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Women Rising in State Politics
By Karen-Louise Boothe
June 8, 1998

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1998 may go down as "the Year of the Woman" in Minnesota politics. Women dominate the slate of DFL-endorsed Candidates for statewide office following this weekend's state party convention in St. Cloud. But women have yet to gain the top spot on the DFL ticket.

WOMEN HAVE HAD A TOUGHER TIME breaking through to the top tickets in state politics - more so than national seats. There are only three female governors in the US - and of the 42 states that elect lieutenant governors, 18 are women.

That may change in Minnesota this year where women could end up occupying the majority of constitutional offices.

Susan Carroll, a researcher with the Center for the American Woman in Politics at Rutger's University, says more and more women are running for statewide offices.

Susan Carroll: And that's really a good stepping stone for moving up to the next level - to the gubernatorial level - because, in fact, that really gives women statewide visibility that they need in order to make those kinds of runs for the top office in the state.
Carroll says there are other factors that help women gain more seats in office, particularly in the Democratic party. One is the gender gap, with more women voting Democratic and men voting Republican. The other, as in Minnesota's case, is the mandate that DFL delegates consist of an equal number of men and women.

Carroll says male gubernatorial candidates often try to balance their ticket by selecting a woman as their lieutenant governor candidate. But wooing the women's vote takes much more than that.

Women voters still vote on the issues and party ideology. So having a woman - Joanne Benson - on the top of the state's Republican ticket this year doesn't mean women's votes will be stolen from a Democratic ticket. In a recent poll of possible match-ups in the general election, men were more inclined to vote for a woman candidate in the Republican party than women.

Lisa Vecoli agrees. She was a delegate from Minneapolis at last weekend's DFL convention; she says gender on the top ticket is less important to her than overall electability - an opinion that's borne out in surveys of women voters. That's why, as a supporter of Skip Humphrey, she wasn't bothered by his choice in Senator Roger Moe as a running mate.
Lisa Vecoli: I think that in other years when there haven't been a lot of women on the whole plate, that it has been very important symbolically. But I think this year we're going to have women in a lot of positions on the ticket - and I think this is a year when he could afford to pick someone of Roger Moe's stature to join him as lieutenant governor.
Over the weekend, DFL delegates endorsed five women. State Representative Ruth Johnson of St. Peter is running as lieutenant governor on the ticket with endorsed gubernatorial candidate, Mike Freeman. If her ticket goes on to win the general election, she plans on doing more than ribbon-cutting. She says she will serve as an "equal player" with the governor and isn't disappointed by not leading the ticket herself.
Ruth Johnson: I think you have to start somewhere. I looked at the list of lieutenant governors of the state of Minnesota: the last three have been women, the first 40 were men. We didn't get the vote until 1920; my grandmother couldn't vote when they were 21; and now their grandaughter first ran for state representative and was elected, and now is well on her way to become lieutenant governor of the great state of Minnesota.
Other women who gained DFL-party endorsement are State Senator Ember Reichgott-Junge for attorney general; State Representative Edwina Garcia for Secretary of State; Nancy Larson for state auditor; and Betsy O'Berry for treasurer. Some of these endorsed candidates will still face challenges by men in the primary.

Karla Ekdahl believes that if women are to not only gain seats but gain real political power, then the parties will have to groom more female candidates. That's her goal as president of the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund. At a recent fundraiser in Minneapolis, donors contributed more than $20,000 in campaign financing to candidates from both major parties who support legalized abortion.
Karla Ekdahl: It's very exciting for us as an organization. We've been in business for 17 years, and we have seen over the years women who started out running for park board, and then go to school board, and then go to city council, and then go to mayor, and get active in larger and larger political arenas. And we know that we, as an organization, are very much responsible for that pipeline.
Ekdahl says women candidates more easily raise necessary campaign funds if they are portrayed by the media as politically viable.

Sara Weddington was the first woman to be elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972; she later successfully won the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade and directed the Carter administration's work on women's issues and appointments. She says it's money that's key to any candidate's success, but the struggles raising it is compounded if the candidate is a woman.
Waddington: We talk about men who bring in lots of money as being rainmakers, and so far women mostly produce drizzle. And so I think in politics it's still hard for women to raise those top dollars that are needed for the gubernatorial elections. It's going to take a little longer, I think, for women to be in the pipeline of power - for them to have contact with the key political givers and races - but I don't know that we're quite there yet.
In a couple of weeks, state Republicans will gather in Minneapolis for their state convention. They too, have women seeking endorsements. Lieutenant Governor Joanne Benson is among the candidates seeking the top gubernatorial endorsement. Mary Kiffmeyer and Judy Schotzko are seeking endorsement for secretary of state. Incumbent State Auditor Judi Dutcher is running unopposed in her party.

All said, eight female candidates for constitutional offices already exceed the total number of women who've served in those positions throughout Minnesota's 140 years of statehood. For some, that qualifies as the "Year of the Woman." For others, that day will only come when women win office and gain the political power that comes with parity.