Family and public life: Women office-seekers make it work

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Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
When Evelyn Spann of the Cranbury Board of Education first ran for public office around 10 years ago, she won arguably her most important election 3 votes to 1., That was the outcome of the voting by her husband and three children on whether or not she should try for the school board. Looking back this week, Spann recalled her youngest child – a daughter – was the lone dissenter., For her and other mothers in public life, they have to juggle their family on one hand and being a mayor, lawmaker, councilwoman or school board member on the other. And like their male counterparts, there are the time demands that come with meetings and other events to attend and the loss of anonymity that is a side effect of the job., New Jersey, a Democrat-leaning part of the country, has more female lawmakers than most states. And in Princeton, there are more women than men in local elected office., But since the presidential election, there have been reports of heightened interest by women, around the country, to enter politics. Assemblywoman Liz Muoio (D-15) said there has been an “uptick in women who have been looking to get involved politically, locally, at all levels.”, In New Jersey, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, is running for the Republican nomination for governor as the only female candidate among the two major parties., In the 16th Legislative district that includes Princeton, former state Assemblywoman Donna Simon, a Republican, is running for her old office, while Laurie Poppe, a Democrat, is running for state Senate., In the nearby 15th district, three women are running for state Assembly, including Muoio, while Democrat state Sen. Shirley K. Turner – one of 11 female state senators – is running for re-election., Although women in New Jersey politics have made strides, they still remain a minority, said one observer of the state’s political scene., “The state of women in politics in New Jersey is an ongoing struggle to have their voices heard,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebobvich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It’s better than it was a generation ago, but for those who are looking to have fifty percent of the population represented in the rooms where decisions get made, they’re nowhere close to that.”, In terms of their representation in state government, women hold 36 of the 120 seats in the Legislature, a 30-percent-participation rate that is better than the national average of 24.8 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only one woman, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12), serves in the state’s Congressional delegation., “We’ve sort of plateaued there, since around 2008, in terms of state Legislature,” Muoio said. “We represent more than half the electorate in a typical election year, so we’re about halfway to where our voting numbers are.”, In Princeton, the story is different. Here, women hold four of the seven positions in the municipal government and six of the 10 school board seats, counting Spann, the representative of Cranbury, which has a send-receive relationship with Princeton., In 2013, the year the consolidated Princeton came into being, Mayor Liz Lempert took office to help usher in the new government. She was one of fewer than 80 female mayors in New Jersey, a state with 565 municipalities, according to the New Jersey State League of Municipalities., At the time, her two daughters were in the public schools, so she could find herself dealing with a university president, spending hours at a government meeting and fielding a cell phone call from one of her children needing a lift., “I feel like I have it easier than most people in that I have some flexibility built into my day,” Mayor Lempert said this week when asked about how she juggles both. “Everybody nowadays is super busy. And I think, on certain days, I do a better job at having everything under control than I do other days.”, Councilwoman Heather H. Howard began her political career 27 years ago in Washington D.C., including stints with New York Rep. Nita Lowey (D-17), the Clinton administration and former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Jon Corzine. She remembered having to stay overnight in the capitol during a state government shutdown, in 2006, and her husband bringing her then-3-year-old son to see her., “Sometimes your schedule is very unpredictable, but to me, I’ve had the advantage of good bosses (and) a very supportive partner,” she said. “And you make it work.”, She recalled that during the Corzine administration, the state became the second in the nation to have paid family leave, a policy that she had worked on., Yet Muoio expressed frustration that she never hears male politicians asked about how they intend to juggle both family and government responsibilities. She does not like the double-standard., “We should have the same challenges that men do in trying to juggle career demands and family demands,” Muoio said, “but for some reason women are the only ones that get asked that question.”, Typically, women tend to run for office later in life, in consideration of their families, said Sue Nemeth, a former Princeton Township Committeewoman who works at the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. She first ran for municipal office in 2008, when her son was a high schooler; then, when she ran for the Legislature four years later, he helped by driving her around when she was on the campaign trail., “It gave him a bird’s eye view of civic life and politics,” she said., She believed that serving in government, on one level, meant the end of having a private life, something Spann touched on when the trips to the Post Office or grocery take an hour because people want to stop and talk. But the experience of serving, Nemeth said, also gave her a connection to the community and saw her get to know more of her neighbors., “I have nothing bad to say about my time in office,” she said., Yet women office-seekers have hurdles. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that supports women in politics and the arts, did a study that found, among other things, that women have to overcome questions that voters have about their being able to do both, hold office and take care of a family., “Voters express concern about the ability of women candidates and elected officials to balance the competing priorities of their families and their constituents,” according to study findings on the organization’s web site. “Further, voters worry about the effect of running for office on the candidate’s children, on the candidate as a person and on the job she or he will do in office.”, Growing up in California, Mayor Lempert had a first-hand look at how someone juggles both roles. Her mother, Sue, was a school board member when she was in school and later ran for city council in San Mateo., “There was a part of me that was periodically annoyed,” Mayor Lempert said, “but I think there was like a larger example set, obviously, that it’s important to give back to your community and it’s important to be engaged and to take responsibility.”, “I try to do the best job for both positions, I guess, that I can, ” she said. “There’s times when one demands more time than the other. You just try to make it work.”, Mayor Lempert talked of structuring her days to make time for the family, even with night meetings to attend. Today, she has one daughter in college and her youngest in high school. She tries to be a role model for them., “And I think it’s also important, especially somebody who has daughters,” Mayor Lempert said, “to show them that you can make it work and that it’s important to find something that you love doing and that is meaningful and has an impact.”