Is the State Democratic Party Being 'Feminized'?

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

If state Treasurer Kathleen Brown wins the Democratic nomination for governor, she will become the fourth woman in three consecutive state elections to emerge from a contested Democratic primary with a top-of-the-ticket berth in the general. The state Democratic Party's preference for women as standard bearers began in 1990, when Dianne Feinstein came from behind to defeat then-Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp in the gubernatorial primary. Two years later, she and then-Rep. Barbara Boxer won the Democratic senatorial primaries. If the trend continues, will California's Democratic Party someday become a "Women's Party"?

In part, the Democratic preference for women reflects demographics. Women now account for about 56% of the party's electorate in California, compared with about 53% of the general electorate.

Since 1990, however, gender has been increasingly seen as a voting cue. Polls taken during that year's gubernatorial race indicated that Democratic women were far more likely than their male counterparts to prefer a gubernatorial candidate of their own sex. The percentage of California voters who told The Times Poll they agreed with the statement that "it is time we had a woman governor" rose from 40% in 1990 to 52% this year. Among Democrats, 62% agreed (compared with 35% of the Republicans).

Numbers like these have boosted women's issues to the top of the state party's agenda. They also help to explain why Brown has managed to retain a consistent lead in the polls.

But demographics alone cannot account for the "feminization" of the California Democratic Party. Today's political culture has given women clout.

Traditionally, to be a politician was to be male. The stereotype evoked images of an "old boys' network" tainted by special-interest money. In 1992, an anti-incumbent backlash helped Democratic women candidates, who outnumbered their GOP counterparts, win a huge number of primary and general elections. This year, cynicism about politics-as-usual and dissatisfaction with the status quo again appear to be electoral themes. Candidates of both major parties are running away from any such association.

The Democratic women candidates are not only "new" but are also perceived as fully capable of playing with the "big boys." Boxer, Feinstein and Brown, for example, are proven fund raisers and know their way around politics and government. They are subjected to the same special-interest pressures that buffet male candidates. But, so far, voters appear more willing to take a chance that women won't as easily succumb to them--up to a point.

As women become more numerous and visible in positions of power, and begin to be perceived as politicians, they could lose that "outsider" appeal. Sen. Feinstein may be experiencing a little of that already. Early polls show her in a surprisingly close race with her likely GOP opponent, Rep. Michael Huffington, a millionaire political novice. After only two years in the harsh Washington spotlight, Feinstein's mantle of change seemingly has frayed, perhaps accelerated by Huffington's media assault.

This developing scenario indicates that although women may continue to win Democratic primaries, by virtue of demographics and gender issues, they may encounter new turbulence in the general election because of the influence of other factors on voter decisions. Feinstein, again, offers an object lesson.

At the start of the 1990 gubernatorial campaign, voters were concerned about "lifestyle" issues--education, the environment and abortion rights--which traditionally favor women candidates. This helped Feinstein through the primary. Then, as the fall campaign got under way, voters' attention turned to a weakening economy and the threat of war in the Persian Gulf, issues that traditionally favor male candidates.

Add to this, partisanship and organization, which usually come into play in a general election. The result: Pete Wilson is governor. Feinstein's gender advantage had eroded.

And two years later, Feinstein and Boxer owed their senatorial victories as much to party affiliation as to gender: George Bush didn't head their ticket.

In California, Republican Party politics may also have helped to move women toward the Democrats. As one disgruntled activist said, "It was a big mistake of the GOP to cede gender politics to the Democrats." The state party's repudiation of abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment has alienated younger, more moderate women.

If moderate Republican women continue to lose faith in the GOP and its candidates, what might that mean for the future of California politics? "Polarization," one disaffected activist fears. "Balkanization by gender." Perhaps not. But Republicans may be in danger of atrophy--induced by the "machismo-morphisis" of their party.

It appears, however, that Wilson is moving to make amends and bring moderate GOP women home. His nomination of Appeals Court Judge Kathryn M. Werdegar to serve as the second woman on the state Supreme Court signals that he understands he'll need their support in a close general-election race.

Despite the tendency of women to register Democratic, gender does not appear to be playing a decisive role in the party's primaries for lower constitutional offices. Perhaps because these mostly ministerial jobs--controller and secretary of state, for example--have little direct impact on gender-related or lifestyle issues, they don't tend to mobilize women as a group. This may help explain why Assemblywoman Gwen Moore is trailing two male opponents in the race for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state. Yet, polls show Kathleen Connell leading her male opponents in the race for the Democratic nomination for controller.

A recent Times poll indicates, however, that Connell's edge is not the result of a gender gap. Money appears to be as important. Connell has committed her own money and has the support of women who can raise more. She's using those funds to buy media and name recognition, a sure-fire combination for any candidate in a lower-ballot race.

Will California Democrats someday become a "Women's Party," whose electoral fortunes stand or fall on the power of issues and candidates that resonate according to gender? Not as long as other constituencies need to be served and other factors affect elections up and down the ballot.

What's clear is that the state Democratic Party will continue to enjoy a big advantage in terms of women candidates and women voters--as long as it is perceived as the only party to address issues of concern to a large chunk of this state's electorate.*

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