Women make a respectable showing

November 08, 1990|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- From hard-fought Senate races in New Jersey and Hawaii to down-and-dirty statehouse contests in Texas and California, an unprecedented number of women battled for major political office Tuesday, yielding mixed results but still making dramatic changes in the nation's political landscape.

"We feel terrific. There is progress being made," exulted Wendy R. Sherman, executive director of EMILY'S List, a fund-raising group for Democratic women candidates.

Among the record-setting 85 women who sought statewide offices across the country, women won stunning gubernatorial upsets in Texas, Kansas and Oregon but lost the biggest prize -- California -- and a re-election bid in Nebraska.

The victors -- Democrats Ann W. Richards in Texas, Joan Finney in Kansas and Barbara Roberts in Oregon -- were among women candidates for governor or lieutenant governor in 20 of 36 states, a significant leap by women to the top of their state tickets, analysts agreed.

In another breakthrough, Sharon Pratt Dixon, who won by a landslide in Washington's mayoral election, will become the first black woman to be mayor of a major U.S. city.

Of the 68 women, including 24 incumbents, who ran for the House of Representatives, 29 won their elections. But the actual number of women in the House went unchanged after counting those who retired or quit to seek higher office.

Eight women seeking Senate seats fared less well, with Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan., the only winner. She and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who was not up for re-election, remain the only women in the Senate.

"Ann Richards clearly represents the puncturing of the glass nTC ceiling; we've broken through and taken one of the top political prizes in the country," said Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund, a bipartisan political committee. "We've played nine innings in so many contests, and that's a first. No one can say we're not tough enough."

Despite some big setbacks -- including Dianne Feinstein's narrow loss in the California gubernatorial race -- "we've broken out of thislambs-put-out-for-slaughter mentality," said Ms. Sherman. "A threshold has been broken. Not only did so many women run, but competent, savvy, politically experienced women were running."

The Texas victory should pave the way for other political advances, especially in state executive races, Ms. Sherman said. "We're seeing the creation of many, many role models for women in politics."

But some women still had trouble raising money and fighting male opponents without appearing overly aggressive and threatening. "There are still a fair number of barriers," Ms. Sherman said.

Ms. Roberts, who won the Oregon governor's race, acknowledged that being a woman helped her draw support. "Voters really trust women. They think they are honest and straightforward. I think there is a comfort level with women in politics now," she said.

At the same time, she and other women were apparently able to tap voter discontent with well-established male politicians. Voters were "fed up with politicians giving them fluff," Ms. Roberts said, adding that her "tell-it-like-it-is style" found a welcome audience.

Seizing on virulent anti-tax sentiment, Republican Christine Todd Whitman threatened to upset Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., but ultimately failed. In Kansas, Ms. Finney won her gubernatorial bid by capitalizing on voter anger against Republican Gov. Mike Hayden, even though her anti-abortion stance lost her the support of feminist groups.

Ironically, anger over taxes --ed the re-election hopes of Republican Gov. Kay A. Orr, Nebraska's first female governor.

Compared with women, black candidates of both sexes made less dramatic gains.

Blacks scored a net gain of only two House seats, one of them going to Gary Franks of Waterbury, Conn., who became the first black Republican in 55 years to win a House election. The other went to William Jefferson, a Democrat from New Orleans, who beat Marc Morial to become Louisiana's first black congressman since Reconstruction.

All 13 black challengers to white members of Congress lost, most notably Harvey Gantt, the former Charlotte, N.C., mayor who opposed Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

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