Indiana delegation could see gender shakeup

May 11, 2012

One by one, seven women attending a training session to get advice on how to run a political campaign stood up on a cold afternoon to introduce themselves, telling organizers the offices they were seeking.

Two were running for county council. One for county commission. The others were seeking election as coroner, treasurer and school board. Then came Shelli Yoder, a former Miss Indiana and associate director of professional development for Indiana University's business school, who announced she was running for Congress. The result was stunned silence.

"We have not had a woman from here run for Congress ever, I think," said Regina Moore, a founding mother of the Monroe County Democratic Women's Caucus that organized the February event.

Indiana has had only five female members of Congress in its history, none at the same time, and is currently among 16 states without a female serving in either the House or Senate. That could change this fall, though. Yoder and three other women won their parties' nominations in Tuesday night's primary, raising the possibility of a gender shake-up in the state's nine-member all-male House delegation.

"I think it's important that there are four women, two Republicans and two Democrats, because women are very much underrepresented in Congress," said former state Rep. Jackie Walorski, the Republican nominee for the 2nd District seat in northern Indiana. "I think it's a good sign. I think women have made positive differences on both sides."

This could be a record year for female congressional candidates nationwide, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. So far, 225 women have filed to run for congressional seats and another 70 have indicated an interest to run but haven't yet filed, she said. The record was 262 in 2010.

Walsh said women are underrepresented in Congress for many reasons, including the nature of the political ladder congressional candidates typically climb. Congressional candidates frequently start their careers in state legislatures and women make up only 23.7 percent of state legislators nationwide. In Indiana, the rate is just 21.3 percent.

Walsh said women in the past also haven't been recruited by party leaders to run. When they did run, they often faced incumbents.

"There needs to be a more active recruitment of women to run for office," Walsh said.

Indiana Republican Party chairman Eric Holcomb said the party is trying to do just that.

"It's important that our elected officials truly represent the electorate, so you don't want to be one gender or of one professional background," he said.

Currently, 73 women are serving in Congress. The number has been flat the last two elections. The best year for women running for Congress was in 1992, when 24 women won seats for the first time to bring the total number of females in the House to 47.

"We've never seen anything like that since that," Walsh said.

Walsh said female candidates were helped by two things that year: It was the first election after congressional districts were redrawn by state Legislatures, which frequently leads to more open seats, and it was a presidential election year, which frequently brings out more women voters. Twenty-two of the 24 women who won that year were elected to districts with open seats.

The November general election will be the first since 1992 that a presidential election has fallen in the same year that districts were redrawn. Walsh calls it "a year of opportunity" for women seeking higher office.

In Indiana, Yoder in the 9th District and fellow Democrat Tara Nelson in the 4th are running against freshman congressmen, while Walorski and former U.S. Attorney Susan Brooks are running for open seats. Walorski's 2nd District is being vacated by Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, who is running for Senate, and Brooks hopes to win the 5th District seat held by retiring Republican Rep. Dan Burton.

The candidates say they've gotten mixed messages about their efforts to represent the state in Washington. Yoder said she received one email that read: "I would never vote for a woman."

Walorski said she has sensed some hesitation about her candidacy from people she's met on the campaign trail, but she isn't fazed.

"Sometimes I feel that edge, but I've never had anyone say to me, 'What are you doing as a woman running in this thing?'" she said.

Despite some voter skepticism, Brooks said she's excited more women are entering the political process.

"The voters are absolutely ready to have more women to represent them in elected office," she said.

Walsh said it's easy for people to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and believe women have made it in Washington. But she says that's not the case.

"The reality is you just have to look at those numbers: 17 percent of Congress, 24 percent of state legislators and only 6 percent of the governors are females," she said. "There's a long way to go here."


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