By Ovetta Wiggins
Martha McKenna expected about 75 people to attend her group’s annual fundraiser. Then Hillary Clinton lost.
And the RSVP list for last week’s gathering for Emerge Maryland, part of a national network that identifies potential female Democratic candidates for office and encourages them to run, swelled to nearly 250 people.
Business executives, mothers, lawyers, community activists, elected officials and would-be politicians were among those who filled the arts space in Northeast Baltimore on Thursday night. They were shocked by the defeat of the former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady in the presidential election and were troubled by the looming departure of the only two women in Maryland’s congressional delegation.
Most of all, they were eager to join the effort to get more Maryland women elected.
“It’s women saying we’re not done,” said Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), who participated in Emerge’s inaugural training program in 2013 and was elected to the House of Delegates a year later. “We may be devastated, but we’re fired up.”
The 23 women selected for this round of training will spend the next six months learning the “nuts and bolts” of running for office. Many are gearing up for the 2018 elections.
“There are a lot of delegates in this room; they just haven’t been elected yet,” McKenna, the chair of Emerge Maryland, told the crowd to enthusiastic applause.
Women make up 31.9 percent of the Maryland General Assembly, according to the Center or American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. A decade ago, it was 35.6 percent
And with the retirement of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), Rep. Donna F. Edwards’s loss to Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary race for Mikulski’s seat, and the defeat of women in several other congressional races, Maryland will send an all-male delegation to the Capitol next month for the first time since 1941.
Only two women — Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) and Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner (D) — hold the top elected post in the state’s 24 main jurisdictions, and no woman hold any of the four statewide elected executive positions — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller.
“In terms of the pipeline, it has been leaking,” said Connie Morella, a Republican who represented Maryland’s 8th Congressional District for 16 years.
In 1987, while Morella was in Congress, there were five women in the 10-member Maryland delegation. “I’m very sad about the decreasing numbers,” Morella said, noting a drop in female representation in Maryland and also for Republican congresswomen nationwide.
Kathleen Matthews, a former news anchor and Marriott executive who ran for Morella’s old seat this year but lost in the Democratic primary, said her concern about the lack of women officeholders led her to join the board of directors of Emerge Maryland a short time later.
Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), who was defeated in the 4th Congressional District primary, made the same move.
Both Peña-Melnyk and Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) say they are weighing statewide runs in 2018. They were among the current officeholders cheering on the recruits at last week’s event.
Twice as many women applied to participate in the program than last year, said Diane Penkova Fink, executive director of Emerge Maryland. The group decided to expand from 15 to 23 because of the increased interest.
Over nine sessions and 75 hours of training, the program tries to “demystify the process” of running for elected office, Matthews said, offering Democratic women advice and support about fundraising, mounting a media campaign, and engaging labor and community and business leaders.
“You’ll get more women [in office] when you get more women to run,” said Matthews, who plans another political campaign but has not made a decision on which office she will pursue.
Marisol Johnson, an appointee to the Baltimore County Board of Education and the county’s Democratic Central Committee, said she looks forward to learning and “building a sisterhood” with others in the group.This year’s class is the most diverse group in Emerge Maryland’s five years. Ten are African American, nine are white, two are Hispanic, one is Asian and one is multiracial. Their ages range from 29 to 60, and they represent Baltimore City and seven counties: Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Baltimore.
She said she is driven by her belief that the state needs more Latinas in elected office, although she, too, hasn’t decided what office she might pursue.
“Our country is changing,” Johnson said. “And we need people [in office] to make decisions who represent the change.”
Lily Qi, who grew up in China and says she never imagined a life in politics, applied to Emerge to learn about the process.
“I’m in the class to explore,” said Qi, who works in public policy in Montgomery County on economic development and workforce development issues. She said more immigrants should become engaged.
Denise Mitchell, who lost her bid for College Park mayor in 2015, said there is a sense of urgency to turn the numbers around in Maryland, “especially now Barbara Mikulski is gone.”
“Who do we have now?” Mitchell said. “We have to grow our next set of leaders.”
Fink said she is feeling inspired by what she calls “the Hillary factor.”
“As depressing as this election was, I am encouraged that women have not shirked away, are not hiding in the corners,” she said. “They are saying, ‘We are the ones who are going to make a difference.’”