Virginia Democratic Party Chair and state delegate Charniele Herring speaks in Alexandria, Va., on on March 1, 2014.
Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Diverse group of unknown politicians come into the spotlight

The first openly-gay woman to lead a legislative chamber and three female African-American lawmakers are among those nominated for EMILY’s List’s second annual Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award.

The award, which six women in total are nominated for this year, “celebrates an extraordinary woman serving in state or local office,” according to an EMILY’s List press release. “The councilwomen, state legislators, and mayors doing critical work at the local level today are our future senators, governors, and presidents, and these six women leaders are already well on their way,” said Stephanie Schriock, President of EMILY’s List.

The inaugural honoree in 2014 was Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. Abrams is the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African-American to lead in the Georgia House of Representatives. 

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Tina Kotek
Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek in Salem, Ore., on Feb. 4, 2013.
Don Ryan/AP

“Look I’ve been a minority for a really long time and I’m really good at it,” Abrams said when she accepted her award last year. She went on to rile up the crowd about women’s empowerment, “I’m tired of being first. I want to be last. I want to be the last … I want to be the last woman, I want to be the very last woman that has to explain to Republicans that my body is not a place for experimental social policy.”

2015 is already a landmark year for women in politics – for the first time in history there are over 100 women in Congress, and a potential Democratic candidate for president who seems so confident in her chances that she may be delaying her campaign launch to the last minute. But as political junkies know, much of the real progress is made at the state and local level – the Rising Star Award nominations draw attention to fresh faces who might otherwise fly under the radar. 

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek has served in the Oregon House of Representatives for close to 10 years. She was nominated Speaker of the House for the 2013 legislative session, making her the first ever lesbian to lead a legislative chamber in the U.S.

Ayanna Pressley is the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council in its over 100-year history and now chairs a standing committee – The Committee on Women and Healthy Communities.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley.
Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty
New York Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages made history as the first person of Haitian descent to be elected to the New York State Assembly. Coming into office soon after Hurricane Sandy hit the state, Solages’ first order of business was to help her community recover from the effects of the storm.

Charlene Herring, now a Virginia Delegate, was homeless as a teenager. She overcame her hardships, pursued a career in policy, and is now the Minority Whip in the Virginia House, as well as the Chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia and the first ever African-American to lead a major political party in the state.

Melissa Harris-Perry, 2/8/15, 10:50 AM ET

Betsy Hodges pushes for better community policing

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges joins to discuss how she is working address community relations with police in her city.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges joins to discuss how she is working address community relations with police in her city.
Betsy Hodges went up against 34 other candidates in the 2013 mayoral election in Minneapolis, Minn. Now in the second year of her mayorship, Hodges has prioritized improving police-community relations in the city.

Cristina Garcia was a math teacher until she was elected to the California State Assembly in 2012. Just over two short years later, not only has Christina risen to join her party’s leadership team in the Assembly, she actively recruits other women to run for office.

All six of these women have already made history in their own right, but EMILY’s List, a Political Action Committee that aims to “elect pro-choice Democratic women to office,” is making the statement that they have much more to give to U.S. politics.

Although the recipient of the award will ultimately be determined by the PAC, the public is invited to give their input into the selection process through an online voting feature

The award will be given out by former Rep. Gabby Giffords on March 3 at a gala put on by the organization. Potential 2016 contender Hillary Clinton will also be honored at the March gala, where she will receive the “2015 We Are EMILY Award.”