Female Dems could help take back the State House

Political Machinery
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 18, 2012

More than 25 alumnae and board members of Emerge Maine, the political training program for Democratic women in the state, are running for office in 2012. This is good news for both women and Democrats in Maine.

"Democrats only need to pick up a few seats to re-gain the majority in the Maine House," says Katie Mae Simpson, executive director of Emerge Maine. "There are enough Emerge women running that they may make the difference in who has the majority."

Republicans currently hold 78 seats in the state house to Democrats' 71 (plus one independent); the state senate currently has 19 Republicans, 15 Democrats, and one independent. Several Emerge grads are running in strong Republican seats this year. This November's election results could be read as a referendum on the past two years of Republican majority rule in Augusta, the first such majority in 36 years.

And with women comprising just 29 percent of the state legislature (and that number is impressive, compared to national statistics — Maine ranks 11th in terms of percentage of female lawmakers), the high number of female candidates in this election cycle also bodes well for increased representation.

With more women in Augusta, "I just think we'll get things done," says representative Anne Graham, a 2007 Emerge graduate, who ran for her seat (which covers parts of Pownal, Gray, and North Yarmouth and was traditionally held by Republicans) twice before winning it in 2010. "More women means a more effective legislature."

After all, Simpson points out, "women represent half of the world's skills, knowledge, and talents. But perhaps even more important than gender parity, women have different understanding on needs in policy areas such as healthcare, transportation, education, and jobs."

2012 Emerge alumna Dana Hernandez, who is running for state senate in Waterville, cites marriage equality and education issues as her top priorities — she is concerned about Republican efforts this session to cut Head Start programs, reward teachers with merit pay, and use public education funds in private religious schools.

Bettyann Sheats, another 2012 Emerge grad, is running for state representative in Auburn, a seat currently held by Republican Michael Beaulieu (the seat has been held by Republicans since 1994). She got into political activism through advocating for the Kid-Safe Products Act, which requires manufacturers to disclose the chemicals in toys and children's products, and use safer alternatives when available. Sheats, a former military helicopter pilot who now runs a carpentry business, wants to expand the Kid-Safe purview to all products that children could touch, such as carpets and furniture.

"When I was in the military, I shunned anything that was geared exclusively toward females," Sheats recalls. "I shied away from that kind of stuff," thinking that it highlighted weakness instead of building on strength. Through Emerge, her thinking has changed; she now understands "the value of a women's support system."

Emerge doesn't endorse candidates or directly support their campaigns after the 70-hour training that covers everything from media outreach to grassroots door-knocking to fundraising. Instead, the organization connects potential candidates with a network of current elected women and advisory-board members like US Representative Chellie Pingree and State House Minority Leader Emily Cain, who is being termed-out of her state house seat and is running for state senate in Orono.

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