Why Are These Voters Smiling?

ELLEN GOODMAN

May 05, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- In the aftermath of the Pennsylvania primary, this campaign watcher has had the oddest sense that something is missing from her regular political diet. What could it be?

Ah, yes, that's it. What's absent is apathy. Alienation from the political process. That old familiar dusty taste of powerlessness.

Until now, we've all been told that people are voting with a sour taste in their mouths. Their appetite has been dampened by disappointment and disillusionment. Expect nothing except dyspepsia.

But Lynn Yeakel wiped the plate of bitters clean in at least one state. She won the Democratic Senate primary not out of voter inertia nor some calculation about the lesser of two evils. She won with -- gulp -- voter enthusiasm.

One woman voter said to Ms. Yeakel during a day-after victory tour of a downtown Philadelphia lunch spot, ''Thank you for making politics worth voting for.'' How do you spell relief? Pennsylvania.

The whole thing reminds me of the comedian who talks about the time he traded in his mother's ethnic cooking for the Army's. After a week, he felt something was seriously wrong with his digestive tract. It turned out that he didn't have heartburn anymore. There has been a serving of good cheer in the voting booth.

First it was Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois. Now it's Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania. In some reverse domino theory, one woman's victory is building on the last. Next come Iowa, Washington state, California and New York.

If Ms. Yeakel beats Arlen Specter in November and makes it to the Senate, she will become part of what's already called the ''Anita Hill'' class. A fair enough description. It was watching Arrogant Arlen's interrogation of Ms. Hill that propelled Ms. Yeakel into the race. Four weeks ago when we talked (her polling numbers then were in single digits -- single, as in 1 percent), she said directly, ''I watched the hearings with a sense of embarrassment and fury. It was my senator from my state grilling this woman.'' The next day her phone started ringing and she started thinking.

Ms. Yeakel used the same videotape of the hearings in her ads. Even though Mr. Specter was running in the Republican primary and Ms. Yeakel was running in the Democratic, the ads established her as the candidate who could, would, should go for his seat.

The Anita Hill effect is actually more subtle than it's been described. Yes, the visual impact of an all-white-male Senate was stunning. More important was the spontaneous combustion American women who rediscovered each other. That famous cry that ignites all movements was heard again: ''I thought I was the only one.''

If voters had eaten a dreary diet of the status quo over the past decade, that was more true for women voters. We were told that women and women's concerns were political losers. After a decade of backlash, of conservatism, of repeated declarations about the death of feminism, we were on thin rations indeed. Each time somebody predicted that this would be ''the year for women'' in politics we got a rain check instead.

But the long slow groundwork for the ''sudden'' string of competitive women had been going on all this time. More women entered the other professions. As Ms. Yeakel said, politics, the ultimate and sometimes intimidating public world, became the next logical expansion of women's sphere of influence.

Ms. Yeakel herself, the daughter of a congressman, is a political novice. But she trained as an activist and fund-raiser, who founded Women's Way, a highly successful fund for women's services. As the manager of this million-dollar point of light, she learned about the need to change public priorities, ''I discovered the powerlessness of women trying to solve community problems without access to resources. I probably knew then that someday I wanted to be on the other side of that equation.''

It is a long, long way from May to November. Ms. Yeakel is going to need some verbal polish and some money going up against the bulging Specter war chest. But for the moment, women have become the synonym and the vehicle for change. It's the women who are proving that voters are not as alienated, turned off and passive as we've been told. They've just been fed a steady diet of the same old gruel. Lynn Yeakel has provided a nice change of flavor.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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