American governorships are still something of a boy's club

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November 3, 2010

  Only six states have a woman in the governor's mansion, but three women who joined the club last night represent their state's first-ever female chief executive.

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Three female governors are out after the midterms: Linda Lingle (R-HI), Jennifer Granholm (D-MI), and Jodi Rell (R-CT), the first two by term-limits and the last by choice. Both Lingle and Granholm were the first female governor in their state. All were replaced by men, governors-elect Neil Abercrombie, Rick Snyder, and Dan Malloy, respectively.

Today, three more women won their state's top office. New Mexico, South Carolina, and Oklahoma can now boast of having elected their first ever female commander-in-chief. Among the women whose time in office effectively ended yesterday, Lingle and Rell are with the GOP and Granholm is a Democrat. The three incoming governors, Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley, and Mary Fallin, are all Republicans.

Arizona incumbent governor Jan Brewer, also a Republican, was returned to office. They now join Washington's Christine Gregoire and Beverly Purdue of North Carolina, both Democrats, as a small group among America's governors. Gregoire, in her second term, ad Purdue, serving her first term, are also the first female governors for their states. Whether or not the Republican's 2-to-1 advantage among governors indicates a lasting shift in voting patterns or is an artifact of the unusually 2010 season will be interesting to watch. After all, the U.S. still has the same number of females governors and the partisan balance as gone from being evenly split to a single overall gain for the GOP.

Haley, Martinez, and Fallin represent an interesting snapshot of women pursuing high office. Susana Martinez is the District Attorney of New Mexico's Doña Ana County. She is married, but has no children. Oklahoma Governor-elect Mary Fallin raised eyebrows - and some ire - in the final debate of the season. She pointed out that her Democratic opponent Jari Askins, has never married and has no children and went on to say she would make a better governor because she has maternal experience.[1]

As the debate opened, each candidate was asked to briefly state what set her apart from her challenger. Fallin responded, "[f]irst of all, being a mother, having children. Raising a family."[2]

Fallin should perhaps know better than to make home life a public issue. As the state's lieutenant governor in 1998, Fallin was in the middle of a divorce when her estranged husband accused her of infidelity.[3] A bodyguard later came forward to admit an inappropriate relationship with Fallin. Under an agreement, the bodyguard, a member of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, admitted to unprofessional conduct and was allowed to resign rather than being fired.,[4] He did not formally admit to an affair and Fallin denied the accusations. Recently remarried, Fallin has custody of her two children. Her husband additionally has four children from his first marriage.

Her comments, and the response, raised the issue of whether a candidate opens the door to her own personal life with such candid words or if to take advantage of indiscreet words to broadcast other indiscretions would be a cheap trick.[5] Also of interest; is it a sign of womens' full arrival in politics that such failed marriages and alleged affairs, long a staple of men in political life, are no longer sure-fire death for a woman? Or does the willingness of a candidate to use her own family life selectively and attack that of her opponent point to the continued negative tone of much campaigning?

Such questions extend to America's Atlantic coast, where South Carolina's newly elected governor has responded to similar charges. Nikki Haley, who became nationally known during her campaign as America's first likely female governor of Indian descent and as one of Sarah Plain's Mama Grizzlies, battled accusations of conducting affairs for much of her race. Haley has flatly dismissed the charges as rumors. For Haley, it began just before the primary. Once considered a longshot to win, she was gaining serious momentum when a blogger announced he'd had an affair with her and was forced to admit to as much because a major paper would soon be breaking the story anyway.[6]

Though the blogger gave an affadavit, no such story and no solid proof ever materialized, while the accusations stuck around.[7][8] The following week, she was hit with a second man alleging a one-night stand.[9]   Such stories clearly didn't stop these women from winnning; they may have contributed to narrow margins of victory, however. Haley beat Democrat Vincent Sheheen by only 4%. Yet in Oklahoma, which is not so solidly red that it won't elect a Democrat governor (out-going Gov. Brad Henry served two terms as a Dem), Fallin won by a landslide 20%. New Mexico handed victory to Susanna Martinez, vying with Democrat Diane Denish by 8%. Interestingly, South Carolina with its slim victory for the GOP is one the one state in this story where the incoming Republican is succeeding a fellow party member. Gov. Mark Sanford is term-limited but his once-boundless political horizon after leaving office has been drastically shortened. The reason? An affair, of course.


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