Women Say Gender Gap in Politics Persists in County Government

Women Say Gender Gap in Politics Persists in County Government

County Council will have only one female member for the first time since 1990

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From left, Marilyn Balcombe, Nancy Navarro and Brandy Brooks

File Photos

Despite its reputation as a politically progressive county, Montgomery County still has a long way to go when it comes to electing women to serve in public office, several politically involved women say.

When the new County Council members are sworn in on Dec. 3, District 4 member Nancy Navarro, who was elected to her third full term in the Nov. 6 general election, will be the only woman serving on the nine-member council. Navarro, currently the council’s vice president, is expected to be elected president during the council’s Dec. 4 meeting.

This year’s primary and general elections produced mixed results for women in Montgomery County. On the positive side, the Board of Education will consist of all women next year for the first time in history. Additionally, half of the 32 members of the Montgomery County delegation in the Maryland General Assembly will be women when the legislative session begins Jan. 9.

Yet not one of the dozen Democratic women who ran for four at-large seats on the council advanced beyond the Democratic primary. Additionally, only one woman among six candidates ran for the position of county executive during the primary, and another, council member Nancy Floreen, who shed her Democratic affiliation to run as an independent in the general election, garnered less than 20 percent of the vote. A woman has never been elected Montgomery County executive since the position was created 50 years ago.

“We’ve definitely gone backwards. When I joined the council in 2009, there were four women. And then you see how that has dwindled down to just one. That’s not a direction we should be proud of. We need to change that trend,” Navarro said Monday.

Navarro said the very nature of being a woman in politics means that more work will be required in order to get noticed.

“It is certainly not easy. I think for women, particularly women of color, it’s not an easy thing to do, but also you have to raise money and create networks that are important to run a campaign,” she said.  “In my case I felt that I had to blaze a trail in terms of being the first Latina woman.”

Navarro said the winners who emerged from the a field of 33 Democrats running for four at-large council positions in the June primary had built-in advantages over the other candidates. Hans Riemer was an incumbent, Will Jawando and Evan Glass had garnered name recognition from previous elections that they lost, and Gabe Albornoz had become known in his role as the director of the county’s department of recreation.

Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, said she too was disappointed in the lack of women elected to the council this year.

“It’s just surprising and disappointing that Montgomery County is going backward in terms of gender equality. We pride ourselves in being inclusive and progressive. We had an election with very qualified women, and yet none were elected to any of the open seats,” she said.

Balcombe ran in the at-large race, finishing in fifth place with 6.3 percent of the vote. Balcombe was 5,000 votes behind Albornoz, the fourth-place finisher.

Balcombe said part of the reason she didn’t do better had more to do with the fact that most council candidates are elected from downcounty areas. Additionally, the nature of a 33-person race, she said, made it difficult for her to distinguish herself.

“Everywhere I went [to campaign], there were at least five other people running at large,” she said.

Balcombe said she believes the four men who were elected are qualified to serve, but that systemically something has to change.

“They are fantastic community servants and they’ve earned their win,” she said. “So I don’t want to come across as saying they won because they’re men.”

Brandy Brooks, the seventh-place finisher among the field of 33 in the primary, said there is a “deep structural bias” against women candidates in the county. Brooks, a community organizer with the group Progressive Maryland, said it is concerning that so many qualified women lost during the primary.

Brooks said a number of media outlets endorsed male candidates early on during the campaign and identified front runners, meant that those candidates immediately had a fundraising advantage. She pointed to the example of the blog Seventh State referring to Bill Conway, of Potomac, as one of the hardest-working candidates in the race. Ultimately, Conway only received 3.3 percent of the primary vote.

“There was so much that bothered me about that as a female candidate, a person of color and a person who doesn’t come from wealth,” she said.

“I have a ton of respect for Bill, and I’m glad he brought an important perspective to the race. But it tells a lot of other people in the county that they don’t matter because they don’t have access to wealth.”

Brooks said she also observed that three women tried to use the county’s new public campaign financing system, but she believes they were disqualified because of the “one bite of the apple rule,” which gives candidates one opportunity to submit enough certified contributions to the state Board of Elections to receive matching funds. That was the problem for Democratic at-large candidate Shruti Bhatnagar, Brooks noted.

“Shruti raised enough money, and then there was a question about whether her in-kind donations counted toward her threshold,” Brooks said, noting that “when we implement these structural reforms, we have to look very carefully and very vigilantly.”

Bhatnagar was one of five candidates who were disqualified from public financing by the Maryland State Board of Elections for failing to submit enough certified contributions to qualify for matching funds. In Bhatnagar’s case, two of her contributions were not allowed to be counted toward the required $20,000 aggregate total, which is the minimum amount needed to qualify for matching funds. The other women who were disqualified were Democratic at-large candidates Loretta Garcia and Michele Riley. Democrat Paul Geller and Green Party candidate Tim Willard were also disqualified from public financing.

Outgoing Montgomery County Board of Education member Jill Ortman-Fouse, who received 3.3 percent of the vote in the at-large council race, said she agrees that a lack of money and endorsements remain barriers for women candidates.

“People don’t have time to get to know candidates, and so they go with name recognition and endorsements,” she said.

Ortman-Fouse said she had originally planned to run for re-election to her at-large school board seat because had friends already running for the council and didn’t want to potentially take away votes from them. But after a female friend dropped out of the council race, she decided to give it a shot. The hesitancy of running for office because friends are running is “more of a consideration for women than it is for men” because women place a high value on friendship, Ortman-Fouse said.

Ortman-Fouse added that her late entry into the council race hurt her chances to some degree, but money was one of the largest obstacles, especially since she had to balance her responsibilities as a school board member with fundraising.

“The top 12 fundraisers were all men, and that was really discouraging to me as a woman, and I thought, ‘Our chances are not good for getting into office,’ ” she said.

In a year when more than 100 women were elected to Congress nationally, according to The Washington Post, the breaking of the glass ceiling phenomenon did not apply in Montgomery County, former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow said. Krasnow, who finished third among the six Democrats in the county executive primary, said closing the gender gap “does not appear to be an issue that resonates in Montgomery County.”

“We talk a more liberal game than we live. We have a lot of good progressive causes, but we don’t always follow through,” she said.

Krasnow pointed out that both Frederick and Prince George’s counties now have elected female county executives, but Montgomery County hasn’t even had a female school superintendent.

Krasnow was one of the few politicians who endorsed Floreen during the general election. Krasnow said Floreen was a strong candidate, but she was hurt both by her late entry into the race and the fact that so many were turned off by contributions she received from developers.

“Development is considered a bad word,” Krasnow said.

She added that liberal voters felt strongly that Democrats needed to unite behind the Democratic nominee in the race irrespective of gender, and voted for Elrich as a result.

Duchy Tractenberg, who served on the council from 2006 to 2010, said that there are “many factors” that have led to the lack of female representation in the  county and that a “transparent and public dialogue” is needed.

“The lack of equitable representation by women on the County Council is troubling indeed,” she said in an email. “It’s clearly not reflective of the blue wave dynamic of increasing women in public office throughout the country. We must also consider that Maryland has no female representation in either our congressional delegation or even in statewide office,” she wrote.

Brooks said she too is concerned that Montgomery County is moving in the opposite direction as other parts of the country when it comes to gender equality in politics.

“If you look at the national news, there were a lot of people declaring that this was the year of the woman, and I think this was a big disappointment here in Montgomery County,” she said. “We actually reduced the number of women on the County Council from two to one in a year when we had a number of women running.”

County Executive Ike Leggett, who leaves office next month, said in an interview Wednesday that he is disappointed by the lack of women on the council, but that it is only one of many challenges facing the county when it comes to diversity in elected positions. Leggett said he had been the only African American council member who was elected at-large up until this year when Will Jawando was elected. Leggett added that other minorities, such as Latinos and Asians, have also been underrepresented.

“I’m a little bit disappointed, but what you have to keep in mind is that there are a number of challenges that we have in the county in terms of diversity. Although there’s a dearth of women today on the council, I served on the council when there were four women. So you have to look at this over a period of time, not just one little segment,” he said.

Council President Hans Riemer said Wednesday that he too wishes there were more women on the council, but he thinks the county’s public financing system will continue to open doors for new candidates, and that will eventually lead to more women being elected in the long term.

“I hope that the next council will have more women members. It’s unfortunate. There was a time when women were a large share of the County council, and that has changed. I hope it’s just an aberration. We do have an all female board of education,” he said.

Navarro’s message to the losing female candidates?

“You have to lace up your shoes and run again,” she said.

Navarro herself lost the first time she ran for the council in 2008, following the death of longtime council member Marilyn Praisner. But after Praisner’s husband, Don, who took the place of his deceased wife on the council, died the following year, Navarro won a special election. She was then elected to a full term in 2010.

Floreen, the council’s other woman, along with three male council members were not eligible to run for reelection this year due to term limits. Asked if public financing and term limits had created the conditions for too crowded of a primary field, Navarro said she didn’t mind that so many candidates ran last year.

“Even though the results this time were not great [for women], I’m confident we’re gonna have different results [next time],” she said.

Balcombe echoed those sentiments, saying Monday that she and other female members of Elrich’s transition team who had also run in the at-large race agree that first-time candidates are immediately at a disadvantage most of the time (Balcombe, Brooks and Ortman-Fouse are all on Elrich’s transition team).

“People often lose their first race. So we joked that we have all run our first race, so we would expect that we win the next time,” she said.

This story has been updated to correct a previous version that stated that Shruti Bhatnagar did not receive enough in-kind contributions to qualify for matching funds

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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