Pa, N.J. women face obstacles in political races

WASHINGTON – When the smoke cleared from congressional primary season, women had taken one step forward in New Jersey, and one back in Pennsylvania.

The result: Come January, two states with a combined 34 seats in the Senate and House will likely include just one or, at most, two women.

“It’s pathetic,” Julie Roginsky, a New Jersey Democratic consultant, said of her party’s failure to elect a Garden State woman to Congress since 1976.

That drought is likely to end in November, thanks to the results of Tuesday’s primaries. Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman, a Democrat, won the party’s nomination in a heavily Democratic central New Jersey district and is favored to win in the fall. In South Jersey, Democrats nominated Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard for the seat being vacated by Republican Jon Runyan. She faces a tougher fall race but has a viable shot in a competitive district.

New Jersey, with a 14-person Senate and House delegation, hasn’t had any women in Congress since Republican Margaret Roukema left office Jan. 3, 2003.

In Pennsylvania, with 20 Senate and House seats, the only woman – Democrat Allyson Y. Schwartz of Abington – is on her way out, having run for her party’s gubernatorial nomination and lost in the state’s May 20 primary.

Three women who hoped to replace her (two Democrats and one Republican) also fell short that day, as did Shaughnessy Naughton, a Democrat who sought nomination in the Bucks County-centered Eighth District.

So, barring a major upset, Pennsylvania’s delegation will become all-male when a new Congress begins in January.

“If you don’t have [women] at the table, you don’t really have the full representation of the state’s population,” said Kelly Dittmar, assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Center on Women in American Politics.

Academic experts and political consultants described a range of structural and cultural obstacles that confront female candidates.

The B word. Men who are aggressive or abrasive, qualities sometimes needed to win in politics, “are considered strong leaders,” said Roginsky, a board member at Yale University’s Women Campaign School. “Women who are aggressive or abrasive are considered bitches.”

Where bosses rule. Congressional maps make most House seats safe for incumbents, who often serve for decades, leaving few chances for newcomers. When seats do open up, support for a replacement is often decided by local party organizations, generally still dominated by men.

Local party bosses have immense sway in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, particularly in congressional races, which typically hinge on support in just one or two counties.

In statewide races, by contrast, New Jersey had a two-term female governor, Christine Todd Whitman, and Pennsylvania in 2012 elected Kathleen G. Kane as attorney general.

Of course, those races are also reminders of a non-gender factor: It takes good candidates to win. Both Kane and Whitman ran smart campaigns that won wide support.

“The party apparatus, while they talk about supporting women, it’s more talk than real action,” said Whitman, a Republican. “I don’t think it’s all sexism, but when the people that you spend your time with all look like you, you tend to support those people.”

When it comes to breaking into the party infrastructure, women are more likely than men to vote and volunteer, but are less likely to write the big political checks that secure access and influence, said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

Party warlords, Whitman said, “let women run for offices that they think they won’t win. That’s what happened to me in 1990.”

That year, in a race for the U.S. Senate, she took on a popular Democratic incumbent, Bill Bradley. “I got, basically, no support,” she said. National Republicans pulled back a promised $300,000 ad buy 10 days before the election, Whitman said. She lost by three percentage points.

The close race provided a springboard to her gubernatorial run three years later, but Whitman still faced a primary fight, something she said would not have confronted a man who had done so well against Bradley.

Last year, another woman, former State Sen. Barbara Buono, was the Democrats’ sacrificial nominee against Gov. Christie.


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