NASHVILLE, Tenn. >> Hillary Clinton’s defeat last year sparked an intense debate about the role of gender in American politics, but the presidential race overshadowed a deeper structural challenge for Democrats: They have a scarcity of female officeholders in state capitals.
Only two governors and five state attorneys general are Democratic women, an acute problem for a party that counts women as a pillar of its base and trumpets the value of diverse representation.
Moving to address the disparity, the Democratic Attorneys General Association gathered here last week to announce a commitment to ensuring that in five years, at least half of the party’s attorneys general will be women. The group is creating a committee of current and former attorneys general and other partners to recruit, train and raise money for female candidates as part of what they are calling the 1881 Initiative, named for the first year that a woman sought, unsuccessfully, the office of state attorney general. (Two did, in California and Illinois.)
“We’re supposed to be living in a representative democracy, and yet the people who hold office don’t reflect the diversity of the population they serve,” said Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts, who is co-chairwoman of the effort. She is one of 22 Democratic attorneys general altogether.
For Democrats, confronting the paucity of women in prominent state posts is not just a matter of gender equity and public relations. The office of attorney general has often served as a steppingstone to election as senator or governor, thanks to the executive power it wields and attention it draws from both donors and the news media. Three Democratic women in the Senate were state attorneys general, including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is thought to be considering a presidential bid.
“We need to have a strong pipeline; we need to have a strong bench,” said Ellen F. Rosenblum, Oregon’s attorney general and the other co-chairwoman of the initiative.
The need to act was driven home Sept. 15 when Attorney General Lisa Madigan of Illinois, a Democrat who has held her post for 14 years, announced she would not run for re-election next year. Madigan has been repeatedly wooed to run for higher office but, much to the frustration of Democrats in Illinois and Washington, has declined, citing her father’s long-standing position as state House speaker and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.
While Madigan’s case may be unique, the attorneys general and strategists who met here cited an array of difficulties for aspiring women. Remarkably, no woman was elected state attorney general in America until 1984, when Arlene Violet, a Republican, won the office in Rhode Island.
The clubby political culture of legislators, lobbyists and consultants in state capitals is often male-dominated and can result in men being beckoned from the legislature to run for statewide office. This self-reinforcing culture can also make it harder for women to raise money and garner interest group endorsements, both critical in winning party nominations. And Rosenblum noted that in some cases, women wait until later in life to run for office, can be reluctant to ask for contributions and must be pushed to run.
Not wanting to offend the residents of their state, both Healey and Rosenblum dismissed any suggestion of another culpable party: voters.
But during a panel session, those not on the ballot were blunt about the challenges women can have with the electorate.
“People are perfectly willing to vote for a man that they think is qualified but don’t like,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “They will not vote for a woman they think is qualified but don’t like. And women voters are some of the worst.”
And the role of attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement officer, comes with a “constant battle to maintain likability and qualification in an office that communicates toughness,” Lake noted.
Martha Coakley, the former Massachusetts attorney general who lost a Senate special election to Scott Brown in 2010 and a governor’s race four years later, highlighted a recurring challenge for Democratic women: winning governor’s races in otherwise liberal Northeastern states.
“People think it’s a very blue state; it’s a very old-fashioned state,” Coakley said of Massachusetts, which has never elected a female governor. “One foot in the 21st century, one in the 19th.”
But even as Coakley attained a measure of national ignominy for losing the Senate seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy, her success in becoming attorney general helped pave the way for one of her employees in the office: Healey.
“Believing is seeing,” said Healey, highlighting the importance of voters already seeing a woman in the job.
Yet Healey, a basketball star at Harvard who played professionally in Europe, did not take any chances in sports-crazed Massachusetts. She opened her 2014 campaign with an advertisement showing her spinning a basketball on her index finger, Harlem Globetrotters-style, and trumpeted the endorsement of the Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy.