Women seldom flex muscles in legislature Differences among members sap female caucus of strength

January 15, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

When a male-dominated committee gutted a bill that would have toughened domestic violence laws, the women of the Maryland legislature had had enough.

Female delegates revolted, introducing amendment after amendment that restored key provisions. In doing so, they ran roughshod over unwritten rules of House loyalty -- and the notion that women could be taken for granted.

That moment two years ago highlighted the potential power of the General Assembly's women -- power notable for how seldom it has been wielded.

With 53 members, or 28 percent of the legislature, the women's caucus has the numbers to be a major force in Annapolis. But its impact has been diluted by differences among members on such issues as abortion and welfare, matters on which the group has been unable to vote as a bloc.

The divisions spring from the group's diversity. Composed of Democrats and Republicans from cities and hamlets, the caucus counts among its members the most liberal and most conservative delegates and senators.

Not surprisingly, they split along party or philosophical lines on some issues. Even sexual harassment charges against a male colleague divided the group in 1993.

While some Democratic women say they are committed to the caucus, a few Republican members say they are not sure the group needs to exist.

"There's never been a requirement that because we are women we must think alike," said veteran Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's County Democrat. "On a number of issues we have divergent points of view. What we have always said is that there were certain issues that have always brought us together."

In this year's 90-day session, which began Wednesday, the caucus will have the opportunity to flex its muscles on issues ranging from the treasurer's race to proposed improvements in health insurance benefits for new mothers.

"When all the forces align, the women's caucus can have a significant influence," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat.

Such an alignment occurred most notably in 1994, when the House Judiciary Committee gutted the domestic violence bill. The panel had a reputation for being unfriendly to women's issues, and caucus members were frustrated.

Women restored crucial sections during floor debate. Breaking with House protocol, women on the Judiciary Committee and in leadership sided with the caucus, forming a voting bloc.

"That was the benchmark of a new respect and a feeling of power," said Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Last year, the caucus fought for a bill designed to make it easier to remove sexist judges. Stung by insensitive comments and light sentences handed down by two Baltimore County judges in cases involving violence against women, caucus members supported a constitutional amendment to strengthen the commission that disciplines judges. The proposal passed and will go to Maryland voters in November.

Del. Ruth M. Kirk, a Baltimore Democrat who led the 1995 caucus, said some male House leaders were not especially interested in the measure at first, but jumped on board after the Senate president offered his support.

Caucus members lobbied key lawmakers in private meetings and worked with them to craft the proposal. "I did a lot of things very quietly," Ms. Kirk said. In case discretion didn't get results, she let it be known she subscribed to the "get even" school of politics -- as she put it, "You kill my dog, I'll kill your cat."

But some issues continue to divide the caucus, splintering its potential influence.

Although it has listed reproductive rights as a priority for five years, the caucus split 32 to 15 last year on a bill that would have lifted restrictions on Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women.

The 15 voted with a narrow majority of delegates to keep the restrictions, which prohibit state dollars from being spent on some abortions available to more affluent women. The state's Medicaid program can pay for abortions only in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's health is threatened.

In 1993, the caucus split over its support of a male delegate accused of making sexist and vulgar remarks to two women lobbyists. The caucus decided to stick with its endorsement of judicial nominee John S. Arnick, which was made before the charges against him were aired. Several members, along with some women's groups, had urged the caucus to renounce its support.

Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat who leads the legislative Black Caucus, says female lawmakers should reach out more to natural allies -- in their case, women's groups -- as the Black Caucus has done.

Privately, some women say they wish they could be as focused as the Black Caucus, which votes more often as a bloc.

But others say that might never be possible because the women's group is more diverse than the Black Caucus, whose members are all Democrats and mainly from the urban jurisdictions of Prince George's County and Baltimore.

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