Posted: July 15, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Ruth Ann Minner is the first woman in Delaware to be the governor, but she is also on the verge of becoming a noteworthy "last" -- the last woman in Delaware in statewide office.

When Minner's second term expires in January and she retires, the odds are close to insurmountable that statewide officialdom will be just for men.

Who knew the name of a hair coloring solution could turn into the state motto?

It happened nonchalantly, the way pay-telephone booths and black-and-white televisions just were not around anymore.

"I'm a little saddened by it. I don't know how to explain it," said state Rep. Helene Keeley, the Democratic minority whip.

The retreat occurred over the last decade. In 1998 there was virtually gender parity with four of the nine statewide offices occupied by women -- Minner, the lone Democrat, as lieutenant governor along with a Republican trio of Attorney General Jane Brady, Treasurer Janet Rzewnicki and Insurance Commissioner Donna Lee Williams.

Minner and Brady both were regarded as potential gubernatorial candidates. When Minner broke through in 2000, it created a sense that gender equity had a permanent place in the political environment here. Now it looks like a false spring.

Minner remains the only woman to reach the charmed circle of the state's most prestigious officeholders -- governor and the three members of the congressional delegation. Delaware has not elected a woman to Capitol Hill yet.

It seems strange that the dearth of women comes now, after Minner provided a living example -- and she was not the only one.

"Minner and the most serious woman candidate for president," said state Sen. Liane Sorenson, the Republican minority whip.

The political history of women in Delaware has not been covered in glory. The state had a chance to provide the decisive vote to ratify the 19th Amendment for women's suffrage in 1920, but the legislature defeated it. The clash, one of the most famous ever, was called the "War of the Roses" because the pro-ratification forces wore yellow ones and the other side wore red.

The amendment became the law of the land in 1920, anyway, but it took another 36 years before a woman in Delaware was elected to statewide office.

Vera Davis, a Republican grande dame from Kent County, won the treasurer's race in 1956. She was defeated two years later by Belle Everett, her Democratic counterpart. Everett had staying power -- enough to keep the office for four terms and to have the Kent County Democrats name their annual dinner after her.

The first women elected to statewide office other than treasurer were Minner as lieutenant governor and Williams as insurance commissioner, both in 1992. Rzewnicki already was there as treasurer, and Brady came along in 1994.

That is all. Since the creation of the Delaware State in 1776, the entire statewide class of women not pigeonholed as treasurer is Minner, Brady and Williams.

This is politics. It is not supposed to be almost as hard as cracking the U.S. Supreme Court.

By Delaware's political standards, the women have not lasted long. Joe Biden, the Democratic senator, has set the all-time mark with 35 years in statewide office. Tom Carper, the other Democratic senator, won his first statewide race in 1976, and  Mike Castle, the Republican congressman, won his in 1980.

There are three women running for statewide office in 2008, but for the most part it seems like old times -- when women got ballot slots that had gone begging. Republican Christine O'Donnell is running against Biden. Democrat Karen Hartley-Nagle is in a Democratic congressional primary leading to a race against Castle. Democrat Karen Weldin Stewart is making her third try for insurance commissioner.

There has not been a conspiracy to rid statewide offices of women, nor has there been the vigilance needed to preserve such a fragile beachhead.

"There's a good-new-boy network out there," groused one politician, criticizing both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party for it.

Whatever it is, the women were crowded out by a new phalanx of men, talented enough to be regarded as part of the state's next generation of leadership.

Rzewnicki lost for treasurer in 1998 to Jack Markell, one of the two Democrats running for governor this year. A hasty retirement by Williams saved her from a challenge in 2004 from Matt Denn, the Democratic insurance commissioner now a candidate for lieutenant governor. Brady angled for a judgeship that kept her from facing Beau Biden, the Democrat elected attorney general in 2006.

"The farm team for the Democrats is an impenetrable wall," Sorenson said.

Jim Soles, a political scientist retired from the University of Delaware, wonders whether this pause for women in politics comes as they discovered they can make their way in the private sector.

"I think part of it may be the growing influence of women in business and in the professions, doctors and lawyers. Maybe in their 50s and 60s they will run for something, but right now they have children to send to college," Soles said.

There are still women willing to run for the legislature, where roughly one-third of its 62 members are women, some with key leadership roles. In addition to Sorenson and Keeley, there are state Sen. Patti Blevins as the Democratic majority whip and state Sen. Nancy Cook, one of the most respected figures in Legislative Hall, as the Democratic co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee.

Sorenson is waiting for some women to be willing to come out of the legislature to run for higher office, like some of her Republican colleagues in the state House of Representatives. "I'd love to see Debbie Hudson or Donna Stone," she said.

What about Sorenson herself? "I'm happy where I am," she said.

Right answer. Sorenson is up for election this year and does not need any false distractions. There are two men on the Democratic side gunning for her seat.