Forum aims to push more women in politics

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HARRISBURG -- Two political experts will attempt to answer this perennial question today: how to get more women to run for political office in Pennsylvania?

Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, the former CEO of the Women's Campaign Fund and She Should Run, is no stranger to being the only woman in the room at political gatherings.

"Women must ask other women to run," said Ms. Bennett of Allentown, Pa., a former congressional candidate. "They must write them checks. And when they lose, they must pick up the phone and say, 'When are you going to run again?'"

Ms. Bennett and Christine Toretti, a Republican National Committee member, will speak today in Harrisburg about electing more women to office in the Keystone State.

The state historically has had low numbers of women officeholders; it ranks 38th nationally in the total number of women in the state Legislature, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University. The legislature is a key body for those interested in increasing women's representation, not just for its lawmaking role, but because it often serves as a "farm team" for candidates who go on to seek higher political office, experts say.

Pennsylvania's Legislature -- which is a full-time body, highly paid in comparison to other states, and favors incumbency -- impacts the structures around it and the overall political ecosystem, Ms. Bennett said.

"Politics is a very well-paid career path here at the state Legislature level. For that reason, it is very competitive for men and very well-entrenched," she said.

The legislative schedule of several voting days a week and Pennsylvania's geography can serve as an additional obstacle for women who have young children. "Even where I live, in Indiana, it's a three-hour drive to Harrisburg," said Ms. Toretti. "The way it's structured, it isn't welcoming for people who have children at home."

Of the 1,166 candidates who filed to run in the 2014 primary at all levels of government, about 35 percent of them were women, according to a recent preliminary analysis by the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics. That includes two women running for governor, 11 for Congress, 13 for state Senate, and 83 for state House. Another 145 Democratic and 153 Republican women are seeking spots on the state committees for their parties, according to the center's number-crunching.

Pennsylvania's poor record in terms of women elected officials was driven home to Kerri Kennedy several years ago when she was working in Afghanistan, as part of international development efforts in assisting women to run for and serve in that nation's Parliament.

Ms. Kennedy of Philadelphia is one of the founders of the Represent! Political Action Committee, which aims to aid progressive women Democrats running for the Legislature. She was asked by an Afghan woman about the under-representation of women in politics in the United States.

"You can create a movement to change that," Ms. Kennedy said of her efforts with Represent! PAC. Ms. Toretti said she hopes she and Ms. Bennett can motivate or inspire women today to seek office.

"Run. Win. Serve: Electing More Women to Public Office" starts at noon at Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg.


Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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