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EDITORIAL: Women in politics in Illinois? Let’s get to 50 percent fast

Four women, Anne Shaw, Delia Ramirez, Iris Millan and Alyx Pattison, shown here at a forum at the Sun-Times in January, ran in the Illinois Democratic primary to fill an open seat in the 4th Illinois House District. Ramirez won. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Until women hold 50 percent of elective offices in Illinois — and Congress, for that matter — the energy and effort to get more women voted in cannot let up.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a notable increase in the number of women in Illinois seeking office, but they are still a long way from catching up to men.

Between the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives, 35.6 percent of legislators currently in office are women. That’s one of the higher percentages among the 50 states and much higher than the 19.6 percent that serve in Congress, but far from good enough.

The increase in female candidates in Illinois is most evident in the state House, which has 118 elected members.

EDITORIAL

Eight years ago, a Sun-Times analysis found, 64 women ran for seats in the House in the Illinois primary. In 2014, the number crept up by one. This year, it was 100. Seventy-four women won their primary races on March 20, many of which were uncontested.

That means that at least that many female House candidates will appear on ballots in the November general election, and probably more if women are slated to run in additional races by their respective parties.

We’re not suggesting we’re going to see women win more than half of the Illinois House seats this year. In some races, women will be pitted against each other. In others, women will be going up against long-standing male incumbents, who have the benefit of name recognition and an advantage in fundraising.

Democratic State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie tells us that women are being particularly strategic in seeking office, more often than men choosing to run only when there are open seats or weak incumbents of the opposite political party.

Currie knows a thing or two about being a woman in politics. She will leave office in January after a 40-year career, including 22 as the first female majority leader in Illinois. When she started out in 1979, she said, women held fewer than 15 percent of the seats in the House.

Currie began her conversation with us by saying, “50 percent.” She wants 50 percent of elected offices in Illinois to be held by women.

Asked how long it will take to get there, she quipped, “It took 40 years to go from 15 percent to 35.”

On a more serious note, she added: “I think things are moving more quickly. So many more women are jumping in. There will be more women who jump in and win.”

Four women and three men were on the ballot last month to replace Currie in her South Side district. A man, Curtis Tarver, is all but guaranteed to replace her after winning the primary in this community that leans heavily Democratic. Currie had good things to say about Tarver and expressed satisfaction in the number of women who sought to replace her.

Another encouraging sign to Currie is the number of female Democrats who ran in the 6th Congressional District to unseat Republican Peter Roskam. He is considered vulnerable because of momentum nationally for Democrats and because Hillary Clinton beat President Donald Trump in this suburban district in 2016 by seven percentage points.

Five women and two men ran in that Democratic primary. The strong showing by women was touted as part of a broader trend of women becoming more engaged politically after the election of Trump. The president is not exactly viewed as a champion of women’s issues. The #MeToo movement to combat sexual harassment, which stems in part from allegations of sexual abuse by Trump, bolstered momentum for women.

But in that primary, businessman Sean Casten of Downers Grove beat the top woman, Kelly Mazeski of Barrington Hills, by 3.4 percentage points.

Progressive candidate Marie Newman came close to taking down conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski in the 3rd Congressional District that covers part of the South Side and southern and western suburbs.

In noting these losses by women, Politico opened a recent Illinois Playbook article by asking, “Did the year of the woman miss Illinois?”

We’ll know better in November, but there is good reason for concern. Several respected female legislators decided to leave Springfield after the budget standoff between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Michael Madigan was settled last year. That was a step back for women in Illinois, as men are likely to fill some of those seats.

This isn’t just a numbers game. More women must be at the table when our state debates essential public policy, including health care and education.

Our state legislature should be as diverse as our state. Let’s get to 50 percent a whole lot faster.

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