On Saturday night, several hundred politically-active Georgians will gather in Atlanta. They won’t be meeting to talk about Tuesday’s election. Rather they’ll be focusing on future Election Days. And they’ll be asking what it will take to elect more women to political office at every level in Georgia.
Jan Selman has an idea of what it will take, and that’s because she knows the facts. And for a woman who wants to see Georgia elect more people who look like her, the facts aren’t pretty.
In more than two centuries of Georgia history, she says, voters have elected only five women to statewide office and five women to Congress.
“I don’t think people really understand where we are as women in this state,” she said in an interview last week. “Georgia has not one woman in our congressional delegation. No one in Congress. No one in the Senate.
Selman is one of the founders of a new political action committee called NewPower Pac that aims to change that. A former chair of the Georgia Council for the Arts and an advertising executive, Selman lays out the case succinctly.
“There are 13 elected offices statewide. No women in those offices,” she said. “There’s the Secretary of Labor. Governor. Lieutenant Governor. Secretary of State. Utilities commission. All of these – and not one woman.”
NewPower Pac isn’t the state’s first political action committee dedicated to electing women. But it’s the first nonpartisan PAC to target female candidates of all major parties who are running in rural Georgia for local political office.
Selman and co-founder, Heather Fenton, will officially launch the group with Saturday’s fundraiser. The two have traveled around the state talking to women who’ve been candidates. Some won, but many didn’t.
“The majority of elected seats are held by men,” she said, sitting at the dining table of Fenton’s Atlanta home, where they’ll hold their fundraiser. “That means when a woman runs, she’s running against an incumbent man. Only 3 percent to 5 percent of incumbents are ever unseated.”
Neither Fenton or Selman has held political office. But both have been active in politics for decades. And Selman runs a consultancy that helps women determine if they’re ready to run for office.
The PAC is focusing on school board and county commission races. That’s because they form a pipeline for higher political offices.
“We don’t have a history of women in political leadership,” said Cathy Cox, a former state representative who served as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1999 to 2007.
Now president of Young Harris College, Cox was the state’s first female secretary of state.
“People every week would say to me, ‘I just don’t know if a woman can do the job of secretary of state,’ and I would say, ‘You know, it doesn’t involve heavy lifting’,” she joked in a telephone interview. “But they hadn’t seen a woman in that job and they just couldn’t visualize it.”
Cox says men often jump at chances to run for office. But many women need to be asked before they consider throwing their hats in the ring.
And some women don’t even say yes when asked. Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard began her political career as a city councilwoman in 2005. That’s when then-Governor Sonny Perdue asked her to take over a seat held by a councilman facing indictment.
“When he first called me, I said to him, ‘Well, I will think about it, you know, and I’ll let you know’,” she recounted in a telephone interview. “And when I told my husband, he was like, ‘Lady, you don’t tell the Governor you will think about it. When the Governor calls you and asks you to do something, he must think you can do it and you’re supposed to say yes’!”
Selman with the NewPower Pac says the group seeks to elect women in both major parties as well as independents. She says she may not agree with all of the women on every issue. But she says they can debate that later – when there are more women at the table.