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WANTED: Women Voters

From presidential efforts to statewide runs, the fairer sex will be in high demand during the coming election cycle — and they might even get a nod during the legislative session as well.

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Elections in the next two years will come to represent a watershed moment for women voters and candidates in Louisiana. It's a coming-of-age political tale, really, that likely will be headlined by an historic presidential bid by a viable female contender and underscored by the re-election efforts of the state's first woman governor and U.S. senator. Voter participation by men is on the decline, women are becoming better educated than men and one rarely -- if ever -- hears of ongoing recruitment efforts to bring more men into the political process.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana electorate has become increasingly divided along ideological lines. Just consider the number of recent elections that were decided by only a few percentage points. The difference, strategists and others argue, is often found among female voters.

Considering all the attention and spending women voters will generate by political candidates -- particularly women candidates -- in the coming months, the importance of women in the political process should hit a peak. "There is going to be a strong move on every level to court women voters like we've never seen before," says Dr. Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

That trend, however, is lopsided philosophically. Practically all of the female candidates fueling the movement are Democrats, and mostly liberal ones at that. Democratic efforts to cater to women's issues are well-documented, but activists hope to see bi-partisan support for non-partisan causes. "I hope this can be an unprecedented year, but we need to see interest in these issues and strategies across all the political camps," says Jean Armstrong, president of the Louisiana League of Women Voters, an increasingly diverse group that dabbles less in gender issues -- and more in public education -- than its name suggests.

On the national level, a lot of activity will spring from the "Women for Hillary" program, a political action network that hopes to help U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York transplant via Arkansas, capture the Democratic nomination for president. Millions of dollars will be dumped into a grassroots effort to motivate women voters. There's even a Web site dubbed "I Can Be President" aimed at young women. Names linked to the initiative already include Madeleine Albright, Billie Jean King and Geraldine Ferraro.

Clinton also hopes to hang her hat on the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ensure men and women are paid equally for the same work. Nationally, a woman makes only 77 cents for every $1 a man generates. It drops down to 67 cents for African-American women and 56 cents for Latinas. The topic is sure to spur a few heated debates that will place Clinton firmly on the side of women voters. It's a smart move, considering that women constitute 60 percent of all Democratic primary voters.

As the movement grows and Clinton's money hits the street, it could present an opportunity for Gov. Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu to piggyback on any progress. Blanco seeks re-election this fall, while Landrieu will seek a third term in the U.S. Senate next year. Both are Democrats, and both have their own individual battles to fight -- separate and apart from Clinton's campaign.

At a minimum, Blanco and Landrieu will be taking notes. Blanco, particularly, could benefit from being outspoken on women's issues. "I expect gender to play a definite role if Blanco sticks it out and does decide to run, as she has stated," Cross says. "If she does, she'll get a majority of the women vote. Republicans run a risk if they appear to be badgering Blanco, though -- or if she becomes a beleaguered female being put upon by all these males. It could cause a backlash and send more women than ever to the polls."

Blanco is already catering to that base. She recently held a women's summit -- the governor described it as "girl chat" to one reporter -- at which legislative ideas were solicited to address gender gaps in the workplace, child care, violence against women and other topics. There's also going to be another push in the upcoming legislative session to debate the pay equity issue that Clinton is championing. Public service announcements are planned, but the legislation rarely gains ground, despite the fact that women in Louisiana make 68 cents to a man's $1.

State Rep. Nita Rusich Hutter, a Republican from Chalmette who chairs the Louisiana Legislative Women's Caucus, says she has yet to see anything of significant value filed for the session, which convenes April 30. The caucus is still formulating its session plans, but already it has singled out economic development for women as a top priority. An emphasis is also being placed on candidate recruitment. Organizers held a round of election boot camps in an effort to strike a chord in the body politic. "Your mother and father see things differently," Hutter says. "It's a holistic approach. Women present a different viewpoint. Right now women represent 26 out of 144 in the Legislature, so I think there is room to grow. We're hoping to see a lot of women running this year."

How lawmakers will treat important gender issues this year remains to be seen, as is the number of viable women candidates running for office in Louisiana. Ultimately, "women's issues" will have to be addressed by the voters.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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