And Emily begat Harriet

Bruce L. Bortz

April 08, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

WOMEN are about to make a big splash in Maryland campaigns, one that will affect state politics for at least a decade. It all has to do with money.

The new effort is a Maryland offshoot of Emily's Fund, an organization that acts as a fund-raiser and clearinghouse for women congressional candidates. Last year it raised $6.2 million for 55 candidates for Senate and House seats. Twenty-five won.

Emily's Fund has a woman's name, but it's really an acronym for a key political axiom -- "Early Money Is Like Yeast." You get the idea: A political bread will rise only if one of its early ingredients is money. Emily's List raises big bucks by charging a substantial annual membership fee and by requiring members to donate $1,000 and up each year. In turn, it "bundles" the money, contributing it -- early -- to worthy candidates.

In federal races, Emily's List has filled a major void. Women candidates have long had a hard time being taken seriously. As a result, they have had a hard time raising money. And lacking money early in a campaign, they have often been dismissed as serious candidates. Today, a Democratic candidate winning an Emily's List endorsement gets cash and superb connections to other contributors and to seasoned political professionals.

But Emily's List, understandably, doesn't want to waste its money on candidates who have no shot at winning. To qualify for "political yeast," candidates must demonstrate they know what to do with the funds once they get them -- that they have a sensible, sophisticated, businesslike plan for winning. With growing financial resources, Emily's List has been picking its candidates carefully, endorsing only a limited number.

In Maryland over the past few months, a group of women has been hatching plans for a group patterned after Emily's List. Its working name: Harriet's List. Its object: elect women to offices, legislative and otherwise.

Many of those in on the planning worked closely on the successful pro-choice side of last year's abortion referendum, Question 6. In that campaign, almost $2 million was raised.

It's not hard to imagine Harriet's List raising $250,000 by next year's election. With that kind of yeast -- carefully injected -- Harriet's List could become a major political player in Maryland almost overnight. An early infusion of money could make instantly credible any number of women candidates, from Ellie Carey for attorney general; to Mary Boergers for lieutenant governor, governor or Senate president; to Nancy Kopp for House speaker.

Candidates these days spend far more time on fundraising than on any other activity. The difficulty, not to mention the discomfort, of raising money has kept many a woman out of state races. The formation of Harriet's List sounds a trumpet call to all those "I don't think I can do it" types, held back by the lack of money and money-raising abilities. In a sharply contested state Senate race, for instance, a candidate starting with at least $25,000 has a major advantage. Such races often carry a $100,000 price tag.

Harriet's List money may be more easily raised than any of us expect. Professional women these days are learning to open their wallets and write big checks to political candidates (defined these days as $250 and above). A Harriet's List membership card could become the woman's political status symbol of the 1990s.

In addition, Harriet's List organizers will have the recent memory of the "John Arnick Affair" to give their membership-seeking letters some biting relevance. Former House Majority Leader John Arnick, up for a District Court judgeship, sparked considerable controversy with the revelation that he made sexist remarks to two women lobbyists.

Mr. Arnick, to Harriet's List organizers, represented much that was wrong with state politics. But they couldn't have been very happy, either, with the performance of the Women's Legislative Caucus. Accustomed to operating in a male-dominated environment, the legislature's female members peered into the controversy like a deer into headlights: They froze. After some fits and starts, the organization ended up siding with House Speaker Clay Mitchell, who was strongly backing Mr. Arnick. (Most women state legislators are in the House.)

There's a lot of organizing these days aimed at getting more women on more company boards in Maryland. But, if it succeeds, Harriet's List will be far more important. It could change Maryland politics for four or five elections to come. And, by the year 2006, it could produce gender parity -- or something close to it -- for Maryland's General Assembly, where, today, only one-fourth of the members are women.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter. He writes here every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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