National Women's Caucus Gathers to Find Strength For Election Challenges

POLITICAL POWER

LAUNCHING its 1994 campaign cycle at this weekend's biennial gathering, delegates from the National Women's Political Caucus embraced the battle cry, "The Year of The Woman: Do We Only Get One?"

Delegates here noted gains of the past several years, but raised warnings that the next two political seasons are likely to be far less successful than 1992 for women candidates, from county boards to Congress.

Gone are many of the catalysts which helped make last year "the year of the woman" - among them, widespread anger over the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee's treatment of law professor Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Absent also will be opportunities generated by 1990's census-based reapportionments that created hosts of new or open districts won by women. Instead, more Democratic incumbents will be women themselves, teetering in the same political

winds as President Clinton.

Other hurdles include congressional campaign-finance reform that threatens to constrict political-action committees like Emily's List, which last year raised $6.2 million for women candidates.

Delegates also cited the activities of fundamentalist political activists, who they say continue to coalesce around opponents to women in favor of male candidates.

NWPC leaders see their role as to help women over these hurdles. The 22-year-old, national grass-roots organization has grown to about 50,000 members, who help identify, recruit, train, and support women candidates.

"Nineteen ninety-two was the year of women's anger," says Eileen Padberg, a California-based Republican political consultant. Noting that the number of women in the United States House jumped from 28 to 47 last year, and there are now seven in the US Senate, she admonishes, "but just because we regained our voices doesn't mean we've broken through the glass ceiling."

Four days of seminars and workshops were designed to rekindle the flame for visiting delegates. They ranged from advanced political training for declared candidates or those seriously considering running to pep talks on the advancement of women in the Justice Department by new United States Attorney General Janet Reno.

Because other women officials from the Clinton administration were in attendance - Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and Deputy

Education Secretary Madeleine Kunin - some observers saw a wooing by Mr. Clinton not only of NWPC support, but of populous California. Ms. Reno hit the talk-show circuit after her speech.

Though short-term outlooks for women do not look as favorable as recent years, delegates were far from putting a negative spin on the longer term. Officials and members alike say they are riding a wave of success that began with local elections in the mid-1970s, graduated to waves of successful state legislators a decade later, and is now headed for record numbers of attempts to win gubernatorial seats - 23 in 1993 and 1994 combined.

"At long last, we've got the experienced candidates in the pipeline to draw on," said Harriet Woods, the NWPC president, predicting 1994 as the year of the woman governor. "But we will be challenged to recapture some of that special excitement we had in 1992 that pulled out the dollars as well as the political muscle for women."

The same thirst for dramatic change that swept Clinton into office is alive and well, participants said again and again. It fuels support for Ross Perot, and is reflected in term-limit initiatives at local, state, and federal levels. Women are seen as outsiders, not promoters of the status quo that continues to stifle change at all levels, they say.

"We represent change, and people all over the US are crying for it," said Dawn Clark, an Illinois state senator. "Because we have been caregivers and mothers, we can look at the long term ... we can stand up and do things differently ... we can balance a budget, why can't they [current male officeholders]?"

"We have been on the farm team for so long, and we know we are ready for the majors," said Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan legislator running for governor in 1994. "I'm so sick of being called a special-interest group, 53 percent of the population sounds like a majority to me."

One trend delegates examined was how political winds are blowing for women, Republican or Democrat. At the state legislature level, Democrat-to-Republican ratios mirror the national average, 60-40. But in Congress, the breakdown is approximately 75-25.

Republican Christine Reed, a four-time Santa Monica city councilor, says both voters and NWPC tend to support Democratic women because they are associated more with needed change than Republicans who tend to be more traditional in values.

"Republican women are catching on, but they see themselves as having to fight harder battles [than Democrats,]" Ms. Reed says.

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