The election landscape in California was shaken up this week. Two veteran members of the state’s House delegation announced their retirements. Republican Buck McKeon, whose district runs north of Los Angeles, is stepping aside after more than two decades in Congress. And Bay Area Democrat George Miller is calling it quits after 40 years.
Within hours of Miller’s announcement, Contra Costa County state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier declared his intention to run for Miller’s seat.
“It was a day for me to get started on replacing him, which has been a lifelong hope that I could do,” DeSaulnier says.
His quick decision and one by two men already lined up to take McKeon’s seat underscored a truth about politics, what some call a “gender gap in political ambition.”
“I think it really does exist,” says Cassandra Pye. “I think that men are just more ambitious in this realm than women are.”
Pye is a Sacramento Republican who was political director for the California Chamber of Commerce for 12 years and then served in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration.
“You know, you’ll say to a man ‘You oughta think about running for city council.’ And he’ll say, ‘Huh — think I should.’ ” Pye says. “Women, we have learned, No.1, don’t think they’re qualified for a host of reasons. And, No.2, don’t do it unless they’re asked.”
Two decades ago, a contentious confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas got the attention of women when Thomas accuser Anita Hill faced days of grilling from a Senate Judiciary Committee that was all male.
That launched what became known in 1992 as the Year of the Woman, a political groundswell that swept Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein into the U.S. Senate. But that tide is receding, at least in California. And it’s not just at the State Capitol. A recent survey by the public affairs firm Grassroots Lab found that among California’s mayors and city council members, three out of four are men.
One group working to reverse that trend is Emerge California, a nonprofit that recruits, trains and helps Democratic women run for office.
At an Emerge training event in San Francisco recently, Executive Director Kimberly Ellis expressed dismay that less than 30 percent of state legislators are women. She says increasing the numbers of elected women isn’t just about parity.
“We are really interested in changing the tenor and culture of politics. But more importantly, we’re interested in changing the policy outcomes and the legislation,” Ellis says.
She believes female politicians are reliable advocates for things like gun control, women’s health care or children’s issues. They’re also, she says, less likely to engage in winner-take-all politics and more likely to compromise.
An Emerge class member who’s eager to try is first-time candidate Carol Kim. The former schoolteacher is running for the San Diego City Council. She notes that women have to be especially good multitaskers to also run for office.
“We are parents and caregivers and some of us (have) aging parents that we take care of along with children,” Kim notes. “Those are things that men don’t have to consider, I think, in the same way.”
Another potential barrier, says former L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel, is money. Greuel waged an intense campaign for mayor of Los Angeles last year, losing in a runoff to City Councilman Eric Garcetti. Greuel raised millions for her race, but she says women generally face barriers to fundraising.
“I talked to a lot of men, I said, ‘How come you easily can raise X amount — 10,000, 20,000, and get people together to do that,’ ” Greuel remembers. “And they said, ‘Because men are used to the quid pro quo. I give you, you give me.’ ”
As Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin can attest, the media cover male and female candidates differently. You might think that would have changed by now, but Greuel says not at all.
“I know as a candidate for mayor I had everything from, ‘What does her hair look like today? What is she wearing? Can she be a good mom and a good elected official? Can she get the job done? Is she tough enough?’ Those aren’t questions that are asked of the others,” she says.
The gender gap in California politics is especially acute in the GOP. Of the 18 women in the state’s congressional delegation, not one is a Republican. The situation in Sacramento is similar.
Four years ago, Republicans nominated two women at the top of their ticket. But Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina were unique — two corporate CEOs making their first run for office. Both lost.
Harmeet Dhillon, chair of the Republican Party in San Francisco, says now the party is actively developing a deeper bench.
“What the party has learned — and what the party is doing — is we are running women for fire board, school board, supervisor, you know, city council, mayor, city attorney,” Dhillon says. “And those are the steppingstones to Assembly, Senate, Congress.
In addition to fielding credible candidates, Pye, who is now a Republican communications executive, says her party needs a new image.
“The brand, the party label itself is broken,” she says. “And it’s going to take a little time, I think, before you start to see women support candidates who are Republicans anyway. And in some cases support Republican women.”
With so many legislative seats opening up in Sacramento due to term limits, women see a historic opportunity to narrow that gender gap in the next two election cycles.
Mary Hughes directs Close the Gap California, another group working to elect progressive women.
“This is our window of opportunity,” Hughes notes. “We get to take very seriously these open seats and move progressive women into them, or those opportunities are lost. But that opportunity is very small.”
Of course any winning campaign takes money. At the end of the month, first lady Michelle Obama will join Rep. Nancy Pelosi at a political fundraiser for women in San Francisco.