(WOMENSENEWS)–Women candidates will flourish in the coming year as more money, greater power and a bumper crop of available seats present new opportunities, advocates say. These candidates are in the pipeline, honing their skills and trying to fill their coffers.
“It’s so exciting, I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen so much potential,” said Roselyn O’Connell, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, a multipartisan grassroots organization that gives training and financial support for the election and appointment of pro-choice women.
Only two gubernatorial races will be decided this fall, in Virginia and New Jersey, and neither has a woman candidate, according to the National Governors’ Association.
However, one especially high-profile race involving two experienced and well-regarded women candidates will be decided in a November special election, when a successor is chosen for the 9th Congressional District seat. The seat had been held by Democrat Joe Moakely, an institution in Boston politics from 1973 until his death in May.
The two women are part of a field of a dozen candidates in this significant race: Democratic pro-choice state Sen. Cheryl Jacques will compete against seven men in the Sept. 11 primary; and Republican pro-choice state Sen. Jo Ann Sprague will compete against Bill McKinney, a financial services manager, who is against abortion rights.
The six men competing with Jacques in the Democratic primary are state senators Brian Joyce, Stephen Lynch and Marc Pacheco; John Taylor, the president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition; and William Ferguson, director of the Schiller Institute, a human rights and cultural organization in a Boston suburb.
Observers generally consider Lynch and Joyce the most serious competition to Jacques. Lynch, whose district includes South Boston, is a conservative, anti-choice Democrat. Joyce, who is from the Boston suburb of Milton, has changed positions on abortion, and now says he supports abortion rights. Pacheco also supports abortion rights.
Meanwhile, gubernatorial races set for fall 2002 are starting to shape up, with women either already announcing their candidacy, or seriously considering a run in nearly a dozen races. A Senate race in Maine is also drawing attention as incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins prepares to face a strong contender, Democrat Chellie Pingree, former state senate majority leader.
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O’Connell and other analysts say more than 100 women are competing for major state offices, such as governor or attorney general, and countless others are vying for state legislative seats or local offices such as school board, positions that can be springboards to more prominent political careers. These experts cite several reasons to explain the boom in women candidates.
For one, more women are in leadership positions in corporations and unions, where decisions about campaign contributions and endorsements are made. Their perspective and presence can foster greater encouragement for women candidates, said Erica Henri, political director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a nonpartisan group that supports pro-choice women in state, local and national campaigns.
Two recent high-profile campaigns–Republican Elizabeth Dole’s presidential bid and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful Senate bid–also encouraged greater financial contributions by and for women, Henri said.
“Women are getting used to fund raising, and women are giving more money,” Henri said.
Another change is the diversity of issues espoused by women candidates. “As you move more women in the system, you have different ideas,” Henri said. A decade or two ago, analysts might have grouped the platforms of women candidates under the general category of “women’s issues.” Now that term is far too vague to encompass the many different positions of women candidates.
Term limits at state and local levels are another factor, prompting women who can no longer run for their legislative or municipal seat to consider higher office. Term limits are also prompting many longtime male incumbents around the country to retire, opening up fresh opportunities for women candidates.
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“I think that’s why we have so many women running for governor–an open seat is a lot easier than trying to knock off an incumbent,” said Amy Green, deputy political director at the organization EMILY’s List, which stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.”
EMILY’S List supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates. Its Republican counterpart, supporting pro-choice Republican women, is the WISH List, which stands for “Women in the Senate and House.”
Congressional redistricting, utilizing the 2000 census results, is predicted to change the demographics of some districts so much that women will view these redesigned districts as new opportunities for them.
Upcoming gubernatorial races, however, are attracting the most attention, in part because the state executive office has been a springboard to a presidential campaign for so many men.
“I think the biggest trend is at the executive level, for governor,” said Henri of the Women’s Campaign Fund. “We have five women governors right now, and I can think of 11 that are thinking of running in 2002. You see a lot who are coming from county executives, a lot of secretaries of state.”
All but a handful of states will decide their governor’s races next year, and the Women’s Campaign Fund is following those in which women have either already announced their candidacy or are widely expected to do so.
Among the women who meet the criteria of the Women’s Campaign Fund are: in Pennsylvania, Republican state treasurer Barbara Hafer; in Massachusetts, Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican, and Shannon O’Brien, the Democratic state treasurer; in Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic attorney general, and Alma Wheeler Smith, a Democratic state senator; in Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, the Democratic insurance commissioner; and in Florida, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and state house minority leader Lois Frankel, both Democrats.
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Many of these women are viable candidates, having already served in lesser public offices that acted as a “farm team” to ready them for a more prominent race, Henri said.
Both Jacques and Sprague in the Massachusetts House race come with “farm team” experience. Jacques, the Democrat, is a former prosecutor with a reputation as a fiscal conservative who is tough on crime and pro-choice. She has gained greater attention than Sprague, in part because she is open about being a lesbian, but more because she is a woman running for a seat that is virtually guaranteed to go to a Democrat in a state that has sent only three other women to Congress.
However, political observers don’t discount Sprague, a fiscal conservative who supports civil unions for gay couples, abortion rights and the death penalty.
Observers say the focus on Jacques’ lesbianism has come more from reporters than voters, and that her stands on crime and fiscal matters are of greater interest.
“This is Massachusetts. Remember, we had both Rep. Barney Frank (D-4th District) and Rep. Gerry Studds (D-10th District). We’ve had openly gay members of the legislature, both male and female,” said Lawrence S. DiCara, a Boston attorney and member of the Democratic State Committee, referring to two openly gay members of Congress from Massachusetts. Frank still represents the 4th District, which encompasses the suburbs surrounding Boston. Studds left office in 1997.
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Margery Eagan, a columnist for the Boston Herald who has closely followed the race, said Jacques’ pro-choice position might appeal to “standard liberal Democratic voters.” But observers are generally cautious about Jacques’ chances of winning the primary.
Democratic state Sen. Stephen Lynch, considered a lead contender in the primary, has strong appeal to Moakely supporters, said Louis DiNatale, a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute, a public policy research center at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
“The more competitive the field, the more likely the candidate with the solid base will win, and Lynch has the base because he has Moakley’s home town. He is the most socially conservative and fiscally conservative, and in a crowded field, which helps him,” DiNatale said.
While two pro-choice women are seeking a chance to run for congress in Boston, organizations that help incubate women’s candidacies are seeking ways to draw more women into political careers.
The WISH List is organizing three “campaign schools,” or workshops for first-time candidates, in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Chicago this fall. Pat Carpenter, the organization’s executive director, said her organization views the workshops as an essential training step for Republican women trying to launch major campaigns.
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The WISH List is backing Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine in her race against pro-choice Democrat Chellie Pingree, a former state senate majority leader. The WISH List is also backing Representatives Connie Morella in the 8th Congressional District in Maryland, and Nancy Johnson in the 6th District in Connecticut; Shelley Moore Capito in the 2nd District in West Virginia; state GOP chair Linda Lingle in the 2002 governor’s race in Hawaii; and Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift in next year’s bid for that seat.
“We believe that the larger majority of women now serving in Congress started out in their state legislature or local government,” Carpenter said. “So if we can help them with training and advice, and of course, financial support, that’s an excellent service.”
Such efforts are important, but it’s also time for national parties to start supporting women candidates in the same way grassroots groups have been doing, said O’Connell of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
“We have 13 women in the U.S. Senate, and we have 60 in the U.S. House,” O’Connell said. “So when you think of it that way, and you’re thinking, 50 percent, you’re thinking–a least, I am–‘Hey, we have a ways to go.'”
“This is no place to feel comfortable; this is no place to be satisfied,” O’Connell added. “This is a place to launch from.”
Darryl McGrath is an Albany-based free-lance reporter who writes often about politics.
For more information:
The WISH List:
National Women’s Political Caucus:
Women’s Campaign Fund:
Jo Ann Sprague: