Alford: Looking for a Little Womentum

I was sitting inside Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge 11 years ago this week, holding my newborn daughter, Zoe, while watching then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco on television announce that she would not seek a second term. Like most others tracking election hopes at the time, I wasn’t surprised by the news. Blanco had been battered by the politics of Hurricane Katrina, and her prospects weren’t great.

Still, sitting there with a baby girl in my arms, I felt like Zoe had been robbed of an opportunity to spend her first, formidable years knowing that a woman could occupy the Governor’s Mansion. Had it been a Republican woman, there’s no doubt I would have felt the same way.

That sentiment rung true again years later, when we tried to find a coloring book, or any book, about Louisiana women at the Old State Capitol — and again later when she learned more about America’s long line of chief executives and innocently commented that only boys could be president.

Like any other parents, my wife and I always advised her otherwise. And like normal parents, we made sure our girl’s upbringing has included more than just politics and government. But it’s still a topic we discuss often.

As we reflect on the anniversary of Blanco’s decision — and Zoe’s 11th birthday! — there seem to be ripples in our electorate that point to a different trend.

At LaPolitics.com, a trade publication for elected officials, campaign professionals and others, we’re tracking all 144 legislative races that’ll be on the ballot next year. We’ve reported on 47 districts so far, of which 25 have women candidates ready to run. If the stars align just right, they could be enough to make a difference.

According to data reported on by LaPolitic’s Sarah Gamard, that was gathered by the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics and the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Louisiana Legislature saw its high water mark for female membership under Blanco, when 17 percent of the elected body were women. The figure dipped under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, from 16 percent in his first term to 11 percent in his second.

Today, the Louisiana Legislature has a 15 percent female representation, placing it at the bottom of the national list alongside Alabama and Mississippi. The national average is 25 percent. Elsewhere in the Bayou State the stats can come off of just as discouraging. On the March 24 ballot men outnumber women three-to-one, Gamard reported last week in a deep dive on the issue.

But again, there are positive signs worth seeing if one takes a careful look. Democratic groups, like Emerge Louisiana, are training candidates and the Louisiana Republican Party intends to actively recruit women contenders for upcoming races.

Moreover, across the nation there are reportedly 500 non-incumbent women — a potentially record-setting number — planning to run for mostly congressional seats, and to a lesser degree governorships. It’s much quieter here in Louisiana, though, where only the name of Mildred "Mimi" Methvin, a Democrat, has surfaced in the 3rd Congressional District.

As for why there seems to be more interest, talking heads and pundits point to women’s marches, the #MeToo movement and President Donald Trump being pulled into the orbit of a wide range of controversies, like the one involving Stormy Daniels, Louisiana’s modern-day Blaze Starr.

Meanwhile, on the statewide scene, we could potentially see more action as Secretary of State Tom Schedler finishes up what is likely to be his final term in office, due to a lawsuit from a female employee. Political consultants are wondering if his announced exit at the end of this term will pave the way for successful messaging from lead female candidates next year.

"I think it makes women candidates relevant because of why it became an open seat in the first place," said Amy Jones, a political consultant with roots in Acadiana. "We have women who are capable of stepping up and winning. The climate will continue to create an environment where women are running for office like this. They’ve grown disillusioned. It’s very real and it’s the first time I’m seeing it."

In terms of statewide office, there are three women whose names continue to float to the surface. None of them, however, have pulled the trigger.

After abandoning her bid for state treasurer in 2016 as she was treated for cancer, GOP state Rep. Julie Stokes has been the source of speculation about another run for the money gig in 2019. She has also most recently been thrown in the mix as a possible candidate for secretary of state.

Democrat Mary Leach Werner, a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, confirmed to LaPolitics last month that she is being encouraged to consider running for lieutenant governor or treasurer. But after Schedler’s bombshell — for which he proclaims innocence — Werner has likewise been tossed in as a potential candidate for secretary of state as well.

Finally there’s GOP state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, an aggressive campaigner who has hit the road over the past year as a maybe-opponent to Gov. John Bel Edwards. Plus, she has been included in recent rundowns of contenders for Senate president next term.

Will 2018 and 2019 collectively be another "Year of the Woman," like the nation experienced on 1992’s ballots? It’s still too early to know for sure, but all of the right signs are there — at least for a slight uptick in participation.

After 11 years of stop-and-go progress on this front, dating back to Blanco’s final days, it’s an accomplishment worthy of note. And encouragement.

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