Leslie Byrne

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–In today’s sparse off-year elections, women are running for a handful of state and local offices, most of which have flown under the media’s radar. Most media attention is focused on scandals in the White House and in Congress, the nomination of conservative Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and the ongoing war in Iraq.

California’s Proposition 73–one of a number of ballot initiatives in today’s special election in the Golden State–has drawn stronger interest at a time when national politics have riveted on reproductive rights. The initiative would require physicians to give parents of minors at least 48 hours of advance notice before performing an abortion.

Outside the media glare are female political hopefuls who hope to make history today.

In Virginia, Leslie Byrne, a pro-choice Democrat who in 1992 became her state’s first female representative in Congress, hopes to make another first today by becoming the state’s first female lieutenant governor. She is running in a dead heat against Bill Bolling, a Republican state senator who has voted to restrict abortion and ban the use of state funds for abortion.

Of the 100 largest cities, 12 are run by female mayors–a number that could grow if women fare well in a handful of mayoral races today.

Among them are incumbent Democrats Shirley Franklin of Atlanta and Jane Campbell of Cleveland, both of whom are vying for second terms. Democrat Donna Frye is running a spirited campaign against Republican Jerry Sanders in an open seat race for mayor of San Diego. And Democrat Maura Hennigan is working to take out Boston’s incumbent mayor, Thomas M. Menino.

Meanwhile, dozens of women are running for lower-tier offices in Virginia and New Jersey, the only two states holding statewide elections today for legislative seats. Both states rank near the bottom in the nation in the gender parity of their legislatures.

Watching the Pipeline

Women’s advocates say victories for women at lower levels of office will eventually increase women’s presence in the U.S. Senate and House, where women hold 14 and 15 percent of the seats, respectively.

While men may be more likely to mount campaigns without first climbing their local political ladders, women tend to use local and state offices as stepping stones to higher offices, said Gilda Morales, a project manager at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

“When you ask a young man what he’d like to be, he’ll say that he’ll be a U.S. senator,” Morales said. “When you ask a woman, she’ll say she’d like to start out at the school board and work her way up.”

Sens. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, exemplify the pattern. Frist, a transplant surgeon with no prior political experience, won an upstart Senate campaign in 1994. He serves alongside Mikulski, who worked her way to Capitol Hill from a Baltimore city council seat she won in 1971.

But the gender dynamics of political success are by no means ironclad, as evidenced by the two most talked about female candidates for the 2008 presidential elections. Both Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice have jumped to the tops of their political parties without first serving in lower-level offices.

Demonstration vs. Prop 73

Women’s rights advocates in California–which in 1969 became the first state to legalize abortion–are focusing on the parental involvement initiative.

The outcome has nationwide implications, women’s rights advocates say. If the measure passes, anti-choice activists will be emboldened by the victory in a typically progressive state to press for further restrictions on abortion in other states around the country, said Nicole Yelich, a field coordinator for the Campaign for Teen Safety, a grassroots advocacy group in Sacramento aimed at defeating the measure.

“California is very important because we set the stage for progressive laws,” Yelich said. If abortion rights opponents prevail, “they can say: ‘If we can restrict choice in California, then there’s nothing stopping us in other states.'”

More than 30 states have already passed similar notification laws and Yelich worries that states such as New York and Oregon will follow suit.

New Jersey Races Look Good for Women

Prospects for women to gain ground are good in New Jersey, a state that despite its distinction as the birthplace of Alice Paul–the suffragist who led the campaign for women’s right to vote–ranks 41st in the country when it comes to gender parity in the state Legislature.

Women in the Garden State’s legislature could increase their numbers to 21 from 19, expanding to almost 18 percent of the 120-seat body from 16 percent, Morales said.

The picture isn’t as rosy in Virginia, which ranks 43rd in terms of women’s representation in state legislatures and may fall further behind after today, Morales said.

Two female incumbents in the Old Dominion state Legislature–Vivian Watts and Kristen Amundsen–may lose their seats to conservative Republicans, said Bob Kearney, national political director for the Political Opportunity Program at EMILY’s List, a political action committee devoted to electing pro-choice women to office.

That would set back women in the Virginia Legislature. They currently hold 21 of the 140 seats–or 15 percent–in the state Assembly and Senate.

Overall, Morales predicted at best a modest increase among female mayors and state legislators today. “There isn’t anything very big going to happen, but there isn’t going to be a fall-off. The incrementalism continues.”

Kearney, however, saw greater reason for optimism. Women have already had “a very good year,” he said, pointing to a series of successes in the Northeast.

In New York city’s races, five pro-choice Democratic women are favored to win council seats, he said.

In New Jersey, State Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg won a legal battle last month that gave her the right to assume a vacated seat in the state Senate. She is expected to win reelection to the seat today, as is another Democratic woman, Valerie Huttle, who is running to replace her in the Assembly.

And in Pennsylvania, women scored a trifecta earlier this year, Kearney said. Cherelle Parker won a special election in September for the Pennsylvania House, taking a seat left open by LeAnna Washington, who won a state Senate seat to take the vacated seat of Allyson Schwartz. She had won a seat in Congress in November 2004.

“We’re watching women starting to support women to move up the pipeline,” Kearney said. “The boys are known for doing this all over the country. It’s a very new thing for women to start doing this themselves.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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