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A force for electing women faces her biggest test in 2016

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When Stephanie Schriock was a junior at Butte High School in Montana, she devised a strategy to get elected student-body president.

She courted votes from freshmen and sophomores, ignoring classmates who had not supported her in two previous campaigns. Then, in a masterstroke, she persuaded her male opponent’s younger sister to endorse her.

That time, she won.

"And so I learned about targeting and the power of the sisterhood," said Schriock, who has been plotting how to win elections ever since.

Today, Schriock, 41, is the president of Emily’s List, the sprawling political action committee that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, which celebrates its 30th anniversary with a gala dinner Tuesday in Washington. In 2016, Schriock will face her biggest election yet.

Perhaps no other political organization is more poised — or under more pressure — to capitalize on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s likely presence at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2016. After losses in the midterm elections, and seeing abortion rights threatened across the country, Emily’s List is treating a Clinton candidacy as its best chance yet to convert enthusiasm among Democratic donors into funding for women running in federal, state and local elections.

Responsibility for that falls to Schriock, a salt-of-the-Earth Montanan, given to exclamations of "Gosh" or "Good Lord," and whose friends call her simply "Schriock" (pronounced SHREE-ock).

Since taking over the group in 2010, Schriock has had some significant victories. In 2011, she visited Elizabeth Warren, then a bankruptcy professor at Harvard and special assistant to President Barack Obama, in Cambridge, Mass., and urged her to run for the Senate. Warren has traced her victory back to that kitchen-table conversation and to the $1.2 million that Emily’s List helped raise for her 2012 Senate race.

At a dinner last month to welcome nine newly elected Democratic congresswomen to Washington, Schriock asked them to keep an eye on any male colleagues who might be retiring so that they could be replaced with women.

"Men are targeted for succession when women aren’t even considered," she said.

Then, holding their wineglasses aloft, the women toasted 2016: "To Hillary!"

Schriock cuts a very different profile from the group’s previous leader, Ellen Malcolm, an heir to an IBM fortune who started Emily’s List in 1985, naming it for the saying "Early money is like yeast." One Democrat compared the transition to trying to replace Moses.

"She knew she didn’t want to be, and couldn’t be, Ellen Malcolm," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "What she had to be was someone who put her head down and looked at the nuts and bolts of Emily’s List."

Schriock was raised in a Democratic family in Butte, Mt., a mining town, where "you were either with the workers or you were with management," she said.

Her earliest political efforts were not only on her behalf: At Minnesota State University, she ran the campaign of a classmate who became the first African-American woman elected president of the student body.

As Howard Dean’s national finance director in 2004, and as campaign manager for Al Franken during his hard-fought 2008 Senate race in Minnesota, Schriock was an early proponent of online fundraising and data gathering, little of which Emily’s List was doing when she took over in 2010.

"It’s very difficult in the political world to find people who are both political strategists and who know how to raise money," said Malcolm, still the chairwoman of the organization’s board.

Schriock’s pace has been unrelenting: She spent 109 days away from home last year, recruiting and fundraising. Emily’s List reached 3 million members, and raised more than $60 million in donations in 2014, up from 500,000 members and $38 million in 2010.

Schriock’s ties with Clinton, whom she will present with an award at Tuesday’s gala, are strong: She was on a short list to be Clinton’s presidential campaign manager. And she left the board of Priorities USA Action, a super PAC, so she could legally work more closely with Clinton’s campaign.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, praised Schriock as "a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-talk-tactics person."

Franken recalled that when Schriock took over his Senate campaign, she quickly set up a war room in his headquarters.

"Everyone went, ‘Oh, yeah, this is how it should have been in the first place,’" Franken said.

But Schriock’s transition to the public face of a feminist movement has not always been smooth. She sometimes seems uncomfortable in interviews, reverting to cautious talking points or bromides like "Democratic women are the future."

Some liberals, too, have accused Schriock’s Emily’s List of de-emphasizing abortion rights at a time when they are under siege in many states.

Schriock will barely utter the word.

"What we want to talk about is what voters want to talk about," Schriock said when asked about abortion. "That’s equal pay, and minimum-wage increase, and access to health care, and paid sick leave, and the list goes on."

When pressed, Schriock did not relent, arguing that "pro-choice" should mean "women having the ability to make choices in their lives to be successful, to have economic opportunity and to raise their families."

Democrats often ask Schriock when she will seek office herself. She thought about running to succeed Sen. Max Baucus of Montana in 2013, until former Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he might be interested.

"As much as I loved Montana, and my heart is there," she said, "my role at Emily’s List at this moment in time is clearly where I am supposed to be."

It was just the type of justification — and deference to a better-known male politician — that Schriock would not have accepted from a woman she was trying to recruit.

"Can I be honest with you?" Schriock said, after nearly an hour discussing women seeking office. "What makes a man or a woman hesitant about running isn’t all that different," she said. "It’s a life change, and you have to put your whole self out there."

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