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Closing the Political Gender Gap

news1The growing effort to encourage local women to ‘break the glass ballot’

The United States ranks just 87th in the world for representation of elected women at the national level, and statistics show the number of women in national elected positions is declining. Statewide, an additional 28 women would need to be elected to the California legislature to reach gender parity, and locally, there are a number of women serving on city councils, but no women on the county Board of Supervisors.

That said, Santa Cruz County has produced several notable female politicians: the current mayor of Santa Cruz is a woman and so are three of the six other city council members. The county also has many women serving on school boards and in other local elected positions.

Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant originally ran for elected office based on economic issues and found herself faced with one of the hardest years the city has seen. She became a compassionate voice for the city when two police officers were slain in February, and says she has had to work hard to juggle her work and her family.

“It’s so much more than a full-time job at this point,” says Bryant, whose own mother served in the New Hampshire state House of Representatives in the early 1980s.

Growing up and seeing what her mother dealt with, Bryant says she never thought she would run for office herself. “She did an amazing job,” she says. “It was hard [for me] as a child but obviously she was a role model.”

Bryant says it has been valuable to serve with a city council that represents a diversity of perspectives and is has a balance of men and women. In addition to Bryant, Lynn Robinson, Cynthia Matthews and Pamela Comstock all currently serve on the city council. Elsewhere in the county, there’s Mayor Stephanie Harlan in Capitola and Watsonville city councilmembers Karina Cervantez, Dr. Nancy Bilicich and Trina Coffman-Gomez.

news1-2Breaking the Glass Ballot organizers and presenters, from left to right, Richelle Noroyan, Rachel Goodman, Angela Chestnut, Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant, Julie Forbes and Vania Benavides.Still, this is nowhere near equal representation, says Rachel Goodman, former press secretary to then-Assemblyman Bill Monning and experienced campaign manager. She’s concerned that there are not enough women in the “pipeline” to pursue office in the future.

In an effort to encourage, support and elect more women to local and state positions, Goodman and a number of other women have put together a one-day conference called “Breaking the Glass Ballot” that is aimed at increasing women’s participation in local politics.

The Saturday, Sept. 28 event, which is co-sponsored by Cabrillo College, will bring together women who formerly served or are currently serving in local elected positions with campaign managers and political strategists. The lineup includes Bryant, Judge Ariadne Symons, former Watsonville mayor Ana Ventura-Phares, campaign manager Pat Manning and a number of other women.

“This event is about helping women get inspired to run in 2014 and 2016 for local openings on councils, commissions and boards,” Goodman says. “We really want to see a larger pool of qualified women candidates who are ready to step in, and who know they have support.”

The keynote address will be delivered by political strategist Mary Hughes, the founder of Close the Gap California and a former campaign manager for past state Sen. Joe Simitian.

The Close the Gap California campaign is aimed at increasing the number of women in the state legislature by recruiting talented, policy-focused women to run for open seats in upcoming years. The organization partners with advocacy organizations focused on issues such as reducing poverty and improving education, and works to identify women whose skills and accomplishments would make them effective leaders in Sacramento.

The 2014 and 2016 elections are particularly important, say advocates, because changes to term limits passed last year mean that nearly half the seats in the state legislature will be opening up in those years. That opportunity isn’t likely to come again until 2022. Women currently represent just 26 percent of the state legislature, according to Close the Gap California. Santa Cruz County has never sent a woman to Congress, which Goodman says is a problem the current local effort is hoping to change.

“We started to ask the question, ‘why is this?’” says Goodman. “We’re trying to figure that out.”

Locally, the group is focused on the county Board of Supervisors, which will have two open slots next year.  Incumbent Greg Caput is running for re-election and Ryan Coonerty has already floated plans to run for the seat his father Neal Coonerty currently holds. After winning in the 2012 race, Zach Friend replaced Ellen Pirie in the Second District as Pirie retired after three terms. No women ran and Friend had Pirie’s endorsement.

Another upcoming opening will be the Santa Cruz City Council spot currently held by Robinson, whose term expires in 2014.

“We hope to inspire women who are on the fence about running to step forward and to know they will have support,” Goodman emphasizes. “Local politics is where you can really make a difference.”

After the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the City of Santa Cruz was led through recovery by a female mayor, Mardi Wormhoudt, who later served as the Third District county supervisor for a dozen years.

When she took office in the 1980s, she was the only woman on the city council and became one of the first prominent female politicians to emerge locally.

Wormhoudt, who died in 2009, worked hard for civil and women’s rights, and was integral in protecting the county’s North Coast from development, particularly the area now known as Wilder Ranch State Park.

In her obituary that ran in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, John Laird, who served on the city council with her then and is currently serving as Secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, called Wormhoudt a “real trailblazer for women.”

Wormhoudt also pushed for the creation of the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, and helped launch Gemma, a program that helps incarcerated women re-enter successfully into the community.

Another former Santa Cruz mayor, Emily Reilly, first got involved with local politics when her Mission Street business, Emily’s Good Things to Eat, was threatened by plans to widen the street. Concerned about her employees and the fate of her business, she joined a public task force focused on the widening project.

“We were able to actually make a change,” she says.

Serving on the task force led her to run for city council in 2000 and again in 2004. In 2008, she ran for the 27th Assembly District but was, as she puts it, “beaten quite soundly in the primary” by Bill Monning. Reilly garnered nearly 24 percent of the vote and though she lost, she says she doesn’t regret the experience at all.

Running for office was “actually a fascinating experience,” she says.

She ran for Assembly because she wanted to see Santa Cruz County better represented in state government, as well as the fact that there hadn’t ever been a woman in the office. Women bring a different perspective, she says, and it’s important to have that mix.

She points to a tendency in society to make women feel as if they can’t have both families and a career, and wonders if that has held women back from running for office.

“I wonder, are we being shown that we can’t do it all at once?” she says. “Historically I think that’s been the case, but it seems to be changing.” 


“Breaking the Glass Ballot” takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28 at Cabrillo College Horticulture Center, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. $30 admission includes lunch. Scholarships available. Learn more at breakingtheglassballot.org.

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