Women in Wisconsin Politics: Who's Got "Next"

It would have been easy to devote all of our column inches to the fact that the number of women who hold elective office is too small and seems to be dropping.

Female respresentation in the Wisconsin State Legislature declined from thirty in 2008 to twenty-nine following the November 4 general election—the lowest level in more than two decades. And the numbers don’t look much better when you look at local offices in many communities around the state.

But there’s some good news behind those numbers: Women who ran for open seats in the Assembly won three-fourths of the time and incumbent women seeking re-election in contested races all came out winners.

So, in that spirit, we are choosing to highlight women, both elected and behind the scenes, who are either in a position to make a major impact or are already forces to be reckoned with at the state and local level. You may not have heard of some of them, but chances are you soon will.

The Freshmen Four Reps. Penny Bernard Schaber of Appleton, Kristen Dexter of Eau Claire, Sandy Pasch of Whitefish Bay and Kelda Helen Roys of Madison, all Democrats, won seats in the Assembly last November. Roys knows her way around the Capitol already. As executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin she worked with Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation requiring all Wisconsin emergency rooms to provide rape victims with information about and access to emergency contraception.

Pat Strachota As one of just six GOP women in the Assembly, the West Bend Republican has said a stronger effort is needed to recruit female candidates from her party’s ranks. In the most recent legislative session, the one-time county board member pushed for changes to the tax credits the state offers the film industry to attract more big productions like the upcoming Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp.

Satya Rhodes-Conway Representing Madison’s north side on the city council since 2007, she has argued the city needs to offer fewer tax incentives for big condo projects. She’s also called out fellow council members for ignoring residents who come to testify by engaging in private side conversations and negotiations.

Carousel Bayrd A civil rights attorney first elected to the county board in 2006, she wrote and won passage of an ordinance to protect the rights of mothers to breastfeed in public in Dane County. She also played a key role in extending the amount of unpaid family leave time Dane County employees can take to care for newborn or newly adopted children to twenty-six weeks.

Jennifer Alexander As president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and Thrive, Alexander is leading economic development efforts for the eight-county Madison region just as we face our biggest economic challenges and job losses. The hard times could present a big opportunity to encourage more collaboration.

Tia Nelson The daughter of former governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (the founder of Earth Day) has made a name for herself. As Executive Secretary of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, Nelson has great influence over hundreds of millions in infrastructure loans. In the last five years, the Board has doled out more than $600 million to school districts and municipalities. In addition, it manages more than 76,000 acres of public trust lands, mostly in northern Wisconsin.

Kelli Trumble A business owner herself—she created the nationally rated Wisconsin Dells getaway Sundara Inn & Spa—Trumble brings significant firsthand experience as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Now she’s digging into the state’s tourism reputation, plagued by missteps in years’ past, by rebuilding the image of the state as a place where originality rules, and where people love to visit.

Colin Benedict is WISC-TV’s news director. He’s lived in the Madison area since 1995. E-mail him at cbenedict@wisctv.com.

Jenny Price is a Madison native who covered the state Capitol for the Associated Press and has written about Wisconsin politics since 1999. E-mail her at jenny.price@gmail.com.

Madison Magazine - March 2009
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