Taking more seats at the table
In progressive California, women make significant gains in the Legislature.
That might not sound like much for a progressive state like California — home to a roster of powerful female politicians who have smashed down barriers in Washington, D.C., including the first woman vice president, Kamala Harris; first woman House speaker, Nancy Pelosi; and the longest-serving woman senator, Dianne Feinstein.
But compared with the paltry representation women have had in Sacramento in recent years, the coming change amounts to a huge jump. Five years ago, just 22% of state lawmakers were women. In 2017, as my former colleagues at CalMatters pointed out, the Legislature included more white men named Jim than Black and Asian American women combined.
I’m the new Sacramento bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. I started the position last week after spending a year on The Times’ editorial board and more than 20 years in California journalism. I am very excited to work with an outstanding team of reporters who cover California politics and the state Capitol. And I look forward to hearing from you with ideas and tips.
As election returns have rolled in over the last few weeks and it’s become clear that women will comprise a sizable portion of the new class of state lawmakers, I’ve been reflecting on election night 2016. I was in Los Angeles reporting on an assemblywoman who had been working to get more women elected to the Legislature. She was wearing a pantsuit in homage to Hillary Clinton, who was widely expected to win office that night as the first female president. We all know how that turned out.
Instead of writing what I planned — an article saying that Californians sent a bumper crop of women lawmakers to Sacramento the same night Americans elected the country’s first female president — I wrote that Donald Trump won the presidency and the number of women in the Legislature was poised to drop to the lowest level in two decades.
But a lot has happened since then. A surge of feminist activism fueled the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement and, most recently, an electoral backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse nationwide abortion rights. Clinton’s loss also inspired Democratic women to seek political office across the country and up and down the ballot.
One of them was Caroline Menjivar, a San Fernando Valley native who in 2016 had just left the Marine Corps to pursue a degree in social work. “I was involved in all those marches,” she told me. “There was a fire.”
Six years later, Menjivar is about to be sworn in as a state senator representing the San Fernando Valley after winning a tough race that she entered as a clear underdog. Menjivar’s opponent was fellow Democrat Daniel Hertzberg, the son of outgoing Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who represented the region as a senator and an assemblyman. Daniel Hertzberg had name recognition and a huge fundraising advantage.
“Everyone I talked to was like … ‘There’s no way you’re gonna win,’ ” Menjivar said. “Certain individuals told me to drop out, that there was no point in me continuing.”
And this is where the story of the rising number of women lawmakers becomes less about the cultural zeitgeist and more about the tactical side of politics — factors such as redistricting, term limits and candidate recruitment.
A historic number of resignations and retirements in the Legislature created opportunities for women to run for office without the extra hurdle of challenging incumbents, said Susannah Delano, executive director of Close the Gap California, a group that recruits and trains progressive women to run for office. New district boundaries also helped mix up the field in some areas.
“The cultural moment definitely helps,” she said. “But the big step forward we’re seeing this year is most clearly a result of a concerted effort over many years of cultivation and support for women candidates paying off.”
Menjivar was among 10 women the group trained who are heading to Sacramento this year, which amounts to half the women newly elected this year. In addition to the 30 female incumbents who were reelected, there will probably be 50 women (and as many as 52, depending on the outcome of a couple of close races) among the Legislature’s 120 members.
And all those guys named Jim? A couple of them still hold office in Sacramento. But most have moved on or termed out.