The Road to the Governor's Mansion

After paying their dues as lieutenant governors, state attorneys general, and state legislators, a cadre of women is ready to climb to the next rung

With Democrats holding the tiniest advantage in the Senate and Republicans narrowly controlling the House, all eyes are on the congressional races this year. But to me, the gubernatorial contests make for a more interesting story. In 21 of the 36 states where the statehouse is up for grabs, a woman could be elected governor, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women & Politics.

Today, women run five states: Jane Dee Hull in Arizona, Ruth Ann Minner in Delaware, Jane Swift in Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Judy Martz in Montana. Of those five, Delaware and Montana don't have a governor's race this year. But "the odds are there will be more than five women governors by the end of 2002," predicts Washington-based independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "I'd look for an increase of at least one or two." Those he thinks stand a good chance of winning: Republican Linda Lingle in Hawaii, and Democrats Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, and Janet Napolitano in Arizona.

Why are there so many women candidates now? After paying their dues in public service as lieutenant governors, state attorneys general, and state legislators, an experienced cadre of women is ready to assume higher levels of political office. A critical mass of women governors could have even more impact on the political and corporate arenas than the highly visible female members of Congress have had. Currently, 13 senators and 60 representatives are women. While they have brought women- and family-related issues to the fore, rarely do they get the last word in making policy. Their work in committees and consensus-building plays to their perceived gender strengths, but it also feeds "the overall public perception that women can legislate, but they can't lead," says Gail Schoettler, a former lieutenant governor of Colorado.

Governors are chief executives in their states. Much more so than congressional members, governors gain direct managerial experience, with responsibilities for drafting budgets, hiring and firing, and negotiating tough contracts. That explains in part why four of the past five Presidents--George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter--moved to the White House after inhabiting the governor's mansion.

Having women in these highly visible public roles could open more than political doors. Many think it will spill over into the corporate world. "If there are more women leading states, then it will be easier for people to consider women leading companies," says Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, a nonprofit group in New York that fosters women in leadership roles. Townsend, who is Maryland's lieutenant governor, agrees. "People look to their leaders as role models, and the more frequently they see a woman's face looking back, the more they will be comfortable and even expect to see women in the boardrooms," she says.

Another benefit: "Women tend to appoint other women, which creates a network of skilled women who cross over into the private sector," says Candice Straight, an investment banker and Republican who is running for county executive in Essex County, N.J. She cites former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, the first New Jersey governor to appoint a female chief of staff and chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The 10% of the nation's governors who are female is much higher than the 0.1% of CEOs of top 500 companies who are women. But as Wilson asserts, we can begin to focus on agenda rather than gender as more women assume leadership positions in the public and private sector.

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By Toddi Gutner

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