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2018 an ‘unusual opportunity’ for women candidates in Tampa Bay, Florida

Nationwide, record numbers of women are running for congressional seats and governor’s offices, according to a study by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Pinellas County Democratic Party Chair Susan McGrath (center).
Pinellas County Democratic Party Chair Susan McGrath (center).
Published Jan. 31, 2018

University of Tampa political scientist Liv Coleman specializes in East Asian politics, but this year, for the first time, she's bringing her interest closer to home.

Coleman, of Bradenton, has filed to run against state Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, a key Florida backer of President Donald Trump.

"People are starting to lose faith in democracy, they're angry at government, they think it's not working for them, just for big donors," Coleman said.

She's part of a surge of newcomer women candidates in 2018 local and legislative races in the Tampa Bay area — and of what experts say is a national phenomenon of women jumping into this political year.

Locally and nationally, most of the female newcomers are Democrats, many challenging incumbent Republicans. And candidate recruiters and political insiders say many are motivated by anger at sexual harassment scandals, the current state of politics and the Trump administration.

"When you try to recruit women, they usually say, 'I'm not qualified,' or 'I've got children or aging parents at home,' " said Marley Wilkes of Ruth's List, which recruits and backs Democratic women candidates for local races in Florida.

"But this year they're mad as hell and fed up with the dysfunction in Tallahassee and Washington."

In Hillsborough County, there are nine first-time women candidates in legislative and county commission races, and more may file.

The numbers are smaller in Pinellas, but Wilkes noted that's partly because there are fewer state Senate races on the ballot because of redistricting; plus, two first-time women candidates, Brandi Gabbard and Gina Driscoll, won City Council seats in 2017.

Pinellas County Democratic Party Chair Susan McGrath said 2018 "is an unusual opportunity for women," and she's recruiting more.

"Polling is showing a generic woman candidate is polling better against a generic male candidate than we've seen in any of the past election cycles. The time is now, the momentum is now."

Despite that momentum, the hard political reality is that most of those newcomers, facing the incumbency advantage and fundraising ability of Republicans who dominate the Legislature, will lose.

Still, even a few winners among them could make a difference, such as tipping the majority on the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners.

Nationwide, record numbers of women are running for congressional seats and governor's offices, according to a study by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

"We've never seen numbers like this," greater than the 1992 "Year of the Woman," said Center Director Debbie Walsh:

— 50 likely female U.S. Senate candidates, up from the 2016 record of 40.

— 397 likely U.S. House candidates, up from the 2012 record 298.

— 79 female candidates for governorships, up from the 1994 record 34.

Most are outsiders challenging incumbents, and of the challengers, the overwhelming majority are Democrats, Walsh said.

The Center hasn't compiled data on their motives, "but anecdotally, if you had to pick one thing, it would be that the election of Donald Trump seems to have mobilized women to find a political voice," she said.

"They're angry, concerned, feeling powerless, and they want to unseat Republican candidates."

Motives like that inspired Tampa lawyer Erin Aebel, formerly absent from politics other than giving an occasional campaign donation, to form a highly successful Facebook group with the tongue-in-cheek name, "Surly Feminists for the Revolution" last year.

Newcomer candidates like Tampa marketing executive Debra Bellanti are hoping it and similar groups will provide them a support base. Bellanti faces an uphill battle against state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa.

She said Trump isn't her reason for running, but she thinks the current political climate "will put some wind at my back."

"One of my goals is to get people engaged in voting at the local level," she said. "We're now seeing what happens if people don't pay attention."

Wilkes' organization doesn't keep comprehensive state-level numbers, but she said her group has been swamped with potential candidates, along with 5,000 new donor-members.

Not all the women newcomers are Democrats.

In GOP-leaning state House District 39 in Polk and Osceola counties, Jennifer Spath and Josie Tomkow are competing for the GOP nomination in a special election.

Republican Cherie Denham of Tampa, in a county commissioner race, said she's pleased with the trend she's part of even though it consists mostly of Democrats.

"I think it's great that a lot of women are stepping up," even if they don't like Trump, whom she supports, she said. "Any time a woman moves into a position of leadership you're breaking ground for others."

Last year's Virginia General Assembly races, dominated by women candidates, could be a harbinger. With few other elections on the national scene, liberal groups and national donors poured money into the Virginia races.

Even so, Walsh said, two-thirds of the women candidates lost — but the winners still narrowed the Republicans' previously large majority to 51-49.

In November, the newcomers will have to compete for scarce political money in a nationwide election, and big donors won't want to waste money on those perceived as long shots.

Bellanti, for example, said she's been told the Florida trial lawyers association, normally a Democratic constituency, will back Toledo, as they did last year, and the state Democratic Party doesn't consider her race a top priority.

She hopes that could change under the new, female state chairman, Terrie Rizzo.

Coleman has few illusions about her chances against Gruters. He won his seat in 2016 by 65-35 percent, and his ties to Trump will aid his fundraising.

Coleman called the state Democratic Party two weeks ago, hoping for assistance. She hasn't heard back.

But, she said, "I think every district should be contested by both parties. We'll have issues discussed that otherwise wouldn't come up."

Others have better odds.

Polls show Sarasota lawyer Margaret Good neck-and-neck with Republican James Buchanan, son of Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, in a special election for the state House next month. If Good wins the GOP-leaning district, it will signal potential problems for Republicans in November.

In Pinellas County, Jennifer Webb may be the frontrunner for the Democratic-leaning state House seat currently held by Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island.

And in Hillsborough, Democrats have hopes for newcomer Mariella Smith of Dover against Republican Commissioner Victor Crist for a countywide seat.

Smith acknowledges it's a "David vs. Goliath fight."

But if she wins – and if outgoing state Rep. Janet Cruz fulfills Democratic expectations by winning an open seat –Democrats will control the board 4-3, their first majority in 15 years.


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