Only three women took the oath of office this week as they set out on four-year terms on the Allegheny County Council.
The county’s 15-member, part-time legislative body has two fewer women than its last iteration: Republican Sam DeMarco, 57, of North Fayette, replaces Heather Heidelbaugh for one of council’s two at-large seats and Democrat Paul Klein, 61, of Point Breeze, is taking over the District 11 seat once held by the late Barbara Daly Danko.
“We’re a bit disappointed to see even fewer female faces and experiences on county council,” said Dana Brown, executive director of Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics at Chatham University. “We want to see more women running in those races.”
Getting women to put themselves on the ballot in the first place, however, is precisely the challenge, said Anne Wakabayashi, executive director of Emerge Pennsylvania, a chapter of a national organization that seeks to identify, encourage and train women to seek, and win, elected office.
“Once women make the decision to run for office, they win at the same rates that men do,” she said.
Out of the 69 county council candidates to appear on both parties’ primary ballots since 2007, only 20 have been women. (Those figures include repeat candidates.)
But a look at recent political history suggests that women fared well in those competitive races. Between 2007 and 2015, women have won six out of nine contests in which they faced a male competitor in either the primary or general elections. (That does not include races with minor-party candidates, or a District 11 special election this November, in which Terri Klein, who is not related to Paul Klein, beat two men to hold the seat for two months.)
In the May 2015 Democratic primary, Denise Ranalli Russell, 48, of Brighton Heights, defeated attorney Daniel Connolly for the District 13 council seat by fewer than 100 votes.
“At first, I was a little shy about it, a little bit leery. … I thought it was going to be an uphill battle,” she said, noting that her opponent had run for office before. She said she listened to the concerns expressed by her constituents. “After speaking with them, I thought, you know, maybe I can make a difference.”
She and Republican Cindy Kirk, 58, of McCandless, in District 2, took oaths at Monday’s regular council meeting. Sue Means, R-Bethel Park, and three existing council members who ran unopposed last year were sworn in at other times Monday or earlier.
Ms. Ranalli Russell replaces Amanda Green-Hawkins, who said having fewer women means less diverse perspective.
“I think this new body will require us as the constituents, particularly the women, to be more vocal, to meet more with our elected officials, to discuss things more, to lobby them more, so that we bring our voices to the table and make sure we’re heard,” Ms. Green-Hawkins said.
Women’s shared experiences have informed policy, Ms. Brown said, noting the recent creation of the City of Pittsburgh’s Office of Early Childhood, sponsored by City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak and the three other members of city council’s women’s caucus. In 2014, that group also created a fund to help child care providers improve their facilities.
“That’s why I think us losing some of those voices — and people of color — is a real detriment,” Ms. Brown said.