Capitol Notebook: A woman's place is in the Legislature

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A possible paradox lurks in the fact that with Hillary Clinton running this year as the first major party presidential nominee, this is the “Year of the Woman” in politics.

But it is also the campaign season when the level of political discussion fell through the floor, and a dark national campaign has continued mostly free of facts and substance, and with hatred unleashed by Republican nominee Donald Trump.

But in Maine we really can say it is the year of the woman. Several accomplished women have stepped forward to seek political office, all hoping to maintain a high level of civil dialogue in the state Legislature.

In several cases, they are running against other female incumbents, which means the proportion of female legislators should be stable.

Among the most well known first-time candidates is Theo Kalikow, 75, who graduated from Wellesley College a few years before Hillary Clinton. She is running against Republican incumbent Rep. Karen Vachon in House District 29 in Scarborough.

Kalikow came out of retirement after a distinguished career as a college administrator, including 18 years as the head of University of Maine at Farmington. She had a front-row seat when Gov. Paul LePage, upset that some students were holding signs, abandoned all courtesy and walked out on Kalikow’s retirement tribute ceremony. She says he never apologized directly to her.

“We went on as if nothing had happened,” Kalikow said during a recent interview. “It was a lovely party and it was sad, because I had asked them to invite him because he is the governor. It’s just not how you behave in public.”

Kalikow worries about the larger cultural forces, such as ubiquitous and impersonal social media and the culture of nasty commentary, that have cheapened public discourse. She sees parallels with the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany in the rise of Donald Trump, and his appeal to hatred.

“Democracy is only fine if we keep taking care of it,” she added.

Another woman abandoning retirement for a potential trip to Augusta is Lois Galgay Reckitt, 71, who stepped down last year after many years as director at Family Crisis Services. She is unopposed to represent House District 31, part of South Portland. In the Legislature, she would like to address the division between north and south, urban and rural.

“I think in southern Maine we don’t fully understand how it is to live in northern Maine, and I think there’s a lack of understanding on both ends,” Reckitt said. Although already familiar with the Legislature, she benefited from Emerge Maine, which trains Democratic women planning to run for office.

Emerge Executive Director Jill Barkley said she has seen more women “in their 40s, 50s and 60s” stepping forward to run for office for the first time. Republicans run a similar program for female candidates, headed by Assistant Minority leader Ellie Espling from New Gloucester, whom Barkley says is also strongly committed to promoting women candidates in her party.

In Falmouth, Kimberly Diamond, a Republican, is a first-time candidate running against Rep. Teresa Pierce, a Democrat finishing her first term representing District 44.

Diamond, 52, said her Republican philosophy is similar to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former Sen. Bill Cohen, who have been willing to go against their party when it was necessary, and for whom Diamond used to work. While going door to door, she said, she is met by people who simply don’t want to talk about politics because they are so alienated from the partisan fray.

Town council experience, officially non-partisan, has shaped the political outlook of two of the candidates who are seeking to oust incumbents this year. Martha MacAuslan, who is chairwoman of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council, will step down from that position to run as an independent against Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, for the District 29 seat representing South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

“When the seven of us on the Town Council are voting, we are voting on the policy, not from party politics,” MacAuslan said. She said working as an independent should broaden, rather than narrow, her reach if she is elected to the Legislature.

Another town council veteran running for Legislature is Democrat Jean-Marie Caterina, who has served on the Scarborough council and is seeking to unseat Republican Sen. Amy Volk in a state senate district that spans Scarborough, Gorham and Buxton.

“You learn very quickly that you need to work together to get anything done,” Caterina said. “And in my work, I’m a negotiator, and I think perhaps women bring more of a win-win perspective to negotiations.”

All these races feature qualified women seeking office, and while it is not the only answer to civil politics in Augusta, it may help.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.