Pink wave? Women are running in record numbers in 2018

If more women get elected this year, it could make all the difference in Tallahassee and Washington.

click to enlarge SHE CAN DO THIS: Carlton Fields attorney Fentrice Driskell is running against  Shawn Harrison for Florida’s 63rd House District seat. - Sean D./Fentrice Driskell campaign
Sean D./Fentrice Driskell campaign
SHE CAN DO THIS: Carlton Fields attorney Fentrice Driskell is running against Shawn Harrison for Florida’s 63rd House District seat.

When Benjamin Kelly, an aide to State Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-Tampa), accused a Parkland survivor of being a “crisis actor” on Twitter, it was a pretty easy move to condemn.

Kelly, of course, lost his job, as the incident was a chance for Republicans to look good amid widespread scrutiny over party leadership’s unwillingness to cross the NRA.

Yet the regrettable event also gave Harrison’s relatively unknown Democratic challenger, Carlton Fields attorney Fentrice Driskell, a window for getting her name out there while contrasting herself with Harrison as someone who would never hire someone like Kelly — who was not without baggage before this — in the first place. Harrison has occupied Florida’s 63rd House District seat, which covers Carrollwood, Lutz and nearby areas, since 2012.

Driskell hopes to unseat Harrison in what could be yet another iteration of what Democrats say is the coming blue wave, albeit one with shades of pink.

“I stepped up to serve because we need a legislature that accounts for all voices, not just the powerful few. As women, we want to bring our talents, good judgment, and focus to develop common sense solutions to the challenges we face every day in Florida,” Driskell, who is running on affordable healthcare, the environment and sensible gun laws, said in an email.

A political newcomer Driskell may be, but she’s definitely no slouch. She holds degrees from Harvard and Georgetown law. She was Harvard’s first black female student body president, Tampa Bay Times political columnist William March notes. She’s involved with numerous professional and civic organizations.

She’s a serious challenger with serious backing and an apparent knack for fundraising (not that Harrison, as an establishment Republican, hasn’t out-raised her more than two-to-one at this point, but that’s to be expected). It’s a suburban swing district Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

In other words, she can do this.

Driskell is one of the many women who are stepping up to run in record numbers in 2018. She called it an “exciting time to be a female candidate” and said having more women in the state House — which is currently more than three-quarters male — would change the conversation.

“All over the country, women are stepping up to run because we want to help secure a better future for our nation,” Driskell told CL. “We bring fresh perspectives and are able to collaborate in a way that takes into account different opinions on the issues that really matter: protecting our kids, investing in our public schools and communities and taking care of our seniors and veterans.”

There are more than twice as many female candidates in 2018 as there were in 2016, National Public Radio reported in February, and more are bound to file to run. Most observers will tell you this is in large part a backlash against the Donald Trump presidency — not just because a highly qualified woman ran and lost. Trump’s issues with women extend well beyond the Access Hollywood tape and Stormy Daniels. Julie Kessel, president of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area, said the policies of Trump and his ilk conflict with what many women want for themselves and their families — and it goes well beyond funding Planned Parenthood.

“In this age, it’s not just reproductive rights,” she said. “Women still don’t get equal pay for equal work. There are so many areas where you would think that women have come so far, but the reality is there are substantial disparities in all aspects, and women are seeing the gains that they have made on the chopping block.”

Since Trump’s inauguration (and the Women’s March that took place literally the day after), Kessel said interest in her organization hasn’t just spiked, it's skyrocketed.

“I think a ‘spike’ would be putting it mildly,” she said. “We’ve grown almost 500 percent in 14 months, I mean really since the election.”

The surge in female candidates running is disproportionately heavy on the Democratic side. Ione Townshend, chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, said she’s seen a jump in the number of female candidates running for office at the state and county levels in Hillsborough. On the Republican side, there is a slight uptick in the number of female candidates, but there’s really no comparison; the GOP tends not to place value on what it calls “identity politics” and thus doesn’t spend much time recruiting diverse candidates.

The enthusiasm for Dems could in part be due to the fact that even though Trump isn’t running in the November midterms, Democrats are running against what Trump represents in the abstract and, concretely, the members of Congress who let his agenda become manifest.

“He is running. His agenda is running. So absolutely we will tie Donald Trump to any Republican candidate,” Townsend said. “They signed on to his agenda. They are not pushing back on these outrageous comments he makes [or] his attempts to interfere with the Mueller investigation.”

click to enlarge Jennifer Webb is running for Florida's House District 69 seat, which covers southern and central parts of Pinellas County. - Scott Linde/Courtesy of Jennifer Webb
Scott Linde/Courtesy of Jennifer Webb
Jennifer Webb is running for Florida's House District 69 seat, which covers southern and central parts of Pinellas County.

Even if she’s the only female candidate from Pinellas running for state legislature (at this point), Jennifer Webb said she is hearing more enthusiasm about her candidacy this year than she did when running for the same seat, House District 69, in 2016 (her former opponent, State Rep. Kathleen Peters, is running for Pinellas County Commission this year). Webb said she sees more desire for diversity in government in general, given how it changes the conversation on policymaking.

“You have a more nuanced conversation, you have a more honest conversation. You do away with some of the performance stuff because there’s no base there. There’s not just a room full of good ole boys,” Webb said. “When you have diversity your’e actually able to get to the kernel of what’s going on... The more well-rounded our legislature, the more thoughtful our policies can be.”

Kessel agrees:

“Women and men handle conflict differently,” she said. “They approach problem-solving differently. They approach relationships differently. And I think more women in our government will reduce partisanship. I think we will be more solution-focused and I think there will be less hostility. I’m not saying that women aren’t [capable of being] hostile or can’t be aggressive or anything like that... it’s just that we approach problems differently and I think it will move our agenda [forward].”

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