Elaine Paul Schaefer was in a particularly low spot. The Democrat running for an open Pennsylvania House seat in Delaware County was a month away from the end of a long political campaign when she checked her email on Oct. 4. It was past 10:30 p.m., and a note from a young mother popped into her inbox.
“Apparently we received your newest mailer today,” the mother wrote. “I didn’t get to see it in its entirety, as my daughter cut out your picture and your name and taped them to her bedroom wall.”
That, Schaefer says, is why she’s running for office.
“She could have had Kim Kardashian over her bed,” Schaefer said. “But no. She has a woman politician who she’s met and heard.”
Harrisburg is stuck in a gridlock and Democrats don’t have much hope of flipping the majority in the legislature until 2022 when the district lines could be re-drawn in their favor. In fact, the Republican stronghold on Harrisburg could strengthen this year, leading to a GOP veto-proof majority in the state Senate.
So for now, Democrats are largely focusing on making incremental gains in both the House and the Senate, and — in the year of Hillary Clinton — the party is in many ways relying on women in Southeastern Pennsylvania to do it.
Playing the Harrisburg numbers game
The state Democrats have a chance to send a younger, decidedly more female delegation to Harrisburg this year. But numbers aren’t on their side.
The state GOP is focused on securing what could be a veto-proof majority in the state Senate where the current make-up is 31-19 in favor of Republicans. For what it’s worth, that veto-proof means — in a practical sense — nothing without a veto-proof majority in the House, which won’t happen this year. But it’s politically symbolic and shows the strength the Republican party has in Harrisburg.
Half of the state Senate seats are on the ballot this year, and if Republicans pick up three of them, they’ll secure that two-thirds majority. That’s a serious possibility. State senators up for re-election are, for the first time, running on the latest district maps that are highly gerrymandered and favor the GOP. (In 2012, redistricting was still going through the court system and those senators up for re-election ran on the old maps.)
When it comes to the state House, Democrats are focused on retaining incumbents and targeting pick-up opportunities. They could lose incumbents in the west, where the GOP is polling better. But it’s women in the southeast who could pick up a seat or two.
Chair of the Pennsylvania Democrats Marcel Groen said the concentration of female candidates in Southeastern Pennsylvania is part design, part coincidence.
“I think we have changed the culture,” he said, “and I think there’s a fundamental understanding that, politically speaking, women candidates do well in the suburban areas.”
Culture change or not, if any of these women were to win, they’d be walking into a state House where women make up a small percentage of the representation. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, who won a seat in the state House last year in a special election in Delaware County, said it’s hard to not notice the dearth of women in Harrisburg.
“As a woman under 40 in a body that’s less than 18 percent women,” Krueger-Braneky said, “it’s hard not to look around the House floor and realize there’s not a lot of folks who look like you.”
The women the Dems are betting on
The amount of women on state tickets this year is a departure for Pennsylvania. The state comes in behind the parliament of Afghanistan when it comes to women representation in Harrisburg, with just 18 percent of the General Assembly identifying as a woman.
It’s part of why Schaefer said she decided — after being recruited — that she’d make the jump from being a Radnor Township commissioner to vying for former Republican Rep. Bill Adolph’s seat in Harrisburg.
“There are so many hurdles or have been so many hurdles to women entering political office and progressing in political office,” Schaefer said. “As a woman who is sort of progressing along this track, I feel an obligation to keep going because there aren’t that many.”
She’s not alone though on the ballot in Southeastern PA. There’s Linda Weaver, a veteran teacher, running in the 150th Legislative District in Montgomery County. She’s vying for a seat vacated by former Republican state Rep. Mike Vereb, who left the legislature describing Harrisburg as “like the Bickersons on steroids.”
Same for Barbarann Keffer, an Upper Darby Township councilwoman running against a first-term incumbent Republican in the 163rd district in Delaware County. And former West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta is running against Republican incumbent Dan Truitt in the 156th district.
Keffer said a delegation with more women in Harrisburg could lead to breaking a gridlock.
“This is stereotyping,” Keffer said, “but women are more likely to see compromise, to engage in conversation and to really solve problems instead of digging their heels in.”
Krueger-Braneky said getting more women in the state legislature isn’t just about the Democratic party. She said it’s about increasing representation to fight for women’s issues on both sides of the aisle.
“I don’t believe we would have moved the most restrictive abortion ban in the country if there were more women in the legislature,” Krueger-Braneky said. “And in the end, it did pass the House, but there were Republican women who crossed the aisle to vote against it.”
The difficulty of recruiting women
Morgan Cephas knows how hard it is — as a woman and simply as a person — to run for political office. The 31-year-old who didn’t have the backing of the city Democratic committee won a five-way primary this year for a state House seat in the 192nd District and is unchallenged in the general election.
She said Clinton’s candidacy for president made a difference.
“With the conversation that Hillary sparked with women in politics and forcing the issue, it allowed non-traditional groups to band together and build this new power structure in Philadelphia,” Cephas said. “But I will not say it wasn’t challenging and it wasn’t hard.”
Some say recruiting women to run for political office is harder than convincing men to run. Schaefer was asked to run several times. So was Krueger-Braneky. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research conducted a study in 2014 called “Building Women’s Political Careers: Strengthening the Pipeline to Higher Office,” and it found that political parties have largely been absent in recruiting women and many women are reluctant to run because of cash.
Here’s what the authors wrote:
The money barrier for women candidates running for higher office has three major, distinct aspects – all of which are gendered. The first is learning how to ask. Women do express discomfort or reluctance, but this is one aspect that is overcome readily and early with training. The second aspect is developing a relationship with donors so that if you ask, they will respond. This requires personally meeting them or having an introduction or other connection that matters to both the potential donor and the candidate. The third aspect is having access to good call lists (reliable and untapped donors). This requires more support from the political parties and women’s organizations, as well as experienced officeholders or other power brokers who have developed these lists over time and will share them with selected candidates.
In addition, the study found that nearly three quarters of female elected officials said they had experienced discrimination in politics. Why would any woman want to be a part of that?
Part of it’s obligation. Part of it’s ambition. And part of it, these women say, is a faith that maybe one day Harrisburg’s representation will mirror the population of Pennsylvania.
“I don’t love to play the woman card,” Schaefer said. “But on the other hand, it is a factor and it’s a factor in the race that I’m running, and it’s a factor in me really wanting to get other women to run as well… Maybe someday we’ll get to 52 percent like our population.”