Number of women dropping in California Legislature

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The California Legislature is generally regarded as a fairly progressive institution, with a sizable gay and lesbian caucus and lawmakers representing an array of racial and ethnic groups. But one group has been dropping steadily in representation for nearly a decade - women.

The number of women in the 120-member Legislature has fallen from a peak of 37 in 2006 to 32 this year, and groups that promote women running for public office are concerned the trend will continue this election year. They also worry about how the drop-off will affect policy decisions in future years.

“We have been losing a woman every election cycle,” said Bettina Duval, president of CALIFORNIALIST, which has raised more than $1 million to support female candidates since she founded the group 12 years ago.

There is a general perception that California is doing well because women who are in office hold such powerful positions, she said. Both the state’s U.S. senators are women, it is home to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is poised to become the next speaker of the state Assembly, and California’s attorney general and secretary of state are women.

Yet Duval fears women could lose three to five legislative seats this year, accelerating what has been a gradual decline. Moreover, newly expanded term limits (to 12 years in each chamber) mean incumbents could lock out female challengers for more than a decade.

California ranked sixth in the nation in the percentage of women serving in the Legislature in 2004, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. It has slipped steadily as women left their seats in California, and other states added female lawmakers.

California now ranks 19th among states. Vermont and Colorado rank highest, with women accounting for 41 percent of state lawmakers.

Nearly 27 percent of California’s Senate and Assembly seats are held by women, slightly higher than the nationwide average of 24 percent. But it’s far below the 50.2 percent of the state’s population who are women.

“I always say the Legislature should be a microcosm of California,” said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, who is one of eight women leaving the Legislature this year because of term limits or retirement.

A ninth will leave in midterm if she is elected to Congress.

Conway serves on two of the many organizations that try to recruit, train and fund female candidates: Right Women Right Now, a national initiative of the Republican State Leadership Committee; and California Women Lead, a nonpartisan effort to boost the number of women in elected and appointed office at the state and local levels.

“It is really about reaching out to women and helping them understand what’s out there,” Conway said.

Women bring a valuable perspective to lawmaking, said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, vice chairwoman of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. She said women have promoted legislation related to education, paid family leave, child care, employment discrimination, domestic violence and sexual harassment, among many topics.

Legislative leaders of both political parties said they actively recruit female candidates.

Yet the successes that women have had elsewhere in society have made it more difficult to entice them to run for political office, advocates and lawmakers said. That applies not only at the state level but also to local offices such as school board or city council.

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