Called to action: More women run for political office amid frustrations

Fed up with a lack of civility in modern politics, more women in Maine are running for state office than ever before.
campaign signs along a street
State Sen. Amy Volk (R-Scarborough) places a political sign for gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody earlier this month while canvassing in District 30. Volk, who is running for reelection on November 6, believes that “everyone benefits when we have more women with seats at the table.” Photo by Gabe Souza.

Given what she’s experienced over the past two years, state Sen. Rebecca Millett says she’s extremely heartened by the fact that more women than ever are running for seats in the Maine Legislature this year.

Millett says her life took a marked turn when Donald Trump was elected as U.S. president in November 2016. That’s when Maine residents – predominantly women – started approaching her “pretty much all the time, everywhere” – in the grocery store, at local farm stands, on her walks.

At first they wanted to talk about feeling overwhelmed, anxious and upset, and then, over time, started moving on to asking what they could do to get involved.

“The upside is that it has motivated and activated a generation of women and caused a lot of people in our country to wonder why Trump received the support that he did,” says Millett, who has represented District 29 (Cape Elizabeth, South Portland and part of Scarborough) for the past six years.

One early conversation with a woman interested in running stands out now because it came to represent what Millett would hear later again and again, with variations on the theme, from many women.

“She’d never been politically active and asked me ‘What can I do?’ I told her what she could do was serve,” recalls Millett, 56. “And she looked at me and said, ‘I’m not smart enough. I’m petrified.’ I said, ‘That I understand, but we are at a time when you have to confront those fears.’ ”

Millett and others say that they’re thrilled that more women evidently are confronting such obstacles and deciding to give politics a go this election cycle, both statewide and nationally.

A look at the numbers

Pine Tree Watch took an extensive look over the past several months at statistics that provide insight into gender and other trends that have occurred over the past six years in Maine politics.

We gathered numbers and other information from the Maine State Legislature Legislative Record, the state Senate and House websites, Ballotpedia, and the Maine Ethics Commission, as well as from candidates’ websites and social media sites – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Looking first just at gender and not party-affiliation trends, the increase in the number of women involved is the most evident development:

The state Senate has gone from being 80 percent male and 20 percent female in 2012 to roughly 71 percent male, 29 percent female today. The state House of Representatives was 69 percent male and 32 percent female six years ago; it’s now 64 percent male and 36 percent female.

Since 2012, the number of men running for the Statehouse has decreased, while the number of women running for these positions has increased.

While fewer than a quarter of Maine’s state Senate candidates were women in 2012, that number has risen nearly 20 percentage points to 44.9 percent this election season.

In the House, changes in the gender composition have been less dramatic but follow the same trend. From 2012, when about 70 percent of candidates were male and 30 percent were female, 63 percent are male and 37 percent are female this year.

When it comes to who actually gets elected though, the numbers tell a slightly different story. Even though the number of women running and getting elected generally has increased over the past several election cycles, as more women run, they’ve also had increasingly more difficulty getting elected each year since 2012.

The number of men who have run as Democrats and as Republicans in the Senate has remained largely consistent over time, with Republicans putting forth slightly fewer candidates over the years (11 fewer from 2012 to 2018). In the House, the number of Republican male candidates has hardly changed in six years, but fewer Democrat males have put their hats into the ring (27 fewer over the past six years).

The 2018 picture in Maine

The number of Democrat and Republican women running for the Senate has grown at roughly the same pace from 2012 to 2018. However, this year, in the House, 24 more women are running as Democrats than in 2012, while the number of female Republican House candidates has declined over that period, from 41 in 2012 to 34 in 2018.

More women are running as independents in 2018 than in any of the last three election cycles, while this is not the case for men. In the state Senate, more Republican men than Republican women are running. There are also more Democratic men running for the Senate compared to female candidates. For the House, more Democratic women than Democratic men are running, and more first-time Democratic candidates are women.

This year’s House races are seeing more women who haven’t previously run for or held a Legislative seat running than women who have (50 women who have run for Statehouse previously to 64 who haven’t.)

This doesn’t hold true for men running for the House this year: 110 have experience with a prior Statehouse campaign, and 82 don’t.

It’s a different scenario for the state Senate, where 19 women who have previously run for or held a Statehouse position are running against 12 who have never before campaigned for such a seat. Similarly, 29 experienced men are running against nine men who have not run for or held a state government position before.

Efforts to boost the number of women on all sides

Republican state Sen. Amy Volk, who has served two terms in the Maine House and two in the Senate, now representing District 30 (including Gorham, parts of Buxton and Scarborough), says she understands the motivations leading to more involvement “because of the current divisive state of politics” and applauds all people who are willing to run for political office.

She said the Republican Party has made a big effort in this election season to recruit women and support them during the 2018 election season.

“We’re really excited to have 12 women in competitive races this year in Maine. Women see things in ways that men cannot,” says Volk, 49. “There’s a growing effort in both parties, recognizing that women have a lot to contribute. Everyone benefits when we have more women with seats at the table.”

The numbers are especially impressive, she says, considering the pressure all candidates are under with increased social media use and other scrutiny.

“I think there’s a reluctance on the part of a lot of people to put themselves out there in this way,” Volk says. “It’s more of a gamble than before, that something will get dug up – and some meme that you liked five years ago on Facebook is going to take center stage and be a big negative focus. It’s hard when your whole social media history is up for inspection.”

Volk says she’s thrilled by the possibility for the number of GOP women in the state Senate – currently four – to “double or triple. That would just be amazing.”

After six years in the Legislature, Millett says she feels “relieved” that more women are getting inspired to be involved in the political process.

“I’ve been talking to women for years about the need for more women to run, about the fact that we are woefully underrepresented at the Statehouse and at the national level,” says Millett. “I’m sorry it’s taken all this for it to happen, but I’m glad that women are starting to recognize that their participation is essential and that women’s voices are equally important as men’s voices.”

Millett says she was “blown away” that interest was so great this election season that Emerge Maine – an organization that helps get more Democratic women into office – couldn’t accommodate all training requests and had to turn women away this year.

She attributes the surge in interest directly to Trump becoming president.

“It has been quite an experience as a local public figure post Trump election,” she says. “There was an immediate reaction of dismay and shock, particularly among women who reached out to me. The first six months were intense, but it really hasn’t stopped.”

The number of women approaching her spiked again this spring in the wake of widespread news reports about children being separated from their immigrant parents at U.S. borders because of new Trump Administration policies.

“The breaking up of families was just abhorrent to so many people,” Millett says, noting another flip-side positive outcome prompted by outrage.

“By the time we got to (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh’s hearings, more women were taking action, not just asking what they could do. They were asking me to participate – in phone calls and petitions. Their energy was toward races here in Maine,” says Millett, among a group of elected Maine women who traveled to Washington to meet with Susan Collins ahead of the Kavanaugh confirmation.

“They’re supporting candidates, supporting everyone they think will help represent their values and protect their rights. They’re fired up,” Millett says. “My answer is always the same for people who are angry, fearful and want an easy answer: Be part of the solution. Run for office.”

Anne Carney. Photo by Gabe Souza.
Lawyer and environmentalist Anne Carney, a Democrat from Cape Elizabeth, is one of many women across the country who were driven to run for office this election season. Photo by Gabe Souza.

One woman who was spurred into action after the November 2016 election and reached out to Millett is Democrat Anne Carney. She’s now running for House Seat 30, covering most of Cape Elizabeth.

“My daughter called me early in the morning after the election, in tears, saying she couldn’t imagine bringing a child into this environment,” says Carney, 55. “It shocked me as a parent and also as someone in my generation just feeling like we can’t have a world where young people are so discouraged that they don’t want to have children.”

The effects of that emotional phone call got her thinking about how she might contribute.

“I took an inventory of my skill set. I looked at my legal skills (she spent 16 years in private practice involved with employment, civil rights and municipal law and eight with Pine Tree Legal Assistance) and my conservation experience (she’s been deeply involved with the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust since 2010) and my statewide experiences with Mainers. Knowing my district seat would be open because Kim Monaghan faced term limits, I realized I could step forward.”

In January 2017, Carney spent time in Augusta, getting a feel for the atmosphere and workflow of the Legislature. She job-shadowed Millett and others, made the decision to enter the race, and enrolled in a Lift360, a leadership training program in Portland. There’s been no looking back since then.

If elected, Carney says she plans to work collaboratively and focus on promoting economic growth throughout Maine, protecting Maine’s environment, strengthening education to keep Mainers in Maine and expanding affordable healthcare to better cover children.

“I’m especially proud and honored to be a part of this group of women who are appreciating that we have a lot to offer in the Legislature,” says Carney. “I’m excited to be a part of this surge.”

Emily Cain, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based EMILY’s List, which has been working since 1985 to elect pro-choice Democratic women, calls the increase in women running for office nothing short of a sea change.

Emily Cain and Janet Mills
Emily Cain, a former Maine legislator who now runs a national organization supporting Democratic women political candidates, campaigns with gubernatorial hopeful Janet Mills, right. Photo by Jenna Vendil.

Cain, 38, served in the Maine Legislature for five terms starting at age 24 and twice tried to unseat Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. She knows what women running for elected office face.

“This election is going to change the face of women in politics for generations to come, in Maine and beyond,” Cain contends, noting staggering changes in the numbers of women contacting her agency for advice and guidance over the past two years.

“To put it in a national context, 920 women reached out to EMILY’s List in 2016,” she says. As of early October, since November 2016, “more than 42,000 women have reached out to us saying they want to make a plan to run for office. We trained 5,000 in 2017 and 2018, and we’re committed to making an investment in women and expanding more. Our staff has gone from 80 to 120 since I got here” in July 2017.

The biggest reasons for the surge nationally, Cain contends, are the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and repeated attacks on Planned Parenthood and threats to women’s reproductive rights.

“And in Maine, (Gov.) Paul LePage has been an ongoing factor. He’s been a motivator on both sides. He’s very polarizing. His attack on and prevention of Medicaid expansion in Maine and his divisiveness have caused Maine people to stand up. And that’s great that they are, but we still have a lot of work to do.

“For me, it’s personal because I know women have so much to offer. I know the difference women can make. With more women, we will have better policies, better perspectives, better leaders.”

Meg Robbins conducted data research for this story and contributed its reporting.


Patricia McCarthy

Patricia McCarthy has been a journalist for 36 years, starting in Charleston, S.C. She moved to Maine in 1985 to be a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reporter. In 23 years there, she had writing, editing, page design and marketing roles in the news, features, sports, business, online and marketing departments. McCarthy then served as publisher of The Cape Courier in Cape Elizabeth for 5½ years. She has done freelance writing, editing, design and marketing/PR work since 1978 and has a photography business. McCarthy lives in Cape Elizabeth and has three grown daughters and a 12-year-old black Lab.
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