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Cowlitz County notably lacking women in government

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If you take “no taxation without representation” to its logical extreme, women here would be rich.

In a county where just over half the residents are women, more than 85 percent of the local policymakers are men. Of 31 city council seats in Cowlitz County towns, just six are held by women. For the 15 titles of commissioner — at the Ports of Longview, Kalama and Woodland, plus the county and the Cowlitz PUD — just one belongs to a woman.

And the two directly elected mayors, in Woodland and Castle Rock, are both men.

The answer to why that is could form many an academic thesis, but it could be that women simply don’t want to run for office.

“It looks like when women run, they win at the same percentage as men,” said Longview Councilwoman Mary Jane Melink. “Maybe women are a little less comfortable running.”

The Brookings Institution’s research backs that up. The think tank wrote that men are more likely than women to put up with campaigning, be recruited to run, work around family and jobs and feel “qualified.”

“The tradition and system seems to favor male candidates,” said Cowlitz County Auditor Kris Swanson. “I think there are less efforts to actively recruit women candidates.”

Or it could be that civic engagement overall is down.

“I would say it’s not a lack of women getting involved — we had four seats open and all ran unopposed the last time we had an election,” Woodland Councilwoman Marilee McCall said. “That’s kind of sad, to not have more people wanting to do more about their governments.”

Regardless of the reason, women are underrepresented in local government, and many would like to see that change.

“I think it’ll turn. It’ll change, but it’s pretty slow,” Melink said. “The more rural and smaller communities will change more slowly.”

Woodland fares the best at equal representation, with three of its seven council positions held by women.

Kelso, on the other end, fares the worst, with zero women holding office. Not to mention the ports and county commission that don’t now and have rarely, if ever, seen a woman hold office.

The second woman to win a seat on the county commission, Joan LeMieux, said it’s a problem of entrenchment.

“How do you think men get there? They’re part of the communication system. ‘Hey Frank, I’m looking to fill this and this — have any suggestions?’ ” LeMieux said. “And that’s what we need for women.”

LeMieux, a commissioner from 1992 to 1996, said the area has something like that in the group Women in Network, or WIN, which was meant as a resource to strengthen women in business, nonprofits and other civic engagement. Though that group has faded, Longview’s Teresa Purcell carries the torch of engaging women here and nationally.

“One of the things with women is they have to be asked to run. They need to know support is there,” said Purcell, a political consultant and activist.

Purcell has worked for more than a decade in 34 states helping boost women into leadership roles, and she said it does often take that extra push to get them to run for office.

She often encourages women to join nonprofits or elective boards to get experience, though even local school boards here are lacking in women. Of 30 school board positions in Cowlitz County, just eight are held by women.

“There are some remarkable women here that I think could really make a difference for the future of our community,” she said. “Part is figuring out how to set up networks — part is just feeling empowered and feeling able to step in.”

It’s not just a local problem. At the state Legislature, women hold just a third of 147 seats. All six legislators from Districts 19 and 20, who represent parts of Cowlitz County, are men.

At the federal level, however, Washington’s representation is 42 percent women, including both its U.S. senators. Washington actually scores second on the “gender parity index,” which ranks states by the proportion of women in government at all levels.

The group that calculates the list, Representation 2020, is named for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in five years. And while it is possible equal representation can be reached in that time, it would take big moves in the next few years.

Only three nations — Rwanda, Bolivia and Andorra — have equal representation or better for women in national government, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The U.S. ranks 72nd of all countries in equal representation at the national level, climbing in recent years.

Not everyone thinks equal representation is a necessary goal, however.

“My perspective is probably going to be very different than most modern women. I don’t see the lack of women as a problem in government,” said Woodland City Councilwoman Jennifer Heffernan, 40. “I think that a woman has the most influence and power in the home with her children.”

Rather than vote for someone based on sex, marital status, race or any other factor, Heffernan said it comes down to the overall quality of a candidate, regardless of representative balance.

“Nothing needs to be done. I would rather vote for candidate that holds my values and principles,” she said.

But those ballot options are still going to be limited based on who runs at all.

“Generally it’s not a common desire for folks (men or women) to serve in elected office,” said Ramona Leber, Longview’s first woman mayor and former longtime councilwoman. “Then when you roll it down to women, it is still a nontraditional thing for women to do, to serve in public office.”

That was clear to Leber when she was at an event for the 2002 Olympic torch passing through town with a class of second-graders.

“One little girl looked up at me and said, ‘So I can be mayor too someday?’ ” Leber recalled. “So there is a mindset still that those in elected positions are generally male, and we have to start talking to girls early about how they do have leadership abilities.”

Not just leadership, but the ability to add something meaningful.

“I worked elections when Joan LeMieux was in office,” said Swanson, the county auditor. “It’s my opinion, but I believe that she added a balance to the board. Her being a female added balance more than political party makeup for me.”

Recruiting women candidates “isn’t against anybody, it’s just wanting to bring a different perspective and questions about issues, and a different framework,” Purcell said. “It’s raising a different set of voices and set of leaders.”

With more than 20 elective positions up for election this year at the three ports and in city councils and mayorships, the gender balance could easily shift — and the conversation could change along with it.

“A more diverse council would add to the richness of decisions and the richness of conversations in the community,” Longview Councilwoman Melink said. “It would be wonderful if the Council could move toward being as diverse as the community is.”

Contact Daily News reporter Brooks Johnson at 360-577-7828 or bjohnson@tdn.com.

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