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Political Analysis: Women Candidates

Political Analysis: Women Candidates
Despite some very high-profile women candidates in California races this year, political analysts say the number of women running for office is actually in decline. We'll find out what's stopping women from seeking elective office and how many San Diego women are throwing their hats into the ring.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. California has some well known women running for some high profile positions in this year’s election but, overall, the number of women running for office is not increasing. In fact, the U.S. currently ranks 68th out of 134 nations worldwide in the number of women holding elective office. Why are relatively few women deciding to throw their hats into the ring? KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner spoke with some San Diego political activists to find out the reasons. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Analyst): Good morning, Maureen, and all the women out there, listen up.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as I said, you know, on the face of it with the high profile Republicans running for office—Republican women running for office this year—it may not seem like there are two women candidates. Tell us first of all, if you would, a little bit about those Republican women, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina.

PENNER: Well, Meg Whitman, a Republican candidate for California governor, and if she wins she would be the first female California governor. She’s 53, she was president and CEO of eBay for 10 years and that’s where she made all her money. She is a billionaire. In fact, Harvard Business Review named her the 8th best performing CEO of the past decade. And the Financial Times said she was one of the 50 faces that shaped the decade.


PENNER: So she started off wanting to be a doctor. She switched to economics. She did marry a doctor. And she worked herself up from a brand manager of Procter/Gamble (sic) through various large corporations until she landed at eBay. That company only had 30 employees when she went to work for them as the CEO, and by the time she left there were 15,000.


PENNER: Yes, so she was quite successful. She’s considered the GOP frontrunner, and is very competitive in the race against Jerry Brown. She says she won’t raise taxes. Her campaign is largely self-funded, and lately there’s been a real controversy over whether she’s willing to release her tax returns. On the other hand, we have Carly Fiorina, who’s running for U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket. She does have some others running as well on that ticket, and she wants to unseat Barbara Boxer. She’s 55, she was CEO of Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005, and she was considered one of the most powerful women in business during her tenure. However, in 2002 there was a contentious merger and the Hewlett Packard board eventually forced her to resign. So last November she said, I’m going to be the Republican nominee. I hope to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer. She has an MBA and MS in management and she started out as a secretary/receptionist, and she rose up the corporate ladder, she broke through that glass ceiling many times. And then after she left Hewlett Packard, she signed on with the Fox Business Network to become a business commentator on the network, and she’s appeared many times on network TV. That, in a nutshell, is their background.

CAVANAUGH: Now as you’ve been saying, both women have flirted a little bit with politics but they’re pretty much political newcomers when it comes to seeking office.

PENNER: Yeah, but at the 2008 Republican Convention, both became quite visible. Whitman gave a speech for John McCain, she was on Governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign national finance team, and after Romney stepped out of the race, she went ahead and supported McCain. In fact, she was even mentioned as a possible Secretary of the Treasury. She was endorsed by a lot of – I mean, her candidacy now is being endorsed by a lot of high profile Republicans: Mitt Romney, John McCain, Condoleezza Rice. Incidentally, lately, in addition to the tax return problem, her voting record was called to task by the Sacramento Bee who reported that she voted infrequently, and she’s described her voting record as atrocious. She apologized and states she’s happy to discuss the matter so…


PENNER: …I’m sure it’s going to be discussed as the campaign proceeds. By the way, she supported Proposition 8 in 2008, the ban on same sex marriage. Interestingly, Fiorina has kind of parallels here. She also supported Proposition 8 and she, too, was not much of a voter. What she said in response when she was taken on by the press for not voting, I’m a lifelong registered Republican but I haven’t always voted and I will provide no excuse for it. You know, people die for the right to vote and there are many, many Californians and Americans who exercise that civic duty on a regular basis. I didn’t. Shame on me. That’s what she said.

CAVANAUGH: Well, both Whitman and Fiorina, their careers seemed to shatter the myth that women candidates need to start out seeking smaller elected positions, so like school boards and so forth. Some – it seems that some do and some don’t.

PENNER: This is true, and let’s talk local, okay? Dee Dee Alpert, who left because of term limits from the state Senate. She actually did start on a school board. She started on the Solana Beach School Board and has been successful in every one of her elections, three terms in the Assembly, two terms in the state Senate, and was named Senator of the Year in 2004. She had quite a reputation. Our Congresswoman Susan Davis, I say ‘our’ because San Diego State University’s in her district, she, too, started out on a school board and then went right to the Assembly and then right to Congress. Chris Kehoe, who is still a state Senator, she started out as a community activist and her elected office first seat was in the city council, then she moved to the Assembly and then the state Senate. And Lori Saldana went from Assembly – from activist to Assembly and now she’s termed out and was going to run for supervisor but pulled out. Yet research tells us that this, indeed, is a myth, that you have to start small and that you – but you can actually enter politics at upper levels. Just quickly from a Rutgers study that I read, it says that women need not have a longstanding plan for a political career nor follow a set of carefully calculated steps. So I think that’s really interesting. You actually can start high. Look at Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman. Now we’ll see whether they get elected.

CAVANAUGH: There were a lot of places that have been looking into this phenomenon of why more women are not running for political office. The Brookings Institute came out with a study about why women are reluctant to run for office. What are some of the things that this study found out?

PENNER: You know, it’s kind of simple. The fundamental reason they found is that they – that women don’t get elected. They’re underrepresented because they don’t run for office, that if they ran for office we might see many more women in elected office. There’s a substantial gender gap in political ambition. Men tend to have it, women don’t, this is according to Brookings, and that women, even in the highest tiers of professional accomplishment, are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to seek elected office. Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign, to be recruited to run for office. In fact, the figures are you have to ask a woman seven times, an average of seven times, to run for office before they’ll consider it. You only have to ask a man once. I thought that that was an interesting number. You know, women don’t think they’re qualified to run for office. And I think that the most important thing is that they feel they don’t have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career.

CAVANAUGH: Now some of the people you spoke with talked specifically about the amount of work women are already doing with both job and home responsibilities.

PENNER: Well, this is true. I spoke with Sam Bennett. And Sam is the president and CEO of Women’s Campaign Forum. A little background on that, it was established in 1974 as the first political action committee supporting pro-choice women on both sides of the aisle, and it’s a little different from the very well known Emily’s List in that Emily’s List tends to focus on the end of the campaign, getting money in to the candidate, while the Women’s Forum starts in the beginning. They focus on the early stages of getting people to – women to run and getting money to them to run early. So what was your question?

CAVANAUGH: My question was I think that she said the major reason was because women are already doing so much work.

PENNER: That’s true. And, you know, they say to – I already have a job outside the house, I have a job inside the house, why would I sign up for another job? She also said that men have no worries about whether they’re qualified or not. Women don’t consider themselves qualified even if they are, which I thought was interesting. But those who are most likely to run are people who are politically active. Let me give you an example, involvement, let’s say, with the PTA or a union member or involvement with their political party. If they’re involved in some activity like this, they’re more likely to run. So what do these women do? Well, the first big place to find a woman who might run is in the field of education or health, which I found fascinating. The third is law but when you’re running for higher office, law out performs education and health.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Now what about the issue of sexism? There was a lot made about the things that Martha Coakley had to endure in her unsuccessful run for Senate in Massachusetts. She was more or less sort of thought of as an ice queen and so forth. What about this issue? Is that – Are we past that? Or is that still keeping women out of elective office?

PENNER: No, we certainly are not past that. She was called the ice queen and she was taken on for being kind of reserved. If it were a man, according to the people I’ve spoken (sic), they’d be considered dignified, not icy. And when you take a look at Scott Brown, who won the race, he was the model for a nude centerfold and he got a complete pass for that. If a woman were to do that and to run for U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, of all places, I don’t think she’d get the pass.

CAVANAUGH: And just if you would for a moment, talk about women from minority groups. Do they have an even harder time in becoming candidates?

PENNER: They do. The numbers are just absolutely stark. About 4% of the women that we have in Congress are from minorities. It’s flatlined, it’s not gone up. There are 21 African-American, Hispanic and Asian females, and the numbers, as I said, there were 11 black women in 1992, 13 in 2002, and only 13 today. Karen Bass, who was just termed out as Speaker of the California Assembly, is running for Congress and that was interesting. She actually had to be recruited to move into that race.

CAVANAUGH: Now it’s ironic that we’re talking about a sort of stagnated number of women who are seeking political office on the same day that we hear about the death, the passing, of San Diego feminist, activist, political activist Midge Costanza. And I know that she was a personal friend and colleague of yours.

PENNER: She was.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about her, Gloria.

PENNER: Well, you know, if you read her obituaries, they’re right to the point. Midge only served in elected office once, I think, in the 1970s on the Rochester City Council. But then she went on to become a special advisor, the probably only – the first woman advisor in the White House to Jimmy Carter. She worked with Gray Davis. She moved to L.A. and she worked with Gray Davis as his advisor on women’s issues. And here in San Diego—and she’s been here for many, many years—she really worked to try to get women to run for office. And she would’ve been horrified by the numbers this year. Listen to this, Maureen. There are 17 candidates running for San Diego City Council, 17. Of the 17, there are only two women and they’re both running for the seat that Donna Frye will be leaving because she is termed out. On the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, a little better in the race challenging Ron Roberts. There are four people challenging him for District 4, two are women, two are men. But in the race challenging Bill Horn in District 5, all the candidates are men. So where are the women?

CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s a good question. We have to leave it there. Thank you for doing so much good research on this topic, Gloria.

PENNER: You’re welcome, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent. She is also the host of the Editors Roundtable, and San Diego Week on KPBS Television. If you would like to respond to what you heard on this segment, go online, Coming up, we’ll talk about a program to help kids who have a parent in prison. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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