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Do women in politics face an uphill battle in Utah?

Published May 7, 2012 11:32 am

Candidates • Real Women Run group pushes to increase participation in raceseven as numbers at state's Capitol dwindle.
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The bipartisan group Real Women Run is back, with plans to offer follow-up training later this month for women seeking political office, involved in campaigns or just thinking about jumping into the fray.

On the agenda for the May 19 session at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics are five hours of training by current and former elected officials and political pros — along with a free lunch.

This push to get more women involved in politics comes at a time when female membership in the Utah Legislature has fallen to its lowest level since 1995 — with women holding just 17 seats out of 104. You have to go back to 1991 to find a lower number: 13.

Chances of those statistics improving much in the upcoming election appear slim. The 33 women still in the running in legislative races are mostly newcomers challenging established incumbents — with odds generally favoring the sitting members.

Another factor dimming prospects for more gender diversity is that two of the current women members won't be returning to Capitol Hill: 14-year veteran Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, because she is retiring and Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, a 10-year House member, because she was defeated at the April 14 Salt Lake County Republican Convention.

A bright spot for women in politics this year is the Republican nomination of Mia Love in the new 4th Congressional District. Love, the first-term mayor of Saratoga Springs, defeated four rivals with a resounding 70 percent of delegate votes in the April 21 state GOP convention.

She faces veteran Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in the November election and, if victorious, would become the first congresswoman from Utah since Enid Greene Mickelsen, who served from 1995-97. She also would be the first Republican black congresswoman elected from any state.

"That's very exciting," said Susan Koehn, a former state lawmaker and one of the Real Women Run trainers. "[Her nomination] has kind of changed the scenery of politics in that district."

Not so exciting, Koehn acknowledges, is the picture in the Legislature, where the number of women members has slumped to what it was during her time in the state House (1995-2001) — and odds for significant gains this year are less than promising.

In legislative races, 22 of the 33 women candidates surviving party convention culling are Democrats, 15 of them newcomers. Many face GOP incumbents in districts that lean heavily Republican.

On the GOP side, eight of the 11 women are newcomers. Among the three current lawmakers seeking re-election is Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, the first woman House speaker in Utah history. She is considered a shoo-in November's general election, but then is expected to be challenged by House Republicans for the speaker's chair.

"There needs to be more, I believe, women helping women run for office," Koehn said. The former Republican lawmaker from Woods Cross said the issue "needs to transcend party identification" and get to the core of "the value women can bring to the process."

The training — featuring breakout sessions on campaign fundraising and field operations, among other topics — is being offered for women who have declared their candidacy for elected office this year, their staffs and anyone who attended the group's training in January. Organizers said hundreds of women turned out at that Jan. 14 session.

The May 19 event is free and lunch will be provided.

Among those expected to be in attendance are state Reps. Rebecca Chavez-Houck and Jennifer Seelig, both D-Salt Lake City; and former Reps. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, and Koehn.

Koehn's session will be about messaging in campaigns and dealing with the news media.

Her No. 1 tip? Resist the impulse to react immediately to an allegation, comment or question. "Never shoot an email off or make a phone call in reaction," she said. "Give yourself 24 hours to respond."

Koehn said the biggest obstacle for anyone to overcome in considering going into politics is lack of confidence.

A politician, she said, must embrace the belief that "your ideas have value; that you're smart enough and that you have great suggestions that are every bit as worthy of being heard as the next person." —

Political training for women

What • Real Women Run follow-up training session for women seeking office or involved in campaigns.

When • 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 19

Where • University of Utah, Hinckley Institute of Politics

Cost • No charge, lunch included.

Who • Real Women Run is a nonpartisan collaborative effort including the YWCA Salt Lake City, Hinckley Institute, Salt Lake Community College, Vision 2020, Utah League of Women Voters and AAUW.

How • To register, call 801-537-8606 or go online to realwomenrun.org.




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