Fed up with the disproportionately small number of women holding elected offices and fueled by the Trump administration, the #MeToo movement and the ongoing national conversation of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workforce, a record number of women have signed up as candidates for political office. Maryland is right in the thick of it: More than 190 women in Maryland registered as candidates for offices ranging from Congress, governor, comptroller and the state legislature for Tuesday’s primary. Currently the Free State’s record is mixed. Although one-third of Maryland’s state legislators are women, it is only one of a dozen states with no women in Congress; for the first time since 1941, Maryland has an all-male delegation on Capitol Hill. This occurred after the 2016 election, when Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) retired and Rep. Donna F. Edwards lost to Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary for Mikulski’s seat, along with the defeat of women in several other congressional races.
In addition, Maryland is one of 22 states to have never had a woman serve as governor. One woman is hoping to change that: Krishanti Vignarajah, a former official in the Obama administration who has chosen another woman, Sharon Blake, as her running mate. Valerie Ervin also had filed to run for governor but recently threw her support behind Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
Maryland’s 2018 female candidates offer voters much diversity in ethnicity, location and sexual orientation. One of the candidates, Chelsea E. Manning, gained national recognition when she successfully appealed to have the Army health system pay for her gender change. She was previously convicted of passing sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks, but President Obama commuted her sentence. She is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Democratic primary. Although the majority of women running for office are Democrats, distress with the current and past treatment of women cuts across party lines. Valerie Oliver, a Republican from Smithsburg, says she is running for a seat on the county commission in Washington County primarily because of the actions of one of the current commissioners, LeRoy E. Myers Jr., who has been accused of sexual harassment.
Here is a quick snapshot of four of the women candidates: Aruna Miller Growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Aruna Miller never thought about running for political office. As an immigrant who came to this country from India when she was 7, she says her family never talked about politics: “We were taught to stay under the radar and don’t rock the boat.”
Following in her parents’ footsteps she decided to become an engineer, earning a degree in civil engineering from Missouri University of Science and Technology. She then worked as a transportation engineer in local governments in California, Virginia and Hawaii. She settled in Maryland in 1990, where she married and raised three daughters, all the while working as a transportation engineer for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Then in 2004 she became frustrated when U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost to President George W. Bush and she began to volunteer to help other candidates get elected. She was appointed to the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee in 2006. She served on the committee for four years, and says she learned so much from being part of “boots on the ground, meeting and working with volunteers who showed me the best of who they are.” When an opening came up for a seat in the state legislature and activists urged her to consider it, she was reluctant at first. “I am an engineer, not a politician,” she remembered thinking. It was her husband David who convinced her to take the politics out of it.
“You would be a public servant just as you were when working for local governments as a transportation engineer,” he told her. She ran in 2010 as part of the District 15 team, which she credits for being supportive, sharing resources and mailers together for eight years. In the Maryland House of Delegates she worked on issues such as the minimum-wage hike, gun safety and marriage equality. Another unplanned opportunity popped up when U.S. Rep. John K. Delaney (D) decided to vacate his 6th District congressional seat to run for president. This time many factors prompted Miller to jump in as a candidate. First, she realized there are few opportunities where congressional seats open up. Miller said she would like to see a woman represent Maryland in Congress again, although she says she is running not just because she is a woman raising a family but also because she is a transportation engineer with a history of public service. She says she also has the unique experience as an immigrant when immigrants are being marginalized in this country. The congressional district includes Gaithersburg and Germantown, cities listed in the top 10 most diverse in the nation. It extends to the farthest reaches of Western Maryland. As a candidate, Miller is stressing issues close to her heart, like universal health care, as well as upgrading the county’s infrastructure and the environment. Endorsements include the Sierra Club, the National Education Association and Emily’s List, as well as U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Miller, 53, is not the only woman in the Democratic primary for the 6th District congressional seat — she faces Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician and novelist who is also the daughter of immigrants. Miller’s most prominent opponent in the race is David Trone, the co-founder of Total Wine and Liquor. Trone has already spent $10 million of his own money on the race. He has garnered some noteworthy endorsements, including that of Delaney. Alice Johnson Cain Alice Cain’s decision to run for a House of Delegates seat from Anne Arundel County grew out of an incident of sexual assault many years ago when she was 22 and working for U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). As she tells it, she was groped by a big donor but, as a new staffer, didn’t do anything about it. When the #MeToo movement started she signed a petition calling on politicians of both political parties to step down if they were guilty of mistreating women.
She subsequently was quoted in The New York Times in a story on sexual harassment and appeared on MSNBC, and her profile skyrocketed.
“What happened in the next two weeks with people calling me from all over the country, revealing their bad experiences and participating in meaningful conversations, made me want to make the jump from non-profit executive to policy maker,” she said. Cain has spent 25 years involved in education policy, most recently as the executive vice president at Teach Plus, a nonprofit that promotes teachers as leaders. Before taking on that role she worked for the education committee in the House of Representatives, helping to write Race to the Top, a law passed in 2011 and signed by President Obama which increased federal funding for public schools by over $4 billion, including an additional $250 million for Maryland public schools. Cain, 50, also worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, where she was involved in a national grass-roots advocacy campaign that was responsible for adding 2 million more kids in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, 140,000 of whom reside in Maryland. She is concerned that the Trump administration is working to take those gains away. Other professional experience includes working at the National Institute for Literacy. Last year she was appointed to serve as a commissioner on the Annapolis Education Commission. As a Democrat running for the House from District 30A, she will be campaigning to fill one of only two seats available on the Democratic slate. Del. Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), the incumbent who serves as the House speaker, is running for re-election along with two other Democrats and four Republicans. If elected, Cain says she will continue her long interest in quality education by supporting the findings of the Kirwin Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. She vows to work to provide the funding the commission will recommend on education reforms, including better equity in the schools. Climate change is another issue Cain says she is passionate about.
“As a parent we need to look at what we can do to keep moving forward in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and on forest conservation – it’s time to get a bill [that’s been in the legislature] passed,” she said. Preventing gun violence is a third priority. “You never used to hear about a mass shooting in a school or a concert hall. … I know things can be different,” she said. “We need to feel safe, and we are losing that sense of safety as a society.” Cain has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and Teach Plus. Robbyn T. Lewis As a respected community leader for many years in Baltimore, Robbyn Lewis, 54, was used to working on health care issues, transportation issues, the environment, and she volunteered in her neighborhood to help her fellow neighbors keep it clean. Opportunity knocked when Del. Peter A. Hammen joined Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s administration, opening up a vacancy in District 46. Lewis says she was more than surprised. “I was used to volunteering on the campaigns of Luke Clippinger and Brooke Lierman, the incumbent delegates, but I was shocked when they asked me [to run],” she said. But after the shock she realized what an opportunity it was, especially for a black woman who wanted to assume a role of helping people in her neighborhood. She is the first African-American woman to represent District 46. Lewis is the daughter and granddaughter of educators. She earned a degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a master’s in public health from Columbia University. She then spent two decades working in nearly a dozen countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, becoming fluent in several languages along the way. According to her bio, Ms. Lewis conducted research and started programs to prevent infectious diseases in dozens of countries and also served in the Peace Corps in Niger. A move to southeast Baltimore in 2003 offered more opportunities to put her background in public health to use. She found herself working with neighbors as a member of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association where she and others, starting in 2003, planted over 130 trees. She also advocated for the Red Line light rail.
“Access to opportunity in Baltimore means access to public transportation,” she said. “People who are unemployed are the people who most depend on public transit and we need that opportunity to help them gain jobs.” And she also notes that employed people have better health outcomes. Lewis was also one of the founders of a local school, Patterson Park Public Charter School.
“We saw a need, mobilized, and started a school, which is now thriving and diverse,” she said. She started working as a special assistant to the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange in 2014.
“Access to health care is a human right, and it’s always been my belief,” she said.
Since taking office in January 2017 she continues to work on the health and environment. With her fellow delegates she worked to bring home $11.7 million to Baltimore and claims that a large portion of that will come to the 46th District. Finally, she views public safety as a public health issue. She helped to pass legislation to expand the Safe Streets program that works with community members to stop violence before it starts. Lewis says she loves being in office with her background as a public health professional and as a community leader, and believes “it’s a perfect time for someone like me to be in office,” she said.
In addition to the other incumbents, there are two more Democrats in the primary: Dea Thomas, another African-American woman who, like Lewis, is a graduate of Emerge Maryland, a national organization that trains Democratic women to run for office, and Nate Loewentheil, a political newcomer who has ties to former President Obama. Loewentheil has raised $430,000, compared to Lewis’ $111,000, according to the latest reports filed in June.
Jan Gardner Jan Gardner was elected as the first county executive of Frederick County in 2014. The Democrat won the race by a wide margin fighting an uphill battle where she managed to pull in independents and Republicans to beat Blaine Young, a Republican, a well-known radio host and the president of the board of county commissioners. Leading up to that win, Gardner, 61, who has lived in Frederick County for 26 years, raised three children with her husband John. She volunteered as a Girl Scout leader and PTA officer which led to serving on numerous Frederick County boards such as the public libraries Board of Trustees, the Frederick Arts Council, the Frederick County Planning Commission and then the Frederick County Commission, serving as the commission’s president from 2006 to 2010. One of her biggest challenges when elected, she said, was managing what she calls “residential growth and the bad land-use decisions made by prior board of county commissioners, which were tied up with developer agreements. They approved construction of about 1,400 houses locked down with developers for 20 to 30 years and zeroed out the fees that development usually paid for roads and schools. This will present even bigger financial challenges 20 years from now.”
“People want to have infrastructure and think development should pay its way,” she said. “It’s a challenge and will continue to be a challenge, and no other Maryland county has these agreements with developers.” To help ameliorate the situation, Gardner approved no new residential growth during her first term. Gardner lists four key priorities: education, jobs, seniors and community needs.
If re-elected she vows to maintain the county’s AAA bond rating as well as managing residential growth responsibly “by timing growth with our ability to provide needed schools, roads and essential services.” At the same time, she promises to lift the salaries of teachers as well as promising pay raises for firefighters. As someone representing a county with 2,600 more Republicans than Democrats, Gardner touts her ability to work in a non-partisan manner for the good of those she represents. Republicans represent a plurality but not a majority, she says, and the gap has already narrowed by about half. As someone with an MBA who worked for Quaker Oats and then performed financial work for Frederick County, Gardner also vows to continue balanced budgets under her continued leadership. She considers herself a “budget hawk,” whose administration boasts a pension plan that is 98 percent funded. Gardner’s likely general election opponent is also a woman, Del. Kathryn A. Afzali (R).