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A Woman-Powered Victory For Democrats

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Message Randolph Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - I'll admit it. I'm still trying to get my bearings after seeing the Democrats prevail in last week's mid-term elections.

Sure, record numbers of people showed up to vote and it was a tremendous thing to see. We can only hope that the energy and desire for change that drove so many to vote last week doesn't fade now that the election is over.

The Democrats now have a solid majority in the U.S. House and a plurality in the U.S. Senate. But the victory is tempered by the reality that the Patriot Act - with all of its unconstitutional intrusions upon our privacy and its unprecedented shift of power from the courts and Congress to the executive branch - remains intact.

The recently passed Military Commissions Act - which effectively repealed habeas corpus and most of the Bill of Rights while giving the president the power to summarily arrest and indefinitely detain any American - remains intact.

There is not a veto-proof majority in either house and President Bush will continue to use his "signing statements" to disregard any law that Congress passes that Bush disagrees with.

In short, the Democrats are still up against a president that has near-dictatorial powers, including a little-noticed provision approved last month that give the president the power to declare martial law on his own, without consulting anyone.

There remains much to be done in Washington, and complacency is not an option. Last week's victories are merely the continuation of a long and hard struggle to retake our democracy and reclaim the rule of law.

But there is one welcome development worth noting - the great success of women running for elective office this year and perhaps the death of an old stereotype in American politics.

Republicans are supposed to be "the daddy party," strong on national security and fiscal responsibility. The Democrats are supposed to be the "mommies," squishy on national security but strong on health care and education.

The stereotype, however, no longer holds. Not after we've watched the Bush administration trying to be "strong" while making a mess of things in Iraq and running up the highest budget deficits in history.

There is no doubt that this was a great year for women in politics. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is about to become the first female speaker of the U.S. House. There will be 16 women in the U.S. Senate next year, a record number.

My adopted home state, Vermont, is no stranger to woman-power. It has among the highest percentage of elected female officials in the country, with 60 women in the House and Senate going into this year's elections.

Does it make a difference? In 2002, the Institute for Women's Policy Research looked at the link between the number of women in elected office and the legislation they enact. They found on the state level that the more women there are in elected office, the more woman-friendly legislation gets enacted. Vermont was ranked second behind Hawaii as the best in this area. The worst three? Tennessee, Mississippi and Idaho.

But it's not only so-called women's issues that helped a large number of female candidates win office this year. In an election where voters wanted change, women got support because they represented a departure from business as usual. The taint of corruption and incompetence did not hang over most of the women who ran for office this year.

Support for female candidates has increased dramatically over the past decade. Unfortunately, it is also true that in politics, as in almost any other endeavor, women are judged by a higher standard and have more unreasonable expectations placed upon them. There have been more than a few empty suits who have run for political office, but very few women get a chance to run unless they have solid credentials.

Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, who ran for governor in Massachusetts, was a good example. She was smart and hard-working, but she had more money than accomplishment in her personal background. She was perceived as a lightweight by the voters, and she was trounced by Democratic candidate Deval Patrick.

Then there is Pelosi, a woman who earned the speaker's job on merit. As House minority leader in a time of party disarray, over the last two years she got the Democrats to stay together on votes an amazing 88 percent of the time. That is a good sign that she can get the job done.

Hovering above the fray is Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who now looks like an early favorite to run as the Democrats' presidential nominee in 2008. You will hear a lot of talk in the coming months about whether the country is ready for a woman in the White House and whether Clinton is right for the job.

Whether or not you like her politically, there are inescapable facts. She is the best fundraiser in the Democratic Party. She has the best political team behind her. She is the best known woman in American politics. Having the money, the organization and the name recognition clearly makes her the most formidable candidate in 2008, and suddenly makes the "are we ready for a woman in the White House" question seem unimportant.

The gender gap in American politics is slowly but surely closing. More women are entering politics and they are winning elections. And talk about mommies and daddies in politics can now be seen as the sexist twaddle it always was.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at
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