Women Step Up For State Office

- May 07, 2018-

Nevada and Arizona could make history this fall, with both states positioned to elect the first female-majority legislative chambers in the nation's history.

Nationally, campaign operatives say they cannot name a single state that does not have a record number of women running for state legislatures, and female candidates alone could flip party control of at least seven legislative chambers. The stage is set for a historic year for female political power at a time when state governments are filling the power vacuum left by a feuding Congress.

The candidates include teachers, businesswomen, military veterans and lawyers. Some are single mothers, and many are first-time candidates. Some have been inspired by the #MeToo movement, which has unleashed an outpouring of complaints from female legislators, lobbyists and staffers of sexual harassment, abuse and toxic work environments in America's statehouses. Some want to focus more on health and family issues they believe legislatures are ignoring. They are Democrats, Republicans and independents, representing a wide array of views on issues.

The women share one mission: to break up the old boys' clubs they see in the nation's statehouses and bring in more female perspectives. While candidates say they're not driven solely by gender, they do believe having more women in state senates, assemblies and houses will change the culture of state legislatures, both in terms of how women are regarded and in terms of public policy.

"Who serves in state government matters. The male-dominated legislature we've got right now isn't going to (address) the issues that matter to women," says Pennsylvania state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, a Democrat whose district abuts that of a GOP colleague, Rep. Nick Miccarelli, who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by two women, one of whom is also a state representative.

"It's shocking. I have an MBA. I ran an organization that helped business coalitions before I ran for office. And the Pennsylvania House is the most misogynistic environment I've ever been in," Krueger-Braneky says.

Other female legislators and first-time candidates are frustrated by what they see as a lack of attention to issues important to women and families – whether it's access to birth control, help in caring for elderly parents or sufficient funding for K-12 education. And while they note that not all women have the same views or offer the same solutions, they wonder why their voices have been so underrepresented in the institutions that make policy directly affecting the lives of their states' residents.

Denise Gray, a Kentucky Democrat who passed on a law career to teach children with special needs, says she decided to run for elected office two years ago, when she found one of her students in the school library crying. The girl felt her gender, poverty and background (her mother is South American) would keep her from succeeding. Gray decided then she wanted to be a role model and an advocate for the child.

Her formal candidacy for the state senate came as the Kentucky House Speaker, Jeff Hoover, announced he would step down as speaker (but not as a state House member) amid disclosures that he had secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint with a female staffer.

"Once that issue did come out, it was like – 'I definitely need to be there.' Because we need more women there," Gray says. "What we have is a lot of older, male and white gentlemen who are making laws for Kentuckians" who are far more diverse than the membership of the Legislature, she says. "I am a woman and I'm also African-American. We have not had an African-American woman in our state senate in over 30 years, and I will only be the second, ever. Ever. That's pretty sad," Gray adds. That's just telling you our General Assembly does not represent our people."

Kimberly Cates, a single mother and businesswoman who is running in the Republican primary for an Indiana state House seat, says she brings a different set of experiences than the male incumbent she hopes to replace. "I'm not a man-basher," Cates says. But "I believe that we tend to see things from a different perspective," raising issues that men don't necessarily reject, but aren't on their personal radar, she says. "We want good day care. We want our schools to be safe, not just from violence but from obscenity."

For some female candidates, the explosion of sexual harassment allegations in statehouses has underscored long-simmering resentments over how women are regarded there.

The #MeToo movement has unleashed an outpouring of complaints by female legislators, lobbyists and staffers of sexual harassment and abuse. Nine lawmakers In six states have been accused of sexually harassing, molesting or – in one case – raping another legislator. In one of those states, Pennsylvania, a state representative has secured a protective order against her former boyfriend and fellow House member amid allegations he threatened to kill her. Legislatures are scrambling to write or rewrite sexual harassment policies and penalties, but victim advocates say many fall short. In one state, New York, the initial negotiating team to write a new state sexual harassment policy included no women.

Rachel Crooks, a Democrat, was urged to run for the state House in Ohio after she went public with allegations that Trump forcibly kissed her in an elevator in 2006 (a charge the president has denied as part of a blanket disavowal of women's complaints about his behavior). Should Crooks win, she'll serve in a legislature that is 22 percent female and that has had two members resign (and several more apologize) for sexual harassment charges.

Crooks recalls being in a meeting with other female candidates and lawmakers and talking about how an issue as superficially gender-neutral as automobile safety was, in fact, a matter where women have been underserved, since cars were designed to accommodate adult male-sized crash dummies. "We've been left out of these (equations) for so long, it's not even in their thought process," Crooks says, adding that she'd like to focus on health care and reproductive rights if elected. "I think diverse perspectives change everything," Crooks adds.

Women now hold 1,874 of the 7,383 state legislative seats nationally, according to a tally by Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics. About 61 percent of the female lawmakers are Democrats, and 38 percent are Republicans. While a record number of women are running for Congress this year (471 filed, or are expected to file, for the House, and 57 for the Senate, including women who have already lost primaries, according to CAWP) the potential for expanded female power in state legislatures could have more impact, experts say.