Courtesy of the #MeToo movement, special elections are on the way on Feb. 12 (that’s right, a Monday) to fill two legislative seats formerly occupied by men who looked for, er, love in the wrong places. Time to check the candidate lineup.
In Senate District 54 in the southeast metro, a former DFL legislator and Washington County commissioner — a woman — and a Libertarian Party newcomer — another woman — will be on the Feb. 12 ballot vying with the winner of this Monday’s Republican primary, in which the candidates are two men.
In House District 23B in southwestern Minnesota, a school social worker — a woman — is the DFL candidate, set to take on the winner of the GOP primary, which is another contest between two men.
The gender array on those special-election ballots may be entirely the result of idiosyncratic local circumstances. But — conveniently for us political pattern-seekers — it also aligns neatly with a national trend: a surge in female candidacies, particularly on the Democratic side of the ballot.
Note that I said “particularly,” not exclusively. The Minnesota Republican Party may be on the way to offering voters something in 2018 that it has not offered before: a female nominee for the U.S. Senate. Yes, it’s early, but no big-name male pol has stepped up to challenge Karin Housley, a two-term state senator, for the Republican nomination for the seat now occupied by Democratic Sen. Tina Smith (also courtesy of #MeToo).
Memo to future Minnesota political/cultural historians: My hunch is that the 2014 Republican ticket for statewide offices was the last all-male lineup of its sort that any major party will offer. That ticket went 0 for 5 on Election Day — which helps explain why Minnesotans won’t see its like again.
But Minnesota’s female-candidacy wave is larger on the Democratic side. It has been for some time. Consider today’s gender division in the Minnesota House, where 50 women give the body an overall 37 percent female share. Of those 50, 21 are Republicans, for 27 percent of the 77-member majority caucus; 28 are DFLers, for a 49-percent share. The 2018 election could make the House DFL caucus the first such body in state legislative history with a female majority.
Nationally, the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University reports that of the 50 women are either running or planning to run for the Senate this year, 31 are Democrats; of the 397 seeking seats in the U.S. House, 317 are Democrats; and of 79 women running for governor, 48 are Democrats. In each instance, the number of women running is up substantially from the previous high-water mark.
The story in this year’s campaign for control of the Minnesota House isn’t as neatly told. The state Campaign Finance Board collects candidate filing documents but does not sort them by gender. By my hasty count, the board’s list of new state House candidacies in the last 90 days includes 51 names, 28 of them apparently women — 23 DFLers, five Republicans.
An incomplete count is kept by Womenwinning — the officially bipartisan but decidedly pro-choice group formerly called the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund. It does not keep track of GOP anti-abortion candidates, executive director Lauren Beecham explained. She knows of 80 women running for the 134 seats in the Minnesota House plus the one state Senate vacancy that will be filled on Feb. 12. Another 50 women are on a “strongly considering” list.
“We have never seen this level of enthusiasm and commitment before,” Beecham vouched.
In three Greater Minnesota districts not known for electing either DFLers or women, first-time female candidates who had not been on the DFL recruitment radar have popped up with vigorous campaigns, House DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman reported.
She attributes the surge to more than the 2016 presidential election, as would I. But let’s start there.
“Trump’s election had two impacts,” Hortman opined. “He made it OK to be overtly sexist, for those who are inclined that way. But he also brought out a response in a lot of women who had not been politically engaged before. They said, ‘No way, I can’t let this happen.’ They were awakened to the need to get involved.”
Events since then “threw fuel back on the fire for women,” she said. What events? Hortman’s list includes the defensive male blowback she received last April when she called white male legislators to task for playing cards in the House retiring room during floor speeches by several female DFL legislators of color. It includes the revelations about DFL Sen. Dan Schoen and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish that put “former” in front of their legislative titles and created the need for two special elections.
Those events may indeed be motivating. But let me add my sense that the gender egalitarianism that the feminists of 40 and 50 years ago worked so hard to plant in their offspring is coming into full flower now. I’m freshly mindful of the example and encouragement of Emily Anne Staples Tuttle, the first DFL woman elected to the state Senate “in her own right" — that is, not as a senator’s widow. Her death on Jan. 13 at age 88 is a widely felt loss.
A chat I had with Lori Ahlness, a first-time Republican candidate for the Stillwater-area House seat being vacated by Rep. Matt Dean, served to remind that not all of the 2018 women candidates are on a mission to stamp out Trumpism. Some just want to serve their communities. They are confident that they have the skills to do that work well, and they have no doubt that women belong in the Legislature.
Ahlness may not have known Tuttle. But she stands on her shoulders.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.