Sunday, December 07, 2008

Can A Native Mainer Brag About His State? by Anthony McCarthy

I have, in fact, bragged that Maine is the first state in the country to have both branches of its legislature headed by women at the same time. Libby Mitchell in the Senate and Hannah Pingree in the House. It was a surprise to me that it hasn't happened somewhere else before now. The first woman to be elected Attorney General of Maine, Janet Mills, was selected by the legislature this past week as well, I believe Maine is the only state where the legislature appoints the Attorney General. I seem to recall hearing that Libby Mitchell is the only woman to have ever been leader of both houses of her state legislature. Better stop bragging while I’ve still got an audience.

We’ve made some notable progress towards gender equity here, not enough but some real progress. So maybe looking back at how we got to where we are today would be useful. Here is an article by Marie Tessier from 2000 that is helps understand how things got to where they are. .

As eight-year term limits began closing in on many of the seasoned women legislators in Maine's state Capitol, state Sen. Rochelle "Chellie" Pingree, the Democrat from the island of North Haven, knew there was just one thing to do--recruit more women candidates.

Note, before going on, that Chellie Pingree is our new first district Congressional Representative, Hannah Pingree is her daughter who, I hasten to add, got to where she is by her own hard work and on her own merits.

With a speed made possible by Maine's remarkably open political process, Pingree and Senate President Lawrence began lining up women to run, especially for the state senate.

"We tried to recruit women because they work hard on the campaign--we go into a campaign thinking we have to work ten times harder--and they make good legislators, besides," Pingree said in a recent interview. "And I think more women should serve in elective office."

The women-focused strategy and a targeted candidate training program, conceived when Republicans won control of the state senate in 1994, have paid off.

In 1996, Democrats won back control of the 35-seat senate. By 1998, women dominated the Democratic caucus, with women holding 12 of 20 Democratic seats. The party caucus named Pingree majority leader. State Sen. Anne Rand of Portland serves as assistant majority leader.

So there was a real effort made to encourage women to get into politics and to win.

Since 1985, the proportion of women in the Maine Legislature has varied between 23.7 percent and a high of 32.8 percent in the early 1990s. In the latest session, women constitute 45.7 percent of the state Senate and 23.8 percent of the state House of Representatives, for an overall proportion of women of 28 percent. Nationwide, women hold 22.5 percent of all the state legislative seats.

Politicians and analysts say that the political culture in Maine, like a handful of other northern states, lends itself to a better representation of women than in states with more entrenched old-boy networks.

"We have this history of women in leadership," Pingree said. "It might be because women have always taken care of town politics, but there's no question that as a state we have a greater level of comfort with the idea of women being in charge."

Note that for some of this time the “30%” idea discussed here several weeks was achieved and more. It might be useful to study the issues dealt with by those bodies during those terms and the breakdown of votes on those issues to see if there is any validity to that theory. My rough count of the Maine House shows about 30% of the current members are women, possibly more, since I don’t know most of the ones with gender neutral first names.

Please also note, men took part in the effort to encourage women to run for office. I know that Mark Lawrence, who is a friend, put a lot of work into the effort.