Total number of women lawmakers down, but optimism up

Roers Jones is one of five new GOP women elected to the state Legislature, giving the Republicans their highest number of women lawmakers in at least the last two decades. Photo by Dave Kolpack.

Fargo, N.D. — A nonpartisan North Dakota women's group sponsored a project four years ago to investigate how to improve the lack of gender balance in state politics, publishing its results in a paper entitled, "Where Are the Women?"

Some are asking the same question after this month's election left the state Legislature with one woman fewer compared to the 2013 session, when a record 27 women — or 19 percent of lawmakers — took seats in the Senate and House.

Most leaders believe the results are a temporary setback and actually bode well for the future, mainly because the state's dominant Republican Party is getting more women on board. Five new Republican women won races Nov. 8, giving the GOP 16 women for the upcoming session — the most for at least two decades, which is as far back as the legislative branch's detailed online records go.

"I would say there is optimism," said North Dakota Women's Network executive director Renee Stromme, whose group spearheaded the project on gender equity. "That is a good sign that the Republicans are seeing the value of diversifying their pool of candidates and the women's role in public policy is being taken seriously. The Democrats had been the ones doing a lot of work recruiting women."

Entering the election, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University ranked North Dakota 39th for the proportion of women to men in state legislatures. Among surrounding states, Minnesota was fifth, Montana was ninth and South Dakota was 33rd. Colorado ranked first.

"Until we have as many women running for office as we do men, I don't think we can expect to make great gains in gender parity in the Legislature," said Sen. Erin Oban, a Bismarck Democrat who was not up for re-election. "When Democrats ran more women, it tended to be the women who were winning."

Any year is a good year for a Republican to run for office in North Dakota, especially this year. The GOP picked up 10 House seats to give the party an 81-13 advantage and six Senate seats to make it a 38-9 margin. Five veteran Democratic women lost their bids for re-election and added only one newcomer, Karla Rose Hanson, of Fargo.

"If we're getting slaughtered on Election Day, I guess women are going to be included in that," Oban said.

Recruiting is important, Oban added, because women "feel the need to be asked to run, and men don't feel the need to be asked."

Republican Rep.-elect Brandy Pyle, of Casselton, said she was first asked to run for office by a local newspaper reporter. After she lost her bid for county commission, the county GOP committee signed her up to be chairwoman.

Another first-time GOP winner in the house, Shannon Roers Jones, of Fargo, said in the span of a month, she was encouraged to run for the Legislature by a law school classmate, her stepmother's sister and a Fargo city commissioner.

"It was clear that someone was trying to tell me go do something," Roers Jones said. "I think there are a lot of women who are qualified to run who just don't because it's too far out there."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright The Gayly - 11/20/2016 @ 10:21 a.m. CDT.