Democratic Women's Summit offers hope for aspiring officials

The Colorado Statesman

Women politicians face some of the same barriers that seemed outmoded decades ago, but it’s more important than ever to make sure women are well represented in government because of their unique perspective and, studies show, they make better lawmakers.

That was the message delivered to a group of nearly 100 women who gathered all afternoon on Oct. 29 at the downtown Sheraton for the state Democratic Party’s third annual Democratic Women’s Summit.

U.S. Reps. Linda Sánchez of California and Denver’s own Diana DeGette, both Democrats, surround Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio at the outset of the state party’s third annual Democratic Women’s Summit on Oct. 29 at the downtown Sheraton.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez of California joined a group of Colorado lawmakers, including her colleague in Congress, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a half dozen legislators and a handful of local elected women for a series of panels devoted to the challenges and opportunities women face in the current political climate.

Off the bat, Sánchez made a case for electing more women because they’re simply better at legislating than men are. Pointing to recent studies that compared male and female lawmakers, she said, the differences were stark.

“Lo and behold, what they found out was women were more effective legislators, they worked better, they didn’t give up when they were initially told ‘no,’ they found ways to go over or under or through.”

She said she didn’t mean to overstate it — politicians tend to act like politicians once they get in office. But in key areas, she said, the studies were clear: “Women carry this sense of conviction where they won’t trade away their values for other things, where sometimes men will do this horse-swapping.” And that, she said, leads to more principled lawmaking and less of a legislative logjam, like the one miring Congress in the last couple sessions.

Former Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak, state Rep. Edward Vigil, D-San Luis, and Colorado Democratic Party Secretary Carolyn Boller visit during the 2011 Democratic Women’s Summit on Oct. 29 at the downtown Sheraton.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Moreover, Sánchez added, it’s more important than ever to have the perspectives of young, working women in the nation’s Capitol, because otherwise it’s too easy to ignore their needs.

“The policies that we create at the federal level will never take into account the single working mom until we have single working moms in Congress,” said Sánchez, who has a 2-year-old along with her husband but, because of her cross-country schedule, is effectively a single mom most of the week.

“Our current federal policies don’t take into account women with children, and now that women are the bread-earners,” she said, pointing to recent economic findings, “our policies need to reflect their needs, and we’re not even close to that.”

State Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, raises her hand to make a point during a panel of women legislators held during the 2011 Democratic Women’s Summit on Oct. 29 in Denver. Also on the panel are state lawmakers Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, Angela Williams, D-Denver, Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Sánchez and DeGette traded war stories — DeGette’s were more vintage but remarkably similar to the obstacles and attitudes her younger colleague has faced — that brought dark laughter from the crowd.

Soon after she’d been sworn in, Sánchez said she jumped into an elevator with two older gentlemen — “from the South, by their accents,” she cracked — and one of them turned to her and asked, “So, whose office do you work in here?” After considering laying into them and proclaiming that she was a member of Congress, just like them, she instead smiled and said, “I have my own office here.” Sometimes it’s a better course to draw more flies with honey than vinegar, she noted.

Shortly after discussing the importance of having her fellow California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as the first woman Speaker of the House, she measured her celebration.

Women legislators state Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, state Reps. Angela Williams, D-Denver, Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, gather at the start of the 2011 Democratic Women’s Summit on Oct. 29 at the downtown Sheraton.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We have these high-water moments and these symbolic moments,” she said, “but we still have a long, long way to go.”

DeGette told her own tales and then added a generations’-old context.

“When I came to Congress it was the same thing,” she said. “There were very few women with younger children in Congress.” Things haven’t changed much in the 15 years since DeGette arrived, she noted. “It really doesn’t reflect society, so I’ve got a lot of stories similar to Linda’s stories.”

Saying she had just been elected a whip — a party post in charge of counting votes — DeGette said she went to the first meeting of the whips. “A gentleman next to me — this is a Democrat, mind you — turned to me and said, ‘How are you enjoying your time in Washington?’ ‘Well, it’s great so far,’” she said she replied. He asked her, “‘Well, whose office do you work for?’”

Noting that she’d taken over the seat held since 1973 by pioneering lawmaker Pat Schroeder, DeGette shook her head. “A full 24 years after Pat Schroeder first went to Congress, things hadn’t changed very much.”

One thing congressional women had to celebrate, the two lawmakers said, was finally getting a women’s restroom off the House floor. Still, that just happened last year, they said to groans from the audience.

But over the years, there are more women in Congress, and especially in state legislatures, where Colorado has long been one of the handful of legislative bodies with the most women members.

Former state Rep. Rosemary Marshall, a Denver Democrat who served four terms, catches up with former First Lady Dottie Lamm at the 2011 Democratic Women’s Summit on Oct. 29 at the downtown Sheraton.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

It’s still an uphill climb to recruit, train and elect women, though, the lawmakers said.

Noting that women tend to get involved in politics for an issue or a cause or an ideal, as opposed to men who often view political office as a step on a career path, DeGette said it can be tough to recruit women candidates who haven’t been awakened by a particular cause.

DeGette said she recently asked a group of civic-minded young women how many planned to run for office. Virtually none raised their hands. “Women feel they’re not qualified, they don’t want to deal with scandals,” she said, shaking her head.

At that, Sánchez chuckled and pointed out that could be one of the best reasons to send women to Washington. When it comes to extramarital and other scandals, “It’s never women who are in the headlines,” she said. “That tells you something about power and how each gender tends to handle that power.”

DeGette added her own take: “I always say women are in their little condos or apartments reading their briefing books while all the trouble gets started.”

As to the current stalemated Congress — facing approval ratings with the American public as low as any measured — the two lawmakers said the new breed of Republican legislators who helped sweep the GOP into a House majority in the last election are proving particularly intractable.

What happened to the moderates, one woman in the audience asked.

The Tea Party swept them away, Sánchez said, and then she corrected herself. “You can’t even hardly say they got rid of moderate Republicans — they defeated regular old Republicans.” And the hallmark of these newcomers, she said, is that, “You can’t negotiate with them on anything.” Making no bones about it, she elaborated: “You can’t negotiate with terrorists and you can’t negotiate with people who won’t negotiate.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, she said. After the Tea Party Republicans came to Washington full of anger, unable to trust anybody, and “fed up with everybody,” Sánchez said, “They, themselves, actually became the sand in the gears,” and make government as awful as they believe it to be. This “leaves Congress lurching from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.”

The key, numerous panel members said, is to elect more women, and to elect women earlier in life so they don’t “age out” as young men grab all the open seats.

Former Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak, who launched the annual women’s summits when she headed the party until earlier this year, gave this year’s version a top grade.

“I love attending instead of organizing,” she said with a laugh. “Anytime we can really look at the women we’ve elected, plus hopefully stimulate some of the women sitting in the room to run for office, that’s a great victory for us.”

The summits have had success beyond the doors, she said. “Some in the room have gotten involved in a small-donor committee, there have been some candidates for smaller office emerge from these, and they’re also out there spotting potential candidates.”

Best of all, she said, even though she’s run the two previous women’s summits and is on a first-name basis with many of the state’s most politically active women, she saw plenty of newcomers at this year’s event.

“There were a lot of old friends I haven’t seen in a long time,” she said, “but there were also some people I’ve never seen before, and it’s always great to see new faces.”