Panel on female politicians tries to empower hopefuls

Libby George

Citing low numbers of female candidates for public office, the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ Center on Women and Public Policy organized a panel of four female politicians Wednesday “to try to make the connection Ö between people who are in office and people who are talking about it, and how to close the gap,” said professor Sally Kenney, the center’s director.

Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, along with former state Sen. Deanna Wiener, Ramsey County Board of Commissioners member Susan Haigh and St. Paul School Board member Anne Carroll, spoke at the event.

“We see a lot of women students who are interested in running for office, and we want women, especially young women, to see that this is attainable,” said Jessica Webster, a third-year graduate student at the Humphrey Institute and organizer of the event.

Shirley Nelson, Women Candidate Development Center director, also spoke to attendees.

“When the center began in 1986, Minnesota ranked 26th in the nation for women serving in the Legislature Ö in 1998, we moved to sixth,” Nelson said.

She added that her organization, an umbrella group with nine member organizations, was founded in large part because the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund was raising more money than was need for the few women running for office.

“We’re just there to fill the gaps (in candidacy),” Nelson said. Her center provides formal campaign training before women file for office and refers them to member organizations for endorsements and financial support.

The speakers said women often do not run for office because they see too many barriers and allow lower self-esteem to hinder them more often than men.

“One of the issues that does keep women from running for office a lot more than guys is that you think you have to be on top of every issue,” Sayles Belton said. According to Sayles Belton and Nelson, this is simply not the case with men.

“It never crossed my mind to run for office,” Haigh said. “We’re talking the 1970s when there were maybe three to four women in offices (in Minnesota).”

Haigh said many challenges still face women in office.

“In 1994 when I took office Ö I was not prepared for some of the gender challenges,” despite being the first woman practicing at two of the law firms where she worked before taking office, Haigh said.

Wiener told audience members not to be too intimidated to run and to encourage others to do the same.

“Recognize if you know that talent in yourself, and if you see that in someone else, tell them,” Wiener said. “Stay active; listen to that inner voice.”

The women attributed female success in Minnesota – including tripling the number of women mayors in the past decade, the recent election of the first female sheriff in Mower County and the election of 24-year-old Katie Sieben to the state House – to the joining of forces across party lines.

“In 1993 people had a lot of biases to women running for office,” Sayles Belton said of her first bid for Minneapolis mayor. “Then Ö the GOP feminists and the DFL women came together and said, ‘We want to run a woman for mayor in Minneapolis, and if we want to do that, we have to come together.’ “

Carroll agreed with Sayles Belton.

“You can do a lot for (no money) when you’re connected,” she said.

Webster said the event would give young women the confidence they need to seek office.

“A lot of the women that come here see (running for office) as an option,” she said, “but this is just a reaffirmation.”

Libby George covers national politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]