was, peer contact can be incredibly valuable," she says, "and can make a dramatic difference."

When Gov. Tom Ridge was looking for someone to help Republicans reach out to women, in particular those who worked outside the home, Toretti was a natural choice. And in Anne Anstine, the former state party chair who had recently died of breast cancer, Toretti had a role model both for herself and the women who would join her new program.

"She never gave up her feminity and grace, but, boy, could she make things happen, and she did it with real style," Toretti says. "That's the kind of person we'd like to build in our party."

One of the biggest surprises for Toretti, who was used to being in charge, was how women in the party too often deferred to men, especially when it came to fund-raising.

"I would go to friends and say, 'I need X amount for this person,' and the reaction was: 'I don't know anything about politics. I can't write a check. Ask my husband.'

"I realized that we're wired differently," Toretti says. "A man can live next to a polling place and think he can be president. A woman thinks she needs a Ph.D. in political science to even vote. I kept hitting this and hitting this."

She's hitting it less. The Anstine series and similar programs around the country chip away at the obstacles by offering the basics in government at all levels, elections and fund-raising, media, and public speaking. And that statewide network of supporters can be comforting in tough times.

"My passion has always been to ask people, 'What are your dreams?' and then give them the contacts or tools to realize their goals," Toretti says.

This unsung but highly successful program is doing just that.


Contact columnist Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.

For more information on the program, visit www.pagop4women.org.

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