POLITICAL EYE: Despite gains, women lag in Congress, Legislature

BY LAURA MYERS
 
The election "Year of the Woman" showed mixed results for female candidates in Nevada.
 
U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., didn't get to join the record number of women in the U.S. Senate - 20, or one fifth of the body - after losing to U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., on Nov. 6. She would have been Nevada's first female senator since the state's birth in 1864.
 
On the other hand, U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., did return to Congress to become part of the largest female class in the House of Representatives, or 78 out of 435 members. Titus lost in 2010, but this year won Berkley's House seat for a political comeback.
 
In all, the 113th U.S. Congress will have a record 98 women, or 18.3 percent of its 535 members.
 
Sounds good, right? Except women are about half the population, said Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a Democratic National Committeewoman from Nevada who said that doesn't sound like representative government to her.
 
Bilbray-Kohn heads up Emerge Nevada, an organization that recruits and trains potential Democratic female candidates. It boasts a good track record: 43 percent of graduates have run for office and 60 percent have won.
 
Each year the group names a "Woman of the Year." Past recipients include Berkley, Titus, state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, state Treasurer Kate Marshall and Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams, D-Las Vegas.
 
On March 2, Emerge Nevada will honor former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley as the 2013 Woman of the Year, recognizing her as the first female speaker in state history and for her work as a legal advocate for the poor.
 
Buckley won an Assembly seat in 1994 and rose to speaker in 2007. She was speaker again in 2009, but then could not run again because of term limits.
 
Buckley returned to her job running the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, where she began working in 1989 after putting herself through law school.
 
As she was leaving politics, the Democrat decided not to run for governor in 2010 despite pressure from supporters to try to become the first woman to lead the state. The mother of two cited family obligations.
 
Buckley continues to be mentioned as a possible gubernatorial contender, although those close to her say she's not interested in challenging Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2014 because she's in her dream job helping tens of thousands of people every year.
 
While Nevada has never had a female governor, several women have run.
 
Bilbray-Kohn said the Emerge Nevada board decided to honor Buckley for her record of mentoring women in politics over the years.
 
"It was pretty unanimous that Barbara Buckley has always aggressively brought women up the ladder," Bilbray-Kohn said. "She often travels with younger women she's trying to help and bring up in the ranks."
 
Buckley broke the glass leadership ceiling, but women still are under­represented in the Nevada Legislature, a fact that doesn't get a lot of attention because there have been strong female leaders in Carson City, Bilbray-Kohn said. Titus, for one, was Democratic minority leader of the state Senate for two decades.
 
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kilpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, will open the 2013 session as the second woman to hold the job, presiding over a 42-seat body that includes 14 women. That's two more than in 2011, but more women have been in the Assembly during five previous regular sessions.
 
In 1999 a record 23 women were in the Nevada Legislature, with 18 in the Assembly and five in the state Senate. The record high number of female senators was set at seven in both 2003 and 2009.
 
Only four female senators will be part of the 21-member body for the 2013 session, the smallest number of women since the 1991 session. Former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, lost to Sen. Greg Brower in a close race after she took a risk and left her old Senate district to run in a newly created district.
 
In all, 18 women will serve in the 2013 Legislature, or 28.6 percent of the 63 seats of the part-time body.
 
"I'd like to see us up to 50 percent of elected officials," said Bilbray-Kohn, who added that the United States lags far behind many countries in female representation, including places such as China. "People forget how under­represented we are because they see these strong women like Catherine Cortez Masto and Barbara Buckley and think we don't have an issue, but we do. We're missing policies that can help women."
 
By party, Republicans have very few women in the Legislature. State Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, is the lone Republican woman in the state Senate. She is termed out and cannot run for re-election in 2014. In the Assembly, only two of 14 women are Republicans: Michele Fiore of Las Vegas and Melissa Woodbury of Henderson.
 
Bilbray-Kohn said she has spoken to some of her Republican colleagues about promoting more female candidates, but said her focus is on getting Democrats elected, putting policy before female head counts.
 
The March 2 Emerge Nevada event honoring Buckley is a fundraiser. No venue has been chosen yet.
 
Bilbray-Kohn said 350 people attended last year at $125 a person or $1,000 a table.
 
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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