Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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‘Why aren’t women running?’ political vets wonder

Betty Sue Morris and Pat Jollota say lack of females may be a cyclical trend


Where are the women in Clark County politics? City councilors ask.

The disappearance of women from local politics isn’t just a mystery to those in office — a few retired female politicians and a local political scientist were also taken off guard when hearing about their declining ranks.

“I honestly am flummoxed at this point,” said Carolyn Long, associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver. “I was as shocked … to see that happen at the local level in a state that has a great deal of representation in higher offices.”

Female presence on local city councils and the board of county commissioners has dropped by almost half in five years, from 19 of 52 seats in 2006 to 10 of 52 this year. Women hold none of the six county partisan seats of assessor, sheriff, county prosecutor, treasurer, auditor and clerk. One of nine local legislative positions is held by a woman.

Like the women in office, who discussed the trend this month at a roundtable discussion, Long touched on the economy as a possible factor. But she said the divisive political climate stands out the most to her.

Where are the women in Clark County politics? City councilors ask.

“We are seeing record retirements in the U.S. Senate over the last couple of cycles, as well as a large number of retirements in the House,” Long said. “Many departing members have discussed a lack of civility and how it affects their job satisfaction. I think that does play a role; a lack of civility affects both men and women.”

A decade ago, Betty Sue Morris was part of a female majority on the Board of Clark County Commissioners; Pat Jollota was one of four women dominating the Vancouver City Council.

“I wouldn’t run now, if I were starting out,” she said. “There’s a nastiness in the air and such a complete vilification of the other person. … A lot of women are recoiling from that.”

But as her peers who are still in office noted, Morris said there are plenty of women who aren’t afraid of a political fight.

Both Jollota and Morris pointed out something that didn’t come up in the discussion with their peers still holding political seats: Why aren’t any women running?

“If no one runs, you can’t win,” said Morris, who retired in late 2008 after serving on both the state Legislature and on the county commission. “Women are more timid about it than men are, about throwing their names in the ring. If they don’t throw their names in the ring, they can’t win.”

Jollota, who saw two men vie to fill the seat she left behind on the Vancouver City Council in 2009, also questions where the women candidates went.

She said it could be that women aren’t good about laying the groundwork to run — joining civic groups, speaking out and getting the name recognition necessary for a win.

Morris pointed to the 2010 election: Janet Seekins, who ran for county assessor, and Monica Stonier, who lost her bid for the 17th District, both lacked name recognition. In contrast, Ann Rivers, a Republican who claimed the 18th District seat last year, was a fixture on the political scene in Clark and Cowlitz counties well before she put her name in, Morris said.

Add one-term incumbent Sherry Parker, who lost her position as county clerk, and those four were the only women to run for local office in 2010.

Jollota noted she once was part of a group, Elected Women in Washington, that served as an incubator for networking and support for female politicians. That group disbanded years ago, however.

The retired politicians also took a long view — in politics, pendulums swing from one end of a spectrum to another.

“I really don’t think there is a reason, it’s just the way the tides of elections run,” Jollota said. “It runs from conservative to liberal, runs women to men, runs back and forth. It’s the inexorable way the tide of elections go.”

Morris had a similar thought: “Part of it could simply be that women who run tend to be Democrats. Last election was clearly a Republican election.”

Both Morris and Jollota said there wasn’t much different about the way local government ran when they were part of a female majority on their councils. Policy and personality differences still ruled.

“We think the same: we’re liberal, we’re conservative, we’re middle of the road,” Jollota said. “We’re religious, we’re not so religious. Some are mothers, some are not mothers. Some are absolute complete idiots.”