Women seek to re­gain power

Can­di­dates hope to re­verse 20-year slump in Texas

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drea Zelin­ski STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN — In 1990, women ruled Texas. Half of the state’s big­gest cities were run by fe­male may­ors. Straight-shoot­ing Ann Richards com­man­deered the gover­nor’s of­fice. And the num­ber of women in the Leg­is­la­ture be­gan to climb to an all-time high.

The na­tion took no­tice as women in charge in Hous­ton, San An­to­nio and Dal­las laid the ground­work for other fe­male politi­cians, pre­dict­ing that scores more would be cat­a­pulted into of­fice.

“We all ex­pected that to con­tinue, and, sur­pris­ingly, that hasn’t con­tin­ued,” said Con­gress­woman Kay Granger, who in 1991 was the first woman elected mayor in Fort Worth.

To­day, only one woman serves in statewide of­fice.

Just one ma­jor Texas city has a woman at the helm.

And the num­ber of women sent to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Austin to rep­re­sent Tex­ans has hit a 15-year low.

That all could change in Novem­ber. This year, 105 Texas women are in the fi­nal sprint for elected of­fice. If suc­cess­ful, they could re­claim their largest share of po­lit­i­cal power since 2008, when 50 elected women served in state gov­ern­ment and Congress.

Pun­dits have branded 2018 as the “year of the woman.” Hot off the di­vi­sive 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, per­haps kin­dled by the #metoo move­ment’s back­lash against men who mis­use their power, women across the coun­try are opt­ing to run for elec­tion in record num­bers.

Here, they in­clude MJ He­gar, a dec­o­rated Air Force pi­lot from Cen­tral Texas run­ning for Congress

whose vi­ral cam­paign ad fo­cuses on the doors that have been closed to her. And former Air Force in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Gina Or­tiz Jones would be the first con­gress­woman from San An­to­nio if she de­feats in­cum­bent Repub­li­can Rep. Will Hurd.

Other can­di­dates in­clude Democrats Sylvia Gar­cia and Veron­ica Es­co­bar from op­po­site ends of the state who are fa­vored to be­come the first Texas Lati­nas elected to Congress, as well as Lupe Valdez, a former Dal­las County sher­iff run­ning for gover­nor who is openly les­bian.

“Vot­ers are ready for change and women are per­ceived as be­ing more ca­pa­ble of bring­ing change be­cause we’re seen as more out­side — which I guess is the only up­side to be­ing so un­der-rep­re­sented,” said Kim­berly Cald­well, pro­gram di­rec­tor for An­nie’s List, which sup­ports pro­gres­sive fe­male can­di­dates in Texas. “It’s hard to un­der­state the op­por­tu­nity that we have to not only change the Texas Leg­is­la­ture, but the sto­ries we tell our­selves about Texas and who we are and who we elect.”

Democrats take lead

Granger says she saw the male-fe­male dis­par­ity in Congress in a new light when she was sent to Iraq to coach women there on how to run for of­fice. It was af­ter the fall of the Sad­dam Hus­sein regime and Iraq had just minted a quota sys­tem re­quir­ing women make up at least 25 per­cent of seats in na­tional par­lia­ment, restor­ing the in­flu­ence of women in the first Arab coun­try to have a fe­male min­is­ter.

Women held barely 16 per­cent of the seats in the U.S. Congress that year. It was 2005.

“I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘What an odd situation this is,’ ” the Repub­li­can con­gress­woman said. “I knew that we would have more, but we haven’t had more.”

To­day, about one in five mem­bers of Congress is a woman. There are just three women and 35 men in the Texas con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion, and that num­ber has stayed vir­tu­ally flat for two decades.

Change is on the hori­zon. Twenty women are run­ning for con­gres­sional seats this Novem­ber. Among them are Gar­cia, a state se­na­tor from Hous­ton, and Es­co­bar, the El Paso county judge. Both are Democrats in po­lit­i­cally safe dis­tricts who are ex­pected to boost the num­ber of Texas con­gress­women to five. That num­ber has been stuck at three since 1997. Three other Texas women are seen as strong can­di­dates with a chance to win.

Demo­cratic fe­male can­di­dates are lead­ing the charge. Demo­cratic women out­num­ber Repub­li­can women run­ning for ev­ery level of of­fice — from the con­gres­sional and gover­nor’s races to state Houses of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, both na­tion­ally and in Texas.

Women still make up a mi­nor­ity of can­di­dates here, about 26 per­cent of the to­tal pool: 30 per­cent of Texas leg­isla­tive can­di­dates, 19 per­cent of statewide can­di­dates and 18 per­cent of Texas con­gres­sional can­di­dates.

Na­tion­ally, women con­sis­tently make up about 22 per­cent of con­gres­sional can­di­dates, a num­ber that has been re­mark­ably stub­born for sev­eral rea­sons.

But it’s not be­cause women don’t win. Stud­ies have shown women are just as likely to win elected of­fice as men, once they’ve de­clared their can­di­dacy.

Long­time am­bi­tion gap

Lois Kolkhorst was 34 years old with an 11-mon­thold daugh­ter when she launched her cam­paign for a seat in the Texas House in 1999.

The Bren­ham Repub­li­can weath­ered some mommy-sham­ing from her op­po­nent, who im­me­di­ately asked her, “What are you go­ing to do about that baby?”

She later be­came one of the few Texas politi­cian to ever give birth while in elected of­fice.

Af­ter 18 years in the Leg­is­la­ture, where she is now a state se­na­tor and com­mit­tee chair­woman, she feels like she’s still an un­der­dog in a pro­fes­sion that has needed more women for decades.

“You don’t have to come from a cer­tain mold. You just have to lis­ten to that nag­ging voice in­side of you that says I can do this job bet­ter,” said Kolkhorst. “That’s what you re­ally need to be study­ing, what that in­ner soul is telling you.”

Un­like many women, Kolkhorst never doubted that she could have a ca­reer in pol­i­tics. She was stu­dent body pres­i­dent at Bren­ham High School, and the talk around her mid­dle-class fam­ily’s din­ner ta­ble in east-cen­tral Texas of­ten in­volved pol­i­tics. She also or­ga­nized neigh­bor­hood pickup bas­ket­ball games — stud­ies have shown that women who were ex­posed to pol­i­tics and in­volved in sports as chil­dren are those most likely to be po­lit­i­cally ac­tive.

Around 23 per­cent of women said they have con­sid­ered a bid for of­fice, com­pared to 38 per­cent of men, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 study. The sur­vey of 2,000 peo­ple re­vealed an am­bi­tion gap that has re­mained re­mark­ably sta­ble for decades de­spite cul­tural shifts, in­clud­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, said Jen­nifer Law­less, an au­thor and re­searcher who teaches pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia.

With a se­ries of stud­ies dat­ing back to 2001, Law­less’ work shows the 15point gap in am­bi­tion is well in place be­fore women be­gin their first ca­reers. Women in col­lege, ed­u­cated women in sta­ble jobs and women with ca­reers in law, busi­ness, ed­u­ca­tion and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism were all less likely than men to have con­sid­ered run­ning for po­lit­i­cal of­fice, ac­cord­ing to Law­less’ re­search.

“What we’ve learned over the last 20 years is no po­lit­i­cal event, no can­di­date or elected of­fi­cial and no nat­u­ral dis­as­ter — whether it be 9/11 or Hur­ri­cane Katrina — is enough to close the gen­der gap in po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion,” Law­less said.

Women now make up 50.3 per­cent of the Texas pop­u­la­tion, but just 20.4 per­cent of the Texas Leg­is­la­ture.

The num­ber of women elected to the Leg­is­la­ture be­gan to sky­rocket af­ter Anne Richards be­came gover­nor in 1989. It was dur­ing that race that her op­po­nent, busi­ness­man Clay­ton Williams, joked to re­porters that foggy weather ru­in­ing his cat­tle roundup was akin to a rape. “If it’s in­evitable, just re­lax and en­joy it,” he said.

Two years later, Anita Hill would ac­cuse U.S. Supreme Court nom­i­nee Clarence Thomas of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, in­spir­ing a wave of fe­male can­di­dates who would flock to Congress for the first “Year of the Woman.”

De­cline af­ter 2008

It was also around that time that the num­ber of women in the 181-mem­ber Texas Leg­is­la­ture be­gan to spike. The fe­male share of the Leg­is­la­ture grew from 19 mem­bers when Richards took of­fice to 44 seats two decades later in 2008.

A down­ward spi­ral for elected women quickly fol­lowed. Nearly half the cham­ber’s fe­male Democrats lost their House races in 2010, dec­i­mat­ing decades of gains. The num­ber of Repub­li­can women has fallen, too. To­day, the ranks of women in the Texas Leg­is­la­ture is akin to 1995 lev­els — 23 Democrats and 14 Repub­li­cans.

Best case sce­nario for Repub­li­can women is to hold on to their eight House seats in this year’s elec­tion. Democrats are hop­ing women will pick up eight seats.

The state Se­nate is more sta­ble. Women now make up 25 per­cent of that cham­ber, most of them Repub­li­cans.

Sen. Ju­dith Zaf­firini, is one of two Demo­cratic women in the Se­nate and the sec­ond-long­est serv­ing mem­ber. She re­mem­bers run­ning her first elec­tion in 1992 and hear­ing an el­derly man say a woman was sup­posed to stay home and clean house.

“I’m go­ing to mop them up in Novem­ber,” she re­mem­bers re­tort­ing. “When I ran in 1986, women had to prove that we were smart enough and strong enough. … To­day, the pri­or­ity is­sue is, are the women can­di­dates lik­able? Just like the men can­di­dates.”

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was mom­myshamed when she first ran.

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