Trying to end all-male streak

No women on Baltimore County Council for over a decade

Maryland Votes 2006

August 14, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Penny McCrimmon wants to bring a woman's point of view to what has for years been an all-male assemblage.

She is running for the Baltimore County Council.

"It's become an old boys' club," said McCrimmon, a Randallstown community activist who says she often hears from women who voted for her when she came up short in her council bid four years ago. "They told me that they wanted women on the council because nobody's representing their voice, nobody's hearing their issues."

Across the nation, more women hold public office than did 15 years ago. More women are running for office this year than in any recent election, according to one recent study, and a woman is considered a leading contender for president in 2008. Women are a strong presence in the Maryland legislature and have held power in county governments in the area in recent years.

But in Towson, no woman has ever served as county executive. And while four women are running for County Council this year, it has been more than a decade since the panel has had a member who could contribute the female perspective.

That pattern puzzles Gilda Morales of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She pointed out that Maryland's General Assembly consistently has one of the highest percentages of women among state legislatures across the country.

"It's a very strange occurrence that it isn't filtering down to the local level," Morales said.

A possible explanation: Baltimore County does not impose term limits on council members, who have repeatedly run for re-election and won.

"You have a very veteran council, and it could be the voters think the incumbents have been doing a good job," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat who is seeking his fourth term. "I've had female challengers in the past, and I've defeated them. So it's not that the voters haven't had a choice. They've just decided to vote for the most-qualified person, which in my case happened to be me."

But some say a woman can bring a valuable viewpoint to a lawmaking body.

"I'm not saying they're not considering women's issues," Adrienne A. Jones, a longtime state delegate from Baltimore County, said of the men on the County Council. "But it's nothing like having the person who's walked in their shoes, who can give that perspective of women and families, et cetera, because they have more firsthand knowledge."

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women have more than doubled their presence in Congress since 1991, now holding 15 percent of the seats. Nationally, one in four statewide offices are held by women, a 7 percent increase from 1991.

More than a third of members in Maryland's General Assembly are women - the biggest proportion in the nation, according to the center.

And according to Morales, a sampling of 27 states shows that more women are running for state legislative seats this year than in any election in the past decade. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, is considered a top presidential contender for 2008.

Observers point out that local government is often the starting point for women who go on to higher office.

Janet S. Owens became Anne Arundel County's first female executive in 1998 when she upset the well-funded Republican incumbent, John G. Gary.

Owens, who was 54 when she took office, said she believes that women in government tend to "more directly tackle issues."

"Often I have found some women are less interested in taking credit than in getting the job solved," said Owens, who is running for state comptroller.

Anne Arundel County also has three female council members.

The president of the Baltimore City Council is a woman, as are eight city council members. Harford County has two women on its council and has had a female executive.

Baltimore County voters have repeatedly elected women to the General Assembly and have voted to retain women as judges. County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor has served eight terms.

Three women have served on the Baltimore County Council.

Dorothy N. Boone became the first in 1958, serving one term. Barbara F. Bachur served from 1978 to 1990, and Berchie Lee Manley was elected in 1990 but lost her bid for re-election in 1994.

County elections officials could identify two female candidates for county executive, both in 1978.

"As a feminist, we have been pushing that women become more active in the political process, and yet it's been a slow, agonizing uphill battle to get women to even throw their hats in the ring," said Caroline Seamon, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Seamon said that she has considered running for the council but that she was daunted by how much money and time a campaign would require.

Incumbents typically have a huge advantage over challengers because of name recognition and the ability to raise money for a campaign, political observers say. Six of the seven Baltimore County Council members have served multiple terms.

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