'She. Can't. Win': Why Pa. has no women in U.S. House

When Erin McClelland addressed Pennsylvania's delegates at the Democratic National Convention, she told them that female candidates are plagued by three words:

"She. Can't. Win."

McClelland pointed to contests such as hers for the 12th U.S. House District in Western Pennsylvania as races that get overlooked.

"We're going to keep working," the 41-year-old health-care consultant told the crowd. "We owe that to rural Pennsylvania, we owe that to the Democratic Party, and we owe that to every woman who has the guts to put her name on the ballot."

In a year when one woman could be elected president and another has a true shot to become the state's first female U.S. senator, the Pennsylvania women running for Congress still face long odds.

Women represent 51 percent of Pennsylvania's population, but not one of its 18 House districts. Of 35 declared candidates running for those seats this fall, five are women.

If history and money are indicators, none are likely to win.

Like McClelland, the three other Democrats and lone Republican are up against challenges including entrenched incumbents, big money, and districts with solid political ideologies. They are running underfunded in races some would call nearly impossible, in a state that has never elected multiple women to the House at once - and seems slow to change that trend.

"There is still the assumption by both men and women that politics is a better place for men," said Jean Harris, who teaches politics at the University of Scranton. "Right now, everybody in Congress from Pennsylvania is a white man. They're going to encourage, and they socialize with, other white men."

Democrats hope enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton will help their Pennsylvania Senate nominee, Katie McGinty, but there has not been the same fanfare for female House candidates down the ballot.

Even nationwide, Clinton's candidacy does not seem to have inspired more women than usual. The number of female nominees this year - 167 for the House and 16 for Senate - generally mirrors past years, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

"You would think that there should be all this focus to help us get at least one woman in there," said Mary Ellen Balchunis, a Democrat from Ardmore running against Rep. Patrick Meehan in the Seventh District. "Not because we're women, but because we should have a representative government."

Balchunis taught political science at La Salle University for 24 years and ran for the seat in 2014. Long active in politics, she has been vice chair of the Delaware County Democrats and served on the League of Women Voters. "Women shouldn't just be those people in the political parties that lick envelopes and stamp them and help out at fund-raisers," she said last week.

The need for a more representative government is "always a consideration," said Preston Maddock, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. He said the party is focusing on electing Clinton and McGinty and does not make specific plans or goals for bringing other women into office.

"We can all do a better job of facing that reality and encouraging more women to run and making it easier on them to do so," he said.

Pennsylvania has never elected a female governor or U.S. Senator. Of the 50 states, it ranks 40th for its proportion of women in the state legislature. It is among 17 states without a woman in the House.

That puts Pennsylvania in the company of Alaska, North Dakota, and Iowa, whose combined populations don't match Philadelphia's; Montana, where the last female to make it to the House served one term in 1941; and Mississippi, which has never had a woman in Congress.

Of the seven Pennsylvania women - all white - who have served in the House, the first three succeeded their dead husbands. The fourth served for two years in the 1990s, and the rest came between 2001 and 2015.

"It's something that other people raise to me all the time," said Christina Hartman, a 39-year-old human-rights advocate and Democrat from Lancaster battling State Sen. Lloyd Smucker for an open House seat there. "They often single out Pennsylvania, not just for the lack of women in the delegation but for the classic old boys' network."

Hartman's race in Lancaster County, southern Chester County, and a part of Berks County including the city of Reading is the most competitive of the five. She was endorsed last week by EMILY's List, a PAC for electing women, and was put on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's list of emerging races. Hartman out-raised her GOP opponent in the last quarter by a sliver, with $205,611 on hand to his $203,085.

That puts her ahead of most of her counterparts. The average House challenger this year has raised $153,404, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The average House incumbent's campaign coffers: $1.2 million.

After working for pro-democracy nonprofits abroad, Hartman returned to Lancaster and volunteered herself for the seat. There, she has found some open minds, she said, but has also - like other female candidates - run up against "a very 1950s view of life."

"What we want to do is help folks to feel comfortable with the fact that women are great leaders," Hartman said.

Women bring collaboration and get-it-done grit of the sort that ended last year's government shutdown, the candidates say. They talk about health care, family care, and minimum-wage issues

"If women were at the table," Balchunis said, "we would have equal pay."

Deborah Williams, the lone Republican among female House candidates, has the tallest, if not most insurmountable, task: unseating Philadelphia Democrat Robert Brady.

A North Philadelphia native and a 47-year-old insurance agent with a doctorate in theology, Williams would be the first black woman in the state's House delegation. But her qualifications and funding don't come close to Brady's: He has served in Congress since 1998.

"There are other people who will practically laugh and say, 'You're running against Brady? It's like David running against Goliath,' " said Williams. "For a better future for my sons so they don't have to worry about walking down the street and getting shot by a regular person or a police officer, I want to get involved."

Critics say such races are often the only ones women are recruited for - because the parties do not view them as important. They are invited to run as challengers as "a version of a sacrificial lamb for the party," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers research center.

The Philadelphia GOP is supporting Williams and needs diverse candidates, said spokesman Albert Eisenberg.

"It is a priority for us to get a diverse roster of people in these seats - and diverse means a lot of different things," he said.

To Kerith Strano Taylor, a Jefferson County attorney making her second bid for the Fifth District seat, a lack of money is another barrier to being recognized. Like other challengers to incumbents, Strano Taylor is far behind her opponent, Rep. Glenn Thompson, in funding.

"I don't have a million-dollar war chest that would warrant [Clinton] coming to Jefferson County, Pennsylvania," Strano Taylor said. "If I was sitting on [more money], my party would be absolutely fascinated and interested."

After seeing other candidates and politicians address the state delegation at the Democratic National Convention in July, Strano Taylor asked organizers if she could speak. When she got a slot, she brought McClelland and Balchunis up with her.

"Our state party writ large doesn't seem too keen on the fact that there are a bunch of women running for Congress," she said in an interview.

McClelland, of Harrison Township, Allegheny County, said she sees "an unintentional natural tendency to leave the congressional races out."

People who are passionate about electing women, "they're not grabbing onto that part of the congressional race," she said in an interview last week. "They're just still looking at it as a race that doesn't really matter."


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