When Baltimoreans vote on Tuesday, they will have the chance to support future women running for office through Question H, which would amend the Baltimore City charter to create a Fair Election Fund, giving local candidates the option to publicly finance their campaigns by qualifying for matching small-dollar donations. Advocates have argued that the program will increase voter participation because average voters will feel that their contributions matter.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett — the sponsor of the charter amendment bill — believes that public campaign financing will enable candidates to spend more time in their communities engaging with voters and less time focusing on fundraising. Supporters of the program have also pointed out that a Fair Election Fund would encourage people in working-class families to run for office. In addition, we should consider the fact that a Fair Election Fund would be a game changer for many women who are thinking about running for office in Baltimore.
The cost of running a competitive campaign — even for a local office like City Council — is a serious barrier for many women in our city, especially women who work, care for others and are heavily involved in their communities. As many recent articles have pointed out, women candidates typically struggle with fundraising more than men, and they tend to rely more on small-dollar donations.
The gender gap in political fundraising is further exacerbated when you consider that the cost of local Baltimore City elections has increased exponentially over the past decade. For instance, the average donation for a winning mayoral candidate jumped from $525 in 2007 to $681 in 2011, then it nearly doubled to $1,119 in 2016. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young won re-election in 2016 with $798,000 in his war chest, beating out opponent Kim Trueheart, who raised less than $4,000 overall.
The prohibitive cost of running is not limited to citywide positions. The cost to run for City Council increased 50 percent between 2011 and 2016, with successful candidates raising $142,000 on average last election. The reality is that most people — particularly women — do not have access to networks that can contribute that kind of money. This pay-to-play culture of local politics discourages women from stepping up to run for public office.
In my own council district in Southeast Baltimore (District 1), the top three vote-getters in the 2016 primary raised an average of over $159,000 for the primary alone. Indeed, all six candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in that race were men. Imagine how different the 2016 elections might have looked with a Fair Election Fund.
This year, voters have the opportunity to make that vision a reality. A vote for Question H is a vote of encouragement for future women candidates who are qualified leaders but might not be able to afford a competitive campaign without public financing.
We need to encourage and support women to run for office in Baltimore so that we can have a local government that is actually representative of the people. Nine of our 15 City Council members are African American, which is roughly proportionate to our 62.6 percent African American population in Baltimore. However, only three of the 15 members are female in a city that is 53 percent female. Women cannot be truly represented if they barely have seats at the table.
Electing more women will translate into other benefits for Baltimore beyond representation. Studies show that female legislators not only introduce more bills that benefit women and families than their male counterparts, but they actually introduce more legislation overall. In a recent session of Congress, women legislators passed twice as many bills as men on average.
Furthermore, women legislators tend to be more effective at advocating for resources for their constituents. Between 1984 and 2004, women in Congress brought back 9 percent more funds to their districts (an average of $49 million per district) than their male counterparts. Political scientists argue that women’s tendency to compromise and collaborate leads to them getting more work done.
There are many reasons why we need more female elected leaders, but the most important is the simple fact that women have different perspectives than men. We deserve a local government that represents all perspectives, a government that looks like the people. While Question H is not a cure-all to erase the political gender gap, it is a step in the right direction.
Paris Bienert is chair of the 46th District Democratic State Central Committee; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.