‘We Can Do It’
Women making impact on West Virginia politics
CHARLESTON — The Friday before election day, Carol Miller — soon to be elected as the next U.S. representative for the 3rd Congressional District — took the stage after being introduced by President Donald Trump to the crowd at Huntington Tri-State Airport for one final rally.
Standing nearby was the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate in West Virginia history, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who had warmed up the crowd at the start of the rally. With Miller’s election on Nov. 6, West Virginia’s five-member congressional delegation is now three men and two women.
“Having 40 percent of our congressional delegation women is, I think, a great statement about the respect that West Virginians have for women as women leaders in public service,” Capito said. “I’m just proud that West Virginia is one of those states that have broken through that barrier.”
Miller, a Republican from Huntington, is a six-term member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. First elected in 2006, she is the majority whip for the House. She defeated state Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, 56.37 percent to 43.63 percent according to unofficial vote totals from the West Virginia Secretary of State.
Capito, who served seven terms in Congress representing the 2nd District, said she is looking forward to having Miller’s experience in the House of Representatives.
“I’m very excited about having Carol on the House side,” Capito said. “Her background is in business and she also has a state legislative background much like I had. I think she’ll be able to hit the ground running.”
The pace of Congress is different than a 60-day session of the West Virginia Legislature, as are the responsibilities. Capito plans to help Miller acclimate to her new environment.
“I want to be able to help mentor her in terms of how you balance family and job, how do you get back and forth, and how you build a staff and do constituent service,” Capito said. “We have a good relationship and we’ve known each other for 20 years.”
Miller and Capito are just some of the many women who have stepped into public service roles in government in West Virginia over the years, and especially in 2018.
A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE HOUSE AND SENATE
Until 2000, West Virginia’s congressional delegation was an all-men club, but Capito wasn’t the first woman elected to represent the state in Washington, D.C. That distinction belongs to Elizabeth Kee.
According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Kee was elected as a Democrat in a special election to represent the 5th District and succeeded her husband, U.S. Rep. John Kee, who died in 1951. She won a full term in 1952 and served to 1965. She chose not to run for re-election and her seat was won by her son, James Kee.
The state has gone from five congressional districts to three since then. Former U.S. Rep. Bob Wise decided to run for governor, giving an opening for a new face to run in the 2nd District.
Capito, a two-term member of the House of Delegates, decided to give it a try.
“I have always in my mind felt that being a woman is a tremendous advantage in the political arena,” Capito said. “I felt the same thing in 2000, even though we hadn’t had a woman elected in decades. I gathered my strengths from my bleacher people, my friends that sat on the bleachers with me while our kids played sports. That’s where I really gained my momentum and also with grassroots enthusiasm from other women.”
With the support of her friends, family, and volunteers, Capito went on to defeat the Democrat, Charleston attorney Jim Humphreys, 48 percent to 46 percent. She had her skeptics, but after that first race Capito went on to win by 15- and 20-point margins. In her final race for the House in 2012, she won by 40 points.
“There were some naysayers I’m sure that thought I should stay home or I should think more deeply about the lifestyle a member of Congress has living in two places being difficult on a family, which it is,” Capito said. “I didn’t let that deter me and honestly, I was able to make the case convincingly in 2000 that my voice, as a woman, was a different voice for West Virginia and one that we needed.”
In 2014, Capito ran for U.S. Senate, succeeding Jay Rockefeller, who retired. She defeated Natalie Tennant, who was Secretary of State, 62 percent to 35 percent. Capito will be up for re-election in 2020.
Capito won’t only be joined by Miller in 2019. The 2018 election saw 42 women win seats in the House of Representatives, 38 Democrats and four Republicans, including Miller. In the U.S. Senate, five women won races, including three Democrats and two Republicans.
According to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, 126 women will take seats in the House and Senate in 2019. Women will make up 23.7 percent of Congress. While all votes are weighted the same, Capito said it’s sometimes easier to work with her fellow female senators.
“In terms of actually getting things over the finish line, I think the women of the Senate work better together,” Capito said. “We work more bipartisan. We have more success in having our bills being passed. I think that has strengthened my resolve to be able to get results.”
MORE WORK TO BE DONE
Both nationally and at the state level, the number of women serving in Congress and state legislatures have gone up the last 44 years. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, Congress was made up of 4 percent women and state legislatures only had 8 percent women. In 2018, those numbers went up to 20.2 percent women in Congress and 25.4 percent women in state legislatures.
However, the West Virginia Legislature is seeing a reversal of this trend. After the 2018 election, no new women were elected to the Senate and state Sen. Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, lost in the primary. Only three women remain in the Senate, including President Pro Tempore Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, who was appointed by Capito’s father, former Gov. Arch Moore Jr. in 1985.
In the House of Delegates, the women who will be seated for the 2019 legislative session include eight Republicans and seven Democrats. Of that number, six are either new or had served previous to 2016. Two women, Delegates Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha, and Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, will not be returning.
One of the new delegates coming into the House is Amanda Estep-Burton. She won as a Democrat in the 36th District, a three-member district encompassing Kanawha County’s east and south. She came in third just 62 votes ahead of Republican Chris Pritt. She’s excited to get started, but this is her first time getting involved with politics.
“I’m very nervous,” Estep-Burton said. “With winning comes a huge responsibility. I owe it to the people to be excellent. I want to make sure I deliver excellence to the people. It’s a scary feeling. I’m excited to win. I’m grateful to win, but I’m really nervous.”
Estep-Burton is an assistant vice president at BB&T Bank, is married and has four children.
Just four days before the primary, her home burnt to the ground. Her friends and supporters came together to help her win while another supporter made available a four-bedroom home in the district for her family.
“I knew I needed to win that primary, but I also had to take care of my family,” Estep-Burton said. “My No. 1 goal was to make a new normal for my family as soon as possible. While I did that, my friends, colleagues and people who had been knocking on doors with ne and canvassing throughout the primary, they picked up the pieces and started knocking on doors for me and handing out my literature and talking for me. I had a whole tribe of women and men who said ‘we’re not going to let Amanda worry about this election. We’re going to handle it for her.'”
Winning the primary during tragedy and squeaking out a win in the general election, Estep-Burton has another hurdle to jump over. Her employer, BB&T, will not sign off on the leave Estep-Burton needs to serve during the legislative session.
“I have to resign from my position at BB&T,” Estep-Burton said. “I knew that was a possibility when I put my name on the ballot, but we need people who are not independently wealthy and don’t own their own businesses.”
For Estep-Burton, seeing more women and more minorities in the Legislature would be a good thing and help provide different perspectives for lawmakers when crafting legislation.
“We need women representation more than what we have now,” Estep-Burton said. “I’d like to see a 40 percent women legislature at least. Reflective of our population, I’d like to see a legislature more representative of what our West Virginia culture looks like. It’s about more diversity in the legislature.”
HELPING WOMEN ‘RISE UP’
Capito recently sponsored legislation to rename the NASA Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont after Katherine Johnson, the West Virginia native and African-American mathematician who developed the calculations for the Apollo moon landings. Her work went on to become the focus of a feature-length movie.
“I attended Katherine’s 99th birthday down at The Greenbrier and was in awe of her journey,” Capito said. “I thought we ought to celebrate her intellect and her breakthroughs, and no better place to do it than the NASA IV and V facility in Fairmont. We talked with the family yesterday and they’re excited about it. We’ll have a permanent recognition of her tremendous and history-making contributions.”
While acknowledging the women who blazed the trails for her and many others, Capito is working with the next generation of women to inspire them to achieve great things. Capito’s West Virginia Girls Rise Up is a program that works with elementary and middle school girls and encourages them to incorporate activities into their schedules to foster greater interest in education, physical fitness, and instilling confidence.
“I started West Virginia Girls Rise Up because I want young women in West Virginia to aspire to be a leader in the public arena,” Capito said. “We’re going to keep doing that and hopefully inspire that next generation and say we need more women. We need confident women to solve the problems of tomorrow.”
By: Steven Allen Adams
Source: The Parkersburg News and Sentinel
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