Betty Castor

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As John Kerry and John Edwards, the Democratic nominees for president and vice president, used their party’s convention to shift their campaigns into high gear, four female Democrats did the same.

Democrats Betty Castor of Florida, Nancy Farmer of Missouri–both vying for Senate seats–and Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia and Diane Farrell of Westport, Conn.,–both going forHouse seats–were out in force at the flurry of women’s rallies, breakfasts and luncheons held here over the past four days.

While somewhat less conspicuous, many other female contenders also made the convention rounds, including retired banker Christine Jennings (who will be running against three others in a Florida primary to face incumbent Congresswoman Katherine Harris, co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign in 2000) and 26-year-old Capri Cafaro (who would be the youngest woman to be elected to the House if she wins the Ohio race.)

Their campaign is not, of course, for the White House. It’s to win tough races, help the Democrats regain control of Congress and increase female representation on Capitol Hill.

“With 11 more Democrats in the House, we can take back the House and make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House,” three-term Senator Barbara Mikulski told delegates at the Democratic Women’s Caucus on Tuesday. “We will not be absent from this year’s election.”

A Democratic takeover of the House, Mikulski said, would push Pelosi, House minority leader and the first woman in U.S. history to lead a major party in Congress, into another historical spot as the first female speaker.

Women currently make up only 14 percent of the 100 seats in Senate and 13.8 percent of those in the House of Representatives, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

“Our female representation at the national level in the United States ranks 58th in the world,” former U.S. Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, the only female contender in the presidential primaries, told over 3,000 energized delegates. She spoke at a rally earlier this week to celebrate and encourage such “revolutionary” women as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton from New York.

“At the rate we’re currently electing women to Congress,” Moseley Braun said, “it will be 2354 before we reach Sweden’s level.” Sweden is currently ranked No. 2, with 45 percent of its representation being female. Rwanda is ranked No. 1 with a female majority.

Schwartz Faces Melissa Brown

Allyson Schwartz faces another woman, Republican Melissa Brown, in what some here said was going to be a tight race for the House seat in Pennsylvania’s 13th district, one with disparate constituencies in urban Northeast Philadelphia and affluent, suburban Montgomery County.

The seat opened up after current Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, a Democrat, decided a year ago to challenge longtime Republican Senator Arlen Specter.

Schwartz has been a state senator for 14 years. Brown, an ophthalmologist, previously ran in this district, coming close to beating Hoeffel in 2002. It was her third attempt to win a seat in Congress, although she has yet to hold public office.

Both women are pro-choice and healthcare is central to their platforms. Schwartz–backed by EMILY’s List, the Democratic pro-choice political action committee in Washington, D.C.–led the state senate’s drive to create a children’s health insurance program to provide coverage to the children of middle-class and working families. The legislation was used as a national model for similar programs across the country. She also authored a law that has established quality standards for mammograms in the state. She is a strong advocate for increased funding for pre-schools and full-day kindergarten.

Healthcare is also a big issue for Brown, who opposes a single, government-run healthcare system, but supports legislation that encourages people to purchase long-term medical coverage. Her experience in healthcare, business and with the economics of healthcare make her “capabilities for positive change singularly unique in Congress,” she said on her campaign Web site.

Farrell Challenges Multi-Term Shays

In her race for Connecticut’s 4th district, Diane Farrell is taking on the challenge of unseating Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate, pro-choice Republican and a multi-term incumbent.

For seven years Farrell has served as the first selectwoman–a post akin to mayor–of Westport, a prosperous commuter town 50 miles from New York City. She says she is undaunted by her opponent’s political tenure.

“Long-term incumbent Christopher Shays. It sounds scary, but it’s not. If you look at the moderate Republicans, they’ve changed their voting behavior,” she said at a fundraiser on Wednesday for the Women’s Campaign Fund, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., that supports pro-choice women and is endorsing her. She was apparently referring to Shays’ votes for the federal abortion ban and other bills supported by the White House.

Farrell wants to push for pay equity and is pro-choice. She also wants to see increased representation of women in Congress. “There are 435 members of Congress and only 60 women,” she said in an interview.

“It’s like allowing your husband to make the family’s decisions 85 percent of the time by himself.”

Her fundraising has caught many by surprise, particularly in April when she reported first-quarter fundraising outpacing that of Shays. Though she still has raised less money than Shays overall, this race is generating a lot of buzz.

“The energy, excitement and unity felt this early on is atypical when you’re running against a multi-term incumbent,” said Ramona Oliver, the communications director of EMILY’s List.

Castor Heads Into Primary

Betty Castor, a former six-year state senator, Florida commissioner of education and president of the University of South Florida, faces an Aug. 31 primary. Her main challenger is House member Peter Deutsch, who, like Castor, is pro-choice. A recent Mason-Dixon Florida Poll gave Castor 37 percent of the vote and Deutsch 21 percent.

“I think Betty Castor will win the primary and it will be a tough battle to win Florida,” said Oliver. “She’s clearly the only Democrat that can win in the General Election.” The primary winner will likely face Republican Bill McCollum, an anti-choice conservative, or Mel Martinez, George W. Bush’s former secretary of housing and urban development.

Female voters are expected to play a key role in Florida, where 60 percent of Democrat Al Gore’s support came from women in the 2000 presidential election in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided who had won the Florida electoral votes.

Farmer Takes on Bond in Missouri

In the battleground state of Missouri, Nancy Farmer, who served as a state legislator since 1992 until she became the first female state treasurer in 2000 is mounting an ambitious challenge to three-time Senate incumbent Christopher “Kit” Bond.

Farmer is pushing pocketbook issues. “Healthcare, jobs, daycare, good schools are important to women and Missouri,” she said in an interview. Unlike Bond, Farmer is pro-choice and has been widely endorsed by women’s groups, including EMILY’s List and the Women’s Campaign Fund.

Farmer’s supporters say Bond’s historically narrow re-election margins give hope to her campaign. “Kit Bond has never been elected by more than 53 percent,” said Oliver. “His polling in past elections shows tremendous vulnerability. But running against a three-term incumbent is no small task.”

Juhie Bhatia, a recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is a writer for Women’s eNews and freelancer in New York City.

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