Omdahl: Ladies, to win legislative seats, you must run

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When pundits talk about electing more women to the state Legislature, I am reminded of the story about the lady who was so far in debt that she thought winning the lottery was her only hope. So she prayed and prayed.
After a couple of weeks of praying, the prize eluded her so she prayed even harder. Then in the middle of the night, she heard a deep voice declare: “In order to win, you must buy a ticket.”
It is not possible to elect more women unless more women are willing to run. But this is more complicated than it appears.
In the first place, women are less willing than men to promote themselves, so women often get muscled out of the political opportunities.
In addition, politics is confrontational while women are negotiators and compromisers at heart. The Legislature needs those qualities but they do not lend themselves to the rough and tough of politics, so women are not attracted to politics.
There is hope. The field of women willing to compete has been growing, believe it or not, because of the federal mandate for more sports opportunities for girls. As a result, the participation of women in competitive sports has grown from 7 percent to 41 percent. Studies show that because they have experienced competition, they find confrontation in politics less threatening.
Voters expect legislative candidates – men as well as women – to demonstrate experiences that qualify them for legislative service. They want to see leadership on the local level, including service on local governing boards and community committees. These are the stepping stones to the Capitol.
Demonstrating these credentials has been blurred by the application of the one-person, one-vote principle to legislative districts that now divides cities and cobbles pieces of counties together.
There is no longer a common community base, so candidates must prove themselves in pieces of counties and cities. Serving on the county commission in one county may not carry much weight in the rest of the district.
When it comes to credentials, much more is required of women than that expected of men. Women must serve on more committees, show more leadership, and get elected more often.
Another barrier for women is family obligations that fall most heavily on women. With children in the home, they are not as free as men to go marching off to the state Capitol for four months a biennium. In addition, more men than women have job situations that can be manipulated to accommodate the legislative life.
Sen. Judy Lee of West Fargo and Sen. Joan Heckaman of New Rockford, both with long experience in the Legislature, do not soft-pedal the demands of the legislative commitment. They both point out that the four-month session is only part of the job.
There are interim committee assignments, public meetings, ribbon-cuttings and frustrated constituents year-around, all of which cut into family time.
In response to this problem, Rep. Nicole Poolman of Bismarck says that women can’t wait until the family situation is convenient.
“Many don’t realize that in politics, opportunities don’t wait to present themselves until it is convenient. Sometimes, we have to find ways to run when it isn’t convenient.”
Then there’s the money problem. Unless the party or supporters make advance commitments, the candidate must consider the personal resources that will be required for the campaign. Depending on the partisan track record in the district, the money people may be reluctant to invest in a woman candidate running in a competitive race for the first time.
(Next week: Incumbent women legislators offer personal insights about legislative service.)
Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@midco.net.