Commentary by Andrew Duffelmeyer, Iowapolitics.com
DES MOINES - The number of women and minorities in the Iowa Legislature will take a slight step backwards in the upcoming legislative session following a major change in membership.
The 2011 Legislature will have 38 new members, 30 of whom are Republicans. But the number of women will decline by three, from 34 to 31, while the number of minority members will decline by one, from six to five.
Five women legislators retired last year, including four long-serving veterans of the House: Reps. Marcella Frevert, D-Emmetsburg; Delores Mertz, D-Ottosen; Polly Bukta, D-Clinton; Jodi Tymeson, R-Winterset; and sophomore member Elesha Gayman, D-Dubuque.
Two other women did not gain re-election: Doris Kelley, D-Waterloo, was defeated by Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, while Geri Huser, D-Altoona, was defeated by Kim Pearson, R-Pleasant Hill.
Women also lost a number of committee leadership roles in the Legislature. Four Republican women and 23 men will serve as committee chairs in the Iowa House, compared to nine women and 18 men under Democratic leadership. Senate Democrats have not yet announced their committee chairs.
The four women serving as House chairs will be Reps. Renee Schulte of Cedar Rapids, Dawn Pettengill of Mount Auburn, Annette Sweeney of Alden and Linda Miller of Bettendorf.
However, Rep. Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, will become the first woman majority leader in the Iowa House during the upcoming session. Upmeyer has been active in Purse PAC, which encourages women candidates. She said she thinks it's purely coincidental that fewer women will be in the Legislature and in leadership positions during the coming session. She said a lot of it has to do with women simply not running for elected office.
"I'm a firm believer that women that step forward and run for office or leadership have a really great opportunity to be elected," Upmeyer said. "I think women don't step up as often, that's why I think there are fewer women. But when they do and when they're really interested in doing the amount of work it takes to be elected -- it's a big job -- then they have the same shot at being elected as men do."
As for why fewer women are in leadership positions, Upmeyer said it's a matter of many Republican women simply not having as much experience. Upmeyer noted she likely would have been a committee chair if she hadn't run for a leadership position, and said House Speaker-elect Kraig Paulsen has always been supportive of women in the caucus.
"I know Kraig Paulsen to be a real advocate for women in these kinds of roles," Upmeyer said. "I know that's true."
Despite a net loss of three female legislators, four women were elected to the House for the first time in 2010. Republican Mary Ann Hanusa of Treynor took over the seat of Rep. Doug Struyk, R-Council Bluffs. And Democrats Anesa Kajtazovic of Waterloo, Mary Wolfe of Clinton and Ruth Ann Gaines of Des Moines took over seats formerly held by Democratic Reps. Kerry Burt, Polly Bukta and Wayne Ford, respectively.
Gaines, an African-American, has big shoes to fill in the seat held by Ford, the state's first African-American legislator who retired this year. The only other African-American legislator who won't be back in 2011 is Rep. Kerry Burt, D-Waterloo, who resigned after a drunken driving arrest and questions about whether he dodged paying full tuition for his children at a private school.
Rep. Deb Berry, D-Waterloo, said she feels the ethnic makeup of the Legislature continues to improve, despite the loss of an African-American legislator. But she'd still like to see more diversity.
Berry noted that African-Americans make up about 3 percent of the population of Iowa and said the five black legislators out of 150 total is representative of that percentage.
"My point is if you make a statewide comparison percentage-wise we are above that, we're over that," Berry said. "So I think that's good. Could we reach out and get other ethnic groups? I think with a growing Hispanic population I'd like to see more Hispanics run for seats, and Asians too, for that matter."
But perhaps the biggest change in the 2011-2012 Iowa Legislature will be in the occupational background of the 38 new members.
The 2009-2010 Legislature had 43 members that listed some form of business as their occupation. There were also 30 farmers, 22 teachers, 22 retirees, 13 attorneys and 10 professional politicians.
The 2011-2012 Legislature will be even more dominated by members with a business or rural background. There will be eight more businessmen and seven more farmers, while there will be three fewer teachers and one less attorney.
The number of professional politicians will also edge up. Two legislators that identified their occupation as legislator or politician will be gone in January, compared to three new professional politicians entering office.