Calling women to action for a stronger democracy

Emerge Maryland trains the next generation of female political leaders.

There was a time that Maryland's congressional delegation included as many women as men. Remarkably, in 1984, Maryland voters elected women to half of the state's seats in Congress: Reps. Helen Bentley, Beverly Byron, Marjorie Holt and Barbara Mikulski. In the election of 2014, exactly 30 years later, our Congressional delegation is not as gender balanced as it once was. While many able men serve in elected office, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Donna Edwards are the only women representing Maryland at the federal level.

But there are reasons to be optimistic that the number of women in elected office in Maryland will be back on the rise.

When the General Assembly convenes in January, a number of women who won their first races this year will be sworn in. In Baltimore County, Shelly Hettleman has a strong policy background and deep ties to the community. Physician Terri Hill from Howard County brings a much-needed health care background to state lawmaking. And history will be made in Frederick County when popular Jan Gardner is sworn in as the first Frederick County executive, after the county transitioned to charter government.

Three alumnae of a new political training organization, Emerge Maryland, also won their first races this November. In Frederick County, schoolteacher Jessica Fitzwater won a seat on the newly formed County Council. Attorneys Brooke Lierman of Baltimore City and Angela Angel of Prince George's County, both young working mothers, won seats in the Maryland state legislature. Each in her 30s, but from very different backgrounds, these women all stepped forward to serve their communities in public office. They ran strong and impressive campaigns that built unexpected coalitions and powerful new networks.

To return to the gender parity of Maryland's congressional delegation of the 1980s, many more women must fill the pipeline at the state and local level so they are prepared to run for higher office. As the newly elected governor and county executives appoint elected officials to their cabinets, vacancies will occur in state and local governments. Because of Emerge Maryland, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, there are women on the bench, ready for appointment to office when opportunities arise. Some are political insiders, having served in party positions for many years while others are newcomers to the process. They share a commitment to their communities, an interest in public service and the hands-on campaign experience gained from Emerge Maryland.

Our state and nation will be stronger when women have equal representation at all levels of government. Already, Senator Mikulski and Congresswoman Edwards make a positive impact on the lives of Maryland families every day. Just last week, President Barack Obama signed into law Senator Mikulski's bipartisan legislation to overhaul the federal child care program. Because of the efforts of Senator Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who strongly supported the legislation, our nation's children will receive higher quality child care in safer environments.

Increasingly, powerful Maryland women are taking on key leadership roles. As Senator Mikulski ends her service as the first woman to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee in Washington, Del. Maggie McIntosh will become the first woman chair of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis. Both of these trailblazers do a great deal to personally encourage more women to run for office.

As we know, women in elected office can have different opinions, but they often share a commitment to the health and well being of their communities, from Frederick to Fells Point to Fruitland. After running smart campaigns in a tough environment, the newly elected women in Maryland are ready to get to work. Each ran on substantive policy ideas that will strengthen their communities and improve the quality of life for their neighbors. They will shape the future of Maryland.

The election is over, but the women of Maryland are just getting started, as we look ahead to local elections in the near term and legislative elections down the road. Emerge Maryland continues recruiting and training the next generation of leaders, as 15 more talented women are starting the seven-month training program in December. Emerge Maryland looks forward to the day when there as many Maryland women in politics as there are men; our state will be stronger for it.

Martha McKenna is chair of Emerge Maryland. Her email is martha@mckennapihlaja.com; Twitter: @EmergeMaryland.

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