Break on through

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  March 28, 2013

And the trend line isn't good. After steady gains in the '70s and '80s, the proportion of women in public office has remained flat for the past couple of decades — even as women make substantial gains in the traditional feeder fields of law, business, education, and political activism.

The underrepresentation isn't, in the aggregate, a matter of poor performance on the campaign trail. Women, on average, do just as well as men in raising money and winning elections. The problem is, not enough women run for office.

Lawless's research suggests there are two fundamental problems: friends, family, and colleagues are more likely to recruit men than women as candidates and men are more likely to believe they are qualified to run for office.

The recruitment piece, Lawless says, is more easily solved: the parties could, at least in theory, make a major project of drawing more women into the process. Shifting women's self-assessments will require something deeper.


GETTING IT DONE

Confidence, though, is not a problem for Raimondo.

A Rhodes Scholar with a Yale law degree, she made her mark in venture capital before turning to politics in 2010. She won the treasurer's race easily that year and launched a systematic effort to overhaul the state's troubled pension system shortly thereafter.

It was difficult terrain. Fixing the problem would require public sector employees, who'd made their required contributions to the pension system year after year, to endure life-altering cuts.

But the math, Raimondo argued, was inescapable; the system would have to be trimmed to be saved. Saved for public employees' sake, yes, but for the broader public's sake, too. A growing pension liability, she argued, was crowding out other government priorities like transportation and education.

Raimondo's unexpected victory won fawning press in Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal and soaring poll numbers at home. But it also built the rationale for a gubernatorial run.

"I think Rhode Islanders," she told me this week, "are going to choose a governor based on who has the right vision, but also who they think can get things done — who they believe is going to be effective enough to make a vision a reality."

A jab at the sitting governor, no doubt. But also rhetoric finely tuned to the research on what makes for a winning female gubernatorial candidate.

"A governor is a CEO of their state," says Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which pushes for greater female representation in politics. "Being strong, being perceived as strong, being perceived as a problem-solver and getting results" are vital for any woman running for the corner office.

Indeed, Raimondo's business-like results orientation — and her economic bona fides — seem the most likely explanation for the most striking number in the first public opinion survey in the nascent governor's race: Raimondo actually polls better among men than among women.

The late-January Public Policy Polling survey, in one hypothetical four-way Democratic primary, put Raimondo ahead of her next closest competitor by 16 points among men and 10 points among women.

It's difficult to read this gender gap as a vulnerability; Raimondo, after all, still enjoys a 10-point advantage among women. But her likely opponents in the gubernatorial contest — Governor Lincoln Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras — may see an opportunity to cut into Raimondo's natural base.

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