Running for office had never crossed Katie Fry Hester’s mind.
Then some of her neighbors in Howard County, a community known for its inclusiveness and “Choose Civility” bumper stickers, stopped speaking to one another. Over politics.
“Seeing this partisan divide, it really sort of got to me,” the self-described moderate Democrat said.
Fry Hester took her two young daughters to march with hundreds of thousands of women on the Mall. She joined activist groups, including Bridge Builders, which she helped form with other women from her neighborhood. To her own surprise, she launched her first run for elected office. In November, she won a seat in the Maryland General Assembly by 531 votes, ousting a three-term Republican lawmaker.
Next month, Fry Hester will be part of the largest group of women to ever serve in the Annapolis State House. The cadre includes lawyers, millennials, public policy workers and former legislative aides; women who have always been politically active and women who have rarely, if ever, shown up at town council meetings.
They are part of a national groundswell of women who say they were driven to run for office by a desire to improve their communities but also by the last presidential election.
During the 2016 election cycle, 920 women who were potential candidates contacted Emily’s List, a group that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said. Two years later, that number jumped more than 40-fold, to a staggering 42,000.
Diane Penkova Fink, executive director of Emerge Maryland, part of a national network that identifies potential female Democratic candidates, calls it “the Hillary factor” — women who were energized by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, discouraged by Donald Trump’s victory, or both. But for Hester and the Democratic women elected with her, pushing back against the Republican president is far from their only goal.
They say they want to advance bills of particular interest to women and families, from education to health care to the environment; build common ground and encourage more women to seek public office.
“I’ve heard people say “You don’t look like a senator,’” said Sen.-elect Sarah Elfreth, 30, of Anne Arundel County. “It’s my job to change the face of what a senator looks like.”
Maryland’s feminist claim to fame is former U.S. senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D), who was the longest-serving woman in Congress when she retired in 2016. But the state has never elected a woman to its top job. Since Mikulski left, there have been no women in Maryland’s congressional delegation.
In the State House, however, just over half of the 60 newly elected lawmakers — 31 — are women. Because of them, the 188-member General Assembly will include 72 women (63 Democrats and 9 Republicans) when it convenes next month, topping the previous record of 67. They are aware that Maryland’s State House — like others across the country — is known as an old-boys network, where sexual harassment can be pervasive. But they believe their time has come.
At a recent orientation session in Annapolis, those peppering the presenter with questions about drafting bills included Del.-elect Mary Lehman (D), a former Prince George’s County Council member, and Wanika Fisher, 30, a fellow Prince Georgian who will be the youngest woman in the county delegation.
Fisher, the daughter of African and Indian immigrants, says political engagement is part of her DNA. A former prosecutor, she also has worked as a legislative aide and on numerous campaigns.
“I’ve always felt the way to make change or to move space forward is through activism and government,” she said. “My family struggled in apartheid and came here, so it really made me interested.”
Like Fry Hester, she credits other women — including her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters and her mentor, former state delegate Jolene Ivey (D) — with supporting her first run for office. She was a part of Emerge Maryland’s class of 23 women who trained in 2017. Sixteen of them were elected.
“It gave me a network of women to go to when I needed advice,” Fisher said.
Also part of the Emerge class was Elfreth, president of the Anne Arundel County Democratic Club, who will be the youngest woman ever to serve in the Maryland Senate, and Lesley Lopez, 35, from Montgomery County.
Elfreth’s road to the State House began when state Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel) told her the day after the presidential election that he was likely to give up his seat.
“Are you interested in running?” he asked.
Elfreth had considered a career in politics since serving as a student member on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents while attending Towson University. As a college senior, she heard a lecture by Madeleine Kunin, the first female governor of Vermont, who said: “If you’re passionate and capable, it’s your obligation to run for office.”
Some friends and family told Elfreth to do it. Others were more discouraging. In the end, Elfreth figured a man would not pass up the opportunity she was being offered.
“This incredible window had opened up, and I wanted to take advantage of it,” she said.
She fended off criticism during the campaign from supporters of her opponent, Republican Ron George, who tried to characterize her as out of touch with the district because she is unmarried and has no children.
When political opponents referred to her as a “girl,” she said, “That’s fine, because girls can do great things, too.” And she said she cares about the issues affecting families even if she doesn’t yet have one of her own.
Her fellow Emerge alumna, Lesley Lopez, 35, a former journalist and Capitol Hill aide from Montgomery County, said it wasn’t just Trump’s win that pushed her to run, it was “how women [candidates] were being treated, from Hillary Clinton to Carly Fiorina.” She was also upset about the 10-year battle Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery) had to wage to terminate the parental rights of rapists.
“There seemed to be a deficit of respect,” said Lopez, who describes herself as a domestic abuse survivor. “It was clear that representation is an issue, and we can’t take representation for granted.”
Many of the new female lawmakers say they’ve been warned about the slow pace of Annapolis. They have a to-do list. But they also know the benefits of being patient.
Elfreth said she looks forward to “building on” the work of veteran female legislators. For example, she said she is excited to join with state Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), the new chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, who has worked to provide more access to affordable child care.
“I was raised by a single mom,” Elfreth said. “I look at that as an economic issues, family issues, making it easier for people to raise families.”
She also wants to partner with Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) on making sure rape evidence kits are preserved.
Fisher said “anything around criminal justice reform is super important to me. Consent and sexual assault, gun violence, and overpolicing of black men and people of color all keep me up at night.” She wants to address overcrowding and lack of affordable housing in places like Langley Park and protecting seniors from financial crimes.
Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Wicomico), the incoming president of Women Legislators of Maryland, said the group has not finalized its agenda but plans to continue to push for legislation that deals with women’s equality. Last session, one of its top priorities was addressing sexual harassment.
Earlier this year, a longtime Baltimore lawmaker was disciplined for sexual misconduct, and a female lawmaker accused a lobbyist of touching her inappropriately. Legislative leaders just got their first annual accounting of how many harassment complaints were filed over the past 12 months against lawmakers and General Assembly employees. They are planning more intensive training to combat the problem in 2019.
“I’m very excited about the new energy,” Sample-Hughes said of the incoming lawmakers. “There is strength in having women at the table.”
Fry Hester, an agricultural and biological engineer, was named co-chair of the Senate subcommittee on cybersecurity, information technology, and biological and biotechnology. She said she wants to boost the collaboration between government and the private sector to help Maryland become the “Silicon Valley for biotechnology and cybersecurity,” encouraging women in the sciences along the way.
She used purple campaign literature, in a gesture of bipartisanship, and knocked on about 30,000 doors during her campaign.
In a nod to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who often says he does not care which side of the aisle an idea comes from, Fry Hester plans to reintroduce a bill her Republican predecessor sponsored: a tax credit for seniors.
“I just hope that over the next four years people will say Katie did good work for our district,” she said, “and it didn’t matter what party she was from.”