Yeakel win may usher in a year of elected women

April 29, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Political newcomer Lynn Yeakel's smashing defeat of a one-time favorite to claim Pennsylvania's Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate suggests that this year of upheaval may finally put more women in the nation's top jobs.

Ms. Yeakel, a charity fund-raiser, is the second woman this year, following Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, to come from nowhere and best a field of male Senate contenders. Both capitalized on a combination of feminist outrage, anti-incumbent sentiment and resources built by two decades of women who plowed the ground before them.

"Coming after Braun's victory, [the Yeakel win] turns an isolated event into a trend and maybe a major movement in this country," said Harriet Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus and a two-time Senate candidate herself. "The gender vote is finally going for women."

Ms. Yeakel's success in Pennsylvania, where she defeated Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel, a much better known contender who had been preparing to make the race for more than a year, could also boost the prospects for other women in the country.

Exit polls yesterday showed Ms. Yeakel won by almost 2-to-1 over Mr. Singel among women voters while running even with him among men.

"All it takes is for people to decide she can do it," said Jane Danowitz, director of the Women's Campaign Fund, who called Ms. Yeakel's win "extraordinary."

It is not clear yet that a favorable climate for female candidates this year will translate into a significant increase in their representation at the national level. Big hopes in the past have resulted mostly in what Ms. Woods called "baby steps."

There are only two women in the 100-member Senate -- Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski and Kansas Republican Nancy L. Kassebaum -- and 28 women of 435 members of the House (including three Marylanders: Republicans Helen Delich Bentley and Constance A. Morella and Democrat Beverly B. Byron, recently defeated for renomination).

Even though Ms. Yeakel aimed much of her primary fire at incumbent Arlen Specter, whom she attacked for his grilling of Anita Hill during confirmation hearings on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, she still faces a tough race against him. The two-term Republican will be well-financed and promoting a bring-home-the-bacon record of service to his constituency.

Ms. Braun, the Cook County recorder of deeds, defeated 43-year Capitol Hill veteran Alan J. Dixon last month after he was bloodied by another primary opponent. Now she must get past Republican Richard Williamson, a former Reagan-Bush administration official who could provide formidable opposition.

The Yeakel victory is the latest in a growing mound of evidence suggesting that the opportunity for women to score gains in national office is here this year as never before.

Women candidates of both political parties are coming forward in record numbers: 21 for the Senate so far and 143 for the House. Many have worked their way up from lower levels of government in an evolutionary process that began in the early 1970s.

Groups that raise money for women candidates are reporting that donations have doubled and tripled over the previous election cycle. Meanwhile, congressional redistricting has created new seats; retirements have left many others open.

Just as women are getting themselves in a position to win, they are finding an electorate that is fitful, frustrated and wants no more of politics as usual -- particularly from Congress. For women, this is good news. Polls show that women are seen as outsiders even when they are on the inside and that they tend to be trusted more than men.

"People have a sense that government doesn't work, and they want somebody different in there. Women fill that bill," said Wendy Sherman, a political consultant whose clients include Geraldine A. Ferraro, the former congresswoman and vice presidential nominee now seeking a Senate seat in New York, and Ms. Mikulski.

Two catalysts bringing these elements of position and timing together are outrage at the treatment of Ms. Hill by the Senate JudiciaryCommittee and the likelihood that the Supreme Court will impose new limits on abortion in a decision that could come this summer.

The television image of 14 aging, white, male senators questioning Ms. Hill, a 35-year-old black college professor, about her sexual harassment allegations against Judge Thomas inspired women activists all over the country.

Both the Yeakel and Braun campaigns were launched in response to what the candidates saw as insensitive treatment of Ms. Hill by men who didn't understand the problem or didn't care. Ms. Yeakel spent $250,000 on TV ads including a powerful clip of Mr. Specter questioning Ms. Hill that blanketed the Philadelphia market and was seen by most analysts as the key to her upset victory.

According to the exit polls, voters who opposed the confirmation of Justice Thomas chose Ms. Yeakel over Mr. Singel by a margin of 60 percent to 26 percent. Among those who supported the Thomas nomination, Mr. Singel was favored.

Women in both parties ran to their checkbooks after the political hearings to contribute to women candidates. EMILY's List, a fund-raising group formed seven years ago to raise money for Democratic women candidates, has collected $1 million since the hearings, compared to $1.5 million raised during the entire 1990 election cycle.

A Republican fund-raising group similar to EMILY's List was formed in January to raise money for GOP candidates favoring abortion rights. It generated $180,000 and 300 members within two months.

Glenda Greenwald, a founder of WISH List, said, "When you add all these factors coming together this year, the prospects for success start to increase geometrically. I think this is going to be an excellent year for women."

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