County Council may be all-male after election

3 female candidates are underdogs in races

`Ought to be a wake-up call'

Politicians more loyal to party than gender

Howard County

October 13, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Just over half of Howard County's quarter-million residents are female, but there is a good chance that next month's election will produce an all-male County Council for the first time in 28 years. Howard's first female state senator also may not survive in office.

For a county where the executive and the majority of council members were women in the late 1980s, the possibility of a switch to all men is jolting, particularly to some politically active women.

"The sad thing is Howard County had a pretty good record going back to the '70s. That's before the men discovered they could do it, too," said Sue Buswell, co-president of the county League of Women Voters.

"For many of us, it ought to be a wake-up call that we aren't always guaranteed a voice in the County Council," she said.

With more women working full time and raising children, too, things are harder, she said, though she noted that all four elected school board members are female.

Three women are running for council seats in Columbia, Ellicott City and the southeastern portion of the county, but all are underdogs. Republican Diane Wilson and Democrat Lynne Bergling are facing incumbent male council members, and Republican Joan Lancos is running uphill against Democrat Ken Ulman in a west Columbia district with a 2-1 Democratic majority. Mary C. Lorsung, the lone female council member for two terms, is retiring this year.

"I think in Howard County and Columbia, we've moved past the time when we looked at what a person looked like. In the year 2002, I would look at what a person stands for," said Ulman, who says he's a progressive Democrat who will be "sensitive to issues of all my constituents."

"Women 25 years old or less don't remember a time when women had to fight the glass ceiling, which is still there," Wilson said.

If the percentages play out and the council turns all male, it could be a one-term fluke or a long-term trend, but Howard County would be the loser, women's advocates and some male politicians say.

"There's plenty of academic literature that supports the idea that women come to political problems with a different agenda. Just as we need African-Americans, so we also need women," said Goucher College historian Jean H. Baker.

Howard delegate and former County Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, a District 13 Democrat, agreed, but said it more simply: "Boys play differently than girls."

But does that mean she favors Republican Diane Wilson for her old council seat?

Not hardly.

"I root for Guy [incumbent Democratic Councilman Guy J. Guzzone]. He's one of the best things to happen in this county," and the best-qualified for the seat, she said.

Party loyalty seems to trump gender for male and female politicians.

Ellicott City Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon said he fully agrees that "if we can have that [gender] diversity on the council, the county benefits." The benefit he has in mind is more specific, though.

"I think the council needs Joan Lancos and Diane Wilson. It's a bonus that they happen to be women," he said, referring to the Republican candidates.

That recommendation didn't extend to Bergling, the female Democrat running for Merdon's seat.

Bergling said she doesn't stress her gender in campaigning, but she does think it's important.

"Whenever there's something going on with zoning, I would have to say there's a minimum of two-thirds of the citizens who show up are women. It would be a total travesty to have a council with no women deciding comprehensive rezoning," she said.

Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county councilwoman and county executive from 1986 to 1990, also hewed to the party line.

"All things being equal, I would love to have a woman on the council. If that woman is going to be supporting [Republican] Robert Ehrlich for governor, that changes things," she said, adding that she wants to keep a Democratic majority on the County Council. A victory by either Wilson or Lancos would likely give Republicans control instead.

Gender is also an issue in the county's pivotal District 13 state Senate contest between Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader and C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat who would be the county's first African-American senator.

Schrader often introduces herself as the county's first female state senator, and frequently comments on an offhand joke Gray made this year about defeating three women in his 20-year County Council career -- using the comment against him.

Gray wouldn't talk about Schrader's gender or his ethnicity's effect in the contest, stating instead that "I'm running on my 20-year record of achievement."

Schrader, who was appointed to her seat in January when former Sen. Martin G. Madden resigned, is less reticent.

"I have found after being in Annapolis for 12 years that balance is very important -- party and gender. I'm not asking people to vote for me because I'm a woman. Take a look and judge on the merits," she said, recounting her 11 years working for Madden as his chief aide and her experience as a substitute teacher.

Lancos said nearly the same thing, but she, and other women come back to one statistic -- that 50.9 percent of Howard County's population was female in the 2000 Census.

"Half the population are females. I really think our elected officials need to reflect the population as a whole," said Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who ran against Ulman for Lorsung's seat in the primary -- and lost.

"To have an elected body tipped one way or the other hinders a fullness of response," she said.

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