Jody Thomas

Leading women legislators at the city, county and state levels

You are the executive director for the National Foundation for Women Legislators. What does this organization oversee?

Karen, I love the National Foundation for Women Legislators. It is comprised of elected women on the city, county, and state levels because those issues are very different from the federal issues. And it’s bipartisan. I never thought I would enjoy it this much. You know, women approach things differently than men do. We love men. They should always be included in everything. But if you really want to get something done, get a bunch of busy women, and you’ll get it done. Over the past five or six years, things are really happening in the states. Unfortunately, it’s just not happening on Capitol Hill. We convene these women in a variety of settings for pure networking and education purposes. We also do something most other organizations do not do, and that is leadership development, which is a significant part of our mission.

With over 5,000 members, how can you outreach to that many women across the United States?

You know, I’m fortunate because this organization was founded in 1938. While historically it was hard to reach out to a lot of women, we now have an incredible social media platform. And so, with blast emails, newsletters,  easier, if you will. Our women appreciate it too because you can set fire to something quickly, like on Twitter, if you have the right message.

What is the most common concern that women express, women legislators, express?

You know, I’d have to say that one of the abiding themes is it’s still hard. It’s hard to get elected. You know, only 24 percent of the state-elected officials are women, and we’re 52-3 percent of the population.

What is the reason for that?

The main cause is, and there are lots of studies on this — the Barbara Lee Foundation did one in 2015 that was fabulous — women are afraid of fundraising. They are uncomfortable fundraising. The second thing we hear the most often is it’s a good ole boys network out there. While not intentional, if you look around at a lot of the state parties, the vast majority are run by men. They do not have a tendency to bring women up through the ranks.

What is your mission or your vision?

Our mission and our vision really are to educate elected women. We don’t have a lot of programs to train women to run for office. There are some fabulous ones around. Fabulous ones. But ours is having elected women be the best they can be and attain what they want to attain. Not everybody wants to be a congresswoman or whatever. Many just want to be a county commissioner. But they want to be the best county commissioner. So, we give them the tools to be the best county commissioner.

What does that look like?

A lot of it is issue-based education. Whether it’s smart cities, human trafficking, mental health, veterans, energy, we have expert panels on all kinds of things like that. And then, like I mentioned earlier, the one thing we really concentrate on is leadership development. We bring in professional firms that do leadership training. We do team building exercises that are tons of fun. We have networking as often as possible. Our breaks between our programs are 30 minutes long because our women like to be able to talk to each other. They will trade legislation. “Oh, I heard you speak on the human trafficking, and I’d love a copy of that bill.” So, we do a lot of networking and education. We connect women together through the digital world as well.

Tell me about your journey. You’ve had some interesting twists and turns. So, let me begin. You graduated from?

I graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma after 13 years of night school.

Originally from where in Texas?

Amarillo, Texas.

So, how did you get from Texas to Oklahoma?

I decided I wanted to move to a big city, but Dallas scared me. My sister and brother-in-law lived in Oklahoma City. So, off I went. I packed up and off I went.

And you did night school?

I did. I did 13 years of night school to get my degree.

And so, you worked during the day?

I did.

What did you do?

Public relations. By the time I got my degree, I’d owned my own PR firm for five years.

And did you have life lessons during that period of time? What was your takeaway?

I did. Oh, my goodness, there were so many. I think my first heartbreak was I was working at the Oklahoma Dental Association, and we were working on legislation, on a bill, and thought we had it. We had been given assurances by everyone. When it was knocked down, I was crushed. How could that happen? We’d been told everything was good. Boy, that was a long time ago.

That’s a learned lesson about learning how to count votes?

And learning how to take those lumps.

What is one word that describes you?

Affable peacemaker.

So, you’re a conciliator?

I am. I am. My number one strength is harmony. I used to think that was a weakness. Oh, I just want everybody to be happy. That is part of what makes me a good fundraiser, and any executive director is a fundraiser, for the most part. But wanting to bring people together, wanting to see people arrive at something that’s mutually beneficial and mutually satisfactory, those are strengths. They are not weaknesses.

After your PR firm and then you were pulled into politics?

I had a stopover for eight years at the National Rifle Association. They hired me to come up here for a three week, to help them do a little three-week project, and I stayed for eight years. I did the Charlton Heston Celebrity Shoot every year, God rest his soul. Then my best friend, Pam Pryor, went to work for J.C. Watts when he got elected, and she said come on over.

And you were the finance chair. What was he like?

Oh, Karen, don’t get me started. I love that man. He is truly “what you see is what you get.” There was no artifice. He was not a different person behind the scenes than out in public. He was a genuine, true, a gentleman, a Christian, and I could not have had a better experience. I got spoiled. He is the reason I could never go to work for anybody else.

Jody Thomas, left, has fun with friends and staff at Universal Orlando during their 2016 annual conference.

How many years did you serve in that capacity?

Eight years.

So, eight years is your sweet spot?

I guess. Apparently. I’m glad I’ve only been here for four.

After your post with J.C. Watts, what did you do then?

Mainly fundraising.

Was it in a consultant’s role?

As a consultant, and issue campaigns, some candidates. I’ve done two presidentials as the finance director and two’s probably one too many. But I’ve always believed 100 percent in what I was doing. I could never work for a candidate that I didn’t believe in 100 percent.

Presidential elections are hard.

They are hard. They are very hard. But, boy, learning experiences, oh, my goodness.

Of all the posts that you’ve shared, what was the most rewarding?

I think working for J.C. It was emotionally rewarding. It was professionally rewarding. Let’s be honest. It was financially rewarding. How hard is it to raise money for J.C. Watts? And it was unique. You know we are still in close touch. I just love him, and I think that’s probably been the most rewarding. But being here, Karen, I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, but I do love this.

You are a conciliator or a bond-building person. Do you think women forge bonds differently than men?

Oh, absolutely. Women want to get things done. In the elected world, they do not really care whether you are a Republican or Democrat. Our goal is a little bit of more of the greater good. Let us just get this accomplished. Perfect case in point: 2013, we were almost to have the government shutdown again. All the women senators periodically got together for pizza and wine, a little bit of wine. They literally started talking about what really needed to be done. They literally went to leadership and said, “We have worked this out, and here is what needs to happen,” and it did.

They found cold common ground.

Yes, I see it every day with our women. My board has an equal number of Rs and Ds. We don’t at our meetings and conferences put an R or a D on your name tag. It just says that you’re a state representative from Alabama.

Are there any states that have overachieved in the representation of elected women?

No, not yet.

Are there any states that have underachieved?

Yes. I don’t want to name them, but there are, unfortunately, and it is sad.

What did your mother and father do?

My father was a commercial painting contractor, and my mother was a homemaker.

And your sister and brothers?

My sister and my brother-in-law live in Williamsburg, Virginia. They’re retired. And my two brothers and wives and all of them are still out in Amarillo.

Do you see yourself here in D.C. for the duration or retiring elsewhere?

Terry and I have talked about retiring, but this is where all our friends are. I do not want to move someplace where I do not know anybody. We will stay here as long as we can.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

An extrovert. I want to be with people. I’m a talker. This will shock you. I’m a talker. So, my girlfriend, Pam, who has been my lifelong friend, and I can talk about anything. We talk through it all — difficult issues. I know a lot of people, but you can count my true close girlfriends on one hand. That is so important to me, to have somebody like Pam in my life. I think women work that way.

When you were young, was there one person that mentored you?

Not really. None that jumps out.

Over the age of 25 was there a person that really mentored you?

Yes, in Oklahoma City, there was. I had a boss named Laura Snyder at a little advertising PR firm. She probably did more to teach me than anyone. But, I would have to say though the woman who has had the most influence on my life, it has been my friend, Pam.

And what was your first job?

Oh, my God. I was a secretary at a construction company, and the guy was horrible. He was just awful. After about two months, I left for lunch, and I didn’t go back. I still remember his name. Morris Bailey.

Where do you gain your energy?

I get energy from really being around other people. I love to read, and I love to work crossword puzzles. So, I do need my quiet time every once in a while.

Do you work off of lists?

Yes. Oh, and it upsets me if they’re not all checked off.

Tell me about what brings you the most joy.

This will sound weird, but like a successful event. It doesn’t even have to be a big event. We work so hard on our annual conference. When it’s a big success and the women are happy and they’re saying, “Oh, this is the best conference I’ve ever been to,” I am so happy. I love working in a team. Don’t shut me in my office. What makes me happy is when something is a success.

Tell me about Terry.

My husband is wonderful. He is my rock. Nothing fazes him. Nothing upsets him. He has never said, in 27 years, a cross or unkind word to me.

Does he enjoy this part of you?

He loves it. He goes with me places. We entertain almost every weekend.

Was there a childhood dream that you did not realize?

I wanted to be an investigative reporter. That was my goal, to be an investigative reporter, and I was a journalism major. Through a whole series of events, it didn’t happen. I stumbled into PR instead of journalism and just fell in love with it.

Are you a night person or a morning person?

I am a morning lark. Do not call me after about nine o’clock at night.

And what’s your favorite book?

The Bible.

And your favorite movie?

“Titanic” and things like that.

Do you have an exercise plan?

No, I grew up in a time when girls didn’t play sports. The only sport offered to girls in my high school was tennis, and my family couldn’t afford tennis.

What time do you start working in the morning?

I usually get to the office anywhere from 6:30 to 8:00.

If you had the opportunity to have a conversation with one person, living or dead, who would that person be?

Oh, my goodness. I think probably Abraham Lincoln. I would love to have a conversation with Abraham Lincoln or Rosa Parks. I have never understood racism. I would love to be able to say to her, “What made you not get up out of that seat?” I’m not that brave. I would love to know what made her refuse to get up. Where did you find the strength to do that?

What’s the one thing that’s pivotal to your wellbeing?

Harmony. I can’t stand discord. I don’t like confrontation. I can be tough if I have to be, but conflict makes me miserable.

What do you want to be remembered for?

Kindness. I want to be remembered as a kind person, as a good friend.

What inspires you?

You know, I guess when I see things coming together. Like if I am trying to put together a panel for a workshop for something, and the pieces start fitting. Okay, we can do this and create something informative. Sometimes you can make all the phone calls in the world, and it’s not coming together. And I like to see a plan come together.

How do you pay it forward?

I really try to treat everybody the way I want to be treated. I tell my staff, “Just think about yourself and what would you want to read in that letter? What would you want as a gift? What would you want said about you?” That is my guide.

If you could ask God one question, what would that be?

Will I join you? I would ask Him why He took someone I loved once when He did. That is still hard for me.

One wish, what would it be?

My wish would just be for people to really try harder to get along. You know, the world would be so much better. I know that, you know, people say, “Oh, I want world peace.” Just try a little harder. We are so ugly to each other now. The things that are said and what you see on the Internet. The vitriol, and not just politics, but everything.

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