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Women falter in Maryland politics

The Baltimore Sun

In Maryland politics, 2006 was not exactly the Year of the Woman.

No major statewide office was captured by a woman. The eight-member congressional delegation remains all-male. And after the number of women serving in Maryland's General Assembly reached the highest peak in the history of the state legislature, Election Day reduced that number by more than 10 percent.

"Women had a very bad year in Maryland," said Paula C. Hollinger, a former state senator from Baltimore County who gave up her safe seat to run for Congress, losing in the primary to a man. "We've made big gains. Now we're going backward again. It's still an old-boys club."

All is not lost, politics watchers say. Before voters went to the polls this month, Maryland had the highest percentage of women serving in the state legislature of any other state in the nation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Though Maryland might not keep its No. 1 ranking come January, it is likely to stay in the top tier of female-oriented legislatures, with women accounting for 31 percent of its members in the upcoming session. The percentage of women in state legislatures nationwide in 2006 was 22.8, according to the center.

"My hunch is that Maryland still stands pretty tall in terms of women," said Melissa Deckman, an associate professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown, who recently co-wrote a textbook, Women in Politics: Paths to Power and Political Influence.

It's not just about having the numbers, many said. It's about the issues that women bring to the table that their male counterparts might not fight for as vigorously, including domestic violence, children and family issues, and women's health initiatives, they said. Women come with different life experiences and different points of view, they said.

"If we were not there, many of the women's issues we address would never be addressed," said Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore County Democrat who is president of Woman Legislators of Maryland, more commonly known as the women's caucus.

In 2006, there were 15 female senators in Maryland and 52 female delegates. In January, there will be 11 female senators and 48 female delegates, as of vote counts tallied this week. The number of female delegates will be the same as it was a decade ago.

The loss in the Senate is particularly precipitous, with nearly a third of the women in the higher chamber failing to return. Two - Democrats Sharon M. Grosfeld and Gloria G. Lawlah - chose retirement, only to be replaced by men. Two - Democrat Ida G. Ruben and Republican Sandra B. Schrader - lost re-election bids to men. A fifth, Hollinger, took her chance at higher office and will be succeeded by a man. Only one woman, Del. Catherine E. Pugh, was newly elected to the Senate, and she replaced a retiring man.

The first woman in the General Assembly in Maryland was Mary Risteau of Harford County. She became a delegate in 1921 and a senator in 1934.

"It's always good to have a mix," said Marsha Wise, executive director of the women's caucus, which started in 1972 when there were a total of 12 women in the state's House and Senate. "But it's a number you don't control in any way, shape or form."

The highest-ranking female politician in Maryland is Barbara A. Mikulski, who has been a U.S. senator for 20 years. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served as lieutenant governor from 1995 until 2003. (The highest-ranking female politician in the nation is a Marylander by birth - Nancy Pelosi, the next speaker of the House. She grew up in Baltimore but represents San Francisco in Congress.)

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who won re-election to her second term this month, said she isn't worried about the future of women's issues in the legislature. She thinks the critical mass of female legislators is strong enough to continue to further the agenda of the caucus, even with its diminished numbers. Women, she said, hold leadership posts in both houses and have considerable influence.

"My sense is that the women's caucus as a group is fairly influential and organized, and mature and sophisticated enough that, whatever the gains or losses might be, they're going to be fine," she said. "Whatever women's issues may come up, we should be able to bring them to the table."

Several women came very close to being elected this year for the first time. Others lost their seats when they ran against one another for higher office. Still others were turned out by voters.

Deckman said that political science research shows that female legislators are more likely to sponsor legislation regarding women's health, children and other issues of special concern to women. She said she is surprised at how few women run for statewide office. This year in Maryland, two women who tried - Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, who hoped to be elected state comptroller, and Kristin Cox, who was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s running mate - lost their bids.

"There's just something unfair or unjust that 50 percent of the population are women, but we can't seem to break in to being more represented statewide," Deckman said.

She said women traditionally wait until they are older to run for office, after their children are older, because child care and other home responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately on women. "That often puts them at a disadvantage," she said. She said studies also show that women are also less likely than men to consider running for office at all.

Nathan-Pulliam said the decline in female legislators will just spark those who remain to work harder down the road to see that more are elected.

"It's always better to have more in numbers, but I'm hoping we can recapture that in four years," she said.

Still, she said, "I don't think it will hurt our clout."

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

An article in the Maryland section yesterday about women in state politics should have included Republican comptroller candidate Anne M. McCarthy among those who failed in their bid for statewide office this year.
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