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State's GOP Women Say It's Lonely at the Top

Many point to dearth of female elected officials as a sign party is losing touch with a crucial constituency. 'The thinking process is not on board for the 20th century,' a lawmaker says.


It's easy for Cathie Wright, the senior elected Republican woman in California, to organize a caucus of GOP women in the state Senate. All she has to do is walk into one of the Capitol's meeting rooms, pull up a chair and have a nice long talk with herself.

"I agree all the time," she said wryly. "The nicest part is I'm always right."

Wright, who is from Simi Valley, is the sole Republican woman in the upper house, which as recently as three years ago boasted three. She has only three ideological sisters in the Assembly--less than half of the seven-member delegation five years ago--and none in the state's Washington delegation.

The dearth of elected GOP women from California--four out of more than 180 positions in the Legislature, statewide office and Congress--is prompting broad anxiety among many in the Republican family. Worse even than the numbers is the reversal of strides that were years in the making.

California, progressive by reputation, now has fewer elected Republican female legislators than Kentucky, Oklahoma, Virginia or North Dakota. Fewer than Colorado or Connecticut. Only five states have a smaller percentage of Republican women.

As their ranks have fallen, those of Democratic women have jumped, doubling in the last five years to 36 in Sacramento and Washington. Included are both U.S. senators and 10 members of Congress.

Many Republicans--women as well as men--blame their party's increasingly conservative underpinnings and often polarizing rhetoric for the lackluster fortunes of its female candidates.

The decline illustrates, they say, the hidden underbelly of the much-lamented gender gap: What has separated the party from female voters is also separating the party from female candidates, and feeding an image of being too male, too white and too extreme.

"Republicans have a consistent dilemma with the women's niche," said Victoria Herrington, until recently the spokeswoman for the state party.

"Historically, Republicans have allowed women [officeholders] in their ranks because these women had been the spouses of Republican men, and because their husbands did it, they did it. What they're finding is an entirely new generation of women coming to the party for some answers, and the party is not addressing their concerns articulately."

Party leaders deny any slights to female candidates and say they want to boost their numbers, in part because they need to hold onto female voters whose defections have hurt Republicans in recent years.

"I certainly wish that there were more women in elected office that are Republican," said the state GOP chairman, Michael Schroeder. He blames the lack of successful female candidates on money.

"Primaries are determined by the state of your own personal network and the financial support that engenders," Schroeder said. "And I think that it is still a lot easier for a man to establish that personal network than for a woman. That is changing."

The next test, of course, will come in 1998. But the potential field for that election, at least at this stage, illustrates the problem. Among all the statewide races, only one Republican woman is in the mix--San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, who is exploring a bid for the U.S. Senate.


For 20 years, Barbara Stone paid her dues the way Republican women always do. She stuffed envelopes, gave speeches, did the invisible work that separates winning campaigns from losers. She was named the National Republican Woman of the Year by the Federation of Republican Women.

So she felt she had every reason to expect that, when she ran for the Assembly in a 1995 recall election, she would win the backing of party leaders.


While some did support her--former Gov. George Deukmejian and state Treasurer Matt Fong among them--the bulk of Republican officials rallied around Gary Miller, a developer who loaned his campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars. Miller eventually won.

Republican women still cite the race as an example of their routine dismissal.

"They promote people who are their friends," said Stone, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor.

Some, like Wright, go further.

"There's a whole group in the conservative movement of young men who I don't believe have read that women are equals," said Wright, who in part blames that attitude for her 1994 loss in the race for lieutenant governor. "The thinking process is not on board for the 20th century."

Female Republicans have little leverage. They are outnumbered in the party hierarchy and among its financiers, and represent 46% of the Republican Party, according to polls. Democratic women make up 57% of their party.

Republican women tend to be better-represented on school boards and city councils and in mayor's suites, in races where the financial demands tend to be less punishing. The challenge has been to move beyond that level.

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