Having a female name on the door of the Arkansas Governor’s office in the State Capitol is just a matter of finding the right candidate, says Gov. Mike Beebe. But two women who watch Arkansas politics say women face culture obstacles and a “pipeline problem” with respect to being elected to the state’s top office.
Arkansas is one of 24 states to have never had a female serve as governor. Unless Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, pulls off THE upset in Arkansas’ political history, the 2014 election cycle is not likely to change that fact. Hobbs is one of three candidates seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Momentum nationwide is moving in the favor of women elected to a state’s top office. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, has said there is “real potential” for the 2014 election cycle to be a year in which more women are elected governor.
There are now five women governors – Gov. Jan Brewer (R), Arizona; Gov. Mary Fallin (R), Oklahoma; Gov. Maggie Hassan (D), New Hampshire; Gov. Susan Martinez (R), New Mexico; and Gov. Nikki Haley (R), South Carolina.
Also, 10 states – Alabama, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin – have a female Lt. Gov., with six of those being Republicans and four Democrats.
A recent Politico report suggests the possibility of nine states with female governors following the 2014 election.
WHAT ABOUT ARKANSAS?
“The right candidate and the right time,” Beebe quickly responded during a recent interview when asked what it will take for a female to be elected Arkansas governor. “I think Arkansans are at a point that they are going to vote for the best person regardless of their gender.”
In New Mexico and Oklahoma, Govs. Martinez and Fallin, respectively, won the spot in a general election race against another woman. Beebe does not think that’s what it will take for a female gubernatorial win in Arkansas. He says a woman can beat a man, especially among Arkansas’ historically independent electorate.
“It all goes back to the quality of the candidate in just about any race, particularly in Arkansas where Arkansans are so independent when it comes to their voting patterns,” Beebe explained. “I think the quality of the candidate trumps just about any other factor, including party.”
Based on what a sampling of Arkansas voters believed in a 2001 survey, the state is overdue for a female governor. In the 2001 The Arkansas Poll conducted by the University of Arkansas, 43% of respondents said a woman would be elected Arkansas governor in the next 10 years, with 36% saying it would be 25 years. The poll also found that 41% of respondents believed a woman would be elected president in the next 25 years. It could be that a female is elected president before Arkansas elects a female governor.
Megan Tollett, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said more women need to get in the system.
“We have come a long way in the last few decades and I am proud that we now have many women holding powerful positions in both business and politics, but the unfortunate fact that you are asking this question is proof that we still have more work to do. I believe that will be accomplished by continuing to encourage more women to run for public office,” Tollett said.
Janine Parry, director of The Arkansas Poll and a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, noted that Arkansas has twice come close to electing a female governor.
"In 1968, Democrats almost nominated a woman, Virginia Johnson. The conventional wisdom of the people was that a lost ballot box or two is what shifted it in (former House Speaker Marion) Crank's direction,” Parry explained. “She often gets overlooked. It was a real campaign and she almost got the nomination. It goes back to '68 with having a credible female candidate. … In that climate, she would have very likely lost to Rockefeller. Almost any Democrat would have lost to Rockefeller in '68."
And in 2002, former State Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher (D) challenged Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) as he sought a second term. Huckabee bested Fisher with 53% of the vote, but it was a closer election than expected.
More women engaged in politics at all levels will improve the chances of electing a female governor, Parry said.
"Most of the research attributes it to a pipeline problem. If you have a small number of candidates and winners in down ballot races, you're less likely to see candidates with enough experience and support to make a statewide bid. You have to have enough people down ballot getting experience in order to see some of those people matriculate to the top of the ballot. Arkansas doesn't have a robust history at any level of government with female candidates or winners,” Parry said.
According to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, the percentage of women in Arkansas’ Legislature is 17%, which ranks the state at 41st. The best ranking the state received was in 2010 and 2009 when the state ranked 28th with women holding 23% of the legislative seats. Also, Arkansas has elected only six women to Congress, and has had only seven women elected to Arkansas’ Constitutional offices.
In separate interviews, Parry and Tollett also suggested that women have succeeded in Arkansas when elected to “more feminine” offices.
“Arkansas has never elected a female to hold a Constitutional office that the office is not considered a traditional female role, such as Attorney General or Lieutenant Governor,” Tollett said. “Such an office could vault them into the office of Governor during a non-incumbent year. Such was the case in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.”
Parry was more blunt in her assessment.
"We have fewer examples (of women in state-level executive positions). We see them concentrated in Secretary of State or Treasurer. We see them more concentrated in more feminine, or less masculine, type of offices. Those offices are less conducive, we know those are less conducive to making a bid for a position at the top,” she said.
Continuing, Parry noted: “A lot of it has to do with gendered expectations. The public have gendered expectations. We tend to think of presidents and governors as our daddies. We think of legislators as our mommies. We tend to think of them caring for our family – it's a more nurturing type of position to which our culture is more comfortable."
Parry also suggested that a female Republican may have an advantage over a female Democrat in capturing the governors office. Parry said a female Republican “overcomes a lot of those stereotypes” associated with gender.
"Republican women in some ways are advantaged as not being seen as touchy-feely as Democratic candidates which can make them more advantaged in seeking an executive role which I think is super interesting,” she said.
Part of the gender issue also plays out in the career timeline differences between men and women.
"Men usually start their political careers in their 30s. Women usually start theirs in their 50s. Slowly all that's changing in Arkansas and elsewhere, but the pace has been pretty glacial,” Parry said.
ADVICE TO THE FEMALE CANDIDATE
Gov. Martinez of New Mexico said during an interview with The City Wire that “sometimes” women do have to work harder than men to prove themselves. However, she said that reality is diminishing, at least in New Mexico.
She said “it didn’t really matter” in her race for two reasons – she had already proved herself by being elected as the first female District Attorney in New Mexico, and her Democratic opponent also was a female.
Martinez did say she should not have been the first female New Mexico governor.
“We should have been electing women a long time ago. And we need to have more role models elected, so that little girls can see that they can do exactly what that governor is doing or more as an executive. … 2010 should not have been the first time that New Mexico had a female governor,” Martinez explained. “We should elect qualified women to these positions (around the U.S.), and there are plenty. But being a first is tough, and lots of eyes are on you.”
Martinez said most of the pressure on her was because she never held a legislative or statewide office, not because she was a female.
“I was not an insider,” she explained.
But there have been times in the office in which the gender focus was present and patronizing.
“I had people who would call me ‘Little Lady,’ and you know, those kinds of names. But sometimes they don’t mean it ugly and I’m not going to take it personal,” Martinez said.
Her advice for a female candidate focused on messaging and campaigning hard.
“Number one, show up in every place in the state. Don’t write off a single county in the state,” Martinez said when asked her advice for a female considering a run for Arkansas governor. “Number two, be sincere with your communications, and remember what you’re promising people you’re going to do. Don’t change your message depending on where you are, and make sure that your campaign becomes part of your governing, that you actually do what you said you were going to do.”