By Chris Lombardi
Thursday, September 7, 2000
In Minnesota's election Tuesday, six women are running strong not only against their opponents but also against the state's history: Voters have never sent a woman to the Senate and have not elected one to Congress since Coya Knutson won in 1951.
In Minnesota's primary Tuesday, women's activists and organizers are hoping their 20 years of building a broad base of political support and raising funds will pay off with political prizes. One woman candidate is running for the U.S. Senate and five women are running for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Senate candidate, Rebecca Yanisch, a pro-choice Democrat, is running against three men, including two millionaires and a local politician-bar owner. She became a business success after years as an impoverished single mother who returned to college and fed her family with food stamps. She is a vigorous advocate for affordable housing, education and health care. Her message: "I've been there."
Women approach her, saying, "Your story is my story."
A week before the primary, polls show a dead heat between Yanisch and her three opponents.
In the Fourth Congressional District, meanwhile, women make up half of the 10 candidates from three parties battling for one open House seat. In the general election, a three-woman race for that seat is a very real possibility.
And for the first time, Minnesota women have built the organization and fund-raising network needed to elect women to local library boards, the state Capitol and the halls of Congress.
The result: Women in the pipeline, preparing themselves and gaining the experience they need to run for higher office.
Minnesota women are running under what some have called a 50-year cloud--the absence of women from the state's Congressional delegation.
The first, last and only woman to represent the state in Congress, Coya Gjesdal Knutson, left it in 1958. The reason: Her batterer husband pleaded publicly in opposition-sponsored open letters for her to return home, claiming that she had destroyed their family. Since then, Muriel Humphrey, widow of former Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey, assumed his Senate seat when he died in 1978, but she only served nine months.
"It's absurd that a state like Minnesota has gone so long without a woman in office," said Mary Jones of the Minnesota Women's Campaign. "Since Minnesota was incorporated in 1858 we've had 188 representatives in Washington. One was a woman. Isn't it time we sent another?"
Activists Barbara Stuhler and Jean West couldn't agree more. That's why, close to 20 years ago, they set out to change the odds.
In 1982 they founded, along with three others, the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund, now known as the Women's Campaign.
In 1984, when Joan Grow, Minnesota's secretary of state, decided to run for Senate, she began a campaign called "Minnesota is Growing." A core of 10 women recruited 10 others, and so on, and so on--ultimately building a field operationof 100,000 supporters. Grow was endorsed by the state party machine, the Democratic Farm Labor Party, but lost the general election.
She didn't try again, nor did any woman succeed her in the next Senate campaign.
"Not enough women were in the pipeline in those days," said Grow.
Grow, Stuhler and West worked on leadership development--until the Women's Campaign became the largest women's political action committee in the country. It has funded pro-choice women in more than 1,100 races--for local, state and national offices.
In the meantime, the Minnesota Women's Education Council, which is affiliated with the National Women's Political Caucus, began a campaign called "Women to Washington."
Nonpartisan groups, such as the Minnesota Women's Academic Roundtable, began promoting mentorships and leadership development for younger women.
In the 1994 Senate race, incumbent Rod Grams, an ardent Republican supporter of the "Contract for America," won by just two percent in the normally moderate state.
"What really happened in 1994," said Yanisch, "is that women stayed home."
Six years later, Yanisch decided that the waning support for the Republican program could give her an edge--that and the fact that women voters may be energized by her candidacy.
She criticizes Grams by comparing her life to his votes.
Yanisch relied on federal scholarships and food stamps when she returned to college as a single mother in the 1970s.
"And there's Rod Grams voting against increasing Pell Grants, which students so desperately need, and playing politics with disaster relief money during the 1997 floods, while I was busy evacuating my family!"
The "I've been there" message is echoed by Betty McCollum, the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate in the crowded Fourth Congressional District. "I'm part of the sandwich generation," says McCollum. "I've raised kids while taking care of elderly parents. I've cared for family members with cancer. I was a teacher for 10 to 15 years."
Not surprisingly, she lists health care as her number one issue.
"We need to make health care family-friendly, so whole families aren't waiting in emergency rooms," she says, "and seniors aren't cutting pills to make them last longer."
The seat was left vacant because U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento, a 24-year Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party veteran, retired for health reasons. The primary race has attracted a wide range of candidates in three parties.
Democrats McCollum and Cathy Hartnett, both funded by the Women's Campaign, are running against two well-known male opponents as well as each other.
Come November, McCollum or Hartnett may compete against candidates of Gov. Jesse Ventura's breakaway Independence Party, including another pro-choice woman supported by the Women's Campaign, Pam Ellison, a Ventura protégé.
For Hartnett, the issue is leadership.
"Do you know a Democrat who is against affordable housing, health care and education?" she asks rhetorically. "The real issue is how you're going to lead. We're facing much more fundamental questions, like: Do you think everyAmerican is entitled to the same access to health care? If not, who are you prepared to exclude?"
Hartnett, who spent 17 years as a staffer on Capitol Hill before founding a consulting firm for nonprofit organizations, brushes off any suggestion that she should not be running against another woman.
"I didn't spend 20 years in the women's movement so that only one woman could run at a time," she says.
Their male competitors, state Sen. Steve Novak and St. Paul city council member Chris Coleman, also stress health care and education.
The Republican candidate, anti-choice Linda Runbeck, will likely win her primary; her opponent is perennial candidate Patricia Reagan, who changed her name to honor the former President.
Thus, if the Democrats nominate a woman and Pam Ellison wins the Independent Party primary, the election for the Fourth District could be the embodiment of the Women's Campaign vision: an all-woman race in November.
Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer based in New York. She has covered the international peace movement, human rights and other topics.