To mark Women’s History Month in March, Bethesda Beat explored the topic of women’s representation on the Montgomery County Council.
After a disappointing showing for women four years ago in the Montgomery County Council race, candidates and party leaders are hoping for stronger results in 2022.
Women account for 51.6% of the county’s population, according to U.S. Census data. Yet, since 2018, there has been only one woman, Nancy Navarro, among the nine seats on the council.
The number has dropped since 2009, when Navarro was first elected and was among four women on the council. Women have never held more than four seats at once.
In the 2018 primary, 19 women and 39 men ran for those nine seats.
This year, with the council expanded to 11 seats, 15 women and 26 men had filed to run as of Monday afternoon. The filing deadline is April 15.
No woman has filed to run for county executive this year.
Navarro can’t run for re-election because of term limits. Instead, she is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Rushern Baker in the Democratic primary. (Maryland has had a female lieutenant governor before, but never a female governor.)
Navarro said in an interview that many observers were surprised that she was the only woman out of 19 running in 2018 to win a council seat.
The outcome in 2018 is “just not an acceptable trend, but I think that has definitely motivated a lot of the women who are running this cycle,” she said. “And I had the opportunity to chat with most of the women who are running, and they wanted to hear what my experience was like and get some advice.”
Standing out in a crowd
Candidates and advocates point to longstanding conditions — sexism, stereotypes and a greater domestic burden on women — as factors in the continuing disparity.
But they say the flood of candidates in the first election cycle that public financing was used was the primary issue dragging down women in 2018. There has not been the same influx of candidates this year.
Tedi Osias and Jennifer Russel, co-presidents of the nonprofit Montgomery Women, which advocates for women to develop leadership roles, were disappointed in the 2018 outcome.
“It isn’t the caliber of the candidate. I think, overall, in elective office, there are issues with having enough women elected. And so, it’s been a puzzlement,” Osias said.
Russel and Osias said the creation of the public financing system in the county in recent elections has been positive, but it created a wave four years ago in which 33 candidates ran for four at-large seats, making it difficult for the most qualified women to set themselves apart.
“While public financing has in many ways addressed the funding issue, it’s also exploded the number of candidates, so that it’s kind of a mixed blessing, in terms of women distinguishing themselves in the field of candidates,” Osias said.
Lorna Phillips Forde, a County Council candidate in 2018, is running again this year. She said she ran into a problem four years ago because of a clerical error in the online documentation needed to receive matching campaign contributions. She then lost access to public funds.
“It was detrimental to our campaign. We didn’t have a war chest. We needed the funds. It just was a very disappointing outcome,” she said.
Forde ran in the at-large race in the 2018 Democratic primary. She said it was difficult for voters to sort through such a long list of candidates.
“I was so driven to do all that I could do that I was blinded by the fact that no one should be in a race with 35 people. Looking back on it, I’m like, ‘Why did I do that?’” she said.
Forde said she’s learned important lessons from the last race about messaging, fundraising, outreach and staffing that she hopes will help her campaign this time.
Laurie-Anne Sayles, a Gaithersburg City Council member running in this year’s at-large council race, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that it’s harder for women to raise money.
“Women are usually the primary caretakers of the children and household. Hence, it takes a flexible house dynamic to have the time, space, and support to run for office as a woman,” she wrote.
Sayles praised the county’s public financing system, writing that it has “leveled the playing field” in helping to eliminate dark money, referring to donations by groups that do not have to disclose donors.
She also praised the program Emerge Maryland, which has sought to increase the number of women in politics across the state for the past 10 years.
A double standard persists
Looking beyond 2018, Navarro said women face a “macro challenge” in how they are perceived by society.
“Women legislators are often described as being very passionate or just leading on issues of children and youth and families,” she said. “And I find myself often reminding people that I have chaired the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee in 2011, which was really the committee responsible for setting the fiscal policy for the county, which has helped us maintain our triple-A bond rating even through a recession.”
Navarro said electing more women who lead in all aspects of public policy will help dispel the notion that men have to be in charge.
Navarro said other women candidates ask how she has navigated the concept of being “put in a box.” Her advice is to be assertive without being perceived as angry.
“You can’t win,” she said. “If you come in and are very confident, you work really hard and you really fight for what you know is in the best interest of your constituents, sometimes you’re labeled as, ‘Oh, you’re too aggressive.’ But if you are kind of quiet and don’t do a lot, you’re kind of invisible. So, it’s this constant balancing act that’s not always talked about.”
Russel, who has had a career in planning, said that when she was starting out, all of the women planners focused on housing and social planning. She said there is a “crass generalization across the board” when it comes to assuming women can’t do certain tasks traditionally assigned to men.
“I was very interested in physical planning, like the engineering side of it,” she said. “I had to push to get involved in site planning …. because women did the soft stuff.”
Forde said she thinks “hidden biases reared their head” against women in 2018, even though many were qualified.
“Women have to do so much more to prove ourselves than men do,” she said. “Men can come partially qualified to something and not even think about the fact that they’re not really qualified. … Women, we check every single box, and then boxes that aren’t even there before we even contemplate stepping into the arena to pursue something. It’s just been something that’s been drilled into us forever.”
Forde said sexism has persisted in politics at the national level, and thinks it explains Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
“[Clinton] was qualified. … Folks want gender parity, only to a certain level. But don’t have more parity than the men have. … Society’s not ready for that, for whatever reason. That’s not gonna stop us,” she said.
Sayles wrote that she has faced “misogyny, sexism and doubt” and that it has been “magnified” because she is Black.
“Continually having to ‘lean in’ to be heard, introducing myself with my elected title and my degrees before being taken seriously, makes the role more challenging,” she wrote. “Despite these challenges, I feel good about being able to change the perceptions people have about someone like me by being my most authentic self and taking my role in shaping policy very seriously.”
Closing the gender gap
The gender gap has persisted both in Montgomery County, which has never had a female county executive, and across Maryland.
A 2018 report on the Status of Women in Montgomery County by the Montgomery County Commission for Women highlighted that there aren’t any current women in the state’s congressional delegation and there’s never been a female governor. Barbara Mikulski was one of Maryland’s two U.S. senators from 1987 to 2017.
The report also pointed to a slight decline in the rankings among all states in the percentage of female state legislators. Maryland is currently fifth, according to Rutgers University.
In the report, the commission recommended that local political parties and PACs work with organizations to help recruit women candidates and identify challenges they face.
Reardon Sullivan, chair of the county’s Republican Central Committee, said in an interview that his party has been trying to reach out to any Republicans, regardless of gender or race, to run for office.
The best qualified person should run, no matter the gender, Sullivan said.
Arthur Edmunds, chair of the county’s Democratic Central Committee, said in an interview that party leaders have always made a considerable effort to recruit women to run for county and state offices.
Several women who have sat on the central committee have made it to elected offices in Annapolis, Edmunds said. In November, the party chose its chair, Linda Foley, to fill a state delegate vacancy.
Currently, 16 of the 32 members of Montgomery County’s delegation in Annapolis are women.
Edmunds added, however, that there’s room for improvement on the County Council, where representation probably isn’t “adequate.”
“Could there be more [women] on the County Council? Absolutely,” Edmunds said.
Making connections, showing support
Donna Rojas, who chairs the Montgomery County Commission for Women, said women need to focus on making connections with the community and using grassroots organizations. Additionally, women need to donate to women candidates, she said.
“Put your money where your mouth is. Start giving towards what we want to see,” she said. “If we want to see change, if we’re engaged in and truly embrace a candidate, we need to support them financially.”
Gail Ewing, a County Council member in the 1990s, said that to stand out today, women candidates must raise a lot of money.
Electing more women has real-life consequences for the community, Rojas said.
“When we vote, it influences critical policy decisions and outcomes that influence women’s health, public safety, economic security,” she said. “Those are things that are not just centered around women, but women need to understand and be educated on those things, so that they can make an educated decision on the women that are running.”
Russel said she’s optimistic about more of a balance in representation, both because of the women running for office this year and because younger women, in their 30s and 40s, have been particularly active.
“They’re involved earlier,” she said.
Ewing said she lost her first election in 1986 by 5 percentage points.
When she ran again four years later, she did so on a ticket with Nancy Dacek, Betty Ann Krahnke and Marilyn Praisner. The four women ran together with county executive candidate Neal Potter, who was challenging incumbent County Executive Sidney Kramer that year, Ewing said.
All four women and Potter were elected.
“I don’t think you have to do that anymore,” she said of running together. “You just really have to have the women being willing to stick their neck out there and get elected.”
Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com