Gender Balance No Accident on Panel Picking Lt. Gov | WBEZ
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Gender Balance No Accident on Panel Picking Lt. Gov

Illinois' election board will announce on Friday morning the final results from the primaries held last month. One slot that will remain unsettled: Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. The party's State Central Committee will pick a replacement for Scott Lee Cohen, who withdrew following scrutiny of his private life. Members of this little-known panel have the unique distinction of being elected to an office where gender is a qualification. WBEZ's Sam Hudzik reports how that practice came to be.

When the Democratic State Central Committee meets, 19 men and 19 women will get a seat at the table. Almost 30 years ago, only two women had spots on this panel. But don't just assume the current gender balance is the result of evolving voter attitudes. It's happened because of a law, and advocates like D. Clancy.

CLANCY: I'm a writer and a consultant...

...and a major headache for old school Democratic officials. Clancy fought them to win a seat at the 1972 national convention, alleging women had been shut out of the selection process. Things got better over the next decade, she says, but aspiring female politicians still had a hard time getting noticed by the machine.

CLANCY: It wasn't enough just to go hat in hand to go to beg a local male party official to consider someone's candidacy. You needed to have voices there who represented you...

...voices in endorsing candidates, divvying up money and filling vacancies. So Clancy and others in the Illinois Democratic Women's Caucus offered up this proposal:

CLANCY: Simply expand the committee.

The party's State Central Committee, that is, to have equal representation from both genders. They took the idea to the party's new leader.

ROCK: My name is Philip J. Rock.

The Oak Park Democrat was the Illinois Senate President and chair of the State Central Committee.

ROCK: I had been received since my election by D. Clancy and company, and they all lived in Oak Park. This whole bunch of them lived in Oak Park, so I couldn't avoid them. (laughs)

So in 1983 Rock introduced legislation that would put some women right in the heart of the Democratic Party. Instead of electing one person from each congressional district to serve on the committee, there would be two. One slot for a woman, and one for a man.

ROCK: And so I went in to see Pate...

That's James 'Pate' Philip, Rock's Republican counterpart in the Senate.

ROCK: ...and I said, 'Pate, I'm going to move to enlarge the committee by the existing number and call for the election of women.' 'Ah, you're c...' He didn't, he didn't like it at all. And I said, 'Go to the bathroom or something, just don't worry about it, you know. It's going to happen. I've got the votes, so it's going to happen. I just wanted to let you know.

The bill did not affect the Republican party structure. It just gave Democrats the option of adopting the new rules.

ROCK: So it passed overwhelmingly...

...in the state Senate and House, and six months later in the Democratic State Central Committee. National Democrats had urged state parties to do this, and a Chicago Tribune report from the time said about half of them had already done so.

These days, some Illinois Republicans are trying to adopt the Democrats' process. You see, GOP state central committee members are elected at county conventions, rather than directly by voters. And there's only one per congressional district - not two - regardless of gender. The current committee includes 15 men and 4 women.

As the debate on this continues among Republicans, not all Democrats think their gender quotas are still the way to go.

GRONEMEYER: I mean, I think that committeewoman and committeeman is sort of antiquated.

Pamella Gronemeyer made a bid - and lost - for committeewoman this year in Illinois' 19th Congressional District. And she thinks she may have had a better chance of winning if candidates from both sexes had been lumped together, with the top two vote getters getting seats on the state central committee.

GRONEMEYER: Maybe two representatives no matter what sex they are would be better. Because sometimes I think the committeewomen it just has a different connotation from committeemen. Maybe it should be committee people.

Party activist D. Clancy says all these years later, there's good reason to leave the gender rules in place.

CLANCY: In a perfect world, I don't think we ever should say that, 'No, you have to have equality mandated by law.' But, you know, we're not living in a perfect world yet.

And the numbers seem to back her up. For those other elected offices, where gender isn't a qualification, women candidates are still not equal winners in the Democratic Party. Look at Chicago's City Council, the Cook County Board and both houses of the Illinois General Assembly. Male Democrats greatly outnumber female Democrats, though not by as much as they did a quarter century ago.

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