Beneath the political jockeying and spin, hidden under the discussions of gift cards and riot response, is something that Baltimore City is doing better than most other metropolitan areas. When it comes to women's representation in politics — particularly African American women — Baltimore City is queen.
Take the 2011 Baltimore City mayoral election, where not only was the winner an African American female (then-appointed Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake), so was her closest competitor (state Sen. Catherine Pugh). In the current election cycle, it's Mayor Rawlings-Blake and former Mayor Sheila Dixon vying for the spot, with the entry of Senator Pugh still a real possibility. Further, at the city level there is State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Comptroller Joan Pratt, Councilwomen Helen Holton and Sharon Green Middleton, and numerous elected judges. Of the 22 members of the Baltimore City state legislative delegation, 10 of them are women (45 percent), and eight are African American women.
To put it in national perspective, according to the Center for American Women in Politics, as of January 2015, of the 1,392 mayors of U.S. cities with populations greater than 30,000, only 245 — 17 percent — were women of any racial/ethnic background. Considering only the 100 largest U.S. cities, a scant three have an African American female mayor: Washington, D.C. (Muriel Bowers); San Antonio, Texas (Ivy Taylor); and Baltimore (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake).
At the state level, women of color constitute only about 5 percent of the total 7,383 state legislators nationwide. Of the 318 elected executive seats at the state level across the country — offices such as governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, attorney general and secretary of state — a quarter of them are women, and only nine of them are women of color, including a single African American female who serves as the state treasurer of Connecticut.
It's good to be queen. In fact, some research suggests that increased visibility of female politicians creates a "role model effect." Put simply, when the media spotlight shines on female politicians, it results in increased expressed interest in politics among adolescent girls. In the case of Baltimore City, the recent crop of high school graduates has only known an African American female mayor throughout their entire adolescence. Perhaps Western or Digital Harbor High School just graduated a future African American female governor?
Research by the nonpartisan group Political Parity suggests that women need more encouragement than men to become candidates. Thus, we should foster a culture where political ambition is a quality to be admired in women, just as it is in men. We need to encourage political aspiration by engaging in thoughtful political discussions, rather than discouraging it through gendered, personal criticism.
Our city needs to continue to cultivate this valuable political resource — the smart, talented and politically ambitious Baltimore woman. Along with the already-visible women in public office and the encouragement from parents and mentors, parties and independent organizations also need to provide more funding for recruitment and training programs focused on women. For example, Emerge Maryland has already made significant steps to close the gender gap across Maryland and has trained more women to run for office in Baltimore City.
One such product of their efforts, Shannon Sneed, is running for the City Council seat in District 13. Another Emerge Maryland alum is Del. Brooke Lierman, who in her first election in 2014 was the top vote-getter in District 46. And, of course, there is Baltimore's most famous political daughter — retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski — the grocer's kid from Highlandtown who went from Baltimore City councilwoman to become one of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate.
Political ambition begets representation. When we talk politics with the young people in our lives — particularly the women — we should mind the message. Opposition to the policy and leadership of our female elected officials should be freely expressed, but with a focus on the politics over the personal. To the women in the Baltimore political class: You are a role model. When little girls learn about politics, they learn about you. Set an example through strong, pragmatic, inspired leadership. Don't let them down.