Anne Arundel voters put women in charge After county chooses its first female executive, others play down gender

Election 1998

November 05, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Pelton and researcher Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

In an unprecedented phenomenon in Anne Arundel County, women will occupy the top positions of power, elected and appointed, starting next month.

Democrat Janet S. Owens is the first woman to be elected Arundel county executive, and three women, also Democrats, will be among the six new members of the County Council. They will oversee spending on the county's largest expense, education, an area dominated by women appointed to high positions: Carol S. Parham is the county's first female superintendent of schools, Carlesa Finney presides over the Board of Education, and Martha A. Smith is president of Anne Arundel Community College.

The day after Election Day, with newly elected leaders still reveling, political observers and the new officeholders agreed that the political direction of the county will turn on issues, not gender.

"It's incredible; isn't it wonderful," District 1 council winner Pamela Graboski Beidle said of the number of female winners.

Gender called insignificant

She quickly added that voters didn't elect candidates because they are women.

"I don't think it's so significant that we're women," said Beidle, an insurance agent and Linthicum resident. "The people spoke out and chose new leadership. People wanted things to be different than they've been, whether it be women or Democrats."

When a man stopped her on the street after she won and asked her whether she would rather be called councilwoman or councilman, Beidle didn't hesitate.

"Councilman," she said. "That's just the title."

Owens said she isn't dwelling on the breakthrough either, but that she hopes her big win, after an uphill battle, can inspire other women.

"I'm honored and thrilled to be the first woman to hold the job, but I haven't really thought much about that," she said at a news conference yesterday.

Stands on issues to count

Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at the community college, said the women's stands on issues vital to their constituents -- education, development, light rail and traffic congestion -- will determine how they work together much more than their gender will.

He noted that although all the newly elected women can be described as self-made, they come from contrasting backgrounds.

Beidle and A. Shirley Murphy, who works in public relations and won the District 3 race, come from the more heavily blue-collar, working-class North County, where political machines once dominated politics. Owens and Barbara Samorajczyk, a lawyer turned environmental activist who won the District 6 race, are more closely identified with South County, where higher education and old family networks are prized.

Women were first elected to the County Council in 1974, 10 years after the institution of charter government in Anne Arundel County. Virginia P. Clagett, who went on to become the first woman elected as a delegate in District 30, won a council seat in 1974 along with two other women, all Democrats. From 1982 to 1994 there were three women on the County Council.

"It seemed to be the beginning of doing well in politics," said Clagett, a West River resident. A woman could have been elected county executive long before 1998 had a woman chosen to run, said Clagett, who served 20 years on the council and turned down Democratic overtures to run for county executive.

"I find being a woman is a major plus in politics, certainly not a minus," she said. "Women are a civilizing influence in government and politics."

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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