Year of the Woman Goes Unnoticed

COMMENT

November 13, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

This has to be the Year of the Woman in Harford County. The top two elected county officials are women, the first county where that's happened in Maryland under charter government. All three state delegates from District 34 are women, another first in the county, although three of the four District 34 legislators (including senator) in 1986 were female.

Perhaps the most important point about that reality is that virtually no one even tried to make the point. Sex was not an issue (to borrow a supermarket tabloid headline). It hasn't been for some time in Harford politics, to the credit of this electorate. Personality and style, yes. Public appearance, perhaps. But not gender.

Contrast that with situations elsewhere, where female candidates or their supporters made blatant sexist pitches to compensate for a lack of broad-based political support. The political PACs that contribute only to females, the misanthropic Emily's List campaign, the candidates (such as Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski) who solicit donations based solely on the fact that a candidate is a woman.

In Carroll County, an unabashed supporter of female candidates (whatever their politics) nearly got her husband expelled from the county Democratic committee for her display of yard signs for GOP women.

In Harford, it's been taken for granted that women are every much as qualified as males in holding office and women are equally active in seeking office. Not to belabor the point, but it is an unrefuted fact of political life in this county.

Four years ago, the hardest fought political contest was between two women political veterans for the Democratic nomination for county executive. This year, the toughest battle was between two women for the office of County Council president; it turned out to be the closest race in Harford County last week.

In the aftermath of these elections, Joanne Parrott can lay claim to being the nominal leader of the Harford Republicans, winning the council president seat. And Eileen Rehrmann holds the same claim among Harford's Democrats.

To be sure, there are some politicians in Harford who still choose to play the sex card.

In recent years, we repeatedly heard one female veteran campaigner repeatedly whine about the "old boys" conspiring to gang up on her. And another distaff candidate who switched races in order to make an undisguised feminist statement.

Fact is, this type of sexist pandering is rare in Harford politics, in no large part because it is usually politically ineffective.

OK, so one winning candidate this time repeatedly advertised that she was the only woman lawyer on the House Judiciary committee. Maybe woman-lawyer as a double-barreled credential was supposed to be convincing to voters as a whole, not just a special-interest segment. Certainly we didn't hear another candidate promote herself as the only woman-doctor in the legislature, though she could have done so with perfect justification.

The sexist political campaign thrives in other parts, however. This despite the fact that women are a bona fide majority of registered voters; male voters are the minority.

Columnist Ellen Goodman predictably bewails the losses of a few women candidates nationwide, conveniently ignoring the large numbers of women in all races, and gravely concludes that females can't stand the rigors of a tough political campaign. She ought to survey the Harford -- and Maryland -- landscape.

It's interesting that advocacy groups can openly, without shame or fear of public condemnation, promote their candidates based purely (or impurely) on sex or race. But let other groups support candidates based on their religious views or moral positions, and the public/media counterattack is overwhelming.

A belief system, a moral credo appears anathema to those who prefer a natural accident of birth as unassailable political validation.

Which leads us to the campaign of Nancy Jacobs, the Republican who finished a surprising first in the race for District 34 delegates.

She had cited her credentials as a lobbyist for Concerned Women of America, a conservative group that opposes such things as abortion, values instruction in public schools and could be said to represent the "family values" end of the political spectrum.

Despite the organization's name, the politics Mrs. Jacobs represented was not "feminist" or based on female-primacy. It was a perspective shared by both sexes in the conservative, Christian-right camp.

Now Mrs. Jacobs didn't mention the organization's stands during her campaign for the General Assembly. She outlined a traditional conservative Republican platform -- and campaigned harder than any of her five opponents. She began to attract a lot of voter attention.

And then the guardians of the political left, who felt that they alone owned the "women's issues" trademark, became alarmed. They began a phone call effort to point out Mrs. Jacobs' strident right-wing positions in the past, in her newspaper commentaries and radio show appearances. They depicted her as a candidate trying to steal the women's vote by deception. Legitimate women candidates must be liberal and pro-abortion, they strongly suggested.

In the end, Mrs. Jacobs was the top vote-getter, elected along with incumbent Democrats Rose Mary Hatem Bonsack and Mary Louise Preis. Three women of decidedly different views will represent Harford in the General Assembly next term. And none of them is there just because she appealed to the gender majority.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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