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'Homemaker' Isn't Where the Heart Is When It Comes to Campaigning

August 24, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By most definitions, Kerri Weisenberger is a homemaker. While her husband works 12-hour days as a credit union manager, she pays the household's bills, cooks the meals and cleans the house. Most important, she looks after the couple's three girls.

The 40-year-old is also running for a seat on her local school board. As a PTA president at one school and a daily presence at another campus within the Garden Grove Unified School District, she's well-acquainted with the issues. Like all California candidates, Weisenberger may choose a job description that will appear underneath her name on the upcoming ballot. Virtually all office seekers do so, but for days Weisenberger balked at the seemingly perfunctory decision, before settling on "community volunteer."

"There are some job titles that win votes," said Weisenberger, whose opponents include an incumbent, a construction manager, a businessman and an attorney. "But homemaker isn't one of them."

Put Weisenberger at the head of political astuteness class.

"I would always recommend a homemaker seeking office find another title. Community activist. Volunteer. Something else," said Eileen Padberg, a veteran political consultant based in Irvine. "While it's not a turnoff to me, it definitely is to some voters. Some voters look at the word and think the person doesn't have any experience."

While it certainly happens in elections elsewhere, it's particularly surprising that Orange County homemakers feel the need to downplay or even to conceal their identity in one of the most family-oriented territories in the country. Indeed, as they campaign for office, homemakers rarely identify themselves by the work that takes up the bulk of their time and means the most to them personally--and arguably to society at large.

"It's ironic that in a social culture that values, in so many public ways, motherhood and family that candidates would have to construct other identities for themselves to run for public office," said Mark Petracca, a political scientist at UC Irvine. "But it's understandable. Homemaker exudes a non-status that probably doesn't resonate positively with anyone."

The staff at the Orange County Elections Department witnesses the phenomenon each election cycle as the approximately half-dozen homemakers who run--usually for school board or city council posts--almost always resist the label. In the end, homemakers usually describe themselves as "community volunteers" or they leave the job space blank.

In elections for higher office where voters are more likely to know the candidates, a job designation probably influences few votes. But in a local race, in which voters are less likely to be familiar with the candidates, it can carry considerable weight. "Often any tidbit of information can provide the key in the voting booth," said Petracca, referring to smaller local races. "In fact, a [job] designation might be the only communication a candidate has to the voter."

For Sue Kuwabara, who is seeking her first elected office at the Irvine Unified School District, picking a job description prompted unexpected soul-searching. The mother of three children was startled when election officials told her she couldn't put down her first choice, "PTA leader." The description, while accurate, implies a group endorsement and is not permitted by state law.

Next, Kuwabara, who has lobbied in Sacramento for Irvine schools and donates 20 hours a week to the district, considered "community volunteer." But she rejected it because for all a voter knew, she could be volunteering at a hospital or animal shelter.

When an elections official suggested the H-word, Kuwabara winced. "Homemaker? Wasn't that sweet? They wanted to call that a vocation," she said. "The word 'homemaker' doesn't say to me that I know schools. I'm sorry, but it sounds like I don't do anything." (Finally, like many homemakers, she accepted community volunteer.)

Needless to say, homemakers who adopt the title frequently lose, say political observers. But why?

One explanation follows this loose syllogism: In America, you are your job. The more your job pays, the more important you are. Therefore, if your job pays nothing, you aren't very important.

Lingering gender stereotypes also can damage a homemaker's bid to enter politics. Despite the success of the women's movement, some are unable to shake the notion that women can't compete in a male-dominated world.

"Historically, women have had power in the private domain, but even as far back as ancient Greece when it came to politics, it was off-limits for women," said Nancy Snow, a political scientist at UCLA's Center for Communications and Community. "They were seen as lacking the guts and aggressiveness that one needs in order to represent the citizens."

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