Around a decade ago, Angela Alsobrooks was lamenting to a friend how she felt safe growing up in Prince George’s County but now would not let her then 4-year-old daughter play in her front yard unsupervised. “This friend cut me off and said, ‘Unless you intend to change it, let’s never have this discussion again,’” she recalled. “I spent time thinking about that and thought, ‘You know, he is right.’”
A former assistant state’s attorney and executive director of the county revenue authority, Alsobrooks became the first woman elected Prince George’s State’s Attorney in 2010 and re-elected the next term. During her eight years in office, violent crime fell in the county by 50 percent.
The Democrat decided to run for Prince George’s County Executive in 2018 after noticing many of the issues she saw in courtrooms could be prevented through proactive public policy. Running unopposed in the general election, Alsobrooks became the first woman elected to the top county position.
“A lot of women have worked hard to make sure that I had that opportunity,” she said. “I understand the groundwork for that kind of progress happened many, many years before I even developed an idea to run for state’s attorney or county executive. There were women who had to do the work to get me there.”
Sworn into office in December, Alsobrooks notes “that I have, I think, an additional obligation to make sure that I do an amazing job as county executive so there will never, ever be a question again about a person’s gender.
“It’s not so important to be the first at something but make sure you are not the last. You have to do such an exceptional job that it creates opportunities for women to come behind you and to also have that same chance again based on your performance and competency,” she said.
Women made historic gains in the 2018 election. Nationally, a record 120 women were elected to the U.S. Congress with 39 of them freshmen. Maryland sent its largest class of women to the General Assembly this month. Local and county races also saw wins for women.
Goucher College’s Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center Dr. Mileah Kromer notes many women, mostly Democrats, decided to run as a pushback to the 2016 presidential election and controversial Donald Trump administration. “The highest and hardest glass ceiling was cracked but not shattered (when Hillary Clinton lost.) … It is the intersection of both party and gender that drove” women to run.
Political science research has suggested over the years that women, more so than men, need to be encouraged (sometimes multiple times) by party leaders or influencers to run for office at any political level. Kromer has noticed with this past election cycle, more women are becoming self-starters by running without the nudges. “That is slightly different than what we have seen in the past,” she said.
A September Pew Research Center study found people tend to see women as being more empathetic and compassionate than men. Women are also better at working out compromises as well as standing up for what they believe in.
“There has been a push to elect those types of elected officials particularly at a time where our trust in government is diminished overall, and so I think electing female candidates can potentially be an avenue to increase trust in government,” Kromer said.
Alsobrooks believes her campaign was successful because in many areas, including Prince George’s County, women make up a huge demographic. “When women vote, things happen,” she said. “…When they get involved and support other women, we see that we can be successful.”
Gains at the state level
In December, Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-District 30) was one of 60 new legislators participating in orientation at the State House in Annapolis. She attended briefings on ethics and budgets along with pointers on drafting a bill. The most interesting moment for her came on the first day when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael Busch spoke to the group about the history of the 1772 building. George Washington resigned his commission to Congress as commander of the Army there. Thomas Jefferson used the second-floor offices as his office when he was ambassador to France.
“So much history has gone on in that building, and it is really exciting to be a part of that,” Elfreth said. “As the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate, I feel an obligation to that history but also an obligation to talk about issues that necessarily haven’t been on the forefront in that building for a long time.”
With a focus on protecting the Chesapeake Bay, better education and affordable health care and childcare, Elfreth will be on the budget and taxation committee.
Previously on the advocacy side working for Johns Hopkins and the National Aquarium, she decided to run when Sen. John Astle announced his retirement. She was a part of the first class of Emerge Maryland, a nonprofit designed to help recruit and train Democratic women from diverse backgrounds to run for office. Elfreth has enjoyed the camaraderie developed between women across the state running for different positions. “It is a group we can all turn to,” she said.
Martha McKenna, Emerge’s board chair, believes women ran in record numbers because many had been preparing to run for office for several years.
“I think they were successful because they were prepared,” she said. “They were incredibly hard-working and they are really connected to their communities.”
Emerge recently picked its seventh class of around 20 women who will graduate in May. Seventeen of their graduates now hold public office. When looking back at the 2018 election, McKenna is hopeful for the future of Maryland.
“I just think the energy and the perspective that this new group of women brings to local government and state government is going to be really impactful and positive for us,” she said. “I say the new women are bringing new energy but really it is a partnership (with veteran women lawmakers). There are many women who are trailblazers who are just thrilled to have this new group of diverse women in the legislature, and that is really cool to see. … They are going to be a powerful force for change in the state.”
Veterans excited to help the newcomers
During orientation, veteran women delegates and senators discussed having dinner on Monday nights or a cocktail hour once a week with their new freshmen women counterparts. “They want to be supportive and this is really an opportunity for them to mentor us as well,” Elfreth said. “Both on the freshmen side and the veteran side, I think everybody is really excited to have so many women.”
Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, (D-District 21), recalls sitting at her dining room table with different candidates discussing how to fundraise and run a campaign, speaking to a crowd and producing mailings. “I think it is important to be a role model and get more women involved,” she said. “…It is important to reach out and to help each other because I have people to help me all the time.”
Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan, (D-District 17), supported many women candidates during their campaigns with funds, advice, door knocking and phone banking. “There are some dynamic new women coming into the senate and house,” she said. … I am pretty confident there will be a powerful sisterhood in the General Assembly in January.”
With a political career in both the House and Senate, Kagan noted mentors and coaches are invaluable and she has reached out to help freshmen legislatures. “The legislature is a complex process and it is easy for a freshman to have early missteps so I think we should all be looking out for each other and helping every legislator to success especially the women,” Kagan said.
And gains at the local level too
Howard County Council councilwomen Christiana Mercer Rigby was a part of Emerge’s 2017 class. Working in the government and nonprofit sectors as well as being a community organizer, she wanted to run as a way to have a broader impact.
“I knew that if I wanted to run I had to figure out how to run and Emerge really helped me do that,” she said. “I had all the puzzle pieces but I didn’t know how to organize them in a way that would allow me to be successful.”
Emerge helped her to prepare and run a successful campaign including personally knocking on more than 10,000 doors in her district. “I feel like I have an amazing to do list from all of the doors I knocked on,” she said.
Three of the five members of the council are women — up from two with Rigby the youngest woman to ever chair. Just a few weeks after the board’s swearing in, the council decided to move its monthly meetings from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. to allow parents the opportunity to get their kids on the school bus.
“We are really trying to create a system that is supportive of working parents,” Rigby said, noting herself and two other members have young children while the other two members were supportive of the change.
“I think it is important to have diverse perspective,” Rigby said of the board. “We only know the lens of life that we’ve lived through. You can empathize with someone else but it is very different than having that personal experience, and I think that is why representation is so important.”
The Carroll County Courthouse was built in 1838, and yet a woman had never been appointed or elected as a circuit court judge. Attorney Maria Oesterreicher figured she could continue to apply when there was a vacancy or run against sitting judge Richard Titus. “I mulled it over for quite a long time,” she said.
Deciding to run, she heard from voters who didn’t care that she was a woman and were deciding to vote for her based on her qualifications. Upon winning, she also heard from people she didn’t know about how happy they were that a woman would finally be presiding in the county’s circuit court. One woman brought her 12-year-old daughter to Oesterreicher’s investiture, noting it was important for her daughter to see women that have fought to get the position they hold.
“I realized (the election) wasn’t just important to me and some other local practitioners,” she said. “I knew in a broad sense that it was important but when you start receiving personal messages like that, (the election) has really made an impact in people’s lives.”
|This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.|