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You've come a short way, baby
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Do you know many female representatives southwest Pennsylvania sends to the state House of Representatives?

None. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

We send only one woman, Republican Jane Orie, of McCandless, to the state Senate.

When more than half the population has nearly no representation, something about our region is askew. Perhaps if we sent more women to Harrisburg, we wouldn't have pay raise debacles.

Call me sexist, but you know how guys are forever measuring themselves against each other, wanting to make sure their wallet is bigger than the one in the other guy's pocket? Four out of five armchair shrinks will tell you that this affliction, commonly known as "paycheck envy,'' is only magnified when nobody is competing for your job. And we've been giving too many of our reps cakewalks to Harrisburg.

Twenty-two of the 40 guys elected to the House in 2004 from greater Pittsburgh faced no opponent that November. Nearly all of them were unopposed in the primary, too.

Only eight of the 40 faced somebody who could muster even 10,000 votes in last year's general election. It's no coincidence that six of those eight voted "no'' to the pay increase in July. Fear of competition can keep a guy focused on his job, not his salary.

There will be more guys looking over their shoulders next year if "Run, Baby, Run'' lives up to its name. This fledgling, bipartisan group wants women on the legislative ballot in 2006 and will mail its calling card to 5,000 women in Allegheny County this week. These will be women from across the political spectrum who vote regularly or have taken leadership classes.

About three dozen women have pledged to support the group with money or shoe leather, and the names range from Republican power-broker Elsie Hillman to Democrat Gloria Forouzan, who is coordinating the effort. They figure it's way past time for women to stop licking envelopes in political campaigns and start being the name on those envelopes. They have the requisite skills.

"Women know how to raise money,'' Ms. Forouzan, 51, of Lawrenceville, said. "Who unloads all the Girl Scout cookies?''

She can be flippant, but down-to-earth truisms may lower the fear factor for women entering politics. More than 100 potential candidates came to a forum in mid-September, some highly doubtful they'd run, others nearly sure they would.

"Run, Baby, Run'' will tell women where to buy a yard sign, how to put together a campaign Web site, and how much time a campaign takes.

"There's no more Saturday and Sunday, ladies,'' Ms. Forouzan said.

Do you know 400 people who might kick in 50 bucks apiece? That would help, because the mailings, signs and such for House campaigns can cost a candidate $20,000 to $30,000.

"Run, Baby, Run'' can help women there. The organization might not match dollar for dollar, Ms. Forouzan said, but there will be matching money. E-mail may be sent to rbr@percolater.com.

"Come forward and we'll support you.''

A candidate could win a House primary with fewer than 6,000 votes. Given the scarcity of recent competition, it's hard to be more precise than that, but a door-knocking candidate might reach half that many homes in 12 weekends of work. Twenty doors an hour in a six-hour campaign day is Ms. Forouzan's rule. This isn't an easy game.

The rest of Pennsylvania isn't so hesitant to elect women. Eight of the state's 50 senators are women, as are 28 of the 203 representatives. The female contingent in the statehouse has tripled in the past 25 years, but Pennsylvania still ranks 46th among the 50 states in the percentage of female representation, Ms. Forouzan said.

If the right women come forward in southwest Pennsylvania, that can change. PACleanSweep, the group trying to toss out all 253 of the state's current legislators, now claims to have found 60 challengers, including 41 for the primaries, but only seven are women.

Russ Diamond, founder of the organization, hasn't announced their names, but he says at least one woman is from our region.

The statehouse door has been kicked open, but the question remains of who charges in to take on the reeling incumbents. Anyone who has ever thought about running, man or woman, will never have a better shot. Surely, we can't continue to give legislative jobs away. The citizenry is eager to take its commonwealth back.

First published on November 22, 2005 at 12:00 am
Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.