Women Move Up

Women Move Up

Shannon O’Brien had advantages going into the campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts. As the state treasurer, she’d won a statewide race.


Shannon O’Brien had advantages going into the campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts. As the state treasurer, she’d won a statewide race. She was endorsed by the Democratic state convention, well funded and backed by party elders who were not enthused by the reform-minded candidacy of former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the clean-money campaign of former State Senator Warren Tolman or the old-school, labor-backed effort of State Senate president Tom Birmingham.

Despite a late start and a severe shortage of campaign cash, however, Reich’s volunteer-driven campaign pulled even with O’Brien in one late poll. Birmingham’s labor backers pumped up a big get-out-the-vote drive. And Tolman–the only candidate to abide by the state’s new public-financing rules–proved the power of clean money by using a late infusion of cash from the state to become a serious contender. With Republican commercials battering O’Brien–a centrist many analysts saw as the strongest foe for GOP millionaire Mitt Romney–it looked as if the front-runner might stumble. But O’Brien countered critics with television ads that shouted, “Whoa, boys!” It was a subtle reminder that if nominated, she could be the first woman elected governor of Massachusetts. With a clear advantage among women voters, O’Brien beat second-place finisher Reich by roughly 55,000 votes.

O’Brien’s victory was the latest in a historic string of primary wins that have made 2002 a breakthrough year for women seeking executive posts. If 1992 was “the year of the woman” in Congressional contests, then 2002 is the year of woman gubernatorial candidates. While no more than three women have ever been elected governor in a single year, women are contenders in at least nine of this year’s thirty-six gubernatorial contests. Women have never held more than five governorships at once but could occupy twice that many executive offices after November.

Breaking the gubernatorial glass ceiling matters. As Congress devolves powers to the states, governors are in the forefront of policy-making on issues like education, healthcare, childcare and access to abortion. Statehouses are also breeding grounds for presidential candidacies. Six of the last seven presidential elections have been won by sitting or former governors. “If we are serious about getting women into the running as presidential and vice presidential candidates, we have to recognize the importance of gubernatorial races,” says Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, the donor network for pro-choice Democratic women candidates, which aided O’Brien and other women gubernatorial contenders this year.

Not all the woman candidates in Democratic primaries won. But O’Brien was the eighth to do so. And Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono could make it nine if she wins the year’s final primary. (Hirono could face Republican Linda Lingle in the fall’s only woman-versus-woman contest.)

Democrats might have had ten woman gubernatorial candidates this year had it not been for a breakdown in voting and vote-counting in the Miami-area counties that formed the base for former Attorney General Janet Reno’s Florida gubernatorial bid. Denied a recount, Reno folded her campaign after a frustrating week of seeking a clear count.

Reno’s leap from the Clinton Cabinet into state politics went against the pattern for women who are winning Democratic gubernatorial nominations. As with O’Brien in Massachusetts, Democratic nominees in Michigan, Maryland, Arizona and other states are women who had climbed the political ladder, winning down-ticket state races before making a bid for governor. “We are really seeing the results of more than a decade of encouraging women to get involved in politics. We were told that women needed to start small, run for local offices and work their way up. Well, they have,” says Malcolm of EMILY’s List. “Along the way, they’ve served well, which has helped voters get beyond simplistic gender concerns. Women in the states have developed reputations as reformers and managers. They’ve built networks of supporters. When governorships came open this year, they weren’t pushed aside by the old boys.”

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