Laura Washington: Race, gender — and hope

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Nancy Rodkin Rotering. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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America has had a black president for eight years. The Democratic Party has nominated a woman for the nation’s highest office.

In 2016, do race and gender still matter on the campaign trail? You bet.

That’s the verdict from a recent forum exploring that question, sponsored by the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership

I was asked to moderate the panel, which included three women who ran for office this year. As we head full-tilt into the Trump v. Clinton presidential contest, they offered vivid and disturbing tales from the trail.

In 2011, when Nancy Rotering was elected the first woman mayor of north suburban Highland Park, she had already been through the gender wringer.


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“I came into the professional world in the ’80s. And I worked for General Motors, which was obviously a very macho climate. I managed sexism there, went to work for a large law firm, managed sexism there,” Rotering told the crowd of 100 politicians, activists and civic leaders.

When she ran for Congress, she “was thoroughly surprised at the amount of gender-focused ridiculousness.”

Rotering unsuccessfully challenged former U.S. Brad Schneider in the Illinois 10th District primary.

In her fund-raising calls, people would say, “ ‘Well, you’re just a mayor. Do you really think you should be running for Congress?’ ”

“And I would say, well, ‘the guy I’m running against wasn’t ever in office before he ran for Congress.’ The reply: “ ‘Well, but, he’s a guy.’ ”

Both men and women would ask: “If you win, who’s going to take care of your children?”

During an endorsement session, a newspaper editorial board asked: “What’s your best recipe?”

Race and gender can brew an unsavory stew. Genita Robinson ran unsuccessfully for 2nd Ward alderman in 2011, and Illinois State Representative of the 6th District in 2016.

“If you are in African-American woman, you are often harassed on the street,” she said. “It just happens regularly. And when you campaign as an African-American woman, especially in African American communities that are poorer, it happens when you campaign.”

When she was out door knocking, or greeting voters, “I would be starting my pitch, and (the men would say) ‘wow, you sure are pretty. You’ve got a nice smile.’ ”

Robinson would “pivot,” she said, and reply, “you know, I am really smart too, and I’d like to talk to you about some of the issues.”

These politicians are not whining, just bracing for what’s ahead.

“Look at this presidential race,” Rotering noted. Hillary Clinton “is probably the most qualified woman ever to run for president. And yet, you hear people say, ‘well, I don’t want to look at that for 4 years.’ Seriously?”

Look at Donald Trump. The 2016 GOP presidential nominee got to his lofty pillar by attacking the looks of female critics and opponents. The only women who seem to meet Trump’s standards are his wife and daughter.

How many times have men — and women — attacked Hillary Clinton for being “too shrill?”

The former secretary of state “shouts” “yells” “screeches,” critics complain on Twitter. There is even a Twitter hash tag, #shrillary.

There are winners like panelist Theresa Mah, who took the Democratic nomination in Illinois’ 2nd District. As she is running unopposed in November, Mah will be the first Asian American to serve in the Illinois General Assembly. She will be “a voice” she says, for many “older people in the Asian American community who have never voted before.”

Race and gender still matter, but hope prevails.

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