That Democrats became roadkill during the latest round of redistricting, mostly at the hands of Republican state legislatures, has been well documented. But less widely known is that the casualties at the state level often hit women lawmakers the hardest — eating into the slow but steady gains women have made in statehouses across the country.
A closer examination shows that it’s not just Democratic women officeholders who have taken it on the chin, being drawn into districts with either more voters from the opposite party or another incumbent — or both. The redistricting process in several states could set women of both parties back, including many women in leadership positions.
In North Carolina, where Republicans controlled the redistricting process and women lawmakers have been particularly hard-hit, those dealt a tough blow by redistricting include state Sen. Linda Garrou, the deputy Democratic leader, and Rep. Martha Alexander, who has served for nearly 20 years and is a former co-chair of the redistricting committee. In all, 10 of 25 Democratic women lawmakers in the state were either “double bunked” — forced into a district with another incumbent — or drawn into heavily Republican districts.
“I just don’t see how that’s anything other than deliberate,” Carol Teal, executive director at Lillian’s List, a group working to elect pro-choice Democratic women in the Tarheel State, told TPM. “There’s no other category of people who took that kind of hit.”
“Republican legislative leaders seemed especially eager to target Democratic women in the General Assembly for defeat,” noted NC Policy Watch.
Republican women in leadership have been targeted, too. Take Colorado, for example, which has the highest percentage (40) of female lawmakers in the county and where Democrats essentially controlled the redistricting process via a special commission. “Three of the nine Republican women in the House will have to run in a primary with another GOP incumbent. Two of them, House Majority Leader Amy Stephens and Rep. B.J. Nikkel, the majority whip, are in leadership,” according to the Denver Post. Party primaries for legislative seats in Colorado are scheduled for June 26.
In New Jersey, where women accounted for 28 percent of the 2011 Legislature, they made up 70 percent of the legislators who retired as a result of redistricting.
“The impact of the new map has been especially harsh on incumbent Democratic assemblywomen, with one quarter of them leaving the legislature,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Walsh believes the impact of redistricting could be even worse than the numbers indicate.
“Much of what goes on, unfortunately, is very non-transparent, so it’s hard to figure out exactly what happened,” she told TPM.
The reason, Walsh said, is that redistricting can impact lawmakers in a number of ways, including “who’s not filing in the first place, and who ends up losing, those who choose to run but their district is so different that it’s basically like running as a non-incumbent.”
Democrats in Georgia have similarly charged that women bore the brunt of the losses under the Republican-drawn map.
House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta blasted the maps as a vehicle for targeting white Democrats and women legislators, dismissing Republicans’ responses that they were forced to by federal law.
“Using the Voting Rights Act as a reason is like Geraldine on the old ‘Flip Wilson Show’ saying ‘the Devil made me do it,’” she quipped.
Abrams said 45 percent of white Democrats and about that many women would be out of the legislature under the new maps.
Women already account for a paltry 24 percent of state lawmakers nationwide, a number that has ticked up at a glacial pace over the last decade.
“Post 1992 election, the ratio nationally reached 20 percent. Today that number is not even 24 percent, 20 years later,” Katie Ziegler, program manager for the Women’s Legislative Network at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told TPM.
Many progressive groups worry that shrinking numbers of women state lawmakers won’t just mean fewer women to combat anti-abortion legislation that has become a staple of GOP-led legislatures around the country, it could also dry up an important pipeline to higher office.
“Often the statehouse is a training ground for women who might run for higher office in the future. People see it as important to increase the number of women in the statehouse to build that pipeline for women who might want to run for Congress, or for higher state offices,” said Zeigler.
One flip side to redistricting’s toll on women is the opportunities that are created in states with growing populations that are adding congressional seats. “States like Texas, that are gaining seats, creates openings up and down the ballot,” said Walsh. Women may move up to Congress, leaving open seats behind for other women candidates. “But it’s a double-edged sword,” Walsh notes. “It takes work to have women who will take advantage of the opportunities redistricting brings.”
In North Carolina, Lillian’s List has recruited its largest-ever slate of women candidates.
Teal noted that anti-abortion legislation in North Carolina and other measures affecting women have worked as a recruiting tool for women candidates. “There are periods of time when things start happening and everybody says, ‘Hey wait a minute, this is not where we thought we’d be — talking about birth control in 2012.’”
Teal believes that if their recruiting class is successful, they can almost completely mitigate the crushing redistricting losses by women.
“Instead of getting mad, we’re gonna get elected.”