Politics & Government

Female candidates are surging in North Carolina. But the jump is one-sided.

After leaving her job as a lawyer, Leigh Altman planned to slow down and stay home with her three kids. Then Donald Trump was elected.

She had to “get off the couch.” So she got active in the Democratic Party, started one political group and helped lead another. Now she’s running for Mecklenburg County commissioner.

The 45-year-old Charlottean is part of a surge of women running for office across the country and in North Carolina.

Nationwide the number of female congressional candidates alone “blows the numbers of previous years out of the water,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

There are 420 women running for the U.S. House, according to the center. The previous high was was 298.

Leigh Altman
Leigh Altman, candidate for Mecklenburg County commissioner.

In North Carolina, hundreds of women are running for offices around the state. The 116 women running for the General Assembly make up nearly 27 percent of all candidates running, according to an Observer analysis. There are now 43 women in the 170-member legislature.

“North Carolina is very much reflective of the national climate,” said David McLennan, a political scientist at Meredith College. “For about the last 20 years, the number of women candidates has been pretty stagnant. This appears to be a pretty substantial increase.”

But here and across the country the surge is one-sided.

The 77 Democratic women running for the legislature is nearly twice the number of female Republicans. While women make up 35 percent of Democratic legislative candidates, they account for 18 percent of Republicans.

In Mecklenburg, a dozen Democratic women are running for the General Assembly compared with four Republican women. And in the contest for county commissioner, there are 12 Democratic women and no female Republicans.

“We’re seeing a big uptick in women candidates overall and all of that uptick is on the Democratic side,” said Sinzdak of the Rutgers center.

Republicans point to their success in recruiting women and minorities, at least in their legislative lineup.

“I feel like we’ve got a really diverse slate of candidates with women and people of color,” said Mecklenburg GOP chair Chris Turner. “That said, do we want more women on the North Carolina ballot? We absolutely do.”

Becki Gray of Raleigh’s conservative John Locke Foundation can’t explain the discrepancy.

“I don’t know why more Republican women aren’t running,” she said. “It may be that Republican women are just a lot smarter not wanting to jump into this toxic environment that we have.”

Trump and #MeToo

But Democratic women are jumping in. For Altman and many others, it goes back to the 2016 election.

“I along with millions of people were shocked that someone who said and did the things we heard from Donald Trump could be elected,” Altman said.

Riva Richmond, who tracks female candidates for the New York-based Story Exchange, credits the the president with inspiring many candidacies. “Among Democrats there’s a real trend of women alarmed by the Trump presidency who are channeling that energy into activism,” she said.

That energy was on display in the women’s marches that took place this year and last in Charlotte and across the country. Thousands of people took to the streets with the theme of theme, “Power to the Polls.” The marches spawned new waves of activism.

A day after January’s Charlotte march, nearly 60 women converged on the home of a Dilworth activist to plan how to channel their energy into politics. By the time they left they’d volunteered to canvass neighborhoods and run phone banks on behalf of Democratic candidates and to register voters.

Many woman also have been energized by the #MeToo movement. That was a response to the sexual harassment revelations that have rocked Hollywood, the media and politics.

“That’s had something to do with women feeling more empowered,” said Susan Roberts, a Davidson College political scientist. “#MeToo has given women a sense of agency. And some of that is running for office.”

Still under-represented

To accommodate the flood of women candidates, partisan and non-partisan groups alike report a surge of interest in boot camps that train candidates and their managers in the nuts and bolts of running campaigns.

The Center for American Women and Politics typically gets between 150 and 200 trainees, Sinzdak said. Last year it got 300.

Pam Hutsonof Charlotte chairs the board of Lillian’s List, a N.C.-based group that helps women candidates who support abortion rights. She said in the first five years the group has run training sessions, around 300 women took part. Since the presidential election, they’ve had 400.

“It’s been thrilling for us to see this outpouring of energy and just willingness to step up,” Hutson said.

Even with all that, women remain under-represented in elected office.

Women make up about 53 percent of registered voters in North Carolina and in Mecklenburg County. In the 2016 election, they made up 54 percent of N.C. voters, according to exit polls. But they make up 25 percent of the state’s 170 legislators.

That was about the same percentage who held elected and appointed office in 2015 when McLennan led a study for Meredith College called “The Status of Women in N.C. Politics.”

But he found that in 2014, 63 percent of the state’s women candidates won their races.

“(With) increasing frequency,” he wrote, “when women run, women win.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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