Vermont’s first woman in Washington: Coming soon?
By Joy Liu
Special to the Times Argus | December 15,2013
For Vermont, the Washington delegation remains an old boys’ club.
While nearly a century has passed since women first gained the right to vote, the Green Mountain State has yet to send its first female to Capitol Hill — one of just four states never to have elected a woman to the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.
Like the other three states yet to break through this glass ceiling — Delaware, Iowa, and Mississippi — Vermont has a small congressional delegation where incumbents tend to stay for a long time, and open seats are a rarity. Vermont stands in contrast to neighboring New Hampshire, where the entire four-member congressional delegation is female in the wake of the 2012 election, and Maine, where half of the four-person delegation is made up of women.
But, overall, only 18 percent of today’s Congress is comprised of women — 20 in the 100-member Senate and 78 in the 435-member House. The reasons range from the current realities of campaign fundraising to personal-life priorities and the difficulties of accomplishing change within the legislative process, according to those who closely observe the process of women running for office.
“We’ve seen women (who have) been detoured in terms of the dirtiness of politics, currently the ineffectiveness of politics,” said Kelly Dittmar of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “If you look at Washington today, you might not see that as a place to get things done. So why would women be motivated?”
Vermont can boast of having elected Madeleine Kunin, who in 1984 became only the fourth woman in U.S. history to be elected governor in her own right (as opposed to succeeding her husband). But if Kunin, who left the governorship in 1990, eventually made it to Washington — as the No. 2 official in the Education Department during the Clinton administration — she never sought election to Congress.
“The timing was just not right,” she said. “There wasn’t any (vacancy) — it wasn’t right politically.”
No vacancy means having to challenge an incumbent. More often than not, it remains an uphill battle to dislodge an incumbent: According to a study by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, the reelection rate of incumbent members of Congress has been running at more than 75 percent since 1982.
During the past four decades, Senate seats have come open only twice in the Green Mountain State — in 1988, as Kunin was seeking a third term as governor and Republican Robert Stafford was retiring, and in 2006, when Republican-turned-Independent James Jeffords called it quits. In both instances, the state’s lone U.S. House member — Jeffords and Independent Bernard Sanders, respectively — were elected to move up and fill the vacant Senate slot.
Today, while all three men in the Vermont delegation are older than 65, none has shown any public sign of contemplating retirement. The state’s two senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy and Sanders, have more aggregate seniority than the senators from the other 49 states. Leahy, first elected in 1974, is now the longest-serving member of the Senate. Sanders, first elected to the House in 1990 before moving to the Senate 16 years later, has now spent nearly a quarter of a century on Capitol Hill.
Kunin believes that when it comes to running against an incumbent, gender is no longer a question, given that it’s difficult for any newcomer to raise a “tremendous amount of money” to win against a long-time serving member.
But others suggest that fundraising remains an obstacle for women contemplating office, whether challenging an incumbent or seeking an open seat.
“When we survey women legislators who are potential candidates, they always say that fundraising is a barrier,” said Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It’s something that they don’t like to do, and they see as a barrier to office.”
According to Dittmar, surveys suggest that although men and women raise about the same amount of money in comparable races, fundraising may take more effort for women. In closing the fundraising gap between male and female candidates, help from outside infrastructure is “invaluable”, she noted.
Several political-action committees — such as EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights — have been created to help funnel money to women running for office. Other groups aim to provide women with training in the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.
In Vermont, Kunin heads a group, Emerge Vermont, which provides intensive training to Democratic women about how to run a successful campaign, in the hope that this will ultimately provide them with a springboard to higher office. Emerge Vermont is part of the national organization that started in California and now operates in 14 states.
Vermont would seem to have a head start in this regard, as it already ranks ahead of many other states when it comes to electing women to state and local office. With Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recent appointment of Democrat Marjorie Ryerson of Randolph Village to an open seat in the Vermont House, women now are a majority in the Democratic Party of that chamber.
Vermont now ranks first nationwide in terms of the percentage of women in the Legislature. At present, 41.1 percent of the Vermont Senate and House are comprised of women, according to statistics compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics. (Colorado’s legislature is a close second with 41.0 percent; neighboring New Hampshire ranks fifth nationally, with 33.5 percent.)
But in congressional elections, personal factors often come into play for women: It’s often harder for women to make the decision to run, as they are more “relationally embedded” than men, Dittmar said.
Women often do not see politics as “either an option or the best route for them” in the way men do, she said. Women, most being primary caregivers, consider running for office in Washington a factor that could bring unwanted changes to their families and children.
But what some see as a benefit of having the increasing numbers of women elected to higher office came into focus during the partial shutdown of the federal government in early October.
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, put forth a plan to end the shutdown, and called upon members from the two major parties to come together and “legislate responsibly and in good faith.” The next day, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, joined Collins’ effort. Soon, Collins was leading a bipartisan group of 14 senators, nearly half of them women, in drafting a spending plan.
A few hours before the final vote on Oct. 16, three of the women senators involved physically moved across the Senate aisle, sat next to each, and chatted and laughed. It was a scene one almost never sees in C-SPAN broadcasts of the Senate proceedings, particularly in an era of unrelenting partisanship.
“The fact (is) that having less testosterone really makes you less combative and more willing to work across the aisle and want to get the job done,” Kunin said. “Women don’t enjoy confrontation as some men do.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was also in the group of 14 senators. He later told Time magazine that he was “proud” of the women’s effort in ending the shutdown. “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them,” McCain said.
As McCain pictured a more effective Congress formed by more women, Dittmar said women’s decisions to run for office are often guided by whether they feel they can be effective.
While men’s motivations for running are largely associated with a desire for being in power, women make this decision differently, Dittmar said: They run to make policy changes.
“If we continue to see that among the women who run and win, as more women get in, it could be helpful to the environment in Washington,” she explained.
As “the time has come” and little bias remains about having women in federal legislative positions, Kunin, now 80, is confident there will “absolutely” be a woman representing Vermont on Capitol Hill in the near future.
“We will, I expect in five years, see a woman in Congress,” Kunin said. “There are many talented women serving in the (state) Legislature and some serving in the (state) administration. Many are potential candidates for higher office.”