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Why don’t women want to be mayor? Why would they?

Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago

Jan Drago while a city councilmember (Seattle City Council)

In one sense, this year’s mayoral race has a bumper crop of candidates. Three apparent heavy hitters — city councilmembers Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell and ex-councilmember Peter Steinbrueck— have already put in to challenge Mayor Mike McGinn. After a rocky start and some learning on the job, McGinn himself is on the ascent.

Compare all that to four years ago, when Steinbrueck and Burgess shied away from running. Veteran councilmember Jan Drago did put in, but, while she might have been the one most fun to have a beer with, in larger forums she came off as dry and dour and a Nickels clone on policy. Snowstorm follies, neighborhood resentments and his aloof image made Nickels surprisingly vulnerable. Both washed out in the primary, and two neophytes, McGinn and cellphone executive Joe Malahan, contested the general.

The prospects seem better this time for a real debate about the city’s state and fate. But given how strong and long the candidate list is, one absence is still glaring — not only in the current candidate roster but in the annals of mayors past: Where are the women?

Ninety-one years ago, Seattle became the first big American city to elect a woman mayor — Bertha Landes, a good-government crusader who lasted just two years before the good ol’ boys nudged her out and resumed business as usual. Since then, women have scarcely run for, much less won, the seat; Drago and current dark-horse candidate Kate Martin are exceptions that prove the rule.

That pattern also puzzled Jim Brunner, who wrote about it in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Brunner notes the absence not just of women but of nonwhite men in Seattle’s top post. But the picture’s more complicated than that. Seattle and Washington have actually been pioneers in electing both women and minorities to top positions. In 1854 the territorial legislature failed by just one vote to grant women the vote. In 1910 Washington finally corrected that failing, becoming the fifth state to approve women’s suffrage.

In 1922, Seattle elected two women, Landes and Kathryn Miracle, to its council. In 1962 it elected Wing Luke, the first Chinese American elected to win a major political post in the 49 mainland states. Luke,a vigorous, widely popular figure, was no token; until his untimely death in 1965, he was bruited for the mayor’s office and Congress. Other trailblazers followed: Sam Smith, an African American, and Liem Tuai on the city council, and Ruby Chow at King County. Norm Rice and Ron Sims were the first African Americans elected chief executives of, respectively, a large city and big county with relatively small black populations. Gary Locke was the first Asian American governor on the mainland and the first Chinese American governor in all 50 states.

Women occupied a majority of Seattle City Council seats through most of the 1990s, peaking at seven out of nine in 1994-95. Several emerged as mayoral prospects but declined to run, until Drago’s belated bid in 2009.

So what’s kept women from seeking Seattle’s top civic post? Brunner cites an American University study on gender and attitudes toward office-seeking. It found that women were more prone than men to question their own qualifications and less prone to take the plunge anyway. Brunner paraphrases one of the study’s authors as saying they might be “more attracted to legislative positions that involve collaboration and coalition building” rather than go-it-alone executive posts such as mayor.

That hypothesis sounds plausible, and it’s bolstered by the stats. Twenty-four percent of state legislators nationwide and 30 percent in Washington are women, as are 20 percent of U.S. senators and nearly 18 percent of house members. By contrast, only 12 of the 100 largest U.S. cities have woman mayors. The two largest, Houston and Fort Worth, are both in that progressive bastion, Texas, and Dallas and San Antonio have also had woman mayors, making Seattle look all the more retrograde.

Still, the numbers are trending up, even in the executive hot seats. Despite Chris Gregoire’s retirement, seven of 50 governor’s mansions are now occupied by women — up from the five in 2012 that Brunner cites.

The data also suggest a very different conclusion, especially in Washington: Women are leapfrogging the political trenches and heading straight to the top. Larger shares serve as governors than as big-city mayors, and in the Senate rather than the House. Who wouldn’t rather be one of 100 relatively collegial senators serving six-year terms than one of 435 scrambling congressional members — even in a Senate under Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell?

Running a big city is a much harder job; New York Mayor John Lindsay famously called his gig “the second-toughest job in America,” and no one argued with him. It’s also a dead-end job. Even if mayors survive the hometown slings and arrows, they’re mistrusted in the rest of their states — icons of Babylonian decadence and dominance. Lindsay and Michael Bloomberg discovered that being Hizzoner to New Yorkers is no passport to becoming Mr. President to the rest of the country. Out here, Charles Royer and Norm Rice learned that the mayor’s office is not a springboard to Congress; two terms on his résumé didn’t even help Greg Nickels run for secretary of state. Best you can hope for afterwards is a stint at Harvard or a seat at the Evans School.

Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell and Gregoire all had the sense (and in the first two cases the chutzpah) to skip City Hall and head for the big show. Gregoire worked her way up the Olympia ladder, as Ecology director and attorney general. But Murray and Cantwell were upstarts, hardly burdened with deference and self-doubt when they challenged and defeated more experienced male candidates for the Senate.

Together, the three achieved a unique benchmark: Washington is the only state ever to have had all three of its highest elected posts occupied by women. So perhaps we shouldn’t fret over whether able, ambitious women aspire to be mayor of Seattle. They’ve got better things to do.

You can find all of Crosscut's coverage of the 2013 mayoral race here.

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