Closing the gender gap in Congress

Op-ed: More women, specifically women of color, are needed in public office.

The outcome of the recent Maryland Democratic primary election resulted in a tough night for gender diversity in Democratic congressional politics. Rep. Donna Edwards said as much in her U.S. Senate concession to Chris Van Hollen speech, as she challenged fellow Democrats to "call the question" on issues of diversity and representation. To that point, Representative Edwards is right — more women, specifically women of color, are needed in public office.

Still, the silver lining is that the election night outcome was a result of a lack of victories, rather than an absence of presence. Ms. Edwards along with House hopefuls Kathleen Matthews and Joseline Peña-Melnyk (and a handful of lesser-known female Democratic candidates) lost, but they ran very competitive races. Further, one election cycle does not undo the work groups like Emerge Maryland and other advocates of gender equality have done to encourage, recruit and train female candidates. Testament to that fact is the diverse bench of potential future Democratic female congressional candidates currently occupying seats in the state legislature and in other local elected offices across the state.

Taking a national-level view, there are 76 Democratic and 28 Republican women serving, together holding 19 percent of the seats in Congress. And, according to the Center for American Women in Politics, in this primary election cycle a total of 282 women (105 Republicans and 177 Democrats) filed to run for the Senate or House of Representatives in 44 states. Considering only the states that have held their primaries thus far (several states hold their district-level primaries after the statewide contests), 27 Democratic women and 12 Republican women are currently heading to their respective general elections. Two of those GOP women are Marylanders: Republican nominee for U.S. Senate Kathy Szeliga and Republican nominee for District 6 Amie Hoeber.

Kathy Szeliga, a state legislator from Baltimore County and minority whip in the Maryland House of Delegates, deftly convinced statewide Republican primary voters that she was the best suited to win in November by demonstrating that while her political roots are socially conservative, she plans to run on a fiscally-centered, "Larry Hogan Republican" platform. She is gregarious with a "call me Kathy" nature, which will serve her well in the county fair circuit she will undoubtedly run this summer. Early indicators of her campaign messaging suggests she is somewhat styled in an Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst fashion — think "make em' squeal in Washington" — but with motorcycle tires, rather than hog castration.

While statewide attention was collectively focused on the big money races to replace Ms. Edwards and Mr. Van Hollen who left the House to seek a Senate seat, Amie Hoeber was winning over Republican voters in a hotly contested primary in MD-6. Her service as the deputy under secretary of the U.S. Army under President Ronald Reagan and founding of a successful national security consulting firm proved popular with primary voters in one of the most conservative regions of our state. And her advocacy work on behalf of women as a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and board member of the House of Ruth Maryland could help her appeal to Democrats and independents.

Nevertheless, Ms. Szeliga and Ms. Hoeber face significant challenges on their respective roads to office. Maryland's Democratic-to-Republican ratios notwithstanding, even tireless campaigning, the right political endorsements, clear platforms, savvy messaging and outside help often come to naught against seasoned opponents with substantial campaign coffers, tested organizations and congressional experience. However, any talks of the "inevitability" of Mr. Van Hollen and Rep. John Delaney still feel incredibly premature — even if the political odds are stacked heavily in their favor.

Regardless of what happens in November, this primary cycle serves as a reminder that female Democratic congresswomen are only one part of women's congressional history in Maryland. Before then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski took office, Republican Marjorie Holt was representing Maryland's 4th congressional district. And Republicans Helen Delich Bentley and Constance "Connie" Morella would follow in the 2nd and 8th congressional districts, respectively. At one point, from 1985 to 1986, half of the state's eight House seats were occupied by women. This bipartisan effort has given Maryland continuous female representation in its congressional delegation since 1973.

To close the gender gap in elected office, women's representation cannot be viewed only through the lens of the Democratic Party. Whether Maryland continues its women's representation winning streak will be decided in November, as Republican female candidates have an equal role to play in ensuring gender balance to Maryland's elected ranks.

Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science. Her email is mileah.kromer@goucher.edu; Twitter: @goucherpoll.

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