An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for Justin Dispenza. This story has been corrected.
“It seems to signal that while women can have a seat at the table they just can’t be at the head of it,” said Krishanti Vignarajah, who ran in Maryland’s last gubernatorial Democratic primary four years ago.
Then, in what was deemed “The Year of the Woman,” when more Democratic women than ever ran for Congress and for governor across the country, Vignarajah was one of three women at the top of the ticket. This year, all but one person in the all-male field picked a woman for lieutenant governor, an undefined role that has been largely ceremonial.
The number of women and specifically the number of Black and Brown women chosen as running mates is unprecedented in Maryland, the most diverse state on the East Coast, and is seen by some as a much-needed acknowledgment that elected officials should mirror the people they represent. For some others, it’s not enough.
The women, who met this month for the lone lieutenant governor forum of the race, are offering sharp critiques of Maryland’s track record on serving women.
“With everything that’s at stake right now, it’s not enough to be pro-choice anymore. You have to have a proven track record of advocating for access to abortion,” said Michelle Siri, running mate to former U.S. education secretary John B. King, Jr., and executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.
The women drew from experiences as working mothers, as public servants who became “the first” or “the only” of their gender or race in the room, as people who experienced gender discrimination or launched careers to promote gender or racial equity.
Candace Hollingsworth, the former mayor of Hyattsville who is running with former attorney general Doug Gansler, described the wage gap as another way that women, particular women of color, have to work harder and longer to get just as far as other people. Women in Maryland make 86 cents to every dollar paid to a man, according to the National Women’s Law Center, and the gap is wider for Black and Latinx women. The consequence, Hollingsworth said, can be measured in time away from families or a lack of time to pursue political office.
“Pay equity doesn’t just give us more money,” she said, “it gives us our time back, time that we could use to pursue our passions and our dreams.”
As the women discussed ways to promote women’s issues, the sole male running mate on the ballot — Justin Dispenza, who is running with retired professor Jerome Segal — yielded his time to the rest of the field.
“The best thing I can do is shut up and listen,” he said.
State Comptroller Peter Franchot chose former Prince George’s County Council member Monique Anderson-Walker; author and former nonprofit chief Wes Moore named Aruna Miller, an engineer and former state delegate; former U.S. labor secretary Thomas Perez selected former Baltimore City Council member Shannon Sneed; former nonprofit executive Jon Baron tapped Natalie Williams, a public affairs director for an education group; and millennial candidate Ashwani Jain selected LaTrece Hawkins Lytes, a longtime Maryland resident and political newcomer.
While the Democrats will not shatter Maryland’s glass ceiling this year, the Republicans might. The lead contender in a four-way race for the GOP nomination is former Maryland commerce secretary Kelly M. Schulz.
Vignarajah said she is impressed with the talented pool of Democratic candidates, but “it seems like we’re going backward, rather than forward … It is a real disappointment that the only woman running for governor is on the Republican side.”
The disparity has not gone unnoticed.
“There’s a lot of women who look at this state — a state that used to have Barbara A. Mikulski, who is an icon of women in politics — and it’s frustrating,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College. “On its face, it’s ridiculous that we don’t have women in the congressional delegation or in statewide office.”
Women make up 51.6 percent of the state’s population but disproportionally register with Democrats, as they do nationwide. Women make up nearly 59 percent of registered Democratic voters in Maryland, about 48 percent of Republican voters and 47 percent of unaffiliated voters, according to the state Board of Elections.
But Maryland is not the only state that has never had a woman at the helm. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 19 states, including California, Pennsylvania and Georgia, have never elected a woman as governor.
“While Maryland is unique, unfortunately it’s not that unique,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the center. Dittmar said the dynamics in each state tend to be different, including who is recruited and who is supported to run.
Dittmar said the issue tends to be highlighted more in Maryland because the state doesn’t have female representation in Congress and it is the state from which Mikulski, the “dean of the Senate women” and the longest serving woman in Congress, hails. “It takes work and intention to ensure that representation exists at all levels,” she said.
There also is a lack of racial diversity in the state’s executive offices.
Nearly a third of Maryland residents are Black; more than 10 percent are Latino and nearly 7 percent are Asian, according to recent census data.
Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), who took office as part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s ticket, is the only Black statewide elected official in Maryland. No Black or Latino candidate has been elected statewide on their own. Several are on the ballot this year.
“Women of color are the core of the Democratic Party … I think we have a group of candidates this time that really looked at the race and said, ‘I need to recognize that women aren’t in this race,’” said Susie Turnbull, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and former chair of the state Democratic Party.
Turnbull, who ran for lieutenant governor on Ben Jealous’s ticket in 2018, said she was somewhat surprised when Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who had the name recognition and the war chest to mount a competitive bid, did not jump in this year’s race.
Alsobrooks announced last year that she would not make a gubernatorial run, opting instead to seek reelection. She said she wanted to dedicate her time to her 16-year-old daughter and to help county residents recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Laura Neuman, a Democrat who is White and ran a short-lived run for governor this year, abruptly ended her campaign because of a family emergency.
Neuman and Vignarajah each said it is an uphill climb for women to launch and it gets even steeper as they appear to have to work for credibility.
“I was surprised how many times people said to me, ‘Maybe you should be someone’s running mate,’ when I was talking about whether or not I was going to get into the race,” said Neuman, who noted that she was a business woman who held public office and a native of Maryland.
Vignarajah said she was told more than a few times that she should consider staying home to take care of her infant daughter.
“You get the comments: ‘Why don’t you run for a lower office first?’” Vignarajah said. “‘Why are you running with a baby? You should take care of your baby.’”
She would offer the same reply each time: “That’s what I’m doing, trying to take care of my baby by making this world a better place.”