Governor post continues to elude women in Pennsylvania |
Politics Election

Governor post continues to elude women in Pennsylvania

Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Democratic State Representative candidate Erin Molchany gets a round of appaulse from her supporters after conceding the race Tuesday, May 20, 2014 at Redbeard's on Mt. Washington.
Allyson Schwartz thanks supporters after conceding the Democratic nominee for governor of Pennsylvania at the Radisson in Center City Philadellphia on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. ( AP Photo/The Philadelphia Daily News, Yong Kim)

The first woman to run for governor in Pennsylvania knew she had no shot at victory. And she’d been mired in scandal.

Jennifer Wesner, 80, of Knox in Clarion County was the borough’s mayor in the early 1970s. Then a photographer leaked risque photos of Wesner to national tabloids, from her days as a topless model a decade earlier. Though mortified, Wesner went on to run four campaigns for higher office.

She dove into philanthropy and authored a book on her experiences.

“I would keep running for office, and that’s how I’d get known,” she said. “I became something; I became somebody.”

Wesner’s name has a place in history as the first of seven women to run for governor in Pennsylvania, one of two dozen states where voters never have elected a woman to the office. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia and Katie McGinty, a former environmental administrator in state government, lost the Democratic primary on Tuesday to Tom Wolf, a millionaire businessman from York County.

Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which encourages female leadership in politics, said just 35 women governors have served in the nation’s history; five are in office. To Kimmell and other female-candidate advocates, this poses a policy problem.

“When women are at the table, their unique life experiences are being represented,” she said. “It’s not about whether they’re there just because of their gender.”

Dana Brown, executive director at the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, said the primary election was “a mixed bag with a negative outlook” for female candidates. In addition to postponing the possibility of a woman governor until at least 2018, Schwartz’s loss means that when her term in Congress ends, Pennsylvania’s delegation will be all-male — unless one of six female challengers overtakes an incumbent. Women have 99, or 18.5 percent, of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress, according the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

Inside the statehouse, Pennsylvania ranks 38th in the nation among legislative bodies for the percentage of women elected at 17.8 percent, a figure unlikely to change. Thirteen women ran in 25 state Senate races; nine won. Eighty-one women made bids for the state House, where all 203 seats were up, and 64 will continue to campaign for the general election.

If all of them are elected, Pennsylvania’s legislature would be 22.8 percent female. But, as Brown observed, that is highly unlikely.

“We didn’t have parity with women candidates to begin with in the primary election,” she said. “Now, the pool is further narrowed for the general election.”

The microscope of a campaign can pose a barrier to female candidates, Kimmell said. Mentions of female candidates’ appearance cause voters to view them negatively, whereas mentions of a man’s appearance have no effect, she said.

“Voters look at women candidates more critically than they do men,” she said. “That can be a roadblock.”

State Rep. Deberah Kula, 65, a Democrat from North Union, was the first female state lawmaker from Fayette County in 2006. This year, she won the primary for the 32nd District senatorial seat.

Kula said she does not think voters should choose her because of her gender — though female elected officials bring different skills to the job, she said.

“Going in and building up credibility and having people listen to your views has been a great benefit,” she said. “Women are especially able to do that in a quiet, respectful, forceful way.”

Throughout her campaign, Schwartz vowed to shatter the gubernatorial glass ceiling with a change of culture in Harrisburg, lamenting the place as an “old boy’s club.” Upon her distant second-place finish to Wolf, she did so once more.

“The political pundits, the media, the Harrisburg establishment couldn’t believe a woman could serve as governor, couldn’t even imagine it,” Schwartz said in her concession speech to supporters in Philadelphia.

Schwartz or McGinty would not have been the first female governor to serve had either been elected. Hannah Penn, in the early 18th century, held the office for six years when her husband and the commonwealth’s founder, William Penn, had a stroke.

Wesner hopes someday Pennsylvania will elect a female governor. And she’d like to see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton win the presidency in 2016. She advises persistence to candidates.

“Stay in there and keep moving forward, keep moving ahead,” she said. “We’ll eventually have a lot of women in politics — very, very powerful women — but they can’t give up.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].

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