Day of reckoning nears in 'Year of the Woman' Outlooks vary for candidates CAMPAIGN '92

October 11, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Carol Moseley Braun stood before a large audience of supporters here the other night and recounted how she is always being asked the same question: "How does it feel to be an African-American and a woman running for the Senate?" Her reply, she said with a broad grin, is: "Hey, I'm a package!"

The lighthearted remark generated laughter and applause, but the question did underscore why the Cook County recorder of deeds has become the celebrity candidate in this touted "Year of the Woman" in American politics.

The year, which started with the highest of hopes for women, still looks promising, although perhaps not to the degree anticipated by those who looked to 1992 as the time of a political revolution. Many female candidates fell by the wayside in the primaries, and some of the survivors are encountering problems in the general election -- even Ms. Braun herself.

As potentially the first black woman elected to the Senate, she has been cast in a sense as the star player in a political drama that could be called "The Revenge of Anita Hill." Just a year ago, another black woman, law professor Anita Hill, got short shrift from an all-male, all-white Senate panel airing her allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Ms. Braun, at the urging of women's groups, entered the Senate Democratic primary as a long shot against incumbent Sen. Alan J. Dixon, who had voted to confirm Mr. Thomas. She squeaked through when another challenger, wealthy lawyer Al Hofeld, spent nearly $5 million against Mr. Dixon and the two men got bloodied in the fight.

Since then, Ms. Braun has been the toast of the political circuit from New York to Hollywood, raising money and women's political hopes, and being placed on a pedestal as a candidate about to make history. In the last two weeks, however, that pedestal has begun to shake in the wake of a disclosure of a financial dealing that has generated charges of abuse by her of the Illinois welfare system.

Ms. Braun's 78-year-old mother, living in a nursing home on Medicaid funds, received a $28,750 inheritance three years ago that Ms. Braun deposited in her own bank account and later distributed among herself, a brother and sister. That was in accordance, she says, with written instructions from her mother as repayment for funds they had spent for her care. The problem is that state law requires that a Medicaid recipient report any such funds to the state for a determination whether the funds should go to the state to defray the costs of the recipient's care. They were not so reported.

While the allegations have affected markedly a 28-percentage-point lead Ms. Braun held over Republican Rich Williamson in a Chicago Tribune poll before the revelation, she still leads by 17 points and remains favored to win.

Women of both parties have flocked to her candidacy, along with fellow blacks -- who have boosted registration numbers -- and many Democrats "coming home" to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton after 12 years of flirtation with the GOP under Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

But race has been a cutting issue for years in Illinois politics. Braun strategists fear that racial stereotypes of welfare cheating may drive off her support among many white male voters and Republican women, some of whom may welcome an issue to justify to themselves a vote against a woman on the verge of making history.

A defeat for Carol Moseley Braun would take some luster from "The Year of the Woman" -- a year that has brought unprecedented successes to women's political groups, but also some disappointments, even before Election Day.

Record numbers of women ran in primaries for Congress and state legislatures this year, and record numbers survived -- 11 female nominees for the Senate, up from eight two years ago, and 108 for House seats, up from 70 in 1990.

In races for governor, three women have made it into the general election: Democrats Dorothy Bradley in Montana and Arnie Arneson in New Hampshire, and Republican Elizabeth Ann Leonard in Rhode Island. If all were elected, they would double the number of female governors serving now to a record six, joining Democrats Joan Kinney in Kansas, Barbara Roberts in Oregon and Ann Richards in Texas.

At the same time, however, of 29 women who sought senatorial nominations in this year's primaries, 18 lost. Among the casualties were 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro and former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, both defeated by Robert Abrams for the Democratic senatorial nomination in New York.

Of the remaining 11 -- 10 Democrats and one Republican -- five are ahead in polls in their states, including incumbent Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Six trail, most of them by large margins.

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