Women slip from sight in Balto. Co. Council Members are men, staffs are female

January 28, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For years, women have been a force in Baltimore County politics. In fact, a woman almost derailed the political career of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III in his first bid for County Council.

Today, however, the council has reverted to an old pattern: Men hold all the top elected and appointed jobs, supported by a nearly all-female staff. And nobody seems to know why.

"The general national trend is moving in the other direction," said Debbie Walsh, acting director of the Center for the American Woman in Politics at Rutgers University. "It certainly doesn't fit."

Kay Terry, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the League of Women Voters, also is puzzled by the trend.

"I don't know what the answer is," Ms. Terry said. "It's sort of the way things are. I haven't seen that it makes a whole lot of difference."

She said the league has been more interested lately in specific county issues.

Women have enjoyed some success in nearby counties and in Baltimore County's legislative contingent, where they represent a third of officeholders.

Harford County has a woman county executive and three women council members, including the council president.

Baltimore City has eight women council members, and Mary Pat Clarke was a serious contender for mayor last year, when she was council president.

Anne Arundel County's council chair is held by a woman.

Howard County, which had a woman county executive from 1986 to 1990, has one woman council member.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore County, only five of 32 council candidates in 1994 were women, and the council is even more male-dominated than it was during the late 1950s, when Dorothy N. Boone became the first elected woman member.

Two other women have been members since then.

In 1986, community activist Sheila F. Haskell lost a council race to Mr. Ruppersberger by 468 votes out of 25,000 cast.

Begin locally

Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a former Baltimore County delegate who nearly was elected governor in 1994, said that for women to become a force nationally, more must run for local office.

"The best hope for the Republicans for the future are Republican women," Ms. Sauerbrey said, noting that the demands of public office discourage some men from running.

Others decry what they say is a move backward in Baltimore County, where 52 percent of the 700,000 residents are female, according to the last census.

"Women are still willing to do the grunt work for little pay," said Traci Gingher, a former council aide and current Democratic Central Committee member.

"I think it's astounding that we don't have a woman on the council. It's 1996, for crying out loud. What are we telling our children?"

Mary Emerick, another former council aide, said the county's social view is "a very traditional, conservative picture."

Republican Berchie Lee Manley was the last female council member but lost a 1994 re-election bid. Mrs. Manley said a female perspective is needed.

"Men and women do look at things differently," she said. "Men don't look at the long-range."

The exclusivity of men on the council nearly is reversed at the staff level. Only one of the seven male council members, Stephen G. Sam Moxley of Catonsville, has a full-time male aide, though several have part-time male help.

Council members, who are paid $30,900 a year, receive $64,000 for staff salaries and all have at least two aides who increasingly attend night meetings and handle constituent complaints, while performing secretarial work.

Adele Kass, a 2nd District aide for 10 years, once thought about running but rejected the idea.

xTC "I still have a family," Ms. Kass said. "[Time demands are] not fair to my kids or my husband."

She said most male politicians let their wives handle domestic needs.

Risking capital

Fund-raising demands also scare some women off. Many aren't willing to risk their family's money on a political campaign, Mrs. Sauerbrey said.

Some see Baltimore County's pattern as part of a new plateau -- or decline -- in women's participation in politics.

"It's the beginning of a trend," said state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, an Owings Mills Democrat, adding that many women are unwilling to sacrifice promising professional careers for politics. "It's sad."

Marianne Githens, a Goucher College political science professor, added, "Women's election to public office has begun to plateau," partly because more women work, leaving less time for community activities that could form the basis for a candidacy.

"People have backed away from being active," said Barbara F. Bachur of Towson, who parlayed years of community activism into a council seat she held from 1978 to 1990. "We're burrowing in and we're looking to the politicians to solve the problems."

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