Yes, a record num­ber of women will go to Congress

But more notable may be the un­con­ven­tional paths they’ve taken to get there

The Washington Post - - NEWS - BY MARY JOR­DAN mary.jor­dan@wash­post.com

There’s a nu­clear en­gi­neer and a for­mer flight at­ten­dant, a nurse and a for­mer agent with the CIA. Many are moth­ers who work full time, in­clud­ing a for­mer health­care ex­ec­u­tive from sub­ur­ban Min­nesota who is openly gay.

A record num­ber of women were elected to Congress this week, pow­er­ing the Demo­cratic takeover of the House. But more than the num­ber, the last­ing sig­nif­i­cance of 2018 may be that so many women did not climb con­ven­tional lad­ders to get to Capi­tol Hill.

While some did hold step­ping­stone po­lit­i­cal of­fices, many oth­ers took non­tra­di­tional paths to power, sug­gest­ing the need for fe­male can­di­dates to pay their dues in party pol­i­tics may have gone the way of pantsuits and pearls.

“It’s a sea change,” said Stephanie Schri­ock, pres­i­dent of Emily’s List, the Demo­cratic-lean­ing group that sup­ports women in pol­i­tics. The var­ied back­sto­ries and bi­ogra­phies of the Class of 2018 will en­cour­age even more women to run for of­fice, she said, an im­pact that will re­ver­ber­ate “in the next decade or decades.”

Jody Rush­ton, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Repub­li­can Women, agreed. “It’s a much wider pipe­line now,” she said.

Some races have yet to be called. But as of Fri­day, more than 100 women had been de­clared win­ners in the 435 House races — nearly three dozen more than are serv­ing in the cur­rent Congress.

Nearly all the new­com­ers are Democrats. The num­ber of Repub­li­can women will de­cline when the new Congress is seated in Jan­uary, po­ten­tially drop­ping to as few as 13.

Al­though the makeup of the House will re­main over­whelm­ingly male, the three dozen women newly elected Tues­day eas­ily sur­pass the 24 fe­male new­com­ers elected in 1992, the last “Year of the Woman,” at the end of the Ge­orge H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But while only about 10 per­cent of the House was fe­male af­ter the 1992 elec­tion, the Congress seated in Jan­uary will be nearly a quar­ter fe­male.

When tele­vi­sion cam­eras pan the cham­ber dur­ing the next State of the Union ad­dress, the sea of men in dark suits and ties will be bro­ken up by more fe­male law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Il­han Omar, a So­mali refugee elected Tues­day from cen­tral Min­neapo­lis who will be the first mem­ber of Congress to wear a hi­jab.

There also will be many more women of color, in­clud­ing Ja­hana Hayes, the 2016 Na­tional Teacher of the Year, who on Tues­day be­came Con­necti­cut’s first black rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

The po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment in the wake of the #MeToo move­ment has “opened up op­por­tu­ni­ties for dif­fer­ent kinds of women to ex­cel,” said Joel Be­nen­son, a Demo­cratic strate­gist who worked for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Also among the new­com­ers will be Abi­gail Span­berger, a for­mer CIA agent who de­feated Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a mem­ber of the con­ser­va­tive House Free­dom Cau­cus.

Span­berger is a mother who started a Girl Scout troop as well as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who speaks four lan­guages and once re­cruited spies.

She said vot­ers in her Cen­tral Vir­ginia dis­trict ap­pre­ci­ate can­di­dates who don’t fit the stan­dard mold of a politi­cian.

“We are break­ing up the typ­i­cal,” Span­berger said. “You can tell a child they can be any­thing they want, but un­til they see a broad spec­trum of the coun­try — some­one who looks like them — they feel one step apart.”

Span­berger said she would work to make health care more af­ford­able and to heal the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions. “What mo­ti­vated me to run was how di­vi­sive the po­lit­i­cal rhetoric had be­come,” she said.

It was a com­mon mes­sage among other Demo­cratic women who knocked off Repub­li­can in­cum­bents, in­clud­ing an­other CIA vet­eran, for­mer Mid­dle East an­a­lyst Elissa Slotkin. Slotkin unseated Rep. Mike Bishop in a cen­tral-Michi­gan dis­trict that Pres­i­dent Trump won eas­ily in 2016.

“Peo­ple can dis­agree and still re­spect each other,” Slotkin said.

In ad­di­tion to driv­ing the Demo­cratic takeover of the House, fe­male can­di­dates also claimed four gov­er­nor­ships for Democrats, flip­ping the top of­fice in Michi­gan, Kansas, Maine and New Mex­ico.

Repub­li­can women won gu­ber­na­to­rial races in Alabama, Iowa and South Dakota and posted a few other mile­stones. Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn will move from the House to the Se­nate, be­com­ing the first fe­male sen­a­tor from Ten­nessee. And Young Kim, who had served in the Cal­i­for­nia state­house, ap­peared headed for a win in a close House con­test and on the thresh­old of be­com­ing the first Korean Amer­i­can woman in Congress.

Rush­ton said Repub­li­cans are ac­tively re­cruit­ing and train­ing women for of­fice. There is value, she said, in “step by step” ad­vance­ment. She said droves of Demo­cratic women with zero po­lit­i­cal back­ground ran for of­fice this year and many failed be­cause vot­ers wanted peo­ple with some ex­pe­ri­ence.

But many Demo­cratic women won, buoyed by anger and frus­tra­tion among fe­male vot­ers over the coun­try’s di­rec­tion un­der Trump.

In Cal­i­for­nia, Katie Hill, who ran a non­profit group that pro­vides ser­vices for the home­less, de­feated a Repub­li­can in­cum­bent, Rep. Steve Knight, in the San Fer­nando Val­ley.

In Ge­or­gia, for­mer flight at­ten­dant Lucy McBath also beat an in­cum­bent, Rep. Karen Han­del (R). McBath, whose 17-yearold son was fa­tally shot by a white man who com­plained he was play­ing mu­sic too loudly, ran as a gun-con­trol ad­vo­cate.

And in Mas­sachusetts, Ayanna Press­ley be­came the first black woman elected to Congress from that state, beat­ing Rep. Michael E. Ca­puano (R), a 10-term in­cum­bent.

“None of us ran to make his­tory. We ran to make change . . . and change is on the way,” Press­ley told her sup­port­ers on elec­tion night.

“Can a con­gress­woman wear her hair in braids? Rock a black leather jacket?” Press­ley asked. And the crowd roared.

JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Demo­crat Abi­gail Span­berger cel­e­brates Tues­day night in Rich­mond af­ter win­ning the House seat in Vir­ginia’s 7th Dis­trict. The for­mer CIA agent de­feated the in­cum­bent Repub­li­can, Rep. David Brat.

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