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 V.16 No.52 | December 27 - January 2, 2008 

Ortiz y Pino

Gender Politics

Why more women in New Mexico need to enter government

It's starting to look like the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign may not be grinding its way to inevitable victory after all. Her once formidable lead in the polls has been slipping in recent weeks. She is beginning to look beatable.

However, her bid for the White House, whether successful or not, may mask a subtle but disconcerting trend in American politics--the very real manifestation of a political “glass ceiling” for women, an effective cap on their numbers in state and local politics.

Pundits can still point to Sen. Clinton (and a few female state governors) and say to American women, “Ladies, you’ve sure come a long way …” But after an authentic surge in women legislators, governors and mayors in the last quarter of the 20th century, the momentum seems to have slowed or even stalled in the 21st.

In the New Mexico Legislature, for example, there are far fewer female lawmakers than their 52 percent share of this state’s population might indicate. Only 12 women serve in the 42-member Senate (29 percent). The House is similarly inequitably composed, with 21 of the 70 members in that chamber being women (30 percent).

The problem is those percentages have been essentially flat over the past decade. The growth in women’s participation in the Legislature occurred years ago and seems to have bumped squarely into the same sort of informal ceiling that has often been described in the upper echelons of the corporate world, but whose existence is generally denied in the political arena.

Last year a new initiative was launched with the goal of smashing that ceiling to smithereens … at least for Democratic women, whose numbers, percentage-wise, trail their Republican sisters badly (35 percent of our GOP legislators this year are women but only 25 percent of Democrats are).

Emerge New Mexico, our state’s version of an effort that will eventually be at work in all 50 states, is designed to actively seek out talented women leaders and put them through a seven-month political training program. The goal is that program graduates will be prepared for active roles in New Mexico politics, some as candidates and others as campaign organizers, strategists or managers.

In the two classes that have so far completed the program, three of the graduates have already begun campaigning for public office. Two others are seeking judicial positions. And all of those who have participated are becoming more deeply involved in the real world struggle to change the face of New Mexico politics.

The program involves one day a month of meetings to learn about topics like fundraising, the nuts and bolts of campaigning, public speaking and working with the press. It is practical, hands-on training, with many speakers pooled from current and former elected officials in New Mexico, including Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. Sessions are slated to begin in May and a graduation event is scheduled for November.

The deadline for applying for admission to the 2008 Emerge New Mexico class is Jan. 15. Women of all ages, backgrounds and experience who are interested in finding out more about the program can visit the website and download the application (www.emergenm.org).

One of the strongest features of New Mexico’s civic life is that we truly have a “citizen legislature” … not a full-time, paid, professional one. Yet this same “citizen legislature” system can easily slip off course, become counterproductive and hopelessly unrepresentative, precisely because it is part-time, unpaid and voluntary.

Few New Mexicans can afford the leisure or the time away from their occupations to toil at legislative work. As a result, if our state doesn’t make special efforts to encourage a broader cross-section of our people to run for these offices, we will slip into the pattern of developing legislative bodies comprised of mostly financially independent or retired persons, with the accompanying skewed (or at least narrow) worldview they represent.

The genius of a citizen legislature is only realized fully when that body reflects the broadest spectrum of citizen experiences, interests and concerns. And in New Mexico’s, we need to more clearly hear the voices of our women.

Emerge New Mexico has great promise for doing precisely that. The process of recruiting, training and supporting strong women candidates from all parts of the state has to have a powerful effect on our legislative elections.

Among the women who are reading this column, I have a hunch there are several who would make wonderful legislators, city councilors, county commissioners or judges. Go to that website and find out about Emerge New Mexico. We need you.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

 

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