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Crashing the boys' club: Women candidates find winning elections is only half the battle

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
Tara Gaston, Haya Ayala and Deborah Gonzalez. (Photos: gastonforsupervisor.com, ayalafordelegate.com, Facebook.com)

For Tara Gaston, it was being repeatedly told “that’s not the way things have been done” on the Saratoga County, N.Y., board of supervisors, to which she had just been elected.

For Haya Ayala, it was watching her bill calling for pay parity get “killed before it could get anywhere near the floor” of the Virginia House of Delegates, which she joined as one of an influx of newcomers last year.

And for Deborah Gonzalez, it was taking her first meeting with the other candidate who had flipped a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives during a special election last fall and realizing that “he got a big office; I got a little office. He was given his first choice of committee requests; I didn’t get any of my committee requests. He was a white man; I was a Latina.”

There’s a blue wave predicted for November, composed of record numbers of newcomers, many of them women, who are running to change the status quo. But for the forerunners of that wave — new legislators like Gaston, Ayala and Gonzalez, who have already won their off-year or special elections — that expectation has now met reality. Like generations of officeholders before them, they are learning that getting elected is completely different from governing, and that this unprecedented and unpredictable political landscape makes it all the more complicated.

“The attention has been on the record numbers who are running and to the message being sent by those sheer numbers,” says Rosalyn Cooperman, associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. “But what kind of change this brings depends not only on who runs and who wins, but how they navigate the rigid political institutions” they are being elected to.

Cooperman studied the Virginia House of Delegates, which added 19 first-time delegates in the November election; 12 were women, 11 of those were Democrats, and nine of those were challengers who defeated male Republican incumbents. It was a stunning sweep, but it fell one delegate short of flipping the House majority. (In fact, it fell one vote short of doing so, because the final seat in question was a tie, and a coin flip went to the Republican.) That meant a world of difference in what the newcomers could do.

Rosalyn Cooperman, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. (Photo: Courtesy of Rosalyn Cooperman/Norm Shafer)

“More than half of the incoming freshmen were relegated to the science and technology committee, a committee with a light workload and limited jurisdiction,” Cooperman wrote in an article for the website Gender Watch 2018. “The lone Republican woman freshman was assigned to House finance.

“Democratic women (and men) delegates,” she continued, “also saw most of their sponsored bills killed in Republican-dominated committees.” For instance, Danica Roem, who broke barriers by being the first transgender candidate delegate in the assembly, saw all 11 of her proposed bills die before leaving committee or even subcommittee. Of all the bills filed by the 16 freshman Democrats, 85 percent never made it to a floor vote.

“I thought it was an obvious good,” says Ayala, who represents Prince William County, about her co-sponsorship of a bill that would protect employees from reprimand should they discuss their wages with other employees. “In some contracts, it is part of nondisclosure,” she says, “which perpetuates the tendency to pay women less than men.” Opponents of the bill said it was not needed because existing labor laws already cover the problem, she says, “but they don’t, which is why there is a problem.

“Anything they could do to desecrate my bill, they did,” she says. “When I reintroduce it this year, I plan to be better prepared.”

Being in the minority party was a major obstacle cited by the new officeholders interviewed for this article, but it was not the only one. Gaston, a lawyer who represents Saratoga Springs on the county’s board, says that entrenched tradition is another. She had spent most of her adult life moving around the country to wherever her husband’s naval career took the family. Though she had lived in Saratoga Springs periodically during those years, she had only been a full-time resident of the upstate New York town for a year when she decided to run as a Democrat for an open seat after the 2016 presidential election. “That one didn’t turn out the way I had wanted it to turn out, and I felt it was time to step up and do my part,” she says.

She won and became one of five newcomers on a 23-person, majority-Republican board. At the county level, she says, the divide is less one of party than of tenure, and she has been warned by those who have been there for years, even decades, that she was breaking unwritten rules. When local reporters attended board meetings, she asked that they be given copies of all the documents being reviewed by the supervisors, rather than just the specific ones they happened to request. “I was told in no uncertain terms, ‘That’s not the way things have been done.’  Well, it’s the way I do things.”

It feels like there is a touch of sexism in the warning, she says, though not so overt that she can call it out. “I do hear a note of ‘not so fast, little lady,’” she says, “but those words have not been used. I’m sure there’s some gender in there, some politics in there, and some of me just being new and needing to figure it out.”

To help women overcome those obstacles, there is a pilot program called Underwire to mentor and support women after they win. Co-founder Marya Stark — who is also a co-founder of Emerge America, which trains female Democratic candidates — has watched thousands of Emerge alumni enter elected office and face “everything from sexism to sabotage,” by those who got there earlier.

As was the case in the last so-called Year of the Woman in 1992, when the number of women in Congress reached record numbers in response to the Clarence Thomas hearings, the women running now are de facto outsiders, Stark says, and “the question they keep asking is, ‘How do I represent my constituents well when people are telling me I am not welcome here?’”

That is Gonzalez’s concern as she tries to crack the equation of gender, party and the learning curve of her new job. Her election represents a desire for change on the part of voters, she believes, but the body to which she was elected seems designed to resist most change.

Like Gaston and Ayala, Gonzalez had no political experience in 2016 when the defeat of Hillary Clinton spurred her to run for office. “I thought, ‘I have taken so much for granted in terms of rights that obviously can be lost,’” she says. “I come from a military family, and my father always taught us that if something needs to be done and you’re the only person who could do it, you have a duty to do so.”

There were no Democratic challengers to Republican incumbent Regina Quick in Georgia’s 117th House District. Quick had voted for the campus gun carry bill that passed in the legislature, and co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have required teachers to report to police any allegations of sexual assault, even if a student came to them in confidence. Gonzalez disagreed with both. “And so I ran,” she says.

She Googled “how to run for office” and “how do you run a successful campaign” and enrolled in training from Emily’s List, Georgia WIN and Her Turn. The vote was to be in 2018, but then Quick was appointed a superior court judge, and a special election was held in November 2017. Gonzalez’s opponent, Houston Gaines, was 23 years old; unlike Gonzalez, he had held elected office – when he was student council president at the University of Georgia the year before.

Still, her district was so conservative and so gerrymandered that no Democrat had even run for the seat since 2002, making it a surprise when Gonzalez earned 53 percent of the vote. She took her place as one of three Latinas in a governing body that has 112 Republicans and 64 Democrats, with 26 percent of the total being women.

That’s when she realized that many of the rules are not written down. “This is the ultimate learn-on-the-job,” she says. “Who has the power to make things happen? Whose toes do you never ever step on? And this place is very, very, very heavy in tradition — in the way you ask questions; in the way that business is conducted.”

Her experience with “that’s not the way things have been done” came the day she arrived to find that all her colleagues were wearing ties (the men) and scarves (the women) that had been given to them by the Georgia Dental Association. “I hadn’t gotten the memo,” she says. “I think it was a way of hazing freshmen.” She did get a heads-up the night before the last day of the legislative session, when she learned it was tradition to wear seersucker suits for the last vote. “Needless to say, I didn’t happen to have a seersucker suit,” she says. “I wore a blue dress.”

Like Gaston, Gonzalez is on a steep learning curve, and also confronting the realities of a “fraternity-like boys’ club.” The latter, she believes, explains why she has an office half the size as the one given to Jonathan Wallace, the new representative from the other district in Athens, who had also flipped a seat that had been strongly Republican. “We came in at the same time, under the same circumstances; we were sworn in on the same day,” she says. “It was eye-opening to me.”

Whatever the roots, the women at the front of this potential “blue wave” warn that more women candidates does not automatically translate to more women in office, which in turn does not necessarily mean progress on the issues that women are running on in the first place.

Westfield, N.J., Mayor Shelley Brindle (Photo: Facebook)

Shelley Brindle, the newly elected Democratic mayor of the traditionally Republican town of Westfield, N.J., does not face the challenge of governing when in the minority party because not only did Democrats take the mayor’s office, but they also flipped the previously all-Republican town council by adding five Democrats.

It was a stunning upset in an enclave that was home to some of the most influential Republicans in New Jersey, including many senior officials in the Christie administration. But even with the majority and what she sees as a clear mandate, the former high-level HBO executive says she’s learning that entrenched practices are slow to change.

She has had a crash course in parliamentary procedure so she could run town council meetings, negotiating with the fire and police departments, appointing staff that would pursue her vision and sending the message to the other party that they are now in the minority.

“The Republicans left on the council are having a tough time,” she says. “They don’t want to acknowledge that there’s a reason I won. I just physically represent that the town is different, and for some people that’s particularly hard.

“It turns out,” she says, “that running was the easy part.”

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