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on the radar: Donna Brazile speaks out!

Commentaries by Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile is a regular contributor to the "Backtalk" section of Ms. Magazine, providing insightful political commentary from an insider's perspective. In addition to contributing to Ms., Brazile is the chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute and an adjunct women's studies professor at Georgetown University. She's also the author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).

Featured commentaries :

Women Needed to Clean Beltway Mess
Poverty is a Women's Issue

Remember the "Ladies"

Run, Sisters, Run

Women Needed to Clean Beltway Mess: Will political scandals boost female candidates?

Washington, D.C., is a loud city, especially in an election year. It’s always full of gossip and chitchat, but the buzz has been deafening lately. Some people in town are holding their breath, hoping the lobbying and corruption scandals involving such figures as Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff will go away. Others, giddy like children on Christmas morning, await the partisan gifts that a jury in Texas or a plea bargained, disgraced lobbyist might bestow.

There is also much chatter about how women candidates in 2006 could benefit from the recent scandals inside the Beltway. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women are throwing their hats in the ring for major elected positions in nine-tenths of the Union: 15 women are running for U.S. Senate, 165 for the U.S. House and 15 for state governorships. And that’s not even counting those running for other state offices.

A number of open seats (no incumbent in the running) beckon women to compete, including Senate seats in Vermont, Tennessee, Maryland and Minnesota, and governorships in Massachusetts and Florida. If we follow the adage that “every open seat is a woman’s seat,” women really do have the poten tial to make some waves during this election cycle. This is welcome news for those hoping 2006 will become another “Year of the Woman.”

But can women candidates capitalize on the Washington scandals in order to position themselves to win? While there is support for the theory that political corruption benefits women candidates, women cannot always assume success in such a political climate. Take a look at both sides of the historical record:

Scandal and corruption first brought women into politics around the turn of the 20th century. Fed up with crooked party bosses and a political system based on patronage and cronyism, women became a powerful voice for reform. While society insisted on confining women to the realm of “virtues” and housecleaning, women reasoned that these skills should be applied to cleaning up the dirty and corrupt business of politics. From Jane Addams to Alice Stone Blackwell, courageous women argued that it was time to instigate “municipal housekeeping.”

While women initially succeeded in electoral politics because of corruption, the latter half of the 20th century has demonstrated inconsistency in this regard. Watergate, the biggest scandal to rock the Capitol, created no upsurge in women’s representation, nor did observers claim that women could run politics differently from their male counterparts. The nomination of former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984 preceded the Iran-contra scandal. Furthermore, the number of women in the U.S. Congress rose only slightly in 1990 after the messy savings and loan ordeal.

However, the number of women candidates rose to new levels in 1992, on the heels of house banking and post-office scandals and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. It was no coincidence that dozens of incumbent congressmen did not seek reelection following the scandals of the early ’90s, while reapportionment also opened up districts for non-incumbents. The availability of open seats and newly drawn districts certainly may have motivated more women candidates than usual to enter congressional races.

Given the mess inside the Beltway today, women candidates can once again help clean up government, as they did a century earlier. But women should win their elections not simply because they portray the appropriate stereotype for the given political situation; they should win because they are the most qualified. It can be just as dangerous to paint all female candidates as virtuous and “clean” as it is to portray men as strong and decisive. Feminists should not put a gender on honesty and integrity; rather, we should encourage women candidates to stress the theme of positive change.

So, I advise women candidates not only to campaign hard against the “culture of corruption,” but also to adopt platforms that include such issues as health care, education, jobs and the environment. In that way, women can benefit from the political moment without losing the battle to avoid old gender stereotypes.

On a personal note, I wish to acknowledge Coretta Scott King, a terrific mentor and personal friend who, during her life—along with her recently departed sisters Shirley Chisholm, C. DeLores Tucker, Molly Yard and Betty Friedan—gave me and so many other women our wings to soar.

Poverty is a Woman's Issue

The 2005 hurricane season demonstrated that nature wreaks havoc with impartiality. Hurricane Katrina’s dramatic winds destroyed beautiful lakefront resorts, Gulf Coast mansions and profitable seaside casinos with the same gale force as those which ravaged shotgun houses and public housing where some of America’s poorest citizens lived.

While nature may treat us all equally, however, the recent hurricanes confirmed that society does not. Racial and economic inequalities briefly came to the fore as the faces of New Orleans’ chronically poor citizens filled our TV screens, but then those images were too easily brushed aside when the next news cycle rolled in. Congress made noise that it was going to investigate the impact of the hurricanes on its Gulf Coast victims, then sadly turned its attention to other matters.

Since Congress and the Bush administration continue to ignore the millions of Americans living below the poverty line, it is essential that the women’s movement make the eradication of chronic poverty a top priority. We must have a frank conversation about what it means to be poor in America and what we can do to alleviate the suffering of the women and men who work two or three minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet.

Women’s voices should lead this debate since the burdens of poverty fall unevenly on us. Of the 37 million poor people in this country, 21 million are women. Many of them head single-parent households, which are four and a half times more likely to be impoverished than two-parent households.

In the Gulf Coast region, the poverty gap runs even deeper. In my hometown of New Orleans, an astonishing 26 percent of women live under the federal poverty line, nearly double the national average. Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas—the three states hit hardest during the 2005 hurricane season—rank above the 85th percentile in the U.S. with respect to women living in poverty.

Many of these women, including some members of my family, lack health insurance, cannot find affordable housing and cannot pay for the child care that would allow them to improve their education and find better work. The Gulf Coast disasters brought to light the struggles poor families face in order to survive; it is now incumbent upon us to remove the barriers that keep so many people trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder.

An important step toward lessening poverty is to ensure that women take part in every aspect of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Women must move past the disheartening statistics that foster our identity as victims and instead become active agents for change. If women take a seat at the table when decisions are made, we can promote an agenda that includes fair wages, affordable housing, jobs, quality and affordable child care, and other policies that would enable us to work toward a permanent solution rather than a temporary fix.

Providing a living wage is critical. Since poor families are hurt when their members go without having basic needs and standards of care met, we must hold government accountable for its pledge to promote strong and stable families.

And women need more than a temporary raise in wages—they must be trained for quality jobs that will raise permanent earning potential and continue to keep them and their families afloat. Too often women are forced into low-paying jobs because they lack sufficient skills, and they overlook well-paid occupations traditionally held by men, such as the construction trades, because they lack training. Getting women the training they need to break into higher- paying jobs would interrupt the cycle of poverty.

The national discussion of chronic poverty must address the fact that since September 11 this country has focused attention on eradicating terrorism to the exclusion of serious domestic threats, such as the lack of affordable health care. America can do better. We owe it to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to once again summon the nation to eradicate poverty. During this election season, which will set the stage for the next presidential contest, we must hold our elected officials accountable. It’s time we force a conversation about reducing poverty in America and provide the underpaid and underemployed with the tools they need to rebuild their lives.

Remember the "Ladies"

This summer I took the train up to Philadelphia to lecture at the National Constitution Center. While the exhibits that chronicle our Constitution thoroughly impressed me, each new artifact served as a reminder that no one who looked like me—black, female—shaped the document that has done the most to influence our nation.

It wasn’t until 1981—194 years after the U.S. Constitution was drafted—that a woman was finally allowed to weigh in on the document. The ascendance of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court marked the first time a woman could offer formal and lasting opinions on what the Constitution protects and prohibits for its citizens. O’Connor has had a mixed legacy as a justice, but it’s one that firmly paints her as a pivotal voice on issues of equality, justice and fairness.

Unfortunately, Justice O’Connor will soon end her tenure. And come October, when the new Supreme Court term begins, the Court will most probably have lost half its representation of women. President George W. Bush ignored popular calls—including comments from his wife, Laura—and nominated a man to fill Justice O’Connor’s seat.

Her absence on the Court will pose a unique disadvantage for women, as we have lost a swing voter on issues that matter to women as well as minorities. Consider this: The Supreme Court relies on a document that did not consider women or racial minorities when it was written. True, the Framers calculated seemingly genderless boundaries between private and public, individual and society. But without a single woman’s opinion weighed, and with Abigail Adams’ call to husband and Founding Father John to "remember the ladies" scoffed at, it is hard to believe that the group had full knowledge of what rights and protections were important to all of its citizens—especially the female majority.

The Framers gave us guidance on male-oriented issues such as guns and acceptable punishment, but with no women attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, issues of particular concern to women, such as reproductive rights and what constitutes equal protection under the law, weren’t mentioned. That’s why they’ve been left up to continuous interpretation for more than 200 years—and that’s why, unquestionably,women and minorities must be on the Supreme Court when such discussions take place.

As a black woman, I can take some comfort that women will not be completely forgotten, because the Court is still left with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But some of us are familiar with the pressure than can be placed on an individual when she is the lone one (woman, minority) in the company of men. Often, we are challenged to give our unique insights about issues because of our special life experiences. With O’Connor, the Court had not only a smart and intelligent woman, but the perspective of someone who worked in the political arena as an elected official, accountable to all citizens.

Justice O’Connor fully recognized the importance of women serving in the judiciary. When she heard of Bush’s new nominee she replied that Judge John Roberts was “good in every way, except he’s not a woman.” While the president purportedly cast a wide net to review myriad candidates, he decided that a white male was most qualified for the job. What a missed opportunity.

From what we know about Judge Roberts’ record on the District Court of Appeals, he’s no Sandra Day O’Connor. His stated views on choice, affirmative action and other civil rights issues appear to cast him in the mode of the man he once clerked for, Chief Justice Rehnquist, or even as ultraconservative as justices Scalia and Thomas. There’s no question that every feminist must call upon the U.S. Senate to do its homework before confirming Judge Roberts to the Supreme Court.

At this point, all we can hope for—outside of waiting for the next election—is to see if the president will give serious consideration to selecting a woman or racial minority in the future. Don’t expect any judge elected by this conservative president to find someone agreeable to us on all the issues. Let’s just hope the next nominee has an open mind and is willing, like O’Connor, to help steer America down the path of equal rights, opportunity and freedom for all citizens.

Psssst… Mr. President, next time listen to your wife.

Run, Sisters, Run!

1992 was a historic year in American politics. A record number of women decided to take the plunge and pursue careers in public service, and guess what? Many of them won! Twenty-four women were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and six women were elected to the last bastion of the “old boys’ network,” the U.S. Senate.

Today, women hold a record 80 seats in the House and Senate, but we shouldn’t be satisfied: That’s only 15 per cent of all congressional seats. Women do marginally better in state legislatures (22.5 percent of the seats), yet fewer women are running for state legislative office than did 13 years ago, and the percentage of women holding statewide elected office—such as governors, attorneys general and state treasurers—has dropped since 1999. The United States has the dubious distinction of being just 59th in the world in terms of women’s representation in government.

With election seasons on the horizon for 2006 and 2008, and recent polls indicating that more Americans are willing to elect women to higher office, it’s time to get busy recruiting more women to run. And that means getting more women engaged in politics—as voters, candidates and campaign operatives.

Politics has always been one of my passions. I’ll never forget the joy of my first political campaign, at the age of 9. After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the grownups wanted to do something to continue his legacy of civil and voting rights. So, they started voter education and registration in my hometown of Kenner, La. I wanted to be a civil rights worker and this was an opportunity to sign up voters by going door to door.

We did not have computerized voter files or the “techno gizmo” gadgets, but we had a strong desire to improve conditions in our community. From sunrise to sunset, my recruits and I went from house to house to see if the grownups were registered to vote. By the time our mayoral and city council candidates (including a black woman) were elected, I was well on my way to a career in public service.

In 2006, it’s time to go knocking on doors to elect women. It’s time we release the women’s elevator of success that has been firmly stuck in the political lobby, time to permanently change the face of American politics.

My friend Paula Xanthopoulou, a savvy, courageous political consultant who was a leading strategist for Carol Moseley Braun (former presidential candidate and the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate) believes that “Every open seat is a woman’s seat.” I have a minor amendment: Every open seat should provide an opportunity for both major political parties to back strong women candidates.

If you want to be a candidate yourself, here’s a simple suggestion from Emerge (, a political leadership training program for women in California: Start a club or join an existing network. Women are not like men; they do not self-nominate or feel comfortable being labeled as “ambitious.” It helps to be surrounded by a group of women who are interested in running themselves. Together, you can provide yourselves with the necessary skills, information and tools to allow you to become more confident to seek public office.

As voters, women must begin to realize the connection between politics and their lives—between politics and schools, politics and health care, politics and job creation. As an ancient Greek philosopher once said: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” It’s time we take an avid interest in politics to strengthen our democracy, protect the gains we have made and go the extra mile so our children will not have to continue fighting old, bitter, divisive battles.

2006 is our wake-up call. Are you ready to answer it?

For more information on running for office or supporting women candidates, visit the following websites:

National Women’s Political Caucus,; The Future PAC,; Center for Women and Politics,; EMILY’s List,; Women’s Campaign Fund,; Business and Professional Women/USA,; The WISH List,