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It was one of those votes no one wanted to take. The state’s new maps dropped DFL senators and allies John Marty and Mary Jo McGuire into Senate District 66, forcing activists in the area to pick between them at a recent endorsing convention.

Redistricting pitted a disproportionate number of female legislators against their male counterparts

“We are in danger of losing our representative democracy as far as looking like the population,” DFL Sen. Mary Jo McGuire said recently. “We are losing women every week, it seems.” McGuire lost an endorsement contest to Sen. John Marty after they were paired in newly drawn Senate District 66. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

It was one of those votes no one wanted to take.

The state’s new redistricting maps dropped DFL senators and political allies John Marty and Mary Jo McGuire into the newly drawn Senate District 66, forcing activists in the area to pick between them at a recent endorsing convention. DFL Sen. Patricia Torres Ray was in attendance sporting a Marty pin, while DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn and Sen. Sandy Pappas came to support McGuire. For former St. Paul DFL Sen. Ellen Anderson, it was a harder choice. McGuire replaced her in the chamber, but she served with Marty in the Senate for nearly two decades.

In the end, it boiled down to the question of gender. “I was the first woman to wear pants in the Senate,” Anderson told a cheering crowd of more than 200 DFL activists at the endorsing convention. “We need more women in the Minnesota Legislature.”

McGuire sounded a similar note ahead of the endorsing contest. “We are in danger of losing our representative democracy as far as looking like the population. We are losing women every week, it seems,” she told Capitol Report. “I feel strongly that we need women here representing us.” Liberal advocacy group Womenwinning made McGuire’s endorsement contest a priority, diverging from organizations like the Minnesota Nurses Association and the Stonewall DFL, both Marty backers. But despite their best efforts, McGuire lost to Marty on a single ballot.

Recruiting and electing more women in the predominantly male Minnesota Legislature has been an issue for decades, but the release of the state’s redistricting maps in February has intensified a feeling among some female lawmakers that they are being pushed out of St. Paul. Out of a total of 16 incumbent-on-incumbent matchups as a result of the new political maps, 10 pitted a male incumbent against a female lawmaker. In the four male-versus-female intraparty incumbent pairings that made it all the way to an endorsement contest, only one woman came out the victor.

Two of those female losses came on the DFL side and could represent a changing mentality among liberal activists, sources say, who have often given a leg up to female or minority candidates. But women’s groups and some female lawmakers point to the advantages of running a female candidate in swing districts, key contests that could tip the balance of power in St. Paul with all 201 legislative seats up for grabs this fall.

Female incumbents fall in endorsement battles

McGuire’s defeat was preceded by another female loss just the weekend before, when freshman Rep. Marion Greene fell in an endorsement contest to DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein.

The new House District 61A consists mostly of Greene’s old district, but Hornstein has a decade of work in St. Paul under his belt. It was an uncomfortable standoff. Greene supporters and Womenwinning stressed the need for female lawmakers in St. Paul, while a slew of former lawmakers and activists spoke on behalf of Hornstein, including former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, whom Green replaced in the chamber. After three ballots, Greene conceded the race.

The new redistricting maps also paired two GOP House incumbents — Majority Leader Matt Dean and Carol McFarlane — into the newly drawn House District 38B in the suburbs north of St. Paul. Despite the fact that roughly 80 percent of the new district is in McFarlane’s current district, Dean cleared the 60 percent threshold on the first ballot with 70 votes to McFarlane’s 42.

McFarlane has not promised to abide by the endorsement. “I wanted to talk about the issues, and my opponent wanted to talk about the politics. It was the political machine against the hometown girl,” McFarlane said. For McFarlane, the issue of male versus female is not limited to some endorsement contests. It’s being felt at the Capitol, too.

“I don’t feel that women’s voices are heard within caucuses like the men’s are, just in general,” she said. “There will be those who disagree with me, but that’s because they are the ones that are able to get things passed.”

Women candidates knock off veteran male lawmakers

Male legislators were by no means the automatic victor in every endorsing contest where they were pitted against a woman. In several districts where gender was an issue, female candidates pulled off endorsement upsets.

In the case of House District 41A, one woman had already fallen by the time the DFL endorsing convention started. When the maps were released, DFL House colleagues Tom Tillberry and Kate Knuth were paired together, and after weeks of contemplation, Knuth opted to step aside instead of challenge Tillberry for the endorsement.

But redistricting thrust Tillberry into one of the only Senate districts in the state represented by an all-female delegation, and for neighboring DFL Rep. Carolyn Laine, that’s an important distinction. Laine initially told Knuth she would support her if she decided to run for the endorsement, but when Knuth stepped down, a new contender emerged for the party’s blessing in former DFL Rep. Connie Bernardy. Bernardy had originally planned to run against Republican Sen. Pam Wolf, but redistricting put her in the same district as DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin. Instead of running against the female senator, Bernardy set her sights on Tillberry’s House seat.

Laine sent a letter to the district’s delegates encouraging them to support Bernardy, and while Knuth remained neutral in the race, her mother stood at the convention and encouraged delegates to support the former lawmaker. Bernardy easily trumped Tillberry on the first ballot. “From my perspective, on the Democratic side there is a strong need for women to have a solid voice because of the right-wing faction and the war against women,” Laine said. “I think it’s an important consideration in every race.”

There was a similar outcome at the endorsing convention for an open seat in Senate District 50, which covers parts of Richfield, Bloomington and a sliver of Minneapolis. DFL Minneapolis Sen. Ken Kelash quickly announced plans to move into the district and avoid a pairing with his Minneapolis Senate colleague Scott Dibble. But Womenwinning-backed Bloomington School Board Chairwoman Melissa Halvorson Wiklund also quickly announced intentions to pursue the seat, and she brought with her the backing of some key female legislative Democrats. With support from DFL Reps. Ann Lenczewski and Linda Slocum, Kelash lost to Wiklund after one ballot.

In an incumbent-on-incumbent matchup on the GOP side, freshman Republican Sen. Michelle Benson managed to topple three-term Sen. Michael Jungbauer in a close endorsement contest. On the fifth and final ballot, GOP delegates in Senate District 31 pushed Benson over the 60 percent threshold required for endorsement. The convention almost deadlocked on the third ballot.

Benson had help from the emerging political fund VOICES of Conservative Women, which made phone calls and sent out literature on her behalf. “We worked pretty hard for her,” VOICES President Jennifer DeJournett said. “We just stressed her economic record because that’s Michelle’s strength. She’s a workhorse.”

Losing women lawmakers in St. Paul?

For those worried about women losing in endorsing battles, they say the greater concern is a continued overall decline of female lawmakers in St. Paul. But in reality, the number of female legislators at the Capitol has remained relatively stagnant over the last decade.

There are 62 seated female legislators and 139 male lawmakers in the Legislature. That’s roughly the same as in 2006, when there were 60 female lawmakers and 141 men. In 2001, there were 58 female lawmakers and 143 male legislators.

For retiring DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling, who helped recruit a record-setting number of female candidates in the 2004 election, the mentality of DFLers toward male versus female candidates is changing. “In the cases of some of the races this year, we have come up against the coming of age, not just picking a woman but the better candidate. DFL delegates are prone to giving a leg up to a woman when all else is the same,” she said. “Womenwinning is very powerful, but you are seeing some losses there, and that’s because DFL delegates are not just going for the woman.”

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Terri Bonoff says she doesn’t buy the argument that women are losing endorsing contests because of their gender. “That’s not my thing,” she said. “I do try and recruit strong women, and we did lose many great women in the last election … but I don’t think you can boil it down to a gender contest.”

But for many, the steady 30 percent level of female lawmakers in Minnesota is far too low, and feelings of female antagonism have intensified in St. Paul after the sudden resignation of former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch. Shortly after her resignation from her leadership post, four male senators held a news conference to reveal that it was tied to a confrontation a day earlier about a relationship she was having with a direct subordinate. GOP Sen. Claire Robling, who also approached Koch about the relationship, sat out of the news conference.

“I think when it first happened many of us had a visceral reaction to seeing those men speak of that,” Bonoff said. “Like a scarlet letter type reaction.”

Women on the campaign trail

The gender question is going to be a factor in a host of upcoming endorsement contests and elections. Meagan Bachmayer, spokeswoman for Womenwinning, says the last election cycle saw many pro-choice women get booted from the Legislature. That has spurred an increased recruiting effort on their part. “We are very concerned,” she said. “Last year we lost 15 pro-choice women, and we lost pro-choice majorities.”

But Bachmayer says she sees hope in the recruiting efforts coming from the DFL caucuses, namely work from House elections lead Erin Murphy. “Our experience is that when women run, they win, and the problem is just that women aren’t running at the same rate as men.”

The group is keeping its focus on the Legislature. Bachmayer says they are working for female DFL candidates in a handful of greater Minnesota districts, including a Tea Party challenge to DFL Rochester Rep. Kim Norton. They are also working on the campaigns of former Wells Mayor Shannon Savick and former DFL Rep. Brita Sailer, and will be pushing hard for Target Corp. attorney Melisa Franzen and Terra Cole to take over two open seats in the Legislature.

During the 2010 cycle, the group raised about $280,000 to support their endorsed candidates. So far this cycle, Womenwinning has raised nearly $170,000, Bachmayer said. DeJournett says VOICES of Conservative Women plans to be heavily involved in a handful of races in the western and southern suburbs. Since the advocacy group’s inception in 2009, it has raised nearly $200,000 to support fiscally conservative female candidates.

By many accounts, women candidates generally do better than men in suburban areas. GOP Sen. Julianne Ortman is facing an endorsement challenge from network engineer Kevin Masrud in her suburban Senate district. She says she doesn’t think of the race in terms of gender but does note that women suburban swing voters are looking for female candidates.

“I think women voters are the swing voters in many of the suburban areas. They make a big difference in the outcome in those districts,” Ortman said. “Women in my area … are looking for professional women candidates. That’s why you will see them support someone like [DFL U.S. Sen.] Amy Klobuchar and then cross over and vote for someone like me.”

Greiling also notes the advantage to recruiting and running female candidates in key suburban swing districts. “In the core cities, that is where delegates think you should have women, but so many people want the endorsement that it gets to be more hardball, and women are less likely to play that hardball game. And there is more sexism in the rural areas,” she said. “The suburbs are where you get the woman to run and you can get them elected. Those races can decide the control of the Legislature.”

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