Big changes coming? Record number of women are running for the Louisiana Legislature

So many women already have signed up to run for the Louisiana Legislature this fall that Democrats and Republicans are predicting a sea change in the state's lawmaking body by the time the votes are counted.

Forty-seven of the Legislature's 144 seats are open because of term limits.

At least 20 women have announced their candidacies. Along with 22 female incumbents who are running for reelection or in the other chamber, that means that 42 women - more than ever before - will stand for election on the Oct. 12 ballot.

Those numbers are expected to grow before candidates officially sign up in August.

Even if they all win, and nobody is predicting that outcome, the Legislature still will have one of the nation's lowest ratios of women to men in the nation.

But Republicans and Democrats agree that enough women are positioned to win to change the dynamics.

Making an impact is a low hurdle as the Louisiana Legislature has never had more than 25 female legislators. As of April, Louisiana has 23 women - 18 in the House, five in the Senate - or 15.9% of the total seats. The national average is 29% female participation in state assemblies.

''It's a start,'' said Melanie Oubre, head of Emerge Louisiana, part of a national effort to recruit and train women to run for elective office as Democrats.

''We have been laser focused on this fall. This is an opportunity to get women to the table,'' Oubre said.

Slidell state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, who has been reaching out to Republican women to run, agrees, as does Camille Conaway, of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which has held seven ''boot camps'' around the state.

''We don't come anywhere near being representative of the demographics of our state,'' said Hewitt. ''But we can build up our bench strength'' for future elections. More importantly, she says, the 2019 legislative races will show voters and the people who fund campaigns that women are ready to have a greater voice in a state where they make up 55% of the registered voters, or 1.63 million of the state's 2.95 million registered voters.

The Louisiana Legislature had the nation's lowest female participation in 2015, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report that year. Since then, depending on when surveys were done, Louisiana has traded places in the bottom five with the same states. In just the past three months, after a couple of recent special legislative elections to replace lawmakers who went on to other jobs, Louisiana would rise from 47th to 45th lowest ratio of women to men in state lawmaking bodies as listed by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Few women have ever held leadership posts in the Louisiana Legislature. All House speakers and Senate presidents have been white men. Since 1972, the heads of the powerful money committees have been men.

There are a variety reasons for the surge in female candidates this year, but a big part is the success women had in the 2018 national elections.

Reflective Democracy Campaign last week released a survey of nearly 45,000 elected officeholders nationwide. The project is part of the Women Donors Network, of Washington, D.C.

The share of women in local, state and national offices barely budged between 2015 and 2017, according to the survey. But the 2018 elections sent a record number of women to Congress, and five states elected enough women to comprise more than 40% of their legislatures.

The survey found that women who started early, raised a lot of money and took advantage of the various outreach technologies, like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, had a much better shot at winning.

In 2019, 2,131, or 28.9%, of the 7,383 state legislators in the United States are women, according to a Rutgers University study.

Louisiana is one of the few states holding its legislative elections in 2019.

Another major factor in the number of female candidates are task forces - independent of state parties, which haven't been much involved - that are recruiting and training women to run for office in Louisiana.

For Democrats, one of the major motivating forces is the local branch of Emerge America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, which focuses solely on female candidates and has trained about 70 women in Louisiana.

Louisiana Republicans have a more ad hoc effort with Hewitt talking one-on-one with potential candidates and LABI, the Baton Rouge-based business lobbying group, holding ''boot camps'' around the state.  About 200 business-leaning candidates, including women, heard about time commitments and the mechanics of campaigning along with networking with elected officials.

LABI isn't looking solely for women. They want folks who know the mechanics of running a business and have experienced how government policies affect that effort.

Conaway, LABI's senior vice president in charge of public policy, said a good number of participants were women, which excites her. The nation and Louisiana are undergoing a culture shift that accepts stronger women, Conaway said, adding, ''It's generational and I think that's exciting.''

''Much of what we're doing is not organizing, in the traditional sense, but it's a personal reaching out and talking about public service in small group activities,'' Hewitt said. Nationally, women lean toward the Democratic Party platforms. That doesn't hold true in Louisiana, where several female legislators are among the most conservative in the body, said Hewitt, who proudly says she is among that number.

Republican female legislators, Hewitt points out, come from all walks of life. She was an oil and gas engineer, active in community groups, who waited until after her children were grown before running. New Orleans Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, on the other hand, gave birth to one of her children while a legislator. Sen. Beth Mizell, of Franklinton, is a widow and rancher.

Many businesses find that having diversity, people of different backgrounds and from different cultures, contributes unique problem-solving ideas. ''When you're all alike, you come up with the same answers,'' Hewitt said.

Women face preconceived notions on the campaign trail to a much greater extent than men.

Hewitt, for instance, was dismissed as a ''PTA mom'' by the St. Tammany Parish power structure when she ran in 2015. Hewitt said the tag motivated her and angered a lot of women.

Paula Davis, the Baton Rouge Republican who last year brokered the deal that ended three years of legislative intransigence over the state budget, was a lobbyist before deciding to run for the House in 2015.

One of her opponents said, ''a woman's place is in the kitchen.'' She used the line in her direct mail flyers, listing her accomplishments next to a cake recipe.

Like Hewitt, Oubre says one of the biggest hurdles is asking women to run. Many are reluctant to expose their families to the hardball of partisan attacks that mark much of politics these days. Others hold impossibly high standards that, if not met, disqualify themselves, Oubre said.

Hewitt, in a separate interview, said pretty much the same thing, adding that where women take themselves out of contention, ''men just wing it'' for the same perceived failings. ''You have to ask women to run,'' she said.

Emerge Louisiana holds howto classes on campaign tactics, such as what to say to potential donors when ''dialing for dollars,'' an essential way of pulling together a base as well as raising campaign contributions. Emerge doesn't push specific issues.

But winning is not going to be easy in a red state where several Democratic female candidates will run in districts that haven't elected a Democrat in decades.

Still, Oubre says women often have a better chance than men. Many of the women already are known in the districts from nonpartisan community work.

''We go over voter trends and how to get voters to see you as you before they see the letter behind the name,'' Oubre said. ''That's the only way we're going to do it when politics are so partisan and the rhetoric so angry.''

Morgan Lemandre, for instance, is knocking on doors in the southeast East Baton Rouge Parish communities that voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump - by 90% in some precincts. House District 66 has 33,648 registered voters, 77% of whom are white and only 8,758 of whom are Democrats. But 54% are women.

Throughout most of her life, Lamandre was not affiliated with any party. She trained with Emerge Louisiana, which focuses on Democratic female candidates. And having a ''D'' behind her name isn't an asset in challenging incumbent Rep. Rick Edmonds, who is one of the 20 House Republicans opposing nearly every fiscal proposal made by the Democratic governor.

''A lot of people have a very narrow focus on what a Democrat is,'' Lemandre said. ''I have to explain to people that that's not me. I hold the positions I hold based on hearing the experiences of everyone. We don't live in a world that is an extreme version of everything. There needs to be flexibility. Everybody comes to the table with their experiences.''

June 30, 2019 - SOURCE: THE CAPITOL BUREAU - By Mark Ballard


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