Women politi­cians beat the odds and make his­tory

Fe­male politi­cians look back on tri­als, tri­umphs of serv­ing in pub­lic of­fice

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By SARAH FALLIN sfallin@somd­news.com

Shoul­der­ing the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of pub­lic of­fice takes its toll on ev­ery­one who steps into the ring, but fe­male con­tenders of­ten shoul­der more.

For women, there are some unique chal­lenges when it comes to run­ning for pub­lic of­fice. For ex­am­ple, for­mer Calvert County Com­mis­sioner Su­san Shaw gave up her pri­vate psy­chother­apy of­fice to jug­gle the de­mands of pol­i­tics and moth­er­hood. For­mer del­e­gate Sue Kullen re­mem­bers pulling all-nighters and run­ning two busi­nesses while in of­fice.

While women make up half the pop­u­la­tion, there are no fe­male county com­mis­sion­ers cur­rently in of­fice in Calvert or St. Mary’s coun­ties and one fe­male state leg­is­la­tor in of­fice: Del. Deb Rey (R-St. Mary’s). Cur­rently, women make up just over 19 per­cent of mem­bers of Congress.

Three women — two of whom beat the odds by be­ing the first women in their elected of­fices — re­cently told their sto­ries of the tri­umphs and tri­als of their time in of­fice. ‘We made his­tory’

“I’m go­ing to blame it all on George W. Bush” is go­ing to be the first line of Sue Kullen’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, if she ever hap­pens to write one. The for­mer Demo­cratic Calvert County state del­e­gate from 2004 to 2011 first got into pol­i­tics while she worked with peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and saw how po­lit­i­cally ac­tive the peo­ple were. So she de­cided to get in­volved in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Her can­di­date didn’t win and George W. Bush won a sec­ond term, but she caught the po­lit­i­cal itch. Around that time, Demo­crat George Owings III was a state del­e­gate for north­ern Calvert and was se­lected to be the sec­re­tary of veter­ans af­fairs by then-gov­er­nor Robert Ehrlich. She de­cided to put her name in the hat for Owings’ open del­e­gate slot.

Rather than run­ning a tra­di­tional cam­paign, since it would be to fin­ish out Owings’ term, the rec­om­men­da­tions for can­di­dates were done by the Calvert County Demo­cratic Cen­tral Com­mit­tee and then ap­proved by the gov­er­nor. Kullen was up against some big­ger names, like for­mer sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture Hag­ner Mis­ter.

She was the in­ex­pe­ri­enced one of the bunch, but she got the ap­point­ment to fin­ish the last two years of the term. Kullen was the first fe­male del­e­gate rep­re­sent­ing Calvert County’s District 27C, and has been the only woman since. “We made his­tory,” she said. But some peo­ple were an­gry that she got the po­si­tion with­out hav­ing prior ex­pe­ri­ence, Kullen said. Some peo­ple wouldn’t even talk to her, one say­ing, “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the demo­cratic process.”

Af­ter two years in of­fice, she ran in the elec­tion for the seat in 2006. Through­out her time in of­fice, she said she passed more than 100 pieces of leg­is­la­tion and has “ab­so­lutely no re­grets.”

“To this day, I don’t know where I got the en­ergy,” Kullen said, adding that every four or five nights dur­ing her cam­paign, she would pull an all-nighter to get ev­ery­thing done. She said she had the ad­van­tage of al­ready be­ing in of­fice and be­ing quite com­fort­able with door knock­ing.

For Kullen, pol­i­tics comes nat­u­rally, but she rec­og­nizes that for many other women, it doesn’t.

“Women aren’t pre­dis­posed to think about their abil­ity to run for of­fice … Women aren’t nat­u­rally par­ti­san, they’re prob­lem solvers,” Kullen said. The mo­ti­va­tions of men and women to get into pol­i­tics are dif­fer­ent. Kullen said men are at­tracted by the pres­tige and the op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­vance­ment, she said, while women are mo­ti­vated by causes.

“It takes an ex­tra­or­di­nary woman,” Kullen said.

Kullen doesn’t have any chil­dren, so that wasn’t a con­cern to her while in of­fice, but she ran two busi­nesses dur­ing her time in An­napo­lis. She said many women say that once their chil­dren are older, they’ll think about get­ting into pol­i­tics.

No longer in pol­i­tics af­ter work­ing for Sen. Ben Cardin (D) for five years, Kullen sees her role now as sup­port­ing women run­ning for of­fice and have lunch with them. But, the sup­port needs to come even sooner in life.

“Women need to be en­cour­aged all along while grow­ing up that they are pow­er­ful and can change the world,” Kullen said. ‘Any­body re­ally can run for of­fice’

Be­ing a woman, and a Repub­li­can run­ning for of­fice in St. Mary’s County in 1990 meant beat­ing a lot of odds. Bar­bara Thomp­son, who served as com­mis­sioner from 1990 to 1998, said she didn’t stand a chance. But she was elected. Twice. She was the first woman to be elected as a St. Mary’s County com­mis­sioner and the first fe­male pres­i­dent of the board in her sec­ond term.

“I did a lot of door knock­ing. That’s how I made my­self known,” Thomp­son said. She also had four prior years of ex­pe­ri­ence on the St. Mary’s County Repub­li­can Cen­tral Com­mit­tee.

Thomp­son’s in­ter­est in pol­i­tics be­gan in high school when she par­tic­i­pated in Girl State, a pro­gram spon­sored by the Amer­i­can Le­gion where girls learn about gov­ern­ment and every par­tic­i­pant runs in a mock elec­tion.

“That ex­pe­ri­ence said to me that any­body re­ally can run for of­fice,” Thomp­son said.

Early in her first term in of­fice, Thomp­son faced a steep learn­ing curve be­cause of a bit of a re­ces­sion, the state pass­ing off teacher so­cial se­cu­rity to the coun­ties and con­fronting rev­enue prob­lems in the county when the big­gest em­ployer was the fed­eral gov­ern­ment which doesn’t pay taxes.

“I found it very in­ter­est­ing and very re­ward­ing in a lot of re­spects,” Thomp­son said.

Thomp­son said since she left of­fice af­ter los­ing the 1998 elec­tion, there have been women who have run for com­mis­sioner, but not many.

“Why don’t they run? To some de­gree I think it’s the time com­mit­ment,” Thomp­son said, say­ing that meet­ings each week plus work ses­sions, pub­lic ap­pear­ances and home­work is a lot to ask of a woman who may also be a wife, mother and a worker. Thomp­son said when she would ask women to serve on the plan­ning com­mis­sion or the board of ap­peals or some­thing, they’d of­ten re­spond “I can’t do that!”

When she first ran for of­fice, two of her four chil­dren were liv­ing at home. Her youngest was in the early teen years and her hus­band stepped into the gap of be­ing at games and school events if she were busy. Yet, she tried hard to have din­ner to­gether as a fam­ily each night.

“As help­ful as many men are, it’s still hard,” Thomp­son said, rec­og­niz­ing that be­ing in of­fice will in­ter­fere with a woman’s nur­tur­ing side.

The ex­po­sure of be­ing in of­fice is hard, too, Thomp­son said. For her, it was mainly be­ing a pub­lic fig­ure and be­ing in the press, but now there’s also so­cial me­dia. When you don’t win an elec­tion, there’s a feel­ing of re­jec­tion and a pe­riod of griev­ing and an­a­lyz­ing what went wrong, and in Thomp­son’s case of los­ing an elec­tion af­ter two suc­cess­ful cam­paigns, won­der­ing why the peo­ple didn’t want her any­more.

“I am much more em­pa­thetic to any politi­cian … hav­ing done this,” she said. ‘You re­ally have to have the fire in your belly’

When for­mer Repub­li­can Calvert County Com­mis­sioner Su­san Shaw moved there in 1974, she said “I just couldn’t be­lieve the old boy net­work down here.”

Long be­fore she ever ran for of­fice, she at­tended one can­di­date fo­rum where she said a male can­di­date boasted about his wife’s anatomy.

“The con­text was from my per­spec­tive, com­ing as an out­sider, this was the good old boy South,” Shaw said, who served as a com­mis­sioner for 12 years, end­ing in 2014. “I fig­ured I would deal with it.”

She al­ready was ac­cus­tomed to bla­tant and im­plied sex­ism from work­ing in the health care field. Once when she in­ter­viewed for a doc­tor­ate pro­gram, she was told she was only al­lowed in if she agreed not to marry or have chil­dren be­fore she grad­u­ated. That was be­fore Ti­tle IX.

Be­fore run­ning as a Repub­li­can in Calvert, Shaw started out as a Demo­crat, which didn’t bode well with the cen­tral com­mit­tee at the time, which Shaw said pre­ferred “women they could con­trol,” and they saw her as un­con­trol­lable. The Demo­cratic cen­tral com­mit­tee held a meet-the-can­di­dates event, so she showed up. But she was told she was not in­vited and was asked to leave.

“I re­fused to leave. I de­clined to leave,” Shaw said. And peo­ple told her she had guts. Through­out that first cam­paign, peo­ple told her she was in the wrong party, and as she looked more into it, she re­al­ized they were right.

With Calvert County fac­ing huge growth and build­ing a school a year, Shaw’s anti-growth plat­form fit bet­ter with the other party.

“By the sec­ond cam­paign, I had learned a lot,” Shaw said. She did things dif­fer­ently in 2002 and 2003 and the GOP

cen­tral com­mit­tee was sup­port­ive and ex­cited.

“To win, you re­ally have to have the fire in your belly,” Shaw said.

Af­ter be­ing elected, it was well known that Shaw and the late com­mis­sioner Linda Kel­ley, a fel­low Repub­li­can, fre­quently butted heads.

“I think I was ex­tremely an­noy­ing to her be­cause I wouldn’t back down,” Shaw said. The com­mis­sion­ers faced mil­lions of dol­lars in deficit spend­ing, the high growth rate and other big is­sues, but the com­mis­sion­ers were able to bal­ance the bud­get and even­tu­ally con­trol the res­i­den­tial growth.

On a per­sonal level, she gained cus­tody of her 13-year-old adopted daugh­ter shortly af­ter be­ing elected. Shaw also kept her pri­vate psy­chother­apy prac­tice go­ing in her first term. But with her daugh­ter’s needs and be­ing a com­mis­sioner, it was all too much and some­thing had to go. So the prac­tice went.

Be­ing in of­fice is ex­haust­ing, Shaw said. It’s hard on fam­i­lies, and politi­cians need a lot of fam­ily sup­port. There’s a lot of crit­i­cism that comes with the job, too. Shaw said that pol­i­tics is a “nasty con­tact sport.” Since ev­ery­thing in a politi­cian’s life is un­der scru­tiny, it af­fects re­la­tion­ships and work.

“It’s dif­fer­ent for women to take on that kind of re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­cause we have other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” Shaw said.

STAFF PHOTO BY DANDAN ZOU

Bar­bara Thomp­son plays with her dog, Byrne, in front of her home in Hol­ly­wood in this file photo.

STAFF PHOTO BY TA­MARA WARD

For­mer county com­mis­sioner Su­san Shaw an­swers phones at the Calvert County Repub­li­can Cen­tral Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters in this file photo. The com­mit­tee hosted an elec­tion watch party in Prince Fred­er­ick.

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