Sunday, February 8, 2009

Georgia Political Power: The "Y" Factor

Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words. This weekend, someone handed me a copy of this AJC article, Lineup of movers and shakers, published just before the session started. Complete with photographs, the article was a sort of Who's Who of Georgia's most powerful politicians.

Save one honorable mention, they were all men, and all but two were white men.

Now, we could get into an argument with the AJC about women who should have been included, but in politics, perception is reality. The 2009, the reality in Georgia politics is that while there may be 18 million cracks in that last glass ceiling, Georgia's gold dome remains unfazed. In fact, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, while more than half of Georgia voters are female, only 19.1% of Georgia legislators are women. Georgia ranks 37th among states for female representation in the General Assembly. None of us should be satisfied with those numbers.

By the way, according the 2007 Kid's Count Data, Georgia ranks 41st in overall child and family well-being and has ranked in the bottom ten states for the last fifteen years, bringing up the rear in categories like high school dropouts, teens not attending school or working, low birth-weight babies, teen births, children in single-parent families and infant mortality. While the causes of these problems are poverty-linked, these are issues that women are often especially interested in and uniquely qualified to address-not because of their chromosomes, but because of their experience.

By comparison, the states with the highest percentage of women in their legislatures, Colorado, New Hampshire and Vermont, in 2006 ranked 22nd, 1st and 10th respectively. While the overall picture is bleak, Democratic women fare far better than Republican women. Of the seven women in the Georgia Senate, six are Democrats, and more than a third of Democrats in the Georgia House are women-not so on the Republican side of the aisle where only 11 women occupy seats in the House. But, somehow being the best of the bad news just isn't enough. We need to act.

What can we do to change the profile of political power in Georgia?

1) Money Talks. In many ways, money is measure of political viability. It takes initial cash to attract donors. That's why organizations like Georgia's WIN List, a political action committee that is committed to electing more qualified Democratic women, are important. (Full disclosure: I chair Georgia's WIN List, and commit time to that organization in large part because I think electing women is vital for Georgia, and is an essential part of an overall strategy if Democrats are to regain majority party status here.) It's not just important to provide funds for women, it is important to help qualified women think of themselves as candidates and teach them to raise the money they need to be successful when they run.

2) Think Three Cycles. We have to move out of the political mindset of "right now" and begin to think ahead, at least three cycles. As we examine demographic trends and identify districts that are leaning Democratic, it is important to actively recruit qualified female candidates. Not only does this help address the balance of power issue, in some districts, being a women can be an electoral advantage. Also thinking ahead, women who currently serve in the legislature, or in local government, need to both think about taking the step to run for higher office themselves and about mentoring women to run for their seat when they do. Changing the numbers will not happened unless we are intentional.

3) Engage Our Male Political Allies. Georgia women do have friends among the male power-brokers. The four Democratic men included in the AJC article: Sen. David Adelman, Sen. Kasim Reed, Rep. DuBose Porter and Rep. Calvin Smyre have a track record of putting their actions where their mouth is when it comes to supporting female candidates. It's no accident that Democratic women are among the leadership in our House Caucus. Rep. Nikki Randall is Vice Chair of the Caucus, Rep. Kathy Ashe is Secretary of the Caucus, and Rep. Carolyn Hugley is the Minority Whip. At least two of the men listed are rumored to be seeking other office, and, just as they have supported women moving into leadership roles, I challenge all of them to think about the women in their districts who they could mentor to run for their seats as they move on to other endeavors. As they seek our support, we should urge them to do just that. And, as the 2010 ticket shapes up, we all need to identify female leaders who would make great candidates for statewide office.

One thing is certain. This is a tough hill to climb, but there is a path. ONLY with a clear plan and intentional leadership will be able to elect more women to office in Georgia. I want to be a part of that change and hope that you will, too. By changing the face of power in Georgia, we can more effectively address the issues that matter the most to women and families. and that's good for all of us.

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