Election 2017

How successful were women candidates in the 2017 election in Allegheny County?

Most women won their races — but that doesn’t mean they did better than male candidates.

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MJ Slaby / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Last week’s municipal election wasn’t the “year of the woman” for Allegheny County politics, per research from the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.

There was a sense that a rush of women would seek office following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant director of the non-partisan center at Chatham University. “I don’t really see that it happened …maybe a handful. Women were no more successful than they’ve been in the past.”

Instead, she said, old patterns held.

Women were roughly a third of the candidates — as they were in 2015 — and women did just as well as men in their races, Sweet-Cushman said. The problem may be getting women to run for municipal races, she said, not that women candidates are losing.

By the numbers

Following the Nov. 7 election, staff at the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics crunched the numbers … with a few caveats. For example, the data doesn’t include all write-in campaigns or undetermined races and doesn’t account for the same person running in multiple races.

Here’s what the center found for the 2017 election in Allegheny County:

  • 35 percent of candidates were female
  • 37 percent of seats were won by women
  • 63 percent of tax collector positions were won by women, the highest percentage for any type of position
  • 34 percent of school board seats were won by women
  • 20 percent of commissioner seats were won by women

Worth noting: The percentage of women candidates is about the same as the percentage of seats won, meaning women faired roughly the same as men in how successful they were at winning.

Why women run

Sweet-Cushman said women candidates generally gravitate to legislative roles like commissioner and school board member — instead of executive roles like mayor — so those are the positions to which they are elected.

But, she said, there seemed to be a slight bump in female mayors: 18 percent of mayors elected in Allegheny County this year were women. (Meet four newly-elected local female mayors here.) Going into the election, women represented about 12 percent of mayors statewide.

Anecdotally, Sweet-Cushman said, it seemed that more non-incumbent women ran, because their names were new to the center’s database, but she expected that to be reflected more in the numbers.

“I thought that there were so many women looking for an outlet that they would seek out races and be competitive,” she said. “I wonder if there is a lack of education about these municipal offices and what offices are available.”

Local races, of course, aren’t as partisan as state or national races, with about a third of candidates in Allegheny County listed as “D/R,” meaning they won the primary for both parties, she said. So if women are passionate and worried about national issues, they might not see municipal races as the place to make change, even though Sweet-Cushman said it can be a stepping stone to a bigger position.

Since Trump’s election, organizations like She Runs Southwestern Pennsylvania and Emerge Pennsylvania, which trains Democratic women to run, have grown as they help prepare women to to run for office, but how many women are seeking state and national roles won’t be clear until after the 2018 election.

“It boils down to the big missing thing is getting women engaged in networks for recruitment for office,” she said, adding that she hopes trainings for women will continue to make a difference.

At Ready to Run, the center’s campaign training, Sweet-Cushman said staff polled participants about how likely there were to run. At the start, everyone had some political ambition. By the end, about half said they were less likely to run and half said they were more likely. But that still moves the needle toward more female representation in politics, she said.

“That’s OK. We don’t see that as a failure,” Sweet-Cushman said. “We don’t need all of the women to run, just some of the women to run. We need 50 percent.”