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Sunday, July 28, 2013
Last month, The Washington Post ran what’s becoming a regular report on the paucity of women in state elected office here in Virginia. The latest lament was inspired by the fact that all six statewide candidates this year are men, and it went on to note, again, that women are under-represented in the General Assembly, with just 25 out of 140 members, or 18 percent.
The article quoted leaders with the Republican Jennifer Byler Institute and the Democratic Farm Team, two organizations that recruit and mentor women leaders. That got me thinking about the real farm teams in Virginia, the city and town councils, boards of supervisors and school boards.
My theory was that women are more involved in local government, and I set out to prove myself right. I had mixed success. The Virginia Association of Counties reported that just 87 out of 552 supervisors in their records were women. That’s 16 percent, or slightly below the state legislative numbers. The Virginia Municipal League, which represents cities, towns and some counties, trolled its database and came up with 356 women out of 1,385. That’s a stronger 26 percent, and not all members identified themselves by gender, so the number may be higher.
Not surprisingly, the Virginia School Board Association cleaned everyone’s clock. Out of 829 members, 547 are women, or 66 percent.
I checked with several local women leaders last week to find out how they got involved.
“It was a natural progression,” said Roanoke Councilwoman Anita Price. “All roads pointed to the political arena.”
Added Roanoke County Supervisor Charlotte Moore, “I like the one-on-one relationship with citizens. I like to help people.”
All of the women I spoke with had been asked to seek state office. Phyllis Albritton, a member of the Montgomery County School Board, even considered running for Congress. But they were turned off by the partisanship and the focus on social issues. Many run as independents, and even those with party affiliation say it’s not a big factor in their day-to-day duties, and they like it that way.
“I’ve always said, ‘Never,’ ” Moore said. “I would not put myself through that. . . . I don’t see myself putting thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars into a campaign.”
“When I have looked at what goes on in Richmond, it seems so divisive,” added Salem Councilwoman Lisa Garst. “I like to work on things that can improve the Roanoke Valley. . . . If you’re issue driven, you see everything through that issue. When you’re service driven, you see things through what’s needed.”
“We on the local level are willing to talk to one another, but as you move up the food chain, it’s all about partisan dynamics,” Price said. “Don’t demonize me because we’re trying to build a relationship.”
After covering the state legislature for 14 years, I admit that when local leaders tell me they’re considering a General Assembly run, I have to resist the urge to respond, “Why in the world would you do that?”
It can take years of speechifying to accomplish anything at the state Capitol. Local women leaders agree that’s a factor for them.
“You tend to see the fruits of your labors a little bit more quickly,” Price said.
It’s frankly a little uncomfortable to talk about women leaders as if they are different from men. Is that an outdated and unhelpful attitude? The women I spoke to don’t think so.
“As women, we tend to recognize the necessity for building relationships,” Price said. “Women just bring a different flavor.”
Albritton said she’d like to see more differences.
“I was disappointed when women started moving up, they started acting like men rather than bringing our compassion,” she said. “We need both at the table very badly at all levels of government.”
The women I spoke to seem happy and fulfilled by their current responsibilities. I’m glad they’re devoting their time and hard work here in their own communities and hope they’ll continue to do so.
“By the time you get to your second term, you know what you’re in for,” Garst said. “I really saw the potential of the office. . . . Right now in local government, there is a level of cooperation. It feels like things are in the right place to make things happen.”
Nuckols is editorial page editor ofThe Roanoke Times.
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