Commentary

05/30/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Decline in elected women in Los Angeles flies under the radar


(Photo Credit: Bo Nielsen)

Voter turnout for the Los Angeles municipal election last week was depressing, but even more disheartening is the severe lack of women in elected office. The Los Angeles City Council is now just one seat away from reverting back to a Good Old Boys Club. And it gets worse. Come July 1, men will also hold all three city-wide elected offices.

That’s right, just one of 18 elected officials in Los Angeles will be a woman, despite women accounting for slightly more than 50 percent (!) of the population. Los Angeles women have experienced a decline in representation since having achieved critical mass on the city council more than a decade ago.

Surprisingly, women losing ground in the nation’s second largest city garnered little media or public attention during the election cycle.

“If there was a lack of Latino or African American representation on the city council, think about the uproar you would have heard,” said Rachel Michelin executive director of California Women Lead, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to getting more women elected to office.

“It would have been national news,” she said.

All Californians, not just women and Angelenos, should be concerned by the setback. The drop reflects an unsettling trend that extends beyond LA’s city limits. The number of women serving in political office at all levels of government has either plateaued or declined.

“Women bring a different perspective,” said Michelin. “That different perspective adds to the diversity of thought that members of the city council or statewide office need to have when they’re making public policy decisions. I think that you’re going to see a decline in certain issues and viewpoints being made because you don’t have more women on the city council.”

Women need to have a strong voice and play a central role in the development of public policy, particularly at the local level. We live in neighborhoods and cities, the decisions made by local government have the greatest impact on our daily lives.

With just one woman sitting the city council, Michelin asked, “How much can she accomplish if she doesn’t have the critical mass of other women colleagues on a board as political as the Los Angeles City Council?”

Additionally, local government is a training ground and often a critical stepping stone for those aspiring for higher office.

So why aren’t more women being elected? Simply put, fewer women are running. If you don’t run, you can’t win.

Politically educated women are becoming a rare breed and this dearth is impeding the recruitment of female candidates.

“One of the problems of our political structure, whether you’re talking locally, state, or even nationally, the behind the scenes of politics, the consulting, the polling, the strategy, is still very much dominated by men,” said Michelin.

“The rules of politics, the rules of campaigning are written by men. We need to educate women about the rules of politics; they need to understand what goes on behind closed doors in terms of how some of those decisions are made.”

But even women well-versed in the game of politics aren’t exactly lining up to throw their hat in the ring.

Any elected official will tell you that running for office costs a pretty penny, especially in a city as diverse and large as Los Angeles. Fundraising often poses a greater challenge for women because they lack the same social and political networks that their male counterparts have. 

The tradition of state legislators trading the dome for the city hall may have also contributed to the drop in female candidates in Los Angeles. It’s hard for men and women to compete against a veteran lawmaker who has a fundraising base both locally and in Sacramento, Michelin pointed out.

“We really need to have women understand the importance of investing in women candidates,” said Michelin. In addition to cutting checks, she argues that leaders need to invest their time “to really mentor other women to bring them up the pipeline.”

It’s vital that women have a seat at the table. Closing the gender gap by ensuring women are proportionately represented at all levels of government benefits all Californians, not just other women. Political leadership that adequately reflects the state’s diverse population helps legitimize our democracy and restore the public’s trust in government.

With so many Californians feeling that government is dominated by special interests, increasing gender diversity will remove the “old establishment” perception and further help restore that missing trust.

Categories: Democracy, Elections, Californians, Government

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