Despite cuts, South Carolina's budget woes will persist in 2011

COLUMBIA -- The Southeastern Institute for Women in Politics is laying the groundwork now in an effort to make the 2012 elections a game-changer.

The nonprofit advocacy group will offer its "Take Your Seat" training at the Charleston School of Law on Saturday, the first in a series of sessions that are aimed at encouraging women to run for elected and appointed office. The effort is part of its "Mission 2012."

South Carolina has the only single-gender legislative chamber in America and lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to women in elected office.

Despite electing its first female governor, Nikki Haley, last year, the state is moving backward in gender diversity in public office, according to Barbara Rackes, one of the institute's board members.

"We are our own worst enemies," Rackes said. "We can try a case. We can make a speech to the PTO, herd 20 kids on the bus. And when someone says, 'You should run for the city council,' we say, 'Oh no, not me. I am not smart enough. I don't have enough degrees.' "

In 2012, all 170 legislative seats will be up for grabs and voters will select hundreds of school board and city, town and county council members.

Rackes and Lynne Ford, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, can tick off a list of details related to the reasons women don't enter politics and the reasons they should.

Rackes said gender is a great asset to female candidates. Studies indicate that voters get a sense that a woman knows what it's like to walk in their shoes, Rackes said.

Gender advantage

Haley ran a brilliant campaign that tied together her policy platform with her real-life experience, she said. For example, on the campaign trail, Haley would tell the crowds that she was the mother of children in public school, the wife of a man who puts on a military uniform every day and the sister of a brother who fought for his country.

Ford said when it comes to men and women in politics or highly-educated business graduates and their requested salaries. Males overestimate their abilities and females dramatically underestimate theirs.

"The trick is to figure out how to zero in and help them understand that they don't have to be better than, they simply have to present themselves as they are," Ford said.

But Ford said the research doesn't fully explain why South Carolina's rate of women in politics lags so far behind the rest of the country. The state House is made of up of less than 10 percent women and no women serve in the Senate. In Colorado, the percentage of women in its legislature is 41.

Where are the women?

Fewer women serve now in the state House than in 1992 and even fewer than in 2010, Rackes said.

"It's not been a banner period for women," she said.

People say they want representation to be 50-50, but the numbers don't show that's the case. For example, Ford said, 24 percent of legislators nationwide are women and only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress' members are female.

"There has to be something going on," Ford said.

Ford's research continues. She said she is hopeful that when women attend the upcoming training sessions, as a group they can demystify the process.

Southeastern Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group, was founded in 2007. One of the group's highest-profile efforts has been to present the governor with a list of qualified women to take seats on state boards and run government agencies.

Haley has consistently said that she will always appoint the most qualified person, regardless of quotas. Four of Haley's 16 Cabinet directors are women.

Rackes said the institute is making inroads with the past and upcoming training, building alliances with groups such as the League of Women Voters, and amassing a 20,000-email subscriber base. The 2012 elections present its biggest opportunity, she said.

"It is sort of counter to our Southern upbringing, running for office," Rackes said. "Politics are dirty; I remind people that women do most of the cleaning -- so why shouldn't we enter politics?"

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.