No More Petticoat Politics

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In Baltimore's Little Italy last week, the early morning breakfasters at the Sandwich King took a break from their rehash of the Orioles game to greet a familiar face. "Morning, Senator," one man called from the counter. The title was premature, but it sounded good to Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, who had just won the Democratic nomination for the Senate by beating Maryland Governor Harry Hughes and Representative Michael Barnes. Maryland's Republican nominee for the Senate, meanwhile, was celebrating her primary victory south of the Capital Beltway with a well-known admirer. Linda Chavez was spending some time away from Maryland to take part in a photo session at the White House, demonstrating her ties to a former employer, Ronald Reagan.

May the best man win? In politics, that expression threatens to become archaic. Three major contests on Election Day will be all-female affairs. Mikulski and Chavez are only the second pair of women in U.S. history to win the nominations of both major parties in a Senate campaign.* In Nebraska, State Treasurer Kay Orr, a Republican, is running against former Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis, a Democrat, in the country's first all-woman gubernatorial race. In Maryland's Second Congressional District, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert Kennedy's daughter, will oppose incumbent Helen Delich Bentley.

All told, women won 39 nominations for Senate and House seats and eight more for gubernatorial office this year. Earlier in the year, State Representative Judy Koehler was picked as the Illinois Republican challenger to incumbent Senator Alan Dixon. More recently, Alaska State Senator Arliss Sturgulewski swept past eight male rivals in a Republican gubernatorial primary, and Missouri Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods handily took her state's % Democratic Senate nomination. Last week Connecticut State Representative Julie Belaga defeated heavily endorsed former State Senator Richard Bozzuto for the Republican nomination for Governor. Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, Carolyn Warner, took the Democratic nomination for Governor. In New York former Congresswoman Bella Abzug made a comeback after nearly ten years out of office, narrowly winning a Democratic nomination for Congress in suburban Westchester County.

Unlike Abzug, who became famous as a leader of the women's movement, many of the new candidates avoid feminist labels. They play the political game by traditional rules, rising through the party hierarchy. Their presence in elections has become so commonplace that voters have almost ceased to notice it. "I think the (gender) issue has been neutralized," says University of Nebraska Political Scientist Robert Sittig. "The Nebraska candidates had established themselves long before this election. I think people see them as career politicians." Irene Natividad, head of the National Women's Political Caucus, agrees: "There are more women in the political pipeline than there used to be." Although the number of women candidates for Congress is actually down this year from 1984, more women are running for state offices. The proportion of women in state legislatures has more than tripled since 1969, to 14.8%, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, and comparable gains have occurred at the municipal level as well.

Although women's organizations have played an important part in many elections, they seem to have been relegated to the background role of fund raiser and networker on the campaign trail. Raising money is still more difficult for women than men, says Natividad, because "women tend to be challengers, and political-action-committee money tends to go for the incumbents." This year the Washington-based Women's Campaign Fund, founded in 1974, is raising money for more than 100 progressive female candidates. "Our goal," says the fund's Virginia Sheridan, "is to provide (a total of) over $450,000 in financial and technical aid." Another group, Emily's List, was established last year to help Democratic women gain Senate seats. Emily stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, and the organization has raised $200,000 for Missouri's Woods and Maryland's Mikulski. Republicans, on the other hand, generally funnel a portion of the party's campaign funds into women's campaigns.

So far the two-women races have not differed much from more traditional elections. In Maryland, Mikulski and Chavez are waging tough, no-holds-barred campaigns. Although both women come from ethnic, working-class backgrounds, "we are as different as two people can be," says Chavez, 39, a cool Hispanic American who is married and makes much of being the mother of three sons. Mikulski, 50, is single, a self-styled scrapper with the sturdy perseverance of a tugboat. She sharply turns aside comments that she does not "look senatorial." Says the candidate: "A lot of Americans, black or white or female, are always told that they don't look the part. It's one of the oldest code words."

Mikulski calls herself a "definite Democrat." Her ten-year record in Congress offers a clue to that somewhat murky label: she is an activist and a populist. She supports the Equal Rights Amendment, affirmative action and a woman's right to an abortion. Chavez, a former Democrat who became a Reagan Republican upon accepting a White House staff appointment 17 months ago, takes the opposite stand on each of those controversial issues. Before Reagan appointed her staff director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1983, Chavez worked on civil rights enforcement in the Carter Administration (she now considers Carter "an absolute disaster as President") and held jobs with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. She moved to Maryland two years ago, and although the Republicans face a 3-to-1 disadvantage in voter registration, her victory is considered critical to G.O.P. hopes for retaining a majority in the Senate.

Last week Chavez derided Mikulski as a "San Francisco-style, George McGovern Democrat. People are going to reject her kind of liberalism." The Mikulski camp has countered with a charge that Chavez has "no moral anchor," a reference to her party switching. Nothing in these bareknuckle exchanges smacks of what journalists used to call petticoat politics.

In the Nebraska Governor's race between Orr and Boosalis, both women are polite and well spoken, but, as Orr puts it, "this is no Bake-Off." The candidates tend to agree on contentious issues like abortion (both oppose it), but neither has hesitated to exploit the other's weak points. Boosalis has tried to tie Orr to the Reagan Administration's unpopular farm policies, while Orr has pounced on Boosalis' proposals for restructuring property taxes as "devastating" to senior citizens. Few Nebraska voters gender an issue. When Baptist Pastor Everett Sileven jumped into the Republican primary and argued that female leadership "is a sure sign of God's curse," he finished a weak fourth, with only 2.1% of the vote. For a time Republican State Senator John DeCamp threatened a write-in candidacy to provide a male alternative to what he calls a "prom-queen contest," but he soon dropped the idea. In an August survey of 449 registered Nebraska voters, a few feared that Boosalis, 67, is too old for the job, and some believed that Orr, 47, is inexperienced. But only two of those surveyed thought the Gov ernor's race had anything to do with gender.

If Orr wins, she will be the first Republican woman ever elected Governor in the U.S. If Mikulski wins, she will be the first female Democrat elected to the Senate who did not originally fill a vacancy left by her husband. Clearly, American politics is entering a new phase, one that reflects society's changing attitudes toward women. Even the traditional election-night celebrations are being transformed. In Maryland last week, an ebullient Kathleen Kennedy Townsend stood on the dais after the primary, thumbs up in victory. Next to her stood her husband David, their youngest child Kate in his arms, and their other two daughters Meaghan and Maeve beside him. The Townsends were not arranged the way political families usually are. Yet somehow, they did not look at all strange.

FOOTNOTE: *The first pair: incumbent Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith vs. Democrat Lucia Cormier in Maine in 1960. Smith beat Cormier, 58% to 41%.