by Jim Morrill, Charlotte Observer
Tuesday’s recount that ratified the election of Democrat Rachel Hunt to the North Carolina House underscored the success not only of female candidates but of the women who helped elect them.
Hunt, who defeated Republican Rep. Bill Brawley by 68 votes, will be one of 45 women in the 170-member General Assembly — the most in a decade.
Nationwide, record numbers of women were elected to state legislatures and to Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That’s after record numbers filed to run for everything from Congress to state houses.
Their election was fueled by female volunteers who registered voters, raised money, knocked on doors and worked the phones.
“This was a record-setting year for women candidates, and we saw an intense mobilization of women not just as candidates, but as voters and activists,” said Jean Sinzdak, the center’s associate director. “Nationwide, local grassroots efforts largely driven by women upended the traditional political landscape, and women activists were engaged and relentless in their efforts to support Democrat candidates this year.”
Their success highlighted a stark partisan disparity. In most places, the “pink wave” propelled a blue wave.
In Congress, for example, 106 of the 125 new female members are Democrats. Of the 45 women in the next General Assembly, 30 are Democrats. In Mecklenburg County, three Democratic women unseated GOP men on the Board of County Commissioners. Democrats Hunt, Christy Clark and Natasha Marcus each defeated Republican legislative incumbents.
National exit polls showed women breaking for Democrats 59 percent to 40 percent. According to CNN, it was the first time since 1984 that Democrats won the U.S. House without winning men. The margin for Democrats among women, it reported, was the largest in the history of exit polls.
Hunt credited women for helping her campaign. She estimates four our of five volunteers were women.
“They were incredibly instrumental,” she said. “Women are just incredibly concerned with what’s going on in our state and country right now. And we are no longer able to think it will get better without personal involvement at every level.”
Desiree Miller, president of the Mecklenburg Evening Republican Women’s Club, acknowledges the challenge.
“Traditionally we don’t look at candidates based on their gender or race,” she said. “Our focus is, ‘Who’s most qualified? Who has the most experience?’ But do we need more women to run for office? Certainly.”
‘A bucket of cold water’
Mary Lou Cagle had never gotten involved in elections. Until this year.
“I’ve always been behind-the-scenes person,” said Cagle, 75, a retired banker and an unaffiliated voter. “But I felt I had to do something different in this election.”
Cagle said she was motivated by the campaign of Republican Donald Trump as well as by the Senate’s 2016 refusal to hold hearings on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. When thousands of women took to the streets in Charlotte and across the country in January 2017, she joined.
That same month Barbara Randolph returned to the U.S. after 37 years working in Mexico, most recently for an American nonprofit. She didn’t like what she found, particularly in attitudes about immigrants.
“I felt I had walked into a country I didn’t recognize,” she said. “I felt I had left a country more tolerant of underrepresented groups. It was a bucket of cold water in my face.”
Randolph joined a group in Davidson that formed after the Women’s March. “Everyone was unified by . . . disgust over what we were seeing,” she said, “and it just quickly rolled from there.”
What started for her as interest in the immigration issue — a flashpoint in the Mecklenburg sheriff’s primary — turned into efforts to elect Democratic women in north Mecklenburg.
Jan Anderson, president of Charlotte Women’s March, said such activism is not inherently partisan.
“It’s all about values, it’s not about party,” she said. “It’s just that the values that we stand for are being embraced by the Democratic Party, not by the Republican Party.”
For many women, activism didn’t end on Nov. 6.
“The women are still motivated, that’s the thing that’s amazing,” Anderson said. “The activism is going beyond just getting people elected to office.”
Cagle is monitoring immigration court for the ACLU. Randolph is working with other women to look ahead to the 2020 elections, when races for president, governor and U.S. senator will be on the ballot.
Nationally, the marches have been dominated by white women. That’s been a sore point for minorities who didn’t see themselves reflected in the movement. In Charlotte, leaders hope that’s changing.
“Sometimes we feel our voice is marginalized,” said Tiffany Hemmings-Prather, president of the Charlotte chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. “The situation for black women will be improved if we work with other organizations so we have a united voice.”
Renee Hill, the group’s legal adviser, said black women see the value of unity.
“Women’s issues are not a black issue, they’re not a white issue, they’re not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” she said. “It does energize us to see women being elected, but we feel particularly as African-American women that we be a part of the process.”
Cagle said her newfound activism, fueled by frustration with the staus quo, will last beyond one election. She said she’s less “pollyannish” about politics and government.
“It’s changed me forever,” she said. “(It’s) going to require a lot more out of me.”
Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @JimMorrill, firstname.lastname@example.org