Kathleen Falk

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WOMENSENEWS)–An unprecedented number of women will be running for statewide office in the 2002 election, a trend that is causing many observers of Wisconsin politics to dub this year the “year of the woman.”

Five women will be competing for high profile statewide positions this November, including one aiming for the top position: Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk is one of four Democratic candidates vying to run on the ticket for governor.

The governor’s race here is the most contested since 1986, when Gov. Tommy Thompson was first elected. Polling shows that no candidate this year has emerged as a solid favorite with a majority of votes.

Celinda Lake, a national Democratic pollster who is helping gubernatorial candidate Falk in her bid for governor, noted that traditionally more women on the ballot has meant a greater number of women turn out to vote. And, in a tight contest, such as the one for governor, the suburban women voters could prove to have the deciding say.

“I think it’s pretty clear the two parties are at parity here, so the suburban women voters in the general election will decide who is governor,” said Lake.

So far, Dane County Executive Falk said she is receiving tremendous feedback from voters, who seem not only willing but ready to elect women to office.

“I know that everywhere I go–whether in a small community or a big city in Wisconsin, men and women go out of their way to tell me that they are eager–excited about the opportunity to vote for a woman,” said Falk.

Two Women Face Off for Lieutenant Governor

The other women running for statewide positions are: Barbara Lawton, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1998 and announced another bid for the same position last month; current Republican Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, appointed last year; Peg Lautenschlager, a Democrat running for attorney general; and Dawn Marie Sass, a Democrat running for treasurer.

Wisconsin is generally considered to be a progressive state. Earth Day’s founder Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin governor and senator and the Badger State elected in 1998 Tammy Baldwin to Congress, the first member of the House to be open about being lesbian. Yet, the state has lagged behind many others in terms of electing women to office at home. Wisconsin has never had an elected female governor, U.S. senator or even lieutenant governor. Elsewhere, 17 states have elected female governors and 20 have elected women senators.

“I think that the political system, we must say, has always been an ‘old boys’ network’ and women have not been brought into leadership in the legislature,” lieutenant governor candidate Lawton said. “That’s a common point from which you catapult into higher office.”

In addition, Wisconsin women have not traditionally sought public positions that would help them to gain the experience and recognition needed to seek higher office.

“We don’t have a long tradition of women seeking public office that kind of feeds them up a pipeline into those higher offices,” Lawton added. “In Wisconsin, we have not had role models to help women find their way to public office.”

Lawton will face state Senator Kevin Shibilski in the primary and the winner will run against Farrow, the incumbent. Farrow was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott McCallum after he took over the state’s top seat from then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, who left to become the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Candidates Taking Cues from Women in Other States

This year, however, Wisconsin women are seeking office in numbers unseen in any other election year. Several political analysts attribute this trend to the emergence of women in other state and national offices.

In 1998 Democratic U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin became the first woman ever elected to Congress from the state. And, Wisconsin has a female state Supreme Court Chief Justice: Shirley Abrahamson.

“What’s interesting is that Wisconsin is seen as progressive except for that one area,” said David Littig, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “Many other states have had women governors and we haven’t even been able to crack that.”

“There are a lot of women that are really coming up. It’s just a matter of time when the issue of gender will no longer be an issue. We’re almost there,” he added.

The appointment of Lt. Gov. Farrow has also helped to boost the profile of women in the state. She had a long climb up to her present position. She lost two local elections before being appointed to fill a vacancy on a village board. Farrow moved on to become village president and was later elected to the state Assembly and state Senate.

Farrow noted that her experience in local government made her hungry to be where the power was.

“I came out of 11 years of local government and decided Madison was where a lot of the decisions were being made that were affecting local government,” she said.

As female candidates get ready to make a big showing in the upcoming elections, they are asking voters to cast their ballots for them because of their abilities and not because of their gender.

“I don’t vote for a woman just because she’s a woman,” Lawton said. “We look for talented, bright, independent voices who have fresh perspectives to bring to the democratic process.”

Melanie Fonder is a freelance writer and former staff writer for The Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress. She’s co-author of a new book, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American Government.”

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