Women lag in Alaska's Legislature

Democrats in state haven't matched the success they've had elsewhere

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008

Nationwide, women are being elected to state legislatures more and more frequently, but in this month's election their numbers declined.

Juneau Empire
Juneau Empire

While not all races have been decided, it looks certain that the 26th Alaska Legislature will have 12 women among its 60 members, one fewer than the recently concluded 25th Legislature.

"Clearly in the big sweep of history, there's been progress," said Kay Brown of the Alaska Democratic Party. "Year by year, there's been slippage."

That's despite some high-profile women, a list not limited to Gov. Sarah Palin, the state's most popular politician.

In addition to the governor, Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and the House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, were in positions of power this year. Neither Green nor Kerttula are in the leadership positions announced for the session starting next year, however.

This year's election results mean that only 20 percent of the Alaska Legislature will be female, compared to 24.2 percent nationwide, according to Katie Ziegler, of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Women's Legislative Network.

The number of women in public office has been steadily growing in recent years, according to data provided by Ziegler.

This year, women became the majority in a state legislative body. When the New Hampshire Senate convenes next year it will have 13 women among its 24 members.

That's something that's never happened before, Ziegler said.

Meanwhile, the number of women in the Alaska Legislature remains so far below the national average that it regularly tops only states such as South Carolina, Mississippi, Wyoming, Alabama and Oklahoma, all of which have female participation rates in the teens.

In Alaska, some women in public life say they've been disappointed that there aren't more women in public office.

"I think we need to take a good hard look at the Legislature and see if there are systemic changes that need to be made in the Legislature to encourage women, especially young women, to serve," Kerttula said.

One possible change might be better child care, she said. At least three legislators currently have infant children, as does Palin.

Another change might be to look at having a professional instead of a citizen Legislature in which young professionals might be more able to serve. The Legislature now leans heavily toward retirement-age men.

Republican women are doing better that Democratic women in getting elected to the Legislature in Alaska, but that's not the way it is in other states. Nationally, Democratic women legislators outnumber Republican women legislators by more than 2-1, according to NCSL data.

The Democratic Party's Brown predicted that will continue to change with time.

"Even as recently as 40 years ago, women didn't envision themselves in these positions the way they do today," she said.

In Alaska it is rare for incumbent legislators to lose re-election bids. Only a few of the 50 seats up this year were seriously contested. Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, lost her re-election bid, but it was to another woman.

Two highly regarded women chose not to run for re-election this year, Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Nome, and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak. Both will be replaced by men.

Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, gave up his House seat to run for Senate, but both the Democrat and Republican candidates seeking to replace him are women. Republican Charisse Millett is expected to win that seat.

Green, too, did not run for re-election, but will be replaced by Republican woman Linda Menard.

In a couple of cases woman candidates narrowly missed coming to Juneau. In Fairbanks, Republican Sue Hull is falling just short of unseating Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.

In another Interior race, Republican Sue Henry appears to be unable to hold the seat vacated by Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks. Democrat Joe Paskvan leads that race by a few hundred votes.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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