Women in Louisiana politics discuss hurdles faced, ways to overcome them at LSU event

When her daughter was in just the first grade, lobbyist Marie DesOrmeaux Centanni brought her to the Louisiana Capitol to see how the Legislature works.

But soon, her daughter noticed something. “Boys make the rules?” Centanni recalled her daughter asking her during that visit after quickly noticing that men greatly outnumbered women in the Legislature.

“She, of her own accord, noticed the difference – even at that age,” Centanni said during a panel discussion at LSU that was part of an event Wednesday examining hurdles that women have to overcome when they run for office and the disparities between genders in state government.

Louisiana has historically had little female representation on the state and federal level.

In addition to the state’s all-male Congressional delegation, there are no female statewide office holders in Louisiana currently, after no women ran as major candidates for statewide office in 2015.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 15 percent of the members of the Louisiana State House and Senate are women — up from 12.5 percent at the end of the last term in 2015, according to figures tracked by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The national average is 28.7 percent.

The CAWP has repeatedly marked milestones in recent years for record numbers of female office holders across the country, but Louisiana hasn’t bested the 17.4 percent high mark that its female legislative ranks reached in 2005.
The “Politicking While Female” event – part of the LSU Reilly Center’s annual John Breaux Symposium – drew dozens of experts on why women hold fewer elected offices and what can be done to bring more female representation into policy-making.

“The data shows that women who decide to run for office win at the same rate as men,” said Melanie Oubre, executive director of Emerge Louisiana, a group that encourages Democratic women to run for office and provides guidance to them. “So the question is, why the disparity?”

“The data proves that women don’t run at the same levels,” she answered.

Laura Cox Kaplan, Republican co-chair of Running Start, a non-profit that encourages female candidates, said women are often less likely than their male counterparts to see themselves as possible public leaders.

“An awful lot of women on both sides of the aisle, really don’t see themselves as potential candidates until you say (it) to them,” she said. “We have to think very differently about how we encourage women and engage them to run for office.”

The event took a closer look at how a recent debate among the Louisiana Ethics Board whether child care should be allowed as a campaign expense illustrated the gendered political environment candidates face.

After initially saying no, the board narrowly reversed itself, saying that it would not fine candidates who use their campaign funds to pay for child care while they are taking part in fundraisers, meet-and-greets and other campaign events.

Political candidates in Louisiana routinely tap into their campaign accounts to pay for constituent gifts, athletic tickets, Mardi Gras trinkets and monthly cellphone bills, among other perks, without facing penalty. In the past, the Ethics Board, with a different roster of members, gave opinions that allowed men to report child care as a campaign expense.

“No one on that board could distinguish why she couldn’t do what she was trying to do,” said attorney Franz Borghart, who was on the panel on the topic.

Even those who’ve made it say it isn’t always easy from there.

After successfully battling breast cancer last year, Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, ran for secretary of state. She said she received comments online along the lines of “I would never vote for a woman who looks like a man” due to her short hair from her treatment.

“People feel like they can just say anything in the world,” Stokes said.

Before her battle with cancer, Stokes said she often faced remarks that she was “too pretty” for men to listen to about serious issues, such as the state budget.

Tessa Ditonto, an Iowa State professor whose research focuses on women and politics, political behavior and political psychology, said such treatment is common for female candidates and officials to face.

“Women are often perceived as being more feminine, less tough,” she said.

The slights about appearances and crossing norms associated with women can make women less likely to run, Ditonto said.

“They are concerned about this stuff,” she said.

Sen. Beth Mizell, the Franklinton Republican who chairs the Louisiana Legislative Women’s Caucus, said she doesn’t feel obligated to vote for someone just because they are a woman, but she believes that women should feel empowered to run if they feel the drive.

“I’m old school,” she said. “I think as a woman I bring gifts to the table.”

Mizell is the first woman to represent her district, and she said no woman has ever served on the local Washington Parish council.

“I believe there will be more women (in the state Legislature),” she said. “I serve with some great women in the caucus on both parties and they are absolutely dedicated.”