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Women’s political gains nationally aren’t matched locally

Published November 15. 2017 11:04AM

Political analysts are trying to figure out whether the number of women who sought and won political office during the Nov. 7 general election is a blip or a seismic shift.

Their successes are being paired with Democratic gains in state houses and municipal races as a possible preview of what’s to come in next year’s off-year elections.

Despite these gains, men still hold 75 percent of the seats in legislatures across the country. In Pennsylvania, it’s more, with men commanding 86 percent of the 50 state Senate seats and 80 percent of the House seats. In the five-county Times News area, there is just one state senator — Lisa Boscola, who represents parts of Lehigh and Northampton counties — and three representatives — Marcia Hahn, part of Northampton County, and Rosemary Brown and Maureen Madden, parts of Monroe County.

It is difficult to assess whether this movement has had any impact locally. There were few high-profile races in the Times News area in which women were involved this year.

The most notable was the Schuylkill County district attorney’s race where incumbent Christine Holman, the first woman to hold that office in Schuylkill, was defeated in a re-election bid by Democratic challenger Michael A. O’Pake.

Women won row offices in Carbon, Schuylkill and Monroe, but it is not unusual for them to hold these lower-level offices.

While women have held high state and county offices in counties bordering Carbon, no county woman has held the position of state representative, state senator, judge of the Court of Common Pleas or county commissioner.

In 2014, Jean Engler became the first woman to serve as Carbon County district attorney. Engler was appointed to fill the unexpired term of her predecessor, Gary Dobias, then won a full four-year term in 2015. She said she has no aspirations to seek higher office.

By contrast, Monroe has had four female county commissioners since 1968 when Nancy Shukaitis broke the glass ceiling and served for four four-year terms. The others were Janet Weidensaul, two terms; Donna Azure, two terms; and Suzanne McCool, one term.

In Schuylkill County, there are no current or former female county commissioners, according to courthouse sources.

In Lehigh County, Jane Erwin served as county executive for two terms starting in 1997. Lisa Scheller, CEO of Silberline Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Tamaqua, served as chair of the Lehigh County Commissioners for two years (2013-14).

In Northampton, there has never been a female county executive since the county went to a home-rule charter in 1998. Three women were elected on Nov. 7 for county council (the equivalent of county commissioner), and when they are sworn in six weeks from now it will mark the first time the county council has had more than one woman. Peg Ferraro was among the three, re-elected for a sixth term. The only Republican to win one of the five contested seats, Ferraro also is a former council president.

Each of the four counties surrounding Carbon has female judges on the Court of Common Pleas. Of Schuylkill County’s seven judges, Jacqueline Russell is the lone female and was retained for another 10-year term in the Nov. 7 election; of Lehigh County’s 10 judges, four are women — Carol McGinley, Maria Dantos, Kelly Banach and Michele Varricchio.

Monroe has the only president judge among local counties — Margherita Patti-Worthington. She and Jennifer Harlacher are the two women among the six Monroe judges. Northampton County has three women judges of the nine on the bench — Kimberly McFadden, Paula Roscioli and Jennifer Sletvold.

There has never been a female governor or U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania. Democrat Katie McGinty lost to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., of Upper Milford Township, Lehigh County, in 2016.

Women are most prominently represented on the state’s three appellate courts. The Supreme Court has three women among its seven members, including Christine Donahue, who grew up in Lansford. The Superior Court has eight women among the 13 justices, including President Judge Susan Peikas Gantman. The Commonwealth Court has a majority of women — four of seven — including President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.

The current 18-member U.S. House of Representatives delegation from the commonwealth contains no women, although Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County served until 2014 when she made an unsuccessful run for governor, losing to Tom Wolf in that Democratic primary.

Two women, both Democrats, have announced a run for Congress in 2018 in the 15th District — the seat now held by Charlie Dent of Allentown, who won’t seek re-election. Susan Ellis Wild, the Allentown City Council’s legal counsel, and Laura Quick, a Lebanon County UPS driver, are among the 10 candidates so far.

By Bruce Frassinelli |

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