Bluegrass Politics by Mark Nickolas

Jan 19, 2006 at 3:01 pm

Bluegrass Politics by Mark Nickolas

Time for Democratic women to ask, ‘Why?’

This week Liberia seated its first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Isn’t it sad when a Third World country looks more progressive than the state we live in?

And I am speaking of Democrats. Ten days ago, the Kentucky Democratic Party selected state Rep. Perry Clark as its nominee for the Feb. 14 special election to fill the yearlong vacancy in Louisville’s 37th Senate District. In choosing Clark, local Democratic Party leaders skipped over Virginia Woodward, who narrowly lost to Dana Seum Stephenson in 2004 but waged a tenacious yearlong court battle. A firestorm erupted among Democratic women who believe the Democratic Party happily pushed Woodward out front to fight its legal battles, but summarily threw her aside after her legal victories forced a special election. And, despite promises, Woodward’s legal fees still have not been paid by the Democratic Party.

This has caused many women — and men (including this one) — to question whether the Kentucky Democratic Party leadership, despite all of its rhetoric of inclusion, truly values its women. After all, Democratic women are the heart and soul of their party. Voter statistics show that among Democrats, registered female voters outnumber male voters by 20 percent, and in Louisville, that gender gap widens to an incredible 36 percent.

That’s just among those registered to vote. When you look at who actually votes, the difference is stark.

In the November 2004 election in Louisville, 43 percent more Democratic women than Democratic men turned out (115,542 women to just 81,107 men) and Democratic women outvoted all Republicans — of both genders — combined. In a hypothetical party-line vote, Democratic women alone could defeat the entire Republican Party without the vote of one Democratic man.

Yet it’s impossible to find a woman in key leadership roles within the Democratic Party. You won’t find a woman among the eight Democratic legislative leaders. In fact, no Democratic woman has ever served in House leadership, and it’s been 15 years since Helen Garrett of Paducah served in Senate leadership.

Two men — Chairman Jerry Lundergan and consultant Dale Emmons — have run the state Democratic Party for nearly a year, and while bylaws require the election of a female vice chair (must be the opposite gender of the chair), they’ve never filled that slot. Former Gov. Julian Carroll recently assembled his “Network 39” a group of leaders to provide guidance for the Democratic Party.

Among 39 handpicked members, six — 15 percent — are women. Currently, eight of the Democrats’ 56 state representatives are women, and only one of 15 senators. That ranks Kentucky 48th in percentage of women state legislators, trailing only Alabama and South Carolina. Republican women hold five senate seats, including a member of leadership.

While Democratic leaders love to talk about their “big tent,” the truth is only the good ol’ white boys are allowed to lead its diverse rank-and-file. Women get empty promises but no seat at the table to discuss planning, strategy, candidate recruitment and legislative goals. More disturbing is the derisive term “Bitch Caucus” that many Democratic male house members use to refer to their female counterparts.

The fight between Perry Clark and Virginia Woodward shined white-hot light on this problem. Party leaders insist the outcome was nothing more than Clark being a better candidate and they dismiss these concerns as more liberal rabble-rousing. That argument misses the point. This isn’t ideology. It’s a growing belief that the male-dominated leadership of the Kentucky Democratic Party is often hard to distinguish from the misogynistic attitudes of Gov. Fletcher and his party.

A more candid explanation would frame this as an ongoing struggle between the old guard and the emerging new generation of Democratic leaders. And while the old guard continues to dwindle, they stubbornly cling to power because they know they have little else. The fight for the 37th Senate District was another example of it trying to protect what power it has left.

Until Democrats see women in legislative leadership positions; until they see the party leaders getting around to actually finding a female vice-chair; until they see the “Network 39s” including more than 15 percent women; until they see efforts to recruit talented Democratic women candidates, no one will look at the selection of Perry Clark and believe in their heart-of-hearts that it was simply a case of the better candidate winning. Until then, the Democratic Party barely differentiates itself from the Ernie Fletchers of the world.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, Contact him at [email protected]