John Laird: Romney has an uphill battle trying to close gender gap

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Two words of advice to Republicans who are trying to figure out women: Stop digging.

I’ve done my homework on this. After consulting with my wife, daughter and granddaughter, I’ve decided there’s more to gender equality than painting a caricature of a scantily clad woman on the fuselage of your B-17 bomber.

Politicians across America are trying to decide these days if there’s a “War on Women,” and the only thing Republicans and Democrats agree on is that it’s the other party that’s waging the war. There’s no evidence of any such war in Washington state, where for eight years the governor and both senators all have been women, a first in American history.

Washington has consistently ranked among the Top 10 states in percentage of women legislators. Currently, we rank sixth with 32 percent. In 1994, it was 40.1 percent. We were No. 1 for 12 years until 2004.

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has gotta look at those statistics and wonder, “Man, how do they do it?” Well, for one, we don’t start sentences with “Man.” (We also know that ending sentences with “darlin’ ” doesn’t work much either.)

The real answer is that Washingtonians haven’t done anything special to establish this high percentage of women in politics. In fact, our percentage — such as it is — is quite pathetic. Only one third of our legislators are women? Nowhere near what’s needed.

When Washingtonians talk about politics, gender hardly ever enters the conversation. But it’s interesting to see how attitudes change through the years. Gov. Chris Gregoire described that shift in a recent New York Times story by Isolde Raftery (formerly a Columbian reporter). Gregoire said, “When I first ran for attorney general (in 1992) — how should I put it? — the rap on me was that I wasn’t tough enough.” After three terms as AG, Gregoire ran for governor in 2004. “For governor, (the rap is) that I’m too tough. In each of these instances, it’s not related to me and who I am; it’s all related to my gender.”

Far be it from me to make this a partisan issue, but the numbers are clear. Across the country, female Democrats generally outnumber female Republicans about 2-to-1 when it comes to elected officials. In our Legislature, female Democrats outnumber female Republicans 12-6 in the Senate and 19-10 in the House. In Congress, women Democrats outnumber women Republicans 12-5 in the Senate and 49-24 in the House.

The tradition of women being active in Washington’s public arena is long and historic. Raftery pointed out that women were voting during territorial days, before Washington achieved statehood in 1889. She quotes University of Washington professor emeritus David Olson: “You can’t teach Washington state government and politics without paying significant attention to women, because we are very exceptional in that regard. It makes a difference in how issues arise and how they are tended to.”

Closing the gender gap

But back to Romney, who according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll trails President Barack Obama by a whopping 19 percentage points among female voters. Yikes! The challenge for him in the campaign for the presidency certainly is daunting. And that gender gap didn’t close any this past week when Romney aides were asked if he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act, protecting women’s rights in the workplace. It happens to be the first act Obama signed as president. After an uncomfortably long pause, one of Romney’s aides chirped, “We’ll get back to you.”

Later, the Romney camp said he supports equal pay for women, but did not mention the Lilly Ledbetter Act by name.

Indeed, closing the gender gap will be difficult for Romney, and I know one thing: If he reaches out to women the same way he reached out to Southerners — by croaking “y’all,” mumbling something about cheesy grits and trying to sing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” — he’ll only dig the hole deeper.

Take it from me, Mitt, leave “Hello, Darlin’ ” to Conway Twitty and keep your paint brush away from the airplane.