So where are the other female politicians who should be looking to shatter it? Here’s the real reason efforts to get women to run in greater numbers have largely failed—until now. Around a table at Phoenix hot spot Switch, a half dozen mostly young women had gathered for a strategy session of Emerge Arizona, the four-year-old political leadership training group that works to elect Democratic women to political office. With its hip wine bar and organic menu, Switch shares a parking lot with Durant’s, the longtime red-meat watering hole of state capital legislators and lobbyists. Which is not to say the state’s female political operatives don’t hang out there; goodness knows during my two decades heading Planned Parenthood in this conservative capital, I ate my share of Durant’s rib eye, medium.
But politics is, inescapably, about relationships. So when Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon materialized from the shadows to shake hands, I understood why we were meeting here: Emerge wanted to be seen in plan-hatching mode. Picking Switch over Durant’s signaled the group’s intent to become the new face of politics.
They have a long way to go. Of the 10 candidates Emerge Arizona fielded during its first try in 2006, only three won, though “three others lost by less than 1,000 votes,” touts the group’s executive director, Dana Kennedy. Like Krista Pacion (“Pacion for the people”), 32, who campaigned for the state House of Representatives on, yes, Rollerblades across her sprawling rural district, all seven losing candidates plan to run again. Meanwhile, they’re attending party precinct meetings and doing the unsexy nuts-and-bolts work that builds name recognition and fund-raising contacts. One immediate payoff, according to Kennedy: “Six of us were elected delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.”
In this historic election year, we can’t talk about women running for political office without considering the importance of being Hillary, who nearly won her party’s presidential nomination. But despite Clinton’s groundbreaking run, Nancy Pelosi’s preeminence as the first woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and women like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holding top administrative positions, the dial for women in political leadership has moved excruciatingly slowly, from 3 percent of Congress in 1979 to 16 percent in 2008. Ninety-two years after Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the House, America stacks up an embarrassing eighty-fourth among nations in the proportion of women holding national legislative office—far behind Rwanda, Austria, and Cuba. Men run City Hall in 90 of 100 largest cities; women make up just 16 percent of state governors and less than a quarter of state legislators. Even though women comprise the majority of voters, men, by and large, still decide the laws that govern our lives, from war and peace and equal pay policies to reproductive freedom. Just what is standing in the way of gender equality in political leadership? Where are all the women in this so-called representative democracy, and why aren’t they running?
Do all roads lead to Sarah Brewer? If you’re a female power player in DC, a helluva lot of them do; the American University lecturer you probably never heard of has formidable ties to Hillary Clinton, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Nancy Pelosi, and scores of other slightly less boldface but still very influential Washington women politicos.
In our survey of influence and power in the capital, we discovered that Brewer is a hub of ideas and policy, as is, not surprisingly, Clinton. The junior senator from New York’s 40-odd years in politics earn her the Most Connected Award (not always happily; the battle scars of the primary season have left her with more frenemies than any other woman charted). Coming in only a hair behind Clinton is Arianna Huffington, whose combined Huffington Post—helming, partygoing and -throwing, and incomprehensible levels of energy (she’s on the board of the Renaissance Weekends and headlines the annual “Take Back America” conference; she publishes a daily online newspaper; she ran for California governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger; she writes books) make her the doyenne of DC West. She, along with Pelosi, the San Franciscan Speaker of the House, even rated viciously funny impersonations by the comedienne Tracey Ullman. In fact, California girls are doing much political moving and shaking. Huffington’s pal, the Los Angeles-based environmentalist Laurie David—whom Maureen Dowd, anticipating a fun fight, mischievously introduced to Karl Rove at the 2007 White House Correspondents’ Dinner—advised Clinton and Barack Obama on global warming. California First Lady Maria Shriver famously broke with her husband and some Kennedy cousins in HRC’s camp to back Obama. Maybe the new administration should think about setting up a bureau out in L.A., where the fun and money are!
Whichever administration enters Washington in January, it will be doing business with the women on this power grid—dominated by Democrats but not to exclusion. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican congresswoman from Washington, earned endorsements from Jessica Grounds’ and Sarah Brewer’s Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (and got a congratulatory call from Pelosi when her baby was born). Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican senator from Texas, has ties to Anne Wexler, the most powerful female lobbyist in DC, who gave Clinton her first political job, on George McGovern’s campaign. (And according to Wonkette, Hutchison “treats Hillary like she’s just one of the girls.”)
You will notice that while Claire McCaskill and Clinton are in this network, it’s not for their vice presidential potential. John McCain famously described the duties of that job as “to inquire daily as to the health of the president and…to attend the funerals of third-world dictators.” Dick Cheney aside, that doesn’t sound too powerful, does it? Nor did we include women whose influence derives from being married to it. The women in this web—legislators and pollsters, journalists and academics, policy wonks and talk show hosts (if the medium is the message, Oprah Winfrey remains the go-to girl for any ambitious politician)—all work for their Washington muscle. And if you really want to know who’s got juice in DC, watch who walks into the restaurant Citronelle, and take note of where Mel Davis seats them.