Opinion and Forefront

HOWEY: Mayoral glass ceiling persists in big cities

December 24, 2011

Brian HoweyAs the results from the Nov. 8 city elections sink in, one of the big questions is this: Does Indiana have the glass ceiling when it comes to city and state executives?

The question comes after Democrat Melina Kennedy lost in Indianapolis, as did Republican Paula Hughes in Fort Wayne and Charlestown’s Donna Ennis. And several incumbents—Muncie’s Sharon McShurley, Portage’s Olga Valezquez and LaPorte’s Kathy Chroback—were defeated for re-election.

There were successes, including former attorney general Karen Freeman-Wilson’s emergence in Gary, the re-election of Sally Hutton in Richmond, Pam Hendrickson in Boonville, Sue Murray in Greencastle, Barbara Ewing in Tell City, Suzanne Handshoe in Kendallville, Patty Fisel in Ligionier and independent Shawna Girgis in Bedford. Republican Kristen Brown defeated Priscilla Scalf in Columbus and 28-year-old Blair Milo upset Chroback in LaPorte.

Our last two lieutenant governors—Becky Skillman and Kathy Davis—were females. When given the chance to run for governor, both declined. Democrat Jill Long Thompson lost to Gov. Mitch Daniels.

But when it comes to the big cities, it appears harder to break through. Kennedy is the third female in Indianapolis to lose since 1995 and Hughes was the second in Fort Wayne since 2003.

In most cities where the gender barrier has been broken, the results were hardly lasting. Mayor Judy Anderson lasted only one term in Terre Haute, as did Eleanor Kesim in Elkhart. In 2003, Indiana had 13 females in the two major parties who ran for mayor and 11 won in 119 cities, and in 2007 three lost re-election in primaries and another five lost in general re-elections.

That’s not to say there haven’t been success stories. Former state representative Nancy Michael in Greencastle (three terms), Jane Reiman in Carmel (two terms), Sally Hutton in Richmond (three terms), Sheila Brillson in Michigan City (two terms), and Tomilea Allison in Bloomington (two terms) were political forces.

And then there are the grand dames of mayoral politics. Sonya Margerum served 24 years at the helm in West Lafayette while Republican Maggie Prickett did four terms in Mishawaka.

The experience of then-Secretary of State Sue Anne Gilroy in Indianapolis is instructive. She entered the 1999 race with the imprimatur of former mayors Dick Lugar, Bill Hudnut and Stephen Goldsmith, but lost to Bart Peterson by nearly 20,000 votes. Gilroy lost a significant slice of the Republican female vote.

“It wasn’t just GOP women,” said J. Cameron Carter, who handled communications for the Gilroy campaign. “We were concerned with the female vote in the closing weeks.”

And therein lies the danger to female mayoral candidates. Because the mayor deals with the grittier aspects of public policy, the reality is that many voters see it as a “man’s job.”

When Kennedy kicked off her campaign last winter, her husband and small children were just off the stage to her right. At her left was a woman holding a placard reading, “Moms for Melina.”

Kennedy noted the ceiling and declared: “It is time to make history.”

She spent much of the summer emphasizing early childhood education. If it had worked, we would have called it a brilliant strategy. But I was skeptical, as most voters see mayors dealing with cops and crime, sewers and garbage, not preschool education. When Kennedy found herself trailing by double digits last August, she had to take the gloves off and launch bitter attacks on Mayor Greg Ballard, just as Gilroy was forced to go negative in 1999.

Therein lies the unfairness of the process. A male candidate is more likely to get away with the bare-knuckled political brawls than a young mother.

So what’s the formula for success for females in bigger cities?

It’s a complicated makeup, the mixture of a general, a no-nonsense teacher, a compassionate but firm parent, with a background of success in business or the military. Successful female mayors tend to be older. And they have to hold their own with the good ol’ boys.•


Howey is a third-generation Hoosier journalist who publishes Howey Politics Indiana. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by Brian A. Howey / Special to IBJ

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