Legislature: Elections signal drop in number of women

Assemblymember Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, the incoming Speaker of the state Assembly. March 2014. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The number of women in the California Legislature is on the decline, a trend that — for now — is hitting Democrats, the majority party, more than Republicans.

Nine women legislators from both major parties, including two representing Sonoma County, will be leaving the Capitol after this year’s general election. All but two — Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, and Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona — are being forced out because of term limits. Evans, an attorney, is not seeking reelection and Torres is leaving to run in the 35th Congressional District.

“The face of North Coast representation is going to shift dramatically in this next election cycle,” said Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, who is termed out in the 4th Assembly District, taking in all of Lake and Napa counties, much of Colusa and Yolo counties, a portion of Solano County and Rohnert Park in Sonoma County. All of the five candidates seeking to succeed her are men.

After peaking to nearly 40 percent in 2002, their standing began to take a steady dive and after the 2012 general elections for the Legislature it now sits at about 25 percent.

The nine departing female lawmakers include seven Democrats and two Republicans. Six are in the Assembly and three are in the Senate.

The GOP appears to be better poised to respond, with a number of Republican women expected to take seats previously held by either Democrats or men, according to Allan Hoffenblum, the editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.

The departing female lawmakers represent more than a fourth of the Legislature’s 32 women, who include 23 Democrats and nine Republicans. The pronounced shift involves a changeover in seats long held by women.

For nearly three decades, Yamada’s district has been represented by a woman.

Evans, who is returning to private practice, is likely to be succeeded by a man in the 2nd Senate District, which includes all of Napa, Humboldt, Mendocino and Lake counties, and parts of Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

Between Evans’ tenure and that of Pat Wiggins before her, the 2nd District seat has been held eight years by a woman. Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire is the current frontrunner for the seat.

The decline in the number of women legislators is not a new trend, nor is it constant. The fluctuation has been more pronounced among Democrats than Republicans.

After 1990, the percentage of Democratic female legislators in Sacramento more than doubled — from 14 percent to 32 percent in 2000. After peaking to nearly 40 percent in 2002, their standing began to take a steady dive and after the 2012 general elections for the Legislature it now sits at about 25 percent.

In addition to Evans, Torres and Yamada, departing Democrats this year include, in the Assembly, Joan Buchanan of Alamo, Nancy Skinner of Berkeley and Bonnie Lowenthal of Long Beach; and in the Senate, Ellen Corbett of Hayward. Republican departures this year include Assemblywomen Diane Harkey of Long Beach and Connie Conway of Tulare, the Assembly’s GOP leader.

The downward Democratic shift is surprising in a decidedly blue state that’s had two female Democratic U.S. senators since 1993 and is home to Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, a Democrat and former head of the state Democratic Party.

Even as the Republican caucus as a whole has declined in Sacramento, from 44 members in 2000 to now 36 members, women in the party have managed to make gains. Since 2000, the number of women in the GOP caucus has jumped from four to nine.

Political observers said the overall decline in female state legislators may be driven by the soaring cost of campaigns.

“It’s gotten more and more expensive to run for the Legislature, so perhaps that is contributing to the decline, as women traditionally have had a more difficult time raising money,” said Steven Maviglio, a veteran Democratic political strategist and communications consultant.

Maviglio’s sentiments are echoed by 2008 Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics study that found women do believe it’s harder for them to raise campaigns dollars than men.

Though the CAWP report suggests a female candidate can raise as much — or more — than their male counterparts, fundraising capability often plays a larger role in a woman’s decision to run compared to a man’s. Of the female state representatives surveyed who agreed it’s harder for women to raise money, 41 percent believed it was because women lack the networks that men have. The next most common reason was women are less comfortable than men about asking for money.

Christine Pelosi, the chair of the women’s caucus of the state Democratic Party, agreed that women might choose not to run because of the cost of campaigns. But she said structural problems also steer women away from politics, like long periods of time spent apart from their families with no adequate childcare available and the lack of retirement benefits allotted to the Legislature.

“We’re fortunate in California to have more, shall we say, of an accelerated sense of equality here than perhaps in other places,” said Pelosi, the daughter of the former House speaker. “But you still have a heck of a lot of women candidates who are not even filing for office because they can’t pay the filing fee.”

California now ranks 19th in the country for percentage of female legislators, trailing neighboring states of Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.

Since their inception, term limits have claimed 60 female legislators through 2012. In the next two general elections, 2014 and 2016, California is on track to lose 15 women in the Assembly and seven in Senate, according to a report by the California Research Bureau, an arm of the State Library.

In the Assembly, Republicans overall have a smaller caucus than Democrats, but the GOP has a higher proportion of female legislators. Of the 24 Republicans, seven are women, or about 29 percent. On the Democratic side, the Assembly caucus totals 55 members, 13 of whom are women, or about 22 percent. One seat is vacant.

“From the time I got here (in 2008) there were I think five women in the (GOP) caucus, and now we have seven,” said Conway, the Assembly minority leader. “So, while our caucus numbers have decreased, the number of women has increased.”

Hoffenblum said the increase is “almost a matter of coincidence than by design.” But he said Republicans are aggressively recruiting women and people of color in order to distance themselves from a perception that the GOP is the “white men’s party.” He also said Republican women could cause upsets in three Senate and three Assembly races this year, in seats previously held by either Democrats or men.

Conway is running up against term limits this year in the 26th Assembly District.

“I tried very hard to recruit a woman for my seat but I wasn’t very successful” she said. “But women sometimes have more complicated lives. They are mothers, they work, they have families and so maybe those issues are a little more complicated.”

The mixed pattern is emerging even as women attain higher leadership posts in Sacramento. When Democratic Assemblywoman Toni Atkins of San Diego assumes the role of speaker this summer, it will be the first time in the Assembly’s history that women lead both the Democratic and Republican caucuses.

With several Republican members interested in taking over as minority leader, Conway said it’s unclear whether the caucus will choose another woman to take her place.

“I don’t think the caucus will look at it as the gender of whoever the next leader is, which is improvement,” she said. “It’ll just be who we think is the best candidate to be the leader of the caucus.”

“Right now we are in this decline mode,” Yamada said. “But there’s got to be women and men sitting at the table for us to have thoughtful discussions.”

Ed’s Note: A version of this story appeared earlier in The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, a content partner of Capitol Weekly.


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