In summary

Women won a big prize with the election of Kamala Harris as vice president, but in the state Legislature it’s another story.

By Steve Swatt

Steve Swatt is lead coauthor of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality,” pavingthewaycalifornia@gmail.com.

Susie Swatt, Special to CalMatters

Susie Swatt is lead coauthor of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality,” pavingthewaycalifornia@gmail.com.

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With a caveat that thousands of late mail-in votes remain to be counted in key California election contests, it appears that women this year exceeded expectations in congressional races but failed to build on recent momentum in the state Legislature.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, California women are on the cusp of knocking off two or three first-term male incumbents in swing districts, which could boost female representation in the state’s delegation to a record-tying 20. Republican Michelle Steel has flipped a seat in coastal Orange County, and Young Kim, also a Republican, leads in a district that includes portions of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Democrat Christy Smith is in a dead heat for a seat in northern L.A. County. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, a record number of women nationally will serve in the 117th Congress.

The state Legislature, however, is another story as women may see no net gain. Fewer than one-third of the combined state Senate and Assembly will consist of women when lawmakers take office next month.

Preliminary election results indicate that women who ran in open seats for the Legislature – or defended their own incumbencies – did well. But women – in fact, all outsiders – traditionally face a daunting task trying to defeat a sitting lawmaker. 

“It’s extremely hard to beat an incumbent,” says veteran campaign manager Richard Temple. “They have a lot more connections to people district-wide, so they typically have more supporters, more money and more endorsements.” In addition, few special interests want to alienate a sitting member of the Legislature by donating to an opponent.

The role of term limits can’t be overemphasized. After voters initially imposed limits in 1990, entrenched male lawmakers were cast out of office, creating new opportunities for women at the State Capitol. In 2012, voters revamped the law to allow lawmakers to serve in one house of the Legislature up to the full 12 years of the term limits. That has resulted in a sharp drop in open-seat possibilities – at least until 2024 – and fewer opportunities for women to advance as they continue to strive for parity.

Besides celebrating their congressional victories, women are hailing a breakthrough in Los Angeles County that could provide a roadmap for future electoral success. For the first time since its inception in 1852, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will be all-female beginning next month.  State Sen. Holly Mitchell, facing term limits in two years, pivoted to local government and won a stunning victory against City Councilman Herb Wesson in an open seat.

“It’s all about training, networking and access to money,” says Barbara O’Connor, professor emeritus at CSU Sacramento and founder of the university’s Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media. “No matter who you are, you need to build up a network of women, and Holly Mitchell did that.” 

Perhaps most significantly, O’Connor says, Mitchell tapped into the rising ranks of successful women in corporate America. “They’re coming into their own financially, and getting them to make political investments in other women will make a big difference.” O’Connor also notes that candidates of color are adopting a similar campaign strategy.   

Mitchell’s election completes a gradual gender transformation of the board that has been more than four decades in the making. Yvonne Burke, the board’s first female, was appointed supervisor in 1979 and served a year-and-a-half, while Gloria Molina became its first elected female member in 1991.

A product of the feminist and Chicano movements that took hold in the 1970s, Molina had already shattered gender and ethnic barriers in 1982, becoming the state’s first Latina legislator. She won an open Assembly seat after defeating a well-connected male candidate in the Democratic primary who was hand-picked by her community’s political power brokers. 

In an oral history for California State Archives, she recalled being told at the time, “You can’t run. You can’t win. You can’t raise money. You can’t get endorsements.” After a newspaper reporter noted that local politicos presumed that “a woman has a built-in disadvantage competing with men for Latino votes,” Molina sent the article to women’s groups, which responded with a flood of campaign contributions that financed a last-minute mailer and radio spot.

With Molina’s victory, there were 14 women in the 120-member Legislature. In the ensuing four decades, women have gradually increased their numbers, sporadically knocking off incumbents but primarily winning open seats. In recent elections, however, female representation has alternately expanded and contracted – rising from 37 members in the 2005-06 legislative session to a record 38 currently but perhaps no change when the new Legislature convenes. With votes still being tabulated, no female challenger this year has defeated an incumbent legislator, while one current state senator – Orange County Republican Ling Ling Chang – appears headed for defeat. 

Women, of course, won a big prize with the election of U.S.Sen. Kamala Harris to the vice presidency. Two women have represented California simultaneously in the U.S. Senate for nearly 30 years. Continuing that streak will be up to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will appoint Harris’s successor.

Then there is the question of governor. California is one of 20 states that has never elected a female chief executive, although three California women have been major party nominees. Should Newsom successfully seek reelection in two years, 2026 will be the first opportunity for women to win the state’s most elusive trophy. A number of them already are waiting in the wings, including three daughters of immigrants who have proven their political mettle by winning statewide elections to constitutional offices.

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Steve and Susie have also written about will politics trump gender in California this election year?; will women continue to gain ground in 2020? and the women behind California’s landmark vehicle emissions law.

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