What Makes a Candidate?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With Governor Ritter's surprise announcement last week the dominos quickly fell into place on the pecking order of who should be the nominee for Governor.

The general consensus was 1. Secretary Salazar, 2. Mayor Hickenlooper, 3. Representative Perlmutter. And now Mayor Hickenlooper has announced he will run for Governor. This quick "hand over" of the nomination to the top executive position in our state prompted me to think about exactly what (or who) makes a candidate? Why were these three our "go-to" guys? The immediate answer is they each have the requisite experience and viability. This is a trend in our state. During the 2009 Senate appointment process to fill Secretary Salazar's seat, women were also left off of the short list.

This then begs the question: why were many of our female elected officials and potential candidates with an equal or greater measure of these requirements overlooked?

Ask people what makes a viable candidate and most will answer, "experience." In these volatile times, the voting public is wary of electing someone who hasn't been around the block a few times. If "experience" is the primary criteria, it is followed closely "viability": the ability to raise money state-wide, and by having name-recognition across the state. Given where Colorado is financially, we would assume voters would appreciate a candidate with intimate knowledge of the workings of the state budgetary process. Perhaps even someone who has steered the state through one of the worst recessions this country has ever seen. Our State Treasurer Cary Kennedy fits the bill entirely, and yet she was passed over for consideration.

I have heard from a lot of people that Mayor Hickenlooper and Secretary Salazar were at the top of the list of potential gubernatorial candidates because they have proven that they could win a state-wide race. But Treasurer Kennedy has successfully run state- wide, has proven she can raise money for a state-wide race, and is seen as a leading expert on the issue that every poll shows is number one on the minds of Colorado's voters: the economy. Another potential candidate, Representative Betsy Markey, represents a larger geographic area than Mayor Hickenlooper and her colleague Rep. Perlmutter, whom the media was also touting as a potential candidate for the governor's seat.

I have also heard that there is a pecking order to the nomination for governor, and therefore Treasurer Kennedy has to "wait her turn". If our list of potential candidates is based on seniority then Representative Diana Degette should have been at the top of the list. She is the Democrats senior member in congress.

Aside from these empirical facts, Colorado likes electing women. We were the first state to elect a woman state wide in 1899, and last year led the nation in the number of women in our legislature. Our recently released study, "The White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women's Leadership" cited recent polling by the gFk/Roper that showed voters trust women as much if not more than men to lead on important issues. Given all this, the perception that Treasurer Kennedy could not win, or would have less of a chance to succeed than someone like Mayor Hickenlooper or Representative Perlmutter is false.

The reason these women were not immediately on the list or part of everyone's discussions of who will run in Governor Ritter's place has just as much if not more to do with the media and culture than electability and experience.

In 2000 The White House Project conducted some ground breaking research called "Hair, Hemlines and Husbands". The conclusion was that not only were male candidates covered more frequently by the news media, but the coverage was focused on their stances on the issues and on their voting records, while the discussion around the female candidates often revolved around their hair, their hemlines and their husbands.

We followed up that research in 2001 with "From Soundbites to Solutions". This research found that on political talk shows, and on interviews between the media and political experts, male guests outnumbered female guest 9 to1. We also found that these appearances have an influence over the electorate if forming perceptions of who is qualified to lead and who is not based on who is sitting at the table.

In the days since Governor Ritter announced his decision, Mayor Hickenlooper was mentioned dozens of times and has been in the headlines at least seven times. Both Salazar and Perlmutter have also been mentioned dozens of times. It was a full three days before many of the political blogs, news websites and TV stations began to mention Treasurer Kennedy, or Representatives Markey or DeGette in more than a tokenizing way. At the same time many of mentions of Treasurer Kennedy pointedly noted that she was a mother, and mused on how that would weigh on her decision. Mayor Hickenlooper's family was only mentioned once or twice out of dozens of mentions of his decision.

These not-so-subtle endorsements of Mayor Hickenlooper by the media made his announcement appear inevitable. The media had elevated him to frontrunner status as the Democratic nominee before he even formally entered the race.

We need to make the Colorado state-wide political bench bigger and more diverse, and we need the media to focus on female candidates as seriously as they have on their male counterparts.

My call to action is threefold:

  1. Let's ask our local media to examine their coverage of potential female candidates for the governor's race, so they can clearly see the gender-bias in their reporting.
  2. As members of the electorate, let's ask our political parties to push all viable candidates to the top, and let's ask ourselves to start thinking of female candidates as serious contenders.
  3. And finally, let's ask a competent woman we know to run for office, from the local level all the way through to a candidate like Treasurer Kennedy. The number one reason women run for office is that someone says, " I believe in you and you should run".
If we all take these three steps, the next election cycle in Colorado could be truly representative of the diversity and talent our state has to offer. We deserve nothing less.