County women aim for Olympia

Half of local legislative candidates are female, ahead of state average

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Clark County has had a disappointing showing in the number of women seeking public office in recent years, but that appears to be changing for the better.

While women are just more than a quarter of the roughly 270 people vying for state Senate and House seats this year, Clark County voters will see plenty of women's names on the ballot. In Clark County's three major voting districts, an impressive 50 percent of legislative candidates are women.

What's more, once the dust settles from November's general election, the 49th Legislative District will have its first woman senator. The district's Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, is not seeking re-election, and the only two candidates to replace him, Republican Eileen Qutub and Democrat Annette Cleveland, are women.

"I think it's fabulous," Cleveland said Friday. "Over 50 percent of the population in our state is female, and I believe our Legislature should reflect accurately our population. I've also been concerned that women in recent years have been less inclined to get involved in elected office."

The state Legislature is about 32 percent female, and that number is expected to decline because even fewer women candidates are running for legislative positions this election season. But Washington still fares better than the nation overall, in which 23 percent of state legislative positions are held by women, according to the National Foundation for Women Legislators.

'A good thing'

The county's 17th Legislative District is currently represented by three men: state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and state Reps. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, and Paul Harris, R-Vancouver. But with Probst leaving his representative gig to run against Benton, he's opened up an avenue for new candidates.

Enter Republican Julie Olson and Democrat Monica Stonier. Those two, along with Republican Matthew Homola, will compete to replace Probst.

"Having qualified, experienced, intelligent women run for public office is a good thing for Clark County," Olson said on Friday, adding that Clark County Republicans "did a really good job of recruiting qualified women."

Olson said she's careful not to paint men or women with a broad brush, but she thinks women might be able to bring a collaborative approach to the lawmaking process.

"Women change the dynamic and add some different perspectives on issues," she said. "I think it's healthy."

Five of the six legislative candidates in the 49th District are women. They include Republicans Debbie Peterson and Carolyn Crain, who are running to unseat incumbent Reps. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, and Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver.

The 18th District has a chance to elect a woman senator to replace Joe Zarelli, who resigned May 31. State Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Democrat Ralph Schmidt are facing off in that race.

Also in the 18th, Republican Liz Pike is running against Democrats David Shehorn and Ryan Gompertz to replace outgoing state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

Mystery of decline

The first women were elected to the Legislature in 1912 -- two years after Washington women received the right to vote. Women remained scarce on Olympia's chamber floors until the late 1970s, when the proportion of women elected to the Legislature began to climb steadily. That number peaked in 1999, when 40.8 percent of Washington's lawmakers were women, according to the Washington Women's History Consortium.

There's no clear reason why fewer Washington women seek public office, but some political experts have speculated that women might be turned off by an increasingly divisive political atmosphere and the abundance of negative campaigning.

The character attacks that often come with running for office might make some candidates think: "Wow, is it really worth it to go through this?" Olson said. "I think that keeps a lot of really qualified people from running."

Pike said she doesn't feel any discrimination for being a woman, and that people running for office should expect a certain level of nastiness directed their way.

"I say, bring 'em on," Pike said. "You have to have a thick skin to be in politics, and I have a nice, thick tortoise shell."

Oftentimes, women also juggle time spent on career ambitions with time spent caring for a family. And another issue at play could be that women's advocates had begun to rest on their laurels, Cleveland said. In the 1980s, there seemed to be a strong effort to motivate women to run for public office, including the creation of a now defunct local group called Women in Action.

"The purpose of the organization was to encourage and support women to seek positions of leadership," she said.

In the following years, more women did go into politics, which might have led women to think: "OK, we're done. We accomplished our goal," Cleveland said.

Local offices

In recent years, it seemed Clark County was in a slump when it came to the number of women in politics. In the spring of 2011, women occupied just 10 of the 52 seats on Clark County city councils and the board of county commissioners.

New organizations have cropped up to address that decline. A nonpartisan political action committee called H-Roc -- short for the Hand that Rocks the Cradle (Rules the World) -- connects women with mentors, leadership opportunities and financial support for campaigns. Its focus is on local government races rather than statewide positions.

H-Roc chairwoman Lisa Schauer said she was encouraged to hear about the number of women from Clark County running for legislative seats.

"This is really awesome," she said, adding that the issue is really about finding the best candidate for the job while "making sure we give both women and men the tools to be successful to help represent us in the best way possible."

H-Roc, which was created last year, has so far endorsed one woman running for office, Clark Public Utilities commissioner candidate Julia Anderson. The group plans to support more local candidates next year.

Minority groups

For the most part, Clark County legislative candidates remain less representative of other marginalized groups, such as people of color and gay and lesbian individuals. Moeller is the only openly gay state lawmaker from Clark County. Stonier, whose family has been in America for generations, is Mexican-American and Japanese-American.

"I'm really proud that we are living in a time where (we're) looking for the best candidate for the job based on their professional background and their credentials," Stonier said.

She added that a strong middle-class voice is missing in Olympia.

"People that work in the Legislature right now are mostly retired, mostly men, and mostly well-off financially," Stonier said. "There is not necessarily the perspective of families like mine, with children, trying to make ends meet at home."

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.