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Where Have All the Women Gone?

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Women could use a comeback in Delaware politics. They could get it this year.

The comeback would follow a comedown that people really could not have seen coming. Here it is, nearly a century after women got the vote, and the lineup of statewide offices makes it look like Karen Weldin Stewart, the Democratic insurance commissioner, accidentally wandered onto Fraternity Row. Stewart is the only woman in one of the nine statewide offices. 

For a while, it did not seem possible Delaware would find itself in this situation. By the 1990s, there were almost as many women in statewide office as men. Ruth Ann Minner was the Democratic lieutenant governor. Jane Brady was the Republican attorney general. Janet Rzewnicki was the Republican state treasurer. Donna Lee Williams was the Republican insurance commissioner.

It looked like some of them could have moved into the upper ranks. Only Minner did. She did it by out-good-ol’-boying the good ol’ boys. She climbed from being receptionist for Democratic governor Sherman Tribbitt in the early 1970s to becoming a state representative, then state senator, lieutenant governor and governor. The others were run out by up-and-comers, all men who figured or still figure they were (or are) on their way to the governor’s office.

Brady toyed forever with running for governor. Instead, she heard footsteps and fled mid-term for a judgeship because the footsteps belonged to Beau Biden, who had the best pedigree in state politics. He got elected Democratic attorney general and had the governorship in his sights, but with the best pedigree came the worst luck.

Rzewnicki did run for governor. In 1996 she took on Tom Carper, the Democratic governor who was re-elected that year and later went to the U.S. Senate, where he is now. After the misfire for governor, Rzewnicki was out of office entirely two years later. She lost her next race for treasurer to Jack Markell, very much the Democratic governor today.

Donna Lee Williams called it quits rather than deal with a challenge from Matt Denn, who has been on the rise since, going from Democratic insurance commissioner to lieutenant governor to attorney general. He may get to governor yet.

It is a sorry state of affairs that women have not fared well in this state. There has been nearly a century of setbacks, dating all the way from the Nineteenth Amendment, the one giving women the right to vote. Delaware was in a position to be the 36th and deciding state in favor of ratification, which required the approval of three-quarters of the states, but it balked.

Instead, Tennessee did it, and women’s suffrage became the law of the land in 1920. Not that Delaware was in any hurry to acknowledge it. Another three years passed before the state ratified in 1923.

Getting the vote is one thing. Getting elected is another. Delaware did not put a woman in statewide office until Vera Davis, a Kent County Republican and formidable presence in the legislature, won the race for treasurer in 1956. Davis was the first of only nine women ever elected statewide, five of them as treasurer and none of them as senator or congresswoman.

Delaware is one of only three states that has never elected a woman to its federal delegation. The others are Vermont and Mississippi, and at least Delaware and Vermont have elected a woman as governor. 

If ever there was an opportunity for a new breakthrough for women running statewide, the election in 2016 is it. Women are in serious contention in multi-candidate elections for the congressional seat and lieutenant governor, both open races. Naturally they are all Democrats. The way politics is going in Delaware, even women have it better than Republicans.

It is understandable about the Republicans. There are 125,000 more Democratic voters than Republican. But women? Not when the U.S. Census Bureau says they make up 52 percent of the population.

The state’s lone congressional seat, one of the top prizes, is in play now that Democrat John Carney is leaving it to make a run for governor. The men in the Democratic field—Bryan Townsend, a state senator, Bryon Short, a state representative, and Sean Barney, the 2014 candidate for treasurer—found themselves with serious competition when Lisa Blunt Rochester set up a campaign. She was in the cabinet as labor secretary when Carper was governor and as personnel director under Minner. Not only would Blunt Rochester crack through the gender barrier if she won, she would become the first African-American in the federal delegation.

A woman also wants to run on the Republican side, but Rose Izzo always runs, and she’ll first have to get by former Wyoming mayor Hans Reigle in a primary.

The race for lieutenant governor is a free-for-all, with six candidates, all Democrats, running for the office Denn left mid-term when he was elected the Democratic attorney general in 2014. It has been empty since. There are three women and three men trying, and the women have as good and perhaps a better chance than the men. The candidates are: Sherry Dorsey Walker, a Wilmington councilwoman; Brad Eaby, a Kent County Levy Court commissioner; Greg Fuller, a former Sussex County register of wills; Bethany Hall-Long, a state senator; Kathy McGuinness, a Rehoboth Beach commissioner; and Ciro Poppiti III, the New Castle County Register of Wills.

Even if there is progress in statewide office, it will take time to find out if it is another case of one-step-up-and-two-steps-back. This has been happening, and not just in politics. Look at Ellen Kullman, out after winning the proxy fight at DuPont, and Nancy Targett, on her way back to college dean after filling in as the University of Delaware’s acting president.

There’s always Elena Delle Donne.

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