'Make the statehouse look like the state': Historic number of women running for office in Alabama
Montgomery Advertiser - 10/22/2018
Oct. 22--"First of all, she doesn't have to run office."
Alabama Ethics Commissioner Charlie Price spoke these words at a commission meeting in June, where first-time political candidate Jenn Gray petitioned for a ruling allowing candidates to use campaign funds for childcare expenses.
Gray, whose daughter is on the autism spectrum and whose husband works full-time, feared she would have to withdraw from the House District 45 race if she couldn't pay for childcare during summer campaign events.
The Democratic candidate won a narrowly defined ruling from the commission this summer, but said Price's dissenting vote -- and voice -- was a nine-word summation of the barriers women face when deciding whether or not to run for political office in the United States.
"I've never heard a more succinct expression of the problem," Gray said. "Because to him, it's not a campaign expense. He's never thought about it. Men have unpaid labor, often, to raise their children. ... We need all of these points of view. We want to make the statehouse look like the state"
Alabama ranks among the bottom six states in country of female representation in state legislatures: Women make up just 15 percent of state legislators despite constituting more than 50 percent of Alabama's overall population. The gap for women of color is even wider, at just over 6 percent of total state legislators in the country, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
But a historic number of Alabama women are seeking to change that.
Gray is one of more than 55 women running for state-level offices in Alabama this year, a reaping of seeds planted in the aftermath of the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement and, locally, the candidacy of Roy Moore. The slate of legislative candidates is likely the largest in state history -- CAWP counts it as the largest since 2000, at least, when its researchers began tracking state candidacies.
"It's just time that women stand up, they step out, and they get loud," said Joanne Whetstone, a Democratic candidate for Alabama House District 90. "It is a deeply felt need."
At the top of the ballot, Republican Governor Kay Ivey is campaigning for a full term. Democrats Tabitha Isner and Mallory Hagan, along with incumbent Republican Rep. Martha Roby, are on the ballot for U.S. congressional district. Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell will run unopposed.
Women are vying for spots on the Supreme Court of Alabama and the public service commission, as well as challenging incumbents in State Treasurer and Secretary of State's offices, respectively.
Jean Sinzdak, an associate director at CAWP, said Alabama's numbers mirror the rest of the country, where record amounts of women are running. The energy is impossible to ignore, Sinzdak said.
"It's not only record-breaking, its blowing past previous records, in terms of the number of women candidates," Sinzdak said. "The uptick is on the Democratic side; we're not seeing it on the Republican. It's not unusual for the underdog party in the midterms to be the motivated party, but the degree to which they're motivated this year is pretty extreme."
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Historically, two Alabama women were among the first in the nation to serve in higher office. But for decades, Alabama female candidacy on the national stage was often a means to an end for male politicians.
Dixie Bibb Graves, a white Alabama suffragist, became just the fourth American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1937. Three decades later, Lurleen Wallace would become the fourth female governor in the country.
But both women were virtual proxy candidates for their husbands, governors David Bibb Graves and George Wallace. Graves appointed his wife to the seat after Hugo Black left for the U.S. Supreme Court, serving less than six months before stepping down. Lurleen Wallace campaigned in the 1966 gubernatorial election while battling cancer after term limits prevented her husband from running again, but died just over a year into her governorship.
In 1978, Alabama's second female senator, Maryon Pittman Allen, was appointed by Governor George Wallace after her husband, Senator Jim Allen, died from a heart attack. Allen attempted to hold her seat in a general election, but lost in a runoff.
Ivey is the state's second woman to hold the state's highest office, following her ascension from lieutenant governor in April 2017 due to the resignation of embattled Governor Robert Bentley, whose administration was marred by an alleged extramarital affair and undone by misuse of campaign funds.
But despite rarely getting a seat at the table on their own terms, women in Alabama are regularly the most sought after political voting blocs in the state. This dichotomy played out in real-time last year, as Democrat Doug Jones battled Republican Roy Moore in a special election for Alabama's open Senate seat.
Jones' victory hinged on voter turnout, and he was particularly boosted by black Alabama women, organized and motivated in their communities. Jones also pursued a moderate coalition in hopes of coaxing conservatives turned off by Moore's firebrand rhetoric and accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against him -- particularly college-educated Republican women in the state's urban and suburban enclaves.
In Montgomery County, Tashina Morris, Democratic candidate for House District 77, faces no major party opposition in the general election. Independent Tijuanna Adetunji is challenging Democratic nominee Kirk Hatcher in House District 78. Whatever happens on Nov. 6, the county will send a woman to the statehouse for the first time.
"We get behind candidates who we hope and pray will continue to have our best interests at heart," Morris said. "But as you continue to do the legwork and still get left behind, the only other choice you have is to become strictly involved in running for politics. Not only to make changes for people who look like you, but to make changes for the state and city as a whole."
For Veronica Johnson, a juvenile probation officer in Jefferson County running as a Democrat for House District 51, seeing black women as leaders, nurturers and change makers is nothing new. Politics was always in the cards for the mother of two, she said, but it was a long-term goal until a string of women in her life encouraged her to campaign this year.
"We don't just have to sit back and be quiet and take things as they are given to us," Johnson said. "We have a voice, and our voice is just as important as anybody else's voice. ... I can't expect change if I don't want to make sacrifices myself. We are the difference-makers."
Johnson's story is echoed across Alabama's city boundaries and house districts: Women who stuffed ballots, phone banked and lobbied for specific legislation say they looked to their role models, friends and colleagues to run for office. But, sometimes, they realized they would have to do it themselves.
"I had picked up the phone to tell a friend she was smart as a whip, it would be right for this state," said Danielle Mashburn-Myrick, a Democrat running for House District 94.
Mashburn-Myrick, a lawyer, and her young family had moved back to their hometown of Fairhope when they became more politically active, spurred by concerns about public education funding in Baldwin County and health care after her son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. When another local candidate decided not to run at the last minute, she knew what she had to do.
"I thought it too critical to let this go," Mashburn-Myrick said.
Research indicates American women have less access to professional mentorship and are not socially conditioned to engage in politics in the same ways men are. In studies done by American University public affairs researchers, men were 60 percent more likely than women to view themselves as "very qualified" to run for office, despite comparable education and professional backgrounds. A 2008 Brookings study found female candidacy was also stymied by political "gatekeepers" -- politicians, party leaders, donors, advocacy groups -- frequently recruiting men over women, despite comparable qualifications.
In Alabama, a progressive effort by a national organization to train and recruit women to run for office has produced an ambitious slate of candidates from its first graduating class. Stacie Propst, executive director of Emerge Alabama, said the group is about sidestepping traditional gatekeepers to give capable women the tools they need to campaign.
"We are demystifying the political machine," Propst said. "There is very much a political machine in Alabama that only allows certain people to learn, only gives money to certain people. We want to create a network of women who will not take corrupting money."
For Gray and Nancy Carlton Bendinger, a Democratic candidate for Senate District 27, the need for diversity goes beyond gender and racial lines: Alabama needs a more competitive political field and more diversity in professional and educational backgrounds.
"We can't wait for them to change things and invite us to the table. It won't happen," Bendinger said. "Regardless of party, there should be a choice and not just a default party and default candidates. The supermajority, regardless of party, is not an ideal situation for the state. It doesn't provide motivation to really try and tackle the problems we may have."
"I understand the aspect of the childcare bill being a driving part of my story," Gray said. But I have a [doctorate] in pharmaceutical chemistry. I know how to read studies and understand if they are designed to produce a wanted outcome. That effects policy. We need more [scientific] oversight."
No matter what happens in two weeks, Propst believes Emerge's candidates have already won by building a more competitive field and constructing an effective pipeline to train the women coming behind them.
"We've demonstrated to young men and women across Alabama that this is how the field should look like," Propst said. "The field should not be all white men."
Sinzdak believes political scientists will also look beyond win rates in two weeks and predicts the 2018 midterms will be a bellwether of what's to come. Women of all political stripes are campaigning on "their own terms," she said, running campaign ads about breastfeeding and talking about sexual assault and harassment, a stark change from just 10 years ago.
"You see women talk about motherhood as an asset to a campaign, which is not the traditional model," Sinzdak said. "You used to try to fit a mold of what candidates should look like, but that's off the table this year. Whether they translate to wins this cycle, they're contributing to this cultural shift, which matters for the long term. This is the pivotal moment for women's representation."
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