2012 Project seeking women candidates

Aims to reach gender parity in government

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Former congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper hadn't considered running for office until a friend suggested it, and she spent six months considering the repercussions of a long campaign before deciding to run for Congress in 2007.

"Honestly, it was not something I was thinking about before I was asked," said Ms. Dahlkemper, of Erie, who represented Pennsylvania's 3rd District from 2009 to 2011.

Research shows that unlike men, women need to be recruited to run for office, and the number of women serving in elected office has declined since the last election.

So The 2012 Project, a nonpartisan campaign focused on electing women, is asking women to run.

"This trajectory of the numbers of women going into government concerns me," said Mary Hughes, founder and director of The 2012 Project. "We have to figure out how to get back on track to having gender parity in government."

Women currently make up 16 percent of Congressional seats, and women in state legislatures have declined by nearly 80 seats since the 2010 midterm election.

Ms. Hughes said widespread Republican victories in Congress, both nationally and statewide, in the 2010 elections reduced the number of women legislators.

"Roughly twice the number of women in Congress are Democrats, so Republican victories meant more incoming men and outgoing women," she said.

Pennsylvania lags far behind the national average, ranking 42 out of the 50 states in percentage of women in state legislatures. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, who represents the 13th District, is the only woman from Pennsylvania currently serving in Congress.

Concerned about what she saw as a "flatline" in women holding office this decade, Ms. Hughes started The 2012 Project to reach out to potential female candidates and offer the education and support needed to run for office.

Throughout the country, the project has hosted conferences and conventions to raise awareness, and has connected interested women with mentors, party leaders and institutions that can help them get started.

The project focuses on women over 45 who have established careers, strong ties to their communities and fewer family responsibilities.

Ms. Hughes said approximately 180 women have begun to explore candidacy. More than 40 of them are putting together campaigns.

"I think having women in the room changes the dialogue. We bring a different perspective," Ms. Dahlkemper said.

The 2012 Project started in the Center for American Women and Politics of Rutgers University, and functions state-by-state through various coalitions.

In Pennsylvania, The 2012 Project teamed up with the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

The project focuses on the 2012 election cycle because Congressional districts will be redrawn based on the 2010 census.

Redistricting offers an opportunity to women who are first-time candidates because many states will offer a new seat without an incumbent, Ms. Hughes said.

But Pennsylvania is losing a Congressional seat, making the state a tougher playing field for first-time candidates, said Dana Brown, executive director at Chatham's Center for Women and Politics.

"Frankly, I want to get women off the fence," Ms. Brown said.

She said the center at Chatham is working with The 2012 Project to plan events this fall that would reach out to local women.

So why does Pennsylvania fall behind the nation in recruiting and electing female legislators?

Money is a big reason.

Pennsylvania state legislators earn one of the highest salaries in the country for serving, fostering more competition for seats, said Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girl's Foundation, said.

"It's a very well-paying job that comes with excellent lifetime benefits," Ms. Arnet said. "In other states, the state legislature is often part time and offers lower salaries."

The state also doesn't set term limits, so the legislators, mostly men, often view the job as a career and hold the seat until they lose it, she said.

Ms. Arnet was a Pittsburgh Public School board member until June 2009, working to pass bills for girls' rights as athletes under Title IX and to start math and science programs for girls.

Another problem, Ms. Dahlkemper said, is that party leadership for both Democrats and Republicans is male-dominated. She said when the majority of legislators are men, fewer women are "in the pipeline."

"Because not many women are in office, when party leaders are looking for candidates, their thinking doesn't normally go which women could run," she said. "And women historically have to be asked."

But when women choose to run, they win at the same rate as men for similar seats, Ms. Hughes said.

And women bring an important perspective, she said.

Constance Williams, a former Pennsylvania state senator from Delaware County, said that during her first year in office, she fought to keep funding for the Commission for Women in the state budget.

"Somebody said to me, 'Why do we need a commission on women?' I said, "Look around, this body is a commission on men.'"

Ms. Williams, a Democrat who served the 17th district from 2001 to 2009, succeeded in retaining funds for the commission.

"We're reaching out to thousands of women to talk about the importance of running for office, and the difference women can make," Ms. Hughes said.

Madeline Buckley: mbuckley@post-gazette.com .


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