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NATIONAL | summer 2002

All in the Family
And other political trends

Ms. Summer 2002

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Eleven years ago, Chellie Pingree (photo left), owner of a knitting business in Maine, and her daughter, Hannah, made the ferry trip from their home on North Haven Island to a political event on the mainland. When one of the pols at the gathering suggested Chellie Pingree run for state office, 14-year-old Hannah was the one who got really excited. "Go for it, Mom," she said.

Mom did go for it, and in four years, Democrat Rochelle "Chellie" Pingree rose to become majority leader of Maine's state senate. She is nationally known for a state law designed to hold down the price of prescription drugs. Today, in a campaign that presents a conundrum for feminists both in and out of state, she is making a well-financed and impeccably organized run for the U.S. Senate. She seeks to unseat Susan Collins, a moderate Republican endorsed by the bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC). Collins figures prominently in pro-choice circles around the country.

Pingree and familyWhile working fulltime as deputy finance director of her mother's campaign, Hannah, now 25, is going for it, too - "it" being a seat in Maine's House of Representatives. She is also running against a Republican woman. "We're at a great point symbolically when a mother and daughter can both run for public office and each face another woman," says Hannah Pingree.

In California, members of another political family are poised to enter history as the first sisters to sit in Congress together. Linda Sanchez, the younger sister of Representative Loretta Sanchez, won an expensive, bitter Democratic primary in March for a new, majority Hispanic congressional district in Los Angeles. She is considered the overwhelming favorite in November, and Loretta Sanchez is expected to win reelection in Orange County.

The Pingree and Sanchez campaigns are emblematic of women's political maturity in 2002. Like Chellie Pingree, women who have been working their way through the political pipeline in their states are running sophisticated campaigns for higher offices. Others are mobilizing connections to lift other women onto the political stage. Loretta Sanchez helped raise much of the $450,000 that enabled Linda Sanchez to buy advertising in the costly Los Angeles market.

"When lots of women are running viable campaigns for the highest offices, it's a real arrival," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. The 25 women in 22 states who are running for governor constitute this year's bright spot. Their total does not approach the 1994 record of 34 women gubernatorial candidates, but Janet Reno is making a high-profile bid to unseat governor Jeb Bush (R-FL). In Maryland, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a favorite, and Hawaii Republican Linda Lingle is a strong contender in the general elections. If Betsey Bayless, Arizona's secretary of state, wins her primary, she will face Democrat Janet Mapolitano, the state's attorney general; the winner will succeed one of just five current women governors, Republican Jane Dee Hull.

In races for Congress, the fate of abortion rights, minimum-wage levels, judicial appointments, and the onerous welfare work-requirements are among the issues that hang in the balance as the major parties vie for control. Women's groups had hoped that, following the 2000 census, redistricting would create a large number of open seats, and yield another Year of the Woman like 1992, when the number of women elected to Congress doubled to reach 52. Similar opportunities have not developed this year, however, as district lines were drawn to benefit incumbents - and Congress is 86% male - fewer incumbents are retiring, offering fewer places for women to run viable campaigns, especially given the discouraging realities of campaign high-finance. The total number of women in Congress could even decline slightly.

In House races, 104 Democrats and 57 Republican women are running. Fifty-eight are incumbents, 36 are running for 27 open seats, and the remaining 67 are running as challengers in 58 districts. Marge Roukema (R-NJ) and Eva Clayton (D-NC) are retiring. One breakthrough could come from the West where two Democrats hope to become the first Native American women in Congress. In Oklahoma, Kalyn Free, former U.S. Justice Department prosecutor and member of the Choctaw Nation, faces an incumbent if she wins her primary. State Representative Debora Norris, an Arizona Navajo, is in a crowded field for a newly created seat.

Collins is the sole Republican among three women defending U.S. Senate seats this year, and political handicappers say she has the advantage over Pingree. Pingree supporters point to the one-vote margin that has allowed Senate Democrats to ward off Bush Administration initiatives damaging to women. "Electing Chellie could really make the difference between Trent Lott (R-MS) or Tom Daschle (D-SD) leading the U.S. Senate," said Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). "That's not fluff." Of the two Democratic women up for reelection, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu is heavily favored. Both Republicans are spending substantially to defeat Missouri Senator Jean Carnahan, vulnerable because she represents a swing state and was appointed, not elected, to office less than two years ago.

Inequities in campaign finance circles have long made races more difficult for women. For the first time, two women - Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) - chair of the Democratic Senate and Congressional Campaign Committees. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics, says their positioning "speaks to the parties trying to show that women are part of the party process." NWPC president Roselyn O'Connell adopts a wait-and-see attitude, though she hopes that their leadership will boost women's access to funds. She is also unsure if Republican coffers, which grew with Bush's fundraising in the aftermath of September 11, will open wide for women. "How it will benefit Republican women is not so clear," says O'Connell. "I have to hope and assume that it will."

Looking beyond 2002, Walsh said it is too early to judge whether campaign-finance reforms passed this year will help or hurt women candidates. Women with poor access to campaign funding in parties have benefited from fundraising around such issues as abortion rights, which new controls on soft money could limit.

The eventual effects of state legislative term limits also remain unclear. They oust longtime incumbents, which allowed Chellie Pingree to rise to leadership in a few years, rather than decades. But term limits also forced Pingree and other seasoned women out of office just as they earned real power. A supporter of public campaign financing, Pingree has been forced to set a fundraising goal of $3 million in order to face Collins. "I want to increase the minimum wage, expand health care, and take a realistic look at a single-payer health care system in this country," says Pingree. "I have to think big." Collins' staff seems comfortable with the challenge. "I think voters will recognize the good work that Senator Collins has done on health care, education, and small business," said spokesman Steve Abbott.