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MI's women legislators plan to band together

By Laua Weber, Michigan Public Radio Network

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wkar/local-wkar-950271.mp3

LANSING, MI –
Only four out of the 38 members that make up the Michigan state Senate are women. There have not been so few female senators since 1998. As Michigan Public Radio's Laura Weber tells us, the women in the current Legislature are talking about banding together.

AUDIO:
Democratic state Senator Rebekah Warren says a few years ago a group of women in the Legislature used to meet to discuss political issues. But she says now, with only four women in the Senate, it's time to create a Women's Caucus that would unite Democrats and Republicans.

"It's a good time for us to recreate that in a bipartisan way so that at least on those issues that we as women can be more focused, we can work together across the aisle, and across the dome, really bicamerally too," she says.

Warren says male and female legislators naturally gravitate toward different issues, and think of policy in different ways. And she says with so few women it's important to make sure their voices are heard.

"Not to say that our male colleagues don't care about the things we care about, history has just shown that when women's voices are at the table, they're more reflective of issues that are bread-and-butter issues to Michigan families," she continues.

Warren says some of those issues include discrimination and bullying, mental health, and public school education.

"Those are the decisions that are actually made by moms."

That's Gilda Jacobs, director of the Michigan League for Human Services and a former state lawmaker. She says the women in the Legislature ten years ago worked together to approve a law that allows mothers to anonymously leave their newborn babies at a hospital, police station or fire department without the threat of prosecution.

"Is that something that is maybe more traditionally been a women's issue?," she asks. "Perhaps. But I don't think a man would have even thought about addressing that kind of a problem."

But Jacobs also says women have moved beyond addressing just family and women's issues. And Republican state Representative Gail Haines agrees.

"I think you're going to see women interested in the economy, interested in nuclear energy," she says. "I'm not so sure in the past that that's where we would have expected to see from elected women."

Haines is the state director of the national organization Women in Government. Although there are more women in the state House than the Senate, the numbers are still down, and make up less than a quarter of lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives.

"Our government should be reflective of its population, and therefore we really do need more female representation," she adds.

More women ran for legislative positions in the last election than in 2008, but sweeping victories for Republicans knocked out swaths of Democratic incumbents - many of them women - and more women ran on the Democratic ticket. Even so, says Tom Shields of Marketing Resource Group, female voters tend to vote for female candidates.

"If all things are equal and they're not really sure, can't make up their minds, they'll fall on the side and vote for a female candidate," he says.

Shields says historically men used to vote more often for men, but now they evenly split their votes. And, he says, men don't show up to polling places as much as women. He says those things combined give female candidates a statistical advantage over their male counterparts. He says a good example of that is newly elected state Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly, who ran last fall as a Republican.

"Yes, she led the ticket even though there were two incumbents on the ballot," she says.

With or without a statistical advantage, women still do not run for seats in the Legislature as often as men. Republican Representative Gail Haines says the answer to the question of how to get more women to run for office remains to be seen. But she agrees with Democratic Senator Rebekah Warren that it's a good time to pull the women who are in the Legislature together for a Women's Caucus.

"I think that would be something that would be very important, and very beneficial, and I might give Senator Warren a call and see if she'd like to get to work on that," she says.

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