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Women gain at State House, but remain scarce in N.H. municipal governments

Women gained ground this fall at the highest levels of New Hampshire politics: the governor’s office, the congressional delegation and at the State House. But they remain a small minority of elected leaders in town and city governments across the state.

About 35 percent of the new Legislature is female, up from 24 percent before the Nov. 6 election. Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan will succeed fellow Democrat John Lynch in January, and U.S. Reps.-elect Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster, both Democrats, will replace Republicans Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass in the U.S. House. Both U.S. senators from New Hampshire, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte, are women.

But women hold just 21 percent of the seats on boards of selectmen, town and city councils and boards of aldermen in New Hampshire’s 234 towns and cities, according to a Monitor analysis. That’s only a slight increase from the 20 percent they held before this year’s local elections.

There’s no sign women aren’t winning when they do run for local office – they just aren’t running. In interviews, a handful of longtime female officials flagged a few possible explanations: Women may, in general, be drawn to political opportunities at the State House and on local school boards because the issues there interest them more. And New Hampshire’s very large Legislature means the barrier to achieving state office here is lower than it is in other states.

“Going to the state Legislature is cheap, and I’ve always described it as just the right distance,” said Donna Sytek, a Salem Republican and former speaker of the House. “You can be responsive to your constituents, but you don’t get all the pothole and trash-pickup calls.”

A stark split

In early 2012, the Monitor assembled a database of elected municipal officials in New Hampshire’s 13 cities and 221 towns, using information provided by the Local Government Center. It showed that while women make up 51 percent of the state’s population, they were underrepresented in municipal government.

Just 20.3 percent of the seats on city councils, boards of aldermen, town councils and board of selectmen were held by women. Even fewer towns and cities were led by a woman: 34 out of 234, or 14.5 percent, had a female mayor or chairwoman.

But women made big gains in the Nov. 6 election at the state level, as well as in the federal delegation. Based on a preliminary count, 35.4 percent of the seats in the Legislature will be held by women when the new session begins, with 141 women in the House and nine in the Senate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Women’s Legislative Network.

That’s up from 24.3 percent in the last Legislature, according to the NCSL, and the fourth-highest figure in the country, behind Colorado (42 percent), Vermont (40.6 percent) and Arizona (35.6 percent). The increase is probably linked to Democratic gains in both chambers, as women are more likely than men to be Democrats.

Women, however, lost ground at the county level this fall. They held 10 seats before the election and nine after, out of 30 seats on commissions in the state’s 10 counties.

The Monitor in November updated its database of municipal officials, based on the results of local elections held earlier this year. Most towns elected selectmen in nonpartisan elections in March.

The results: Women made slight gains, but still hold a smaller percentage of seats at the municipal level than at the state level. Out of 933 town and city officials, 198, or 21.2 percent, were women, up from 189 in early 2012. Forty towns and cities, or 17.1 percent, were led by female mayors or chairwomen of the board of selectmen.

Still, that may not provide a full picture of gender in local government.

Statewide figures weren’t available for the gender breakdown of school board members in the state, but women tend to be better represented on those boards. For example, in Concord, women make up a third of the city council but about half of the school board. In Manchester, there are just two women among the 14 aldermen, but five of the 15 members of the Board of School Committee are women.

“You’ll find women on budget committees, recreation boards . . . and certainly on school boards. So I think you’re only getting part of the picture if you only count select boards,” Sytek said.

That reflects traditional gender roles, said Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, president and chief executive officer of the Women’s Campaign Fund, which supports pro-choice female candidates, and an associated nonpartisan group, She Should Run.

Women, Bennett said, are less likely than men to seek executive positions such as mayor and governor. But when it comes to school boards, she said, “as far back as the suffrage movement, women were actively urged to run for that position.”

Why women run

So, why do women in New Hampshire seem more likely to run for state representative than selectwoman?

One possible reason: State officials deal with broader policy issues than do municipal officials, whose work focuses on roads, solid-waste disposal and other civic services.

Portsmouth Republican Ruth Griffin has served in the House and the Senate, and spent two decades on the Executive Council. She’s served on the school board and other local commissions, as well as the Republican National Committee.

“I have found running for office and serving the people who live in this state a much greater reward than doing housework,” she said.

But, Griffin said, “I never had any desire to run for city council.” There were always “many people here who I found comfortable” running for office, she said, “and historically over the years there have been a number of women.”

And at the municipal level, officials deal with services like trash: “That never really interested me,” Griffin said.

Democrat Pat Russell served as Keene’s mayor for two terms, and spent a decade on the state Liquor Commission. But in the 1970s, when she ran for the first of six terms in the state House, her motivation was personal: Her son was developmentally disabled, and she wanted to help improve state services.

“I ran because I had something on my mind that I wanted to help fix, and that was working with children with disabilities and getting them into education and a whole lot of other things,” Russell said.

There, she worked on those programs. And as more women entered the Legislature, she and Griffin said, they helped lead the effort to close the Laconia State School in favor of community-based programs for people with disabilities, attracting national attention.

“We have a lot to toot our horn about, and I do believe that’s because of the women,” Russell said. “Not that men can’t think about it, but men didn’t.”

A dearth of women in local office usually means fewer women in the pipeline to higher office, at the state and federal levels.

“Voters are less likely to vote for a woman who doesn’t have political experience than they are to vote for a man who doesn’t have political experience,” Bennett said.

She added, “It’s a Catch-22 for women. It’s a chicken-and-egg story.”

But with 400 seats in the state House and a $100 annual salary for legislators, the barrier to state office in New Hampshire is relatively low. Sytek said candidates would do well “to have established a reputation locally by running for school board or budget committee and becoming known in their community,” but many people are elected to state office without that experience.

“If you want to be in the Legislature, just run,” Russell said. “Because there are so many, you have a chance if you put your name up. There’s very little campaigning . . . for the New Hampshire Legislature. Everybody and anybody can run, and everybody and anybody has been elected.”

Still, there are efforts to get more New Hampshire women into the pipeline. Sytek is one of the founders of the Vesta Roy Excellence in Public Service Series, a training program for Republican women. (Roy, its namesake, was Senate president and served as acting governor for a week at the end of 1982 and beginning of 1983, following the death of Gov. Hugh Gallen.)

In February, Sytek said, the program is running the “Vesta Roy Express,” an abbreviated one-day training program for potential candidates for local office.

“Having a footprint there is a good way to prepare to run for higher office,” Sytek said.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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