LOS ANGELES — If 2018 is The Year of the Woman, nobody told California.
In the biggest blue state on the map, the only woman running for governor, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, is polling in single digits. London Breed, the interim mayor of San Francisco and the first black woman to hold the post, was bounced from her position last month by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She was replaced by a white man.
And in a round of caucus meetings last weekend, Democratic Party activists in three competitive Southern California House races overlooked three EMILY’s List-endorsed candidates and threw their support, by wide margins, to three men.
Sara Jacobs, one of the snubbed candidates, took to Twitter to vent following the vote: “This election won’t be decided in back rooms by the old boys clubs, it’s going to be decided by the 1000’s of energized voters who are literally marching in the streets demanding a Rep who will stand up to the Trump admin and defend our values.”
Jacobs, who’s seeking to succeed Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, won just six of 107 votes cast in the pre-endorsement caucus leading up to the California Democratic Party’s annual convention in February. Mike Levin, an attorney, earned 10 times the number of votes.
“Yeah, I mean, we knew that there were going to be challenges,” Jacobs, 29, told POLITICO. “I’m obviously a young woman, and it’s not the kind of candidacy that the old guard and the boys club really knows what to do with.”
In an election year rocked by sexual harassment scandals and the emergence of the “Me Too” movement,” women in California politics are still running at the margins. The phenomenon is especially striking in this heavily Democratic state, where no woman has ever held the governorship and women account for only 26 of the 120 state legislators.
“It is a lost opportunity that the California Democratic Party is not supporting more women in congressional and state races,” said Debbie Mesloh, an adviser to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and, now, Buffy Wicks, a woman credited as a key architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 grass-roots campaign who is now seeking a highly competitive San Francisco Bay area seat in the state Assembly.
EMILY’s List spokesman Bryan Lesswing said, “It is extremely disappointing that the state party has not recognized the incredible women candidates running in California seats that represent the best pick-up opportunities in the country.”
California is not entirely without women in top positions of political power — and Democratic activists here have rallied around women in politics before. Fully a quarter century ago — in 1992, the original Year of the Woman in politics — Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both beat male opponents in races for the U.S. Senate. The state still has two women in the Senate, Feinstein and Harris, and women have made gains in local offices. The powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors installed its first female supermajority in 2016, with women holding four of five offices.
“I think we’ve got a good pipeline, and I think there are bright spots,” said former state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994. “But women have to get out there and run. It’s not easy.”
Brown, the sister of Gov. Jerry Brown, said female candidates are still forced to contend with gender stereotypes that disadvantage them — and with supporters unaccustomed to writing women large checks. Recalling campaign appearances former Texas Gov. Ann Richards made on her behalf, Brown said, “She’d tell women to add up what you have on, and write a check for that. … Women would be very, sort of ‘Girl Scout cookie’ about writing small checks.”
Brown said, “Incrementally, it’s gotten better. … Incrementally.”
Christine Pelosi, chairwoman of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said, “It’s very hard to get women to run in these races because they don’t have the same connections, they don’t have the same financial support. And as we always say in the Women’s Caucus, ‘Women don’t give to women candidates, and men don’t vote for women candidates.”
In many cases, including the gubernatorial race, women running for office in California are competing against men who have far higher profiles, and Pelosi said it is not fair to judge first-time female candidates against those better-established men.
“I think it’s going to be the year of the feminist — and some men are great feminists,” she said.
Pelosi and other advocates of women in politics often point to California’s lieutenant governor’s race as a high-profile contest in which a woman, Eleni Kounalakis, could break through this year.
Kounalakis, a longtime Democratic activist and Obama-era U.S. ambassador to Hungary, said her campaign has dramatized women’s struggles to break glass ceilings in every state office.
“We feel this every single day, this idea that people are saying, ‘How come we’re over a generation since the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and we still don’t have equal numbers of women in the highest offices of the country?’” she said.
Kounalakis said she decided “it can only be the ‘Year of the Woman’ again if women are actually running. You have to be on the ballot.”
Kounalakis, who is competing against a roster of male candidates — including state Sen. Ed Hernandez and the former head of the California Bar Association, Jeff Bleich — said female candidates are forced to work harder just to get attention for their campaigns.
For some women, Kounalakis said, navigating the complex landscape of fundraising is a cultural shift that can be uncomfortable.
“My poor mother cringes at the idea that her daughter is asking people to give her money. It seems so ungracious,’’ she told POLITICO in a recent interview. “But what I’m finding is people are trying to make it easier by stepping up and helping women to run.”
Kounalakis announced last week that she has raised more than $2.4 million and starts 2018 with $1.9 million cash on hand, “more than any other candidate in the race,’’ her campaign reported Wednesday.
Longtime Democratic women’s rights activist Elmy Bermejo, who has served on the state’s Commission on the Status of Women, said that in addition to confronting fundraising and donor networking disadvantages, some female legislators who aim to move up the ladder have expressed difficulty balancing the bare-knuckle politics that might be required against male legislative colleagues and the needs of their constituents.
“There’s an element of, ‘My bill is up before the legislature, and I still have to work with these people,” she said.
Still, Bermejo said that this year, the outpouring of support from men and women at women’s marches throughout the country — and the new generation of women stepping up to run — prove that “it’s different … it’s not going to go away.”
She said President Donald Trump’s election has fundamentally changed the political landscape and energized women in unprecedented numbers in a way that will result in changes in 2018.
“Women are reaching a point where they’re saying, “We’re in this together — and we have to stand together,” she said.
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