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Politics

Female politicians are losing ground in California

Democratic Women

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, from left, talks with Democratic U.S. Reps. Janice Hahn of San Pedro, Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio on the steps of the Capitol. 

(Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

The calls to Encino attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik came every few weeks, pleading for her to run for the California state Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Fran Pavley.

Pavley, champion of California’s groundbreaking efforts to curtail carbon emissions and one of the most influential women at the Capitol, was being forced out because of term limits. With the number of female state legislators already on the decline, Kamenir-Reznik was being pressured to run and help stem the losses.

She resisted, mostly because of her commitments to the nonprofit she cofounded.

“Then I thought, we keep talking about the need for women in power,” said Kamenir-Reznik, 64, who finally relented and filed to run for the seat earlier this year. “If I’m not willing to do it, then how could I expect other people to do it. We have to have role models for young women.”

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Though the United States could make history this year by electing the nation’s first female president, and two Democratic women are the front-runners in the race to succeed California’s retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, women are expected to lose ground in both the state’s congressional delegation and legislature in 2016.

Today, 25.8% of California’s 120 legislators are women, down from a peak of 30.8% in 2006. More than a third of the 31 women in the state Assembly and Senate are leaving office this year because of term limits or personal reasons, threatening to deplete representation further in a state where an estimated 50.8% of the population is female.

“For me it’s a little bit disheartening. I think breaking even is the best we can hope to get,” said Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), vice chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus. “Clearly, the regular political system is not working for us.”

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In California’s 53 member congressional delegation, three of the 19 female representatives are leaving office: Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) is retiring, Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) is running for Los Angeles County supervisor and Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) gave up her district to seek the Senate seat.

Odds are high that at least two will be replaced by men. That appears to be a near certainty in Sanchez’s heavily Democratic district in Orange County, where the two front-runners are former Democratic state Sens. Lou Correa and Joe Dunn.

The challenges faced by female candidates have become glaringly apparent in the race to replace Capps. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) chose to endorse Salud Carbajal, a member of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, instead of the only woman in the race — Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider. Both are Democrats.

“It is not just one thing; we want women, young people, minorities and the rest in the Congress,” Pelosi told The Times recently.

She said she picked Carbajal because of his military service and political experience, along with “his work on the environment and education, and those issues make him a welcome addition to the Congress.” Carbajal also has backing from Capps, something Pelosi said was “instrumental in the decision.”

Emily’s List, which helps Democratic women who support abortion rights, is sitting out the race while focusing on more prominent contests. Schneider points out she does have the support of state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and the National Organization for Women, but admitted it is “disappointing” to not to get more institutional support. She speculated that Pelosi’s support for Carbajal might be keeping groups like Emily’s List from jumping in. 

“Now that we are finally having debates, [voters] see this long line of nine individuals, and I’m the only woman sitting there,” she said. “It does matter to me that I am the only woman running." 

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According to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times, the number of seats held by women in the state Senate could drop by at least two or three. And at least two or three seats could switch from women to men in the Assembly.

“We expect to lose some seats in the Legislature,” said Rachel Michelin, executive director of California Women Lead, a nonpartisan association that recruits and trains women to run for public office.

Michelin said it’s hard to fathom in California, the first state to send two women to the U.S. Senate — Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.  It’s a problem that runs deep, she said, all the way down to city councils and county boards of supervisors.

“We’ve had a lot of firsts here for women,” Michelin said. “But look at the City Council in Los Angeles. You have one woman on the City Council.”

Katie Ziegler of the National Conference of State Legislatures said the percentage of women being elected to legislatures nationwide has “flatlined” at about 24% over the last decade. A deficit of female candidates is the root of the problem, she said, not biased voting patterns. Women who do run for office succeed on average as often as their male counterparts, she said.

Ziegler said there is plenty of academic research identifying some reasons why: Some women don’t consider themselves qualified for public office, even in cases where they are more qualified than men running; women tend not to have as strong of a financial network when it comes to raising campaign money; they often have to be recruited to run, whereas more men decide to run on their own; and women place a higher priority on their obligations at work and taking care of their families.

The 2016 election will provide the last big wave of open seats in the Legislature for at least eight years because of a change in term limits approved by California voters in 2012. Open seats without an incumbent in the race provide the easiest path into the political arena for outside candidates and a good opportunity for more women to be elected.

When voter-backed term limits on politicians were sweeping across the nation in the 1990s, many believed that more opportunities would open up for women.

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But term limits have swept women out of office right along with men and, history has shown, it’s difficult to recruit women candidates to replace them, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Walsh said longer or no term limits might be better for women. Those in power would stay in office longer, and advocates could focus on winning “slow steady growth” for women as political vacancies open up, she said. 

“When women run, they win at about the same rate as men,” Walsh said. “We just need to get women to run.” 

Kamenir-Reznik said the nastiness of politics also is a major obstacle to recruiting successful women to run for office.

“One would have to be really oblivious not to have reservations about stepping into the political meat market,” Kamenir-Reznik said. “It’s not a particularly easy thing to do. It takes an enormous commitment. And you know people are going to throw dirt at you, even though there’s not a lot of dirt, or any dirt, to throw.”

Shawnda Westly, a senior strategist for the California Democratic Party, says a boys’ club aspect of politics is one of the primary culprits. She is an active member of “Win Like a Girl,” a bipartisan organization that supports women in government and politics throughout California and tries to raise the public profile of women in the political field. Men still dominate the leadership in the parties and political organizations and, by and large, decide who gets recruited to run for office and who gets financial support.

“I believe that part of the systemic problem in the business of politics is the inherent sexism,” she said. “I really believe it’s because we don’t have enough seats at the table for making decisions on endorsements and spending.”

Times Staff Writer Javier Panzar contributed to this report.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Follow @philwillon on Twitter for the latest news on California politics

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