Dezie Woods-Jones

(WOMENSENEWS)–It was election eve in Palestine, deep in the heart of East Texas, and the Hot Pepper Parade was full of politicians, musicians and people eating very hot peppers. Congressional candidate Regina Montoya-Coggins, perched on a float with her husband, saw a tiny girl being lifted above the crowd by a doting father.

“He was pointing to me and then to her. That’s when I knew for sure why I was running,” Montoya-Coggins recalls. Montoya-Coggins, a pro-choice Latina Democrat running in the fall of 2000, lost in George W. Bush country. But she may run again in 2002.

Many political observers cite the need for just such role models and mentoring to lifte the numbers of women in state legislatures from their current plateau. But they also point to an unexpected consequence of term limits: Women–especially black women–are being pushed out the state legislatures, only to be replaced by men.

Take California for example. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles served 14 years in the California State Legislature before becoming one of the most powerful African American women in the U.S. Congress.

Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland succeeded Ron Dellums as Northern California’s most prominent African American legislator after serving nearly five terms in the California Legislature.

In the 1970s, the majority of African American delegates to that legislature were female.

Now, there are no African American women serving in the California statehouse, a decline attributed in part to term limits. The same is true in the Arkansas state legislature, where all the black women who left because of term limits have been replaced by black men.

Dezie Woods-Jones of the Oakland, Calif., Black Women Organized for Political Action, says her constituency has suffered deeply for lack of access to a black female officeholder in Sacramento.

“Time was, women were the majority of African Americans” in the state legislature, she recalls. “When we had an issue that needed action, even if our local reps weren’t on it, you always had someone else to talk to. Now there is none.”

The Number of Women in State Legislatures Has Declined Slightly

Not only are black women’s voices absent in the state legislature, but term limits also puts enormous pressure on them while they are there.

“The minute they get there, they’re looking to their next job,” says Lee. She adds that she felt the pressure in 1998, after she was elected to her second and final term in the state senate. So did Grace Napolitano and Hilda Solis, both now safely in Congress, and both replaced by men.

The news about negative effect of term limits on elected black women office holders is the most surprising trend identified by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

The center reported that in the state legislatures, the number of women officeholders declined as a result of the 2000 election. The drop is slight, only 14, leaving a total of 1,656 women in state legislatures in 2001, but the point is that there was no gain. In 1977, women held 688 of the 7,424 state legislative seats. In each election cycle from 1977 to 1993, women gained an average of 100 seats nationwide: In 1999, women gained only 18 seats in the whole country.

And for women of color, the numbers increased slightly: Black women’s representation rose to 180 from 176 and the number of Latina officeholders increased to 56 from 54. Alaskans and Minnesotans elected their first-ever black women representatives.

Advocates watching the situation closely find the overall picture worrisome.

“What concerns me is that it follows on a number of election cycles where we’d hit a plateau” says Debbie Walsh, associate director of the center. Nationally, the interest among women in running for state legislatures has seemed to be fading, Walsh says. “Meantime, we’re losing not just numbers–we’re losing energy and experience.”

Overall, Term Limits Have Not Helped Women in Statehouses

Walsh points to term limits as a likely culprit.

Of the 12 states where women lost representation, only North Dakota has no term limits. All of the others do: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Oregon.

“That’s how we lost the speaker of the Ohio Assembly, Jane Davidson, and senior leadership in Washington State,” Walsh said.

The loss is bipartisan: Both Democratic and Republican women have seen their numbers decline, despite a 90 percent victory rate for pro-choice Republican incumbents.

Vigorous efforts by the National Women’s Political Caucus and the WISH List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice Republican women, only managed to stem the decline, says WISH List Executive Director Karen Raye. “When seats were open, the candidates we managed to support won,” she said, “and so did our incumbents, but only 3 percent of the challengers did.”

For Latina women, still concentrated in large Southwest states, term limits appears to have been of at least temporary benefit. “Latina women are winning in districts that aren’t even majority Latino populations,” says Gilda Morales of the Center for American Women in Politics. “In California, Latina women outnumber Latino men.”

Risa Castillo, a long-time political activist in New York City politics, says that Latinas may have penetrated political establishments more than others because of the long tradition of women’s political involvement in Latin America.

“It’s a paradox, that in countries where women are held back in their personal lives more than in the States, the same stereotypes don’t hold for politics,” Castillo says. Women are often front and center in Latin American politics, she says, and that’s also “true for Latino communities here.”

Latinas Are Active Players On All Levels

“Latinas are active players on all levels,” agrees Rosalind Gold, director of public policy and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund. “They’re challenging incumbents, as well as running for open seats, and they are very well known in political power structures.”

However, she’s cautious about the long-term effects of term limits. “We don’t know yet about its effect on women’s empowerment in office, seniority in committee assignments, their ability to build a political base or personal professional growth opportunities.”

Castillo is also critical of term limits: “I think it’s a mistake. We have women city council members here working on important issues who now have to go due to term limits.”

“We had thought since term limits opened more seats, pro-choice women could gain,” said Raye. “We were wrong.”

The reasons commonly identified are lack of support from party organizations, insufficient money and exclusion from the inside track.

“When a man is forced out of office by term limits, he’s usually replaced by another man,” says Mary Hawkesworth, director of the Rutgers’ center. “But when women’s terms are up, they too are replaced by men. Women legislators don’t quite have the clout to ensure that another woman runs when the seat comes open.” “Less money, less mentoring, less support all around,” says Dezie Woods-Jones of the Oakland, Calif., group.

Hawkesworth and Woods-Jones also cite the apparent reluctance of many party officials to even consider naming a woman when a seat becomes available.

“We do the chicken dinners,” says Woods-Jones, “and then they go in the back boardroom and choose someone. We’ve been saying we want to be in the backroom!”

Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer based in New York, writing about women and politics and international human rights.