WEA panel reviews lack of women as mayors
Even before the question was posed, the answer was evident at the annual panel of mayors at a Thursday, May 31, Westside Economic Alliance breakfast.
Across Washington County, there are few women involved in city politics. Few serve on city councils across the region and fewer still serve as mayor.
The only woman among the nine panelists was Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton — and as a U.S. representative, she was the moderator. All eight participating mayors were men — and except for King City's Ken Gibson, who is black, they are white.
Of the five Washington County cities not represented on the panel at the May event, Teri Lenahan of North Plains is the only woman who is an incumbent mayor.
"If we want more women in politics to help shape policy, for everybody, girls can't be what they can't see," said Lenahan, reached for comment this week. "So if they don't see women up there on those panels, and on the TV speaking their minds, then how do they know that that's something that they can be?"
Bonamici, who got her start in politics as a school advocate before she was elected to the Oregon Legislature in 2006, said at the forum she is optimistic about the future.
"I think we will see more elected officials that reflect the actual population," Bonamici said, citing the growth of support groups for women who seek public office. "Those organizations exist now, so women who think they might be interested can get some support, some education, mentorship and other things that help women run for office."
But Bonamici said training in the ins and outs of the political process is not enough.
"People who study gender politics know that women often wait to be asked multiple times to run for office," she said. "Men don't. They say, 'I can do that,' and they run."
Of the Washington County cities, three — Cornelius, Gaston and Tigard — have no women on their city councils. All the rest have at least one. In Beaverton and Wilsonville, part of the latter being in Clackamas County, three of the five councilors are women; in King City, North Plains and Sherwood, three of seven.
"I'm certainly aware of the lack of female representation in the political arena in Washington County," Lenahan said. "I think perhaps one of the reasons why we don't see more female representation now is just because we don't encourage it when our kids are younger ... and I think that we need to do a better job at that."
Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle made similar comments at the forum. He said two ways to get women and people of color involved in city government are to get them involved early — his city has a youth advisory board — and to get them into the network of advisory boards and commissions that most city governments have.
"As a result, we have now seen our boards and commissions getting filled by people who make it look like the United Nations in action," Doyle said. "It's been great to see this happen — and it's about time it happens."
Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax said that when a female student who accompanied officials on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., was asked along with others to offer her views on gun violence in schools, she did not hesitate to provide specifics such as broader background checks on gun purchasers and increased access to mental health counseling.
"This country is indeed in good hands if we take care of those people," he said.
Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway said his council lost some women because of term limits. The current council has one female member.
"It's a reality in some of our communities, where we lose talented, competent, intelligent people," he said of term limits, which some cities have and others do not.
Women on city staffs
Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden, who presides over a council with two women among its seven members, said, "I think it's a matter of timing."
After the May primary election, he noted, Washington County commissioners will have at least one woman — Pam Treece of Beaverton, who also is executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance — while Kathryn Harrington of Beaverton, a Metro councilor, is one of two finalists in the Nov. 6 runoff for board chair.
However, Ogden noted women hold a number of the top staff posts in Tualatin, among them the city manager, community development director and human resources director.
"We need to make sure there are no barriers for people who want to move forward to have that clear opportunity," he said.
Tigard Mayor John L. Cook said that's also the case in his city, where nine of 13 executive staff members are women, including the city manager and the police chief.
But Cook said the ultimate judgment on elected positions is up to the voters.
"It's not gender that should decide who wins the election, it's who is the better candidate," he said. "The more women who run, and the more women who get involved, the more people will see their effect on what the qualifications are."
Olivia Singer contributed to this report.
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