N.C. a top state for female candidates

From Sarah Palin to one N.C. candidate rolling out pink campaign signs, women appear all over the Tar Heel ballot this year.

Six women from Mecklenburg County are running for the N.C. House. In Durham, four of the five county commissioner candidates are women. Statewide, three women are running for the U.S. House.

Both U.S. Senate candidates are women. Bev Perdue wants to be governor. The majority of a new Council of State could arrive at work in heels.

“It's amazing, isn't it?” asked Barbara True-Weber, a political scientist at Meredith College. “We are now at a point where the pool of women who are experienced and eligible is deep enough and wide enough that they're eligible for those senior positions.”

In fact, women have been quietly making gains in North Carolina. Although women make up just 26.5 percent of the legislature, the state now ranks first in the Southeast in female state lawmakers, according to a study by the Center for American Women and Politics.

And this year, there are 12 women running for nonjudicial statewide offices or for Congress – putting North Carolina second behind California.

“North Carolina and some of the other Southern states have not been on the forefront of electing women,” said Marie Wilson, founder and president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan organization working to elect a female president. “The fact that you have this many women running is a pretty amazing thing, especially in executive areas.”

This happens as studies show that voters trust women over men on nearly every quality except quick decision-making.

“I think male politicians are tagged rightly or wrongly with all the negative connotations that politics and politicians have,” said Scott Falmlen, a Democratic political consultant in Raleigh. “Women are perceived to be more in touch.”

A growing trend

But there are larger forces at work too. Consider, for example, the road paved ahead of Palin, the GOP's candidate for vice president.

Elizabeth Dole, the first female senator from North Carolina, became the first serious presidential candidate from a major party in 1999. Her candidacy opened doors for Hillary Clinton, who came close this year to becoming the Democratic nominee.

And so then came Palin, nominated in part to lure female swing voters and energize the GOP base.

“Women are starting to step up, run for office and make a change,” said April Fortunes 32, of Chatham County, a McCain supporter with two children and a job as a cardiac nurse.

“If we get enough women running and getting these seats, it will really change things. People are seeing that having men has not really saved us.”

The question is: Will all these women make a difference?

“I'm glad to see it,” said Karolyn Thomas, 36, a day care director in Creedmoor who supported Hillary Clinton in the May primary. “It seems to me a lot of women are more family-oriented.”

A national study by the Pew Research Center in August showed that adults ranked women as high as or higher than men on seven of eight leadership traits such as honesty, intelligence and creativity. Men were seen as more decisive than women.

Still, the study pointed out, only 6 percent of those surveyed thought women overall made better leaders. About a fifth said men make better leaders overall; the rest said gender made little difference.

Studies show that once in office, women are more likely to find success through negotiation and more likely to co-sponsor legislation rather than go it alone, said Ilana Goldman, director of the Women's Campaign Forum, a non-partisan, abortion-rights organization that has endorsed Democrats Perdue for governor and state Sen. Kay Hagan for U.S. Senate.

“(Women) are not about ownership,” Goldman said. “They're more likely to reach out.”

Resistance still exists

There is still some resistance to female leaders.

Wilson pointed to a recent study by the White House project that reviewed commercials of gubernatorial candidates to see how they were marketed to voters. The study found that women tended to establish their credentials quickly compared to men.

And women shouldn't use male voiceovers, Wilson said, because that can override the women's authority.

When Clinton faced Sen. Barack Obama in the May primary, it wasn't uncommon for men around the country to tell reporters they were uncomfortable with a female commander-in-chief.

James Joyce, 75, of Durham, sat in a Hardee's restaurant last week with his wife discussing women's roles in politics.

“I don't have anything against a woman running,” he said. He might support Perdue as governor, he said, but wouldn't want a female commander-in-chief. “I don't think a woman fits in the military at all,” he said.

Wilson said studies show many voters are uncomfortable with women in executive roles such as governor.

“People are more accepting of women in groups,” she said. “When women run for Congress or Senate, they know women are one of many. But when they run for an executive seat, they look at that very differently.”

Goldman said voters seem to wonder where a woman's priorities lie, especially if she's a mother. “If we elect a woman governor who has young kids and we have a crisis in the state, will they prioritize their family or prioritize the state?” she said, describing some voters' thinking.

Success in judicial races

Women have long been seen by voters as more ethical and fair-minded than men, Wilson said. That may be one reason that they've done so well in judicial races.

In North Carolina, five women are on the ballot in statewide judicial races alongside eight men. There could be a majority-female state Supreme Court if challenger Suzanne Reynolds unseats Robert Edmunds Jr. The state's voter registration is 55 percent female, said Tom Fetzer, a Republican strategist in Raleigh. And absent any other information about candidates – as in judicial races that are both non-partisan and low-profile – women often will vote for other women, he said.

His wife, Cherry Smith, 59, a Raleigh Republican, said she voted last week for several women in the judicial races.

“They have a very good balance, and emotional side. They would show more compassion toward people,” she said. “I think women are go-getters. And if there's something they want, they get it.”