US News: Women Step Up for State Office
By: Susan Milligan
Nevada and Arizona could make history this fall, with both states positioned to elect the first female-majority legislative chambers in the nation's history.
Nationally, campaign operatives say they cannot name a single state that does not have a record number of women running for state legislatures, and female candidates alone could flip party control of at least seven legislative chambers. The stage is set for a historic year for female political power at a time when state governments are filling the power vacuum left by a feuding Congress.
The candidates include teachers, businesswomen, military veterans and lawyers. Some are single mothers, and many are first-time candidates. Some have been inspired by the #MeToo movement, which has unleashed an outpouring of complaints from female legislators, lobbyists and staffers of sexual harassment, abuse and toxic work environments in America's statehouses. Some want to focus more on health and family issues they believe legislatures are ignoring. They are Democrats, Republicans and independents, representing a wide array of views on issues.
The women share one mission: to break up the old boys' clubs they see in the nation's statehouses and bring in more female perspectives. While candidates say they're not driven solely by gender, they do believe having more women in state senates, assemblies and houses will change the culture of state legislatures, both in terms of how women are regarded and in terms of public policy.
"Who serves in state government matters. The male-dominated legislature we've got right now isn't going to (address) the issues that matter to women," says Pennsylvania state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, a Democrat whose district abuts that of a GOP colleague, Rep. Nick Miccarelli, who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by two women, one of whom is also a state representative.
"It's shocking. I have an MBA. I ran an organization that helped business coalitions before I ran for office. And the Pennsylvania House is the most misogynistic environment I've ever been in," Krueger-Braneky says.
Other female legislators and first-time candidates are frustrated by what they see as a lack of attention to issues important to women and families – whether it's access to birth control, help in caring for elderly parents or sufficient funding for K-12 education. And while they note that not all women have the same views or offer the same solutions, they wonder why their voices have been so underrepresented in the institutions that make policy directly affecting the lives of their states' residents.
Denise Gray, a Kentucky Democrat who passed on a law career to teach children with special needs, says she decided to run for elected office two years ago, when she found one of her students in the school library crying. The girl felt her gender, poverty and background (her mother is South American) would keep her from succeeding. Gray decided then she wanted to be a role model and an advocate for the child.
Her formal candidacy for the state senate came as the Kentucky House Speaker, Jeff Hoover, announced he would step down as speaker (but not as a state House member) amid disclosures that he had secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint with a female staffer.
"Once that issue did come out, it was like – 'I definitely need to be there.' Because we need more women there," Gray says. "What we have is a lot of older, male and white gentlemen who are making laws for Kentuckians" who are far more diverse than the membership of the Legislature, she says. "I am a woman and I'm also African-American. We have not had an African-American woman in our state senate in over 30 years, and I will only be the second, ever. Ever. That's pretty sad," Gray adds. That's just telling you our General Assembly does not represent our people."
Kimberly Cates, a single mother and businesswoman who is running in the Republican primary for an Indiana state House seat, says she brings a different set of experiences than the male incumbent she hopes to replace. "I'm not a man-basher," Cates says. But "I believe that we tend to see things from a different perspective," raising issues that men don't necessarily reject, but aren't on their personal radar, she says. "We want good day care. We want our schools to be safe, not just from violence but from obscenity."
For some female candidates, the explosion of sexual harassment allegations in statehouses has underscored long-simmering resentments over how women are regarded there.
The #MeToo movement has unleashed an outpouring of complaints by female legislators, lobbyists and staffers of sexual harassment and abuse. Nine lawmakers In six states have been accused of sexually harassing, molesting or – in one case – raping another legislator. In one of those states, Pennsylvania, a state representative has secured a protective order against her former boyfriend and fellow House member amid allegations he threatened to kill her. Legislatures are scrambling to write or rewrite sexual harassment policies and penalties, but victim advocates say many fall short. In one state, New York, the initial negotiating team to write a new state sexual harassment policy included no women.
Rachel Crooks, a Democrat, was urged to run for the state House in Ohio after she went public with allegations that Trump forcibly kissed her in an elevator in 2006 (a charge the president has denied as part of a blanket disavowal of women's complaints about his behavior). Should Crooks win, she'll serve in a legislature that is 22 percent female and that has had two members resign (and several more apologize) for sexual harassment charges.
Crooks recalls being in a meeting with other female candidates and lawmakers and talking about how an issue as superficially gender-neutral as automobile safety was, in fact, a matter where women have been underserved, since cars were designed to accommodate adult male-sized crash dummies. "We've been left out of these (equations) for so long, it's not even in their thought process," Crooks says, adding that she'd like to focus on health care and reproductive rights if elected. "I think diverse perspectives change everything," Crooks adds.
Women now hold 1,874 of the 7,383 state legislative seats nationally, according to a tally by Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics. About 61 percent of the female lawmakers are Democrats, and 38 percent are Republicans. While a record number of women are running for Congress this year (471 filed, or are expected to file, for the House, and 57 for the Senate, including women who have already lost primaries, according to CAWP) the potential for expanded female power in state legislatures could have more impact, experts say.
With Congress feuding with itself and the Trump administration, many key policy matters have returned to the states, which are grappling with such issues as abortion, gun laws, health care coverage and infrastructure – and, in the past year, remaking sexual harassment policies and holding accountable those who violate them.
"I'm hoping that more women get involved and we can change the culture in more ways than one," says Minnesota state Sen. Karla Bigham, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor party member who won a February special election after the seat's previous occupant, Dan Schoen, resigned amid multiple complaints of sexual harassment. "It's making sure we have safe work environments, transparency and processes in place so people can move forward, and feel safe and have justice," she says. Bigham echoed the views of women in both major parties in saying that women have a culture of working together, regardless of party.
"It's the fact that education, transportation, health care, the environment, clean drinking water – these should not be partisan issues," adds Bigham, who counts as a good friend Republican state Sen. Karin Housely. "That's one thing I hope will change, if more women run and get elected."
In another sign of female empowerment, two women will face off this fall in the 28th state House district in Washington state. "As the oldest, and the girl, I did a lot of housework. I played the family role" in a traditional Hispanic household, growing up as a military brat, says the single GOP candidate, Maia Espinoza. Now, with two small children of her own, she wants to do more to take care of the military families in her neighborhood. And her husband has been her biggest cheerleader, she says. "I can't praise my husband enough for being supportive, encouraging, and in the end, pushing me to do it," says Espinoza, who started a nonprofit for Latino leadership.
Neither Democratic nor Republican party officials can provide a solid number of how many women are running nationally for state legislative seats, since the filing deadlines have not passed in many states. But they agree there has been a tsunami-level wave of female candidates.
"I can't think of a single state where there are not a record number of women running,'' says Carolyn Fiddler, an editor at the left-leaning Daily Kos and former spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which aims to elect more Democratic state legislators. Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, which raises money for Democratic, pro-abortion rights candidates, agrees. Already, more than 36,000 women have approached EMILY's List about running for local, state or federal office since the 2016 election – exponentially more than the then-record 920 women who sought campaign guidance from the group in the entire two-year 2016 election cycle.
EMILY's List has tripled the size of the staff assigned to electing women at the state and local level because of the unprecedented interest, Schriock says. "We saw it coming," but "little did we know how big it was," she says.
In nine legislative chambers – the Georgia House and Senate, Illinois House, Kentucky Senate, Maine House, Montana Senate, Nevada Assembly, Texas Senate and Utah Senate – women make up half or more of the Democratic slate, according to Mara Sloan, a spokeswoman for the DLCC.
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Republicans say they are seeing a spike in female candidacies as well, though Democrats are fielding more women contenders than Republicans mainly because women tend to lean Democratic, nationally. A Pew study in March found, for example, that 56 percent of women identified as Democrats or leaning toward the Democratic party, compared to 37 percent who affiliate with, or lean toward, the GOP. Women have also voted for the Democratic nominee for president at a higher rate than men for the last 10 presidential elections, according to a separate Pew study and exit polling.
Further, there are fewer opportunities for GOP female challengers, since Republicans dominate state legislatures nationally, holding 56 percent of seats to the Democrats' 43 percent. While a GOP woman could indeed challenge a sitting state legislator (as Cates is doing), it's less common for primary contenders to line up against an incumbent in the same party than it is for challengers in the party out of power.
Republicans have a program called Right Women, Right Now that has helped put 400 GOP females into state legislative seats since 2012, says Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. "This is a tremendously positive thing, as we are faced with challenges in governing unlike anything we've seen in American history," Walter says. "We need everyone to feel like they've got an opportunity to participate. We need a diversity of perspectives if we're going to solve these challenges."
While Democrats have elected more women to office than Republicans, blue states can't claim stronger track records than red states or battleground states. Nor are states consistent in their support for female candidates and political power. Wyoming, for example, was the first state to give women the right to vote in 1869 – when it was still a territory – and one of the first to elect a female governor. Yet it has the lowest percentage nationally (11.1 percent) of women in its state legislature. Vermont, with a 40-percent female legislature, ranks near the top for women in the statehouse. Yet it is the only state in the nation that has never sent a woman to Congress.
Female representation is legislatures in proudly liberal California (22.5 percent), Massachusetts (25 percent) and New York (27.2 percent) hover around the national average. But Western states that only recently have become competitive for Democrats – Arizona (40 percent), Nevada (38.1 percent) and Colorado (38 percent) – have far stronger records in electing women to state legislative seats.
Arizona could well end up with a female-majority state Senate, and women could turn the chamber blue this fall, disrupting the GOP's trifecta control of both legislative houses and the governorship, says Charles Fisher, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
"I think women generally get things done. We're seeing that more and more nowadays," says Michelle Harris, a Democrat seeking the seat vacated when Arizona state Rep. Don Shooter was expelled over sexual harassment charges. "We've always gotten things done as far as the family goes, running the household and making things work. I hope women take the majority in the state legislature. It's way overdue."
Political experts in Western states attribute the trend to the region's pioneering spirit and openness to change. States where the party politics are more entrenched in history, meanwhile, may offer fewer chances for women to run and win, they say.
"I don't believe the underrepresentation of women primarily represents a more traditionalist or anti-female orientation among the voters," says University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss, noting the Bluegrass State's low (16.7 percent) portion of the state legislature. "I do think it represents a very slow-moving legislature in terms of competitive elections and turnover."
In Nevada, women could become a majority of the state Assembly, a first in the nation's history. Women now hold 17 of 42 state assembly seats. There are women competing for assembly seats in 15 districts now represented by men, and only five would have to win to upend the male majority. A female majority in the state senate is a tougher climb, but mathematically possible: there are four senate districts where a woman is seeking a seat now held by a man, and the women would need to win all of them to take away men's 14-7 majority in the senate.
The relatively high percentage of women has already had an impact in the Silver State, says Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui. Nevada has ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (albeit 35 years after the deadline) and passed legislation allowing women to get a year's birth control at once, expanding protections for pregnant workers, and exempting feminine hygiene products from sales tax. "Those things wouldn't have happened unless we had a body that represented" all Nevadans, Jauregui says, predicting women's numbers in Nevada politics will grow this fall. "Every time a woman runs for office, she shows other women and girls that it's viable," she says. And Nevada's female-friendly trend may extend to other races as well: It could end up with two female U.S. senators after this year's elections, a female governor (one woman is competing on the Democratic ticket) and a majority-female state Supreme Court.
In Missouri, former CIA analyst and Republican state House candidate Sarah Mills hopes to become the first Mexican-American – and the first female Hispanic Republican – to serve in a chamber that is now less than one-fourth women. As the Clay County public administrator, Mills served as a court-appointed guardian, conservator and personal representative in probate cases, a role she says brought her focus to welfare reform, elder care and family caregiving and mental health. "I do have a lot of experience with people who are receiving government benefits and dealing with serious illnesses," says Mills in an interview. "I have a unique perspective I can bring."
If elected, Mills will likely see a social-political problem up close. One member of the state House, Cora Faith Walker, has accused a fellow Democratic House member, Steven Roberts Jr., of rape. Roberts, in turn, has hit Walker with a defamation suit.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Nick Miccarelli is not the only state legislator defending himself against charges that he sexually harassed or assaulted a fellow lawmaker. But he appears to be the only one who has a Protection from Abuse order against him requiring the Republican state representative to keep his distance from GOP state Rep. Tarah Toohil. Toohill claims Miccarelli had pointed a gun at her and threatened to kill her by crashing his car when the two dated in 2013-14. The order allows Miccarelli to do his Statehouse business, but he was forced to relinquish his guns except when he is on duty with the Pennsylvania National Guard. "It was a tense day in Harrisburg," the first day the two GOP lawmakers showed up to work in the same House chamber after the order was issued in March, says Pennsylvania state Rep. Krueger-Braneky, who is author of a "#MeToo" bill to reform the way the state defines and handles sexual harassment in state government.
Pennsylvania's legislature is fewer than one-fifth female, but that could change this fall, as well. The state House has just 41 women now, but nearly three times that many women – 82 Democrats and 37 Republicans – have filed to run for seats in the chamber.
Kentucky may rank as having the most dramatic cases – and pushback – involving sexual harassment. One state lawmaker committed suicide after allegations he sexually molested a 17-year-old girl at the church where he was a pastor. The former House Speaker resigned his leadership role – but not his seat – after it was disclosed he secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint brought by a legislative aide. Three more state legislators lost their committee chairmanships and a fourth was removed as minority whip because of sexual harassment complaints.
Meanwhile, there are 18 women running for state Senate, where there are currently just four females serving in a 38-member chamber. The Democratic slate alone for Kentucky state senate is 70 percent female, according to an internal memo prepared by the DLCC.. "It's a sad state of affairs that I would warn any adult from having their child, who may be a daughter, come to work in the capitol. It may not be a safe environment," says Brad Bowman, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "If we want to make changes in our state, women have to be at the table."
No matter the party or the state, or even the continued minority status of women in government, women will have made fundamental changes this year in statehouses, says Colorado state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, majority deputy whip. Pettersen's Democratic caucus had a painful March, with the House for the first time in its history expelling a member, ousting Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock amid allegations he sexually harassed three women – including a fellow lawmaker. (Lebsock switched parties to the GOP right before the expulsion vote, allowing Republicans to name his successor until November's elections.)
"As we continue to be in positions of power, we will no longer be in a position where we're vulnerable, that we have to accept being treated that way, because we're worried about our careers," Pettersen says. "We've had generations of teaching men that it's OK to treat us that way. We are changing that framework."