Female Democrats' PAC aims to boost women in state races


January 05, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

Politics, quite simply, is about money and the power it buys -- a field traditionally dominated by white men.

But spurred by the success of the 1992 referendum on Maryland's abortion-rights law, a group of Democratic women has formed a political action committee to raise money for other women seeking to break into the world of elected office.

Harriet's List -- a PAC named for Harriet Tubman, the one-time Dorchester County slave, Underground Railroad conductor and feminist social reformer -- was launched last February when 50 women from around the state gathered at a Mount Washington home.

It was the politically correct version of the good old boys' smoke-filled room, without the smoke.

"The people who became involved and wanted to carry this forward felt that they could accomplish two things: assure a pro-choice majority in the legislature and, at the same time, further the social goal of putting more women into government service," said Sayra Wells Meyerhoff, a former Legal Aid lawyer who chairs the group.

In this election year, Harriet's List plans to encourage and support -- either through contributions or written recommendations -- nonincumbent women running for seats in the Maryland General Assembly, and perhaps even for state wide office such as governor and attorney general.

In the meantime, this sisterhood of influential community, business and government leaders will be recruiting new members to augment the 350-plus who have already pledged financial support.

"Our members are very positive and active women in their communities," said Melanie M. Shaw, a Prince George's County prosecutor and vice chairwoman of the PAC. "When they go out and encourage other women in their communities -- and they encourage other women in other communities to become members and become involved -- I believe it raises the political consciousness of women all around the state."

Though Maryland law limits PAC contributions to $6,000 a candidate in the four-year election cycle, officials of Harriet's List plan on "bundling" contributions to individual candidates recommended by the group -- an old technique that could mean thousands of dollars more.

Under the bundling plan, members are asked to match their contributions of $100 or $500 to the PAC with checks to two recommended candidates -- allowing the organization to deliver a bundle of checks to the selected political aspirants.

Harriet's List is modeled after EMILY's List, a federal PAC created in 1985 to give start-up money to female Democratic congressional candidates who support abortion rights.

One of EMILY's early victories came the next year, when Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski received critical help from the group in her successful U.S. Senate race.

And the continued success of EMILY's List -- an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast ("It makes the dough grow") -- has been phenomenal.

The group gave more money to candidates in the 1992 congressional races than did any other PAC. For those elections, EMILY's 24,000 members raised more than $6 million, and its candidates won 25 out of 55 U.S. House and Senate races.

In Maryland, Harriet's List has raised $34,273 since it registered with the state election board in April, according to campaign finance reports filed Nov. 8.

The group has spent $2,273, leaving a balance of $32,000 going into the election year, reports show.

That's not a lot of money in political terms, but it's still early.

Ms. Meyerhoff and Ms. Shaw, who have been politically active in the past, have common backgrounds in the Maryland for Choice movement, which won a major victory in November 1992, when the state's abortion-rights law was approved by 62 percent of the voters.

That group, whose finance committee was chaired by Ms. Meyerhoff, raised $1.7 million for the abortion-rights campaign from 16,000 donors -- an indication of the Harriet's List potential for bringing in money.

Harriet's List also has assembled an impressive board of directors, including Shaila R. Aery, Maryland's secretary of higher education; Sheila K. Sachs, a prominent Baltimore lawyer; Bettyjean Murphy, president of the Baltimore-based Savannah Development Corp.; Susan W. Turnbull, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party; and Dixie J. Miller, the associate dean of academic affairs at Hood College in Frederick.

The question of whether the group would support female candidates in races against incumbent men who favor abortion-rights seems to be an uncomfortable one for the women -- though ultimately the answer is clear.

"Women make up less than a fourth of the legislature and more than half the population," Ms. Meyerhoff said in her native-Kentucky drawl. "We think women have a lot to contribute . . . and our goal is to increase the number of women serving in elected positions."

Women make up 24 percent of the 188-member General Assembly -- 36 in the 141-member House of Delegates and 10 in the 47-member Senate.

This year, as many as a third of those seats could turn over -- and the sisterhood hopes to influence the results.

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