Seven women running on the Democratic ticket for everything from state legislator to U.S. senator filled a small stage inside the Weatherford Hotel on Friday.
The absence of the other sex was intentional in what an organizer said was a first-of-its-kind event hosted by the Coconino County Democratic Party to shine a spotlight on the party’s female candidates and what it’s like to be a woman in politics.
As the 2018 election begins to take shape, Arizona – a state that already has one of the largest proportions of women serving in the legislature – is gaining attention for what has become a groundswell of female candidates and women-driven political activism. It’s a trend the Democratic Party is eyeing as a potential game changer this November.
“New people are coming into the electorate and women are possibly the most prominent of that new coalition,” said Harriet Young, vice chair of the Coconino County Democratic Party.
In a state where the politics have long focused on guns, low taxes and a certain set of religious values, women have the potential to bring in new faces and a new narrative, Young said.
“It opens up choices,” she said. “It’s not between two white guys who go play golf together.”
NOT JUST FEMALE
Despite the focus of Friday’s event, a desire to tip the gender balance at the Capitol wasn’t the primary motivator for any of the candidates at the forum.
-- Kathy Hoffman, a school speech therapist running for superintendent of public instruction, said her tipping point was the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
--Kelly Fryer, a candidate for governor, said she first started thinking about running for office after speaking to a crowd of thousands during the first Women’s March in Tucson.
--And for January Contreras, who is running for attorney general, the decision to join the race was driven by what she sees as an erosion of checks and balances in the state government.
It almost went without saying that the election of Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office was another kick in the pants.
“November 8, 2016, hit like a ton of bricks,” said Felicia French, who is running to represent Legislative District 6, which includes Flagstaff, in the state House of Representatives.
In a similar vein, gender wasn’t among the qualifications the women mentioned as they talked about why they’re right for the job. Instead, they named things like military experience, success turning around a regional nonprofit and a career spent in public service. As Contreras said, her gender doesn’t make her more qualified for the job, but to some voters it’s a point that really matters.
“I don't think being a woman means you win your election. What I do see, though, is nearly on a daily basis someone says ‘I like what you have to say… and I want to see a woman in this office,'” Contreras said.
In many ways a female candidate represents change in a political system dominated by men, she said.
“People know they want something different than now and that means new faces and new voices and for some people that means a mom, a woman, someone who has shared their experience who cares about the future of our kids in a maternal way. I definitely get that comment a lot,” Contreras said.
Fryer said that being a woman, a mother and a grandmother means she focuses on different issues than her male counterparts. Immigration and poverty, both of which have huge impacts on women and families, are among her major focuses but weren’t getting any attention by the two better-known candidates in the race, Steve Farley and David Garcia, she said.
“I don't expect anyone to vote for me just because I’m a woman or just because I’m gay but because I’m right on the issues,” she said.
Several of the candidates said they see potential for women to bring a more collaborative approach to governing that will benefit a time in politics that has become particularly divisive. They’re also the answer to combatting sexual harassment that persists in the state legislature, said Katie Hobbs, who is running for secretary of state after serving in the Arizona state senate since 2012. Women feel more comfortable speaking up if they are surrounded by more female colleagues, she said.
In the course of their campaigning, Contreras and Fryer said they have tapped into the growing network of grassroots groups that has sprouted across the state.
“They’re places like Kingman and Yuma and Globe and Clifton, and most are being led by women and they are very excited about having a woman in this race,” Fryer said.
Even with surging female support, however, at least a couple of candidates on Friday said their path into politics hasn’t been a breeze and they still battle gender assumptions on the campaign trail.
One of the questions she gets asked most often is what makes her think she’s qualified to be governor, and that question most often comes from men, Fryer said.
“It’s hard not to hear a little twinge of sexism in that question,” she said.
Hoffman said that since she began campaigning last spring, she has made it a pillar of her campaign to support and inspire other female candidates. She said she has reached out to several who entered the race this year, given them her personal cellphone number and told them she’s there if they need her.
Fryer said it took many people asking her to run before she finally made the decision to do so. Though her views are opposite the president’s on almost every issue, as a lesbian and a female who has never held political office before, seeing a man like Trump win the presidency also helped convince her to join the governor’s race, she said.
“All of the conventional wisdom about who should run and how to get elected, that playbook has been smashed to smithereens,” she said. “That created an opening for me to run for office that, to be honest, two years ago I would never have thought possible.”