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Making Connections: Both Parties Are Changing Their All-Male Casts

<i> Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer. </i>

Women are hardly beating down statehouse and U.S. Senate doors just yet, but there are strong signs that a few more will step across those thresholds this fall. A woman will definitely be elected governor of Nebraska, because the only two candidates who survived the primary are women. Another woman won her party’s nomination for governor in Oregon this past week. A woman leads the polls for the U.S. Senate race in Maryland. Another is unopposed for the Democratic Senate nomination in Missouri and is running a strong race.

These and other candidacies springing up all over the land are not chance occurrences but rather the results of patient effort by women themselves and a range of support groups that help them learn campaign skills, raise money and turn out the voters. The candidates have long records on city councils, as mayors, in Congress and in statewide elected offices. They aren’t flukes.

Yet despite all this activity and despite the visibility of women in the 1984 election, many other women remain unmoved by the excitement, uninvolved in the process. True, women register to vote and vote in higher percentages than men. But they remain a distinct minority among candidates for office. Nebraska candidates Helen Boosalis and Kay Orr, Oregon’s Norma Paulus, Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski and Missouri’s Harriett Woods still make news because of the novelty of their quests.

It is this “historic underrepresentation” of women in positions of power that GOP co-chairman Betty Heitman says must be corrected. Each election the percentage of women in state legislatures advances a point or two, but the figure is still only 14%--and 5% in Congress. To try to change those figures, Heitman and her counterpart, Democratic Party Vice Chairman Lynn Cutler, along with their colleagues have embarked on an unprecedented bipartisan effort to bring more women, especially businesswomen, into the process.

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“Nothing breeds success like success,” Heitman adds, so if some women run and win, more may run and bring their perspectives to all issues, but especially those that have traditionally concerned women--everything from child care or divorce law to survival in a nuclear age.

Businesswomen have many of the same organizational or persuasive skills needed to succeed in politics; they are used to moving in the world of men and they often have the money--if not the time--to give to candidates. The push now is to demonstrate that the political parties appreciate their worth; while businesswomen have long been active individually, they have been all but invisible.

Cutler recalls a meeting organized to turn out the women’s vote for the Walter F. Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket in Milwaukee where she saw Jewish women, labor women, child-care advocates and senior women represented. “The whole range, but no businesswomen.” She knew they were a growing force: They contributed to her own congressional campaign in Iowa in 1980. “But the local organizers did not have them in the loop yet.”

Republicans learned that lesson earlier. Scared by the gender gap in the 1982 voting, the Republican National Committee got busy. Businesswomen seemed a natural constituency. For several years, Heitman has held executive briefings that bring women to Washington to visit departments or agencies affecting their businesses.

Wanting to go further, Heitman and Cutler collaborated in a recent conference on a Mississippi River steamboat that brought 300 businesswomen and political women together. Underwritten by a $100,000 grant from GTE Sprint, the conference featured practical advice on fund-raising, promoting issues and campaign organizing from successful women in politics.

Reporters on board had the curious sense that they had attended these workshops before, at meetings sponsored by the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Women’s Education Fund a decade and more ago. But the audience is new and the people who taught the skills at those conferences now use them in key offices, whether it’s Betsey Wright, a top aide to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, or Texas state Treasurer Ann Richards. Now a new wave of women, including California Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Sacramento County Supervisor Sandra Smoley, provide the advice.

These organizers are ambitious. They want to reach not only businesswomen, but also church women, dental hygienists, teachers, housewives and women described by Richards as “still so isolated there’s no group to go to.” Many women, often the poor and those “whose lives most directly depend on politics are just beginning to be pulled in to the process,” Richards said.

Party officeholders and organizers alike are trying to plant the idea that the political process can have direct meaning for every woman. Perhaps, in an example Cutler used, a woman is grappling with her own child-care problems. “Often the connection between that, on an individual basis, and the political process isn’t made.” Both parties are trying to help women make that connection and translate it into contributing to a candidate, working for her or perhaps eventually running for office.

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Women have long been the volunteer mainstays of local campaigns, calling prospective voters, licking envelopes, driving people to the polls. But Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) points out that campaigns have become so professionalized now that parties often forget the contributions of the women who really know their communities. Republicans rebuilding their party in the South have been particularly effective in using those women, Boggs added.

Many of the businesswomen aboard the Mississippi Queen for the bipartisan conference had contributed to candidates. But Kathleen Cairns Krahn, who, with her husband, runs a funeral home in Reedley, Calif., and Betty L. Shrader, a financial consultant in Pacific Palisades, both want to do more for their communities. Shrader added that she wants people in office who “identify with me as a woman as well as a business person.”

Becoming more active in politics may help women break down the stereotype that they are only interested in certain issues, said Jessica K. Korzenecki of Arco in Los Angeles. She may want to talk about energy, while another woman will want to talk about tax reform or regulations that affect her business.

A stronger alliance between women in business and women in politics can keep women from having to reinvent the wheel at its every turn. “It is not ‘every woman for herself’ and it never has been,” Richards said. Until women build this alliance, she added, “we will be doomed to fight every battle and win every victory over and over again.”

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