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Democratic Women Governors May Disappear After 2012 Elections

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North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue (D) and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), who are not running for reelection in 2012.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue (D) and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), who are not running for reelection in 2012.

WASHINGTON -- There are currently two Democratic female governors in the entire nation. After November, there may be zero.

While four Republican female governors are currently in office, the only two female Democrats -- Washington's Christine Gregoire and North Carolina's Bev Perdue -- are both stepping down after 2012.

"We might as well turn the clock back 50 years, because that's the last time we were without a sitting woman governor who supported reproductive choices and options, and that's what we're looking at again," said Sam Bennett, president and CEO and of the Women's Campaign Fund.

New Hampshire is the only state that even has the potential to elect a female governor in the fall. Former state Sen. Jackie Cilley and former state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan are locked in a tight primary race, along with firefighter Bill Kennedy. Either Cilley or Hassan would have to win their Sept. 11 primary and then win the general election if the nation is to continue having a Democratic woman leading a state.

"This one? This is a big, big deal," said EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization has endorsed Hassan. "It will be, for us, the springboard to a lot of recruitment for 2014."

The low number of Democratic women in office is partly a result of the drubbing Democrats took in 2010, when several women ran but didn't win. What's more, when President Barack Obama took office, he pulled two prominent Democratic female governors -- Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas -- out of their states and into his cabinet.

While just four states have never had a woman elected to Congress, nearly half of all states have never had a female governor.

Gregoire has served as both attorney general and governor of Washington state. She said women still face unique challenges when running for executive positions.

"Probably the best way to capture it is, when I ran for attorney general, I wasn't tough enough to be attorney general. I was running against a couple of prosecutors, and I wasn't tough enough in large part because I was a female," Gregoire said. "Then when I proved I could be tough enough to be attorney general, I ran for governor, and I was too tough to be governor. And you ask, is this the same standard that would be applied to a male candidate?"

Cilley said when she found out that she was one of only two Democratic female gubernatorial candidates, she was "flabbergasted." In 2008, while she was still in the state Senate, New Hampshire's legislature became the first in the country in which the majority of the lawmakers were female.

"It seemed to me that we had broken a lot of barriers -- not just here in New Hampshire, but we could see it happening across the country," she said. "Now women's voices have been pounded back to 1956 levels."

Both EMILY's List and WCF have endorsed Hassan, and Gregoire recently went to New Hampshire to host a fundraiser for her. Cilley, meanwhile, recently picked up the endorsement of New Hampshire's largest labor organization.

EMILY's List is committed to helping pro-choice Democratic women get elected. Schriock acknowledged that both Hassan and Cilley are pro-choice, but her group was particularly impressed with Hassan's organization and believed she would be best able to defeat Republicans in November. It's one of just a few races in the country this cycle in which multiple pro-choice Democratic women candidates are running against each other and EMILY's List has chosen one to endorse.

"We looked very very closely at her campaign," Schriock said of Hassan. "She's very well-organized, she's building an incredibly strong coalition of elected officials, grassroots leaders -- already major labor unions in the state have endorsed her and come on board, I know there are others shortly coming on as well. She's really running just a strong, organized campaign that she's going to need to win in November. This is going to be a tough race."

The most significant policy disagreement in the New Hampshire Democratic primary is around taxes. Hassan has pledged she will not support instituting any statewide income or sales tax. In the absence of such taxes, the government relies primarily on business and property taxes. Cilley refused to make any promises, saying she believes the state should have a conversation about the issue. Kennedy supports the new taxes.

Cilley questioned EMILY's List's decision to endorse Hassan, especially in light of her position on this issue.

"Pledge politics and the over-reliance on property taxes in the state of New Hampshire harm women disproportionately, significantly so," she said, arguing that because women generally live longer and earn less than their husbands, they end up shouldering the burden of property taxes and often can't keep their homes when their partner passes away.

Cilley recounted the story of a woman she met whose husband had died and who was about to lose her home because she couldn't afford to pay the property taxes.

"The property tax situation in New Hampshire is so regressive that she has now paid 10 times the value of what it cost to build that house. Ten times. That woman deserves a conversation," she said.

But Cilley and Hassan agree on the need to make sure that Ovide Lamontagne -- the Republican gubernatorial frontrunner who has said he wants to be "Scott Walker on steroids," referencing the governor of Wisconsin -- doesn't win in November.

"I am already focused on the fact that this governor's race is ultimately about whether the Tea Party in New Hampshire consolidates its power or not," said Hassan. "The Tea Party has a supermajority in both of our legislative chambers right now -- a huge change from 2004-2010."

In the 2012 legislative session, New Hampshire Republicans pushed to defund Planned Parenthood and put forward two bills that would seriously weaken the state's domestic violence laws.

Cilley said she is confident Democrats will take back the state legislature in November. "I am astounded at the various walks of life that I talk to that are totally distressed about what's happened in our Statehouse," she said.

A poll released last month by Public Policy Polling found that the New Hampshire governor's race remains a virtual toss-up. While Hassan led Cilley 23 percent to 20 percent, 57 percent of voters said they were still undecided. In a general election match-up, both candidates would be virtually tied with Lamontagne, according to the poll.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hassan announced she had raised approximately $700,000 through the June 14 filing period, which her campaign said was a "record amount for a first-time gubernatorial candidate." She has $400,000 in cash on hand. Cilley raised $175,000, and Lamontagne brought in more than $910,000. Kennedy had not yet released his total.

Beyond New Hampshire, Gregoire worries about the cascading effect that a lack of female role models could have on future generations.

"Probably my favorite story is a little guy who came up to me and asked whether he could be like me some day when he grew up," said Gregoire. "When I grew up, being governor wasn't even remotely a thought that women could consider. So I think we need to keep role models. We need to encourage our young kids that ... [they] should consider running."

This story has been updated with Jackie Cilley's fundraising numbers.

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