The Curse

Why No Woman Is Running for Mayor

The double standards permeate city politics even beyond elected office. According to fundraiser and lobbyist Suri Kasirer, "As a woman consultant, there is tremendous pressure to deliver in very specific ways that isn't there with men." Men get more slack, she complains, while "with women, it's like, we've been paying you, what have you produced?" She adds, "One of my pet peeves is being referred to in the media as the wife of Giuliani aide Bruce Teitelbaum," not because of the implied conflict of interest, but because it makes marriage seem her best asset.

One of the city's most visible labor leaders, Randi Weingarten of the teachers' union, finds "people don't listen as they should," because she's a woman. During contract negotiations with the city, she says, "I found I was underestimated a lot."

It's no stretch to say every woman in New York City politics has run up against sexism. No matter how experienced or high in rank, these women say it is impossible to shake the curse. Their campaign coffers, political networks, "winnability" in the eyes of voters, and, ultimately, access to higher office have suffered as a result. Not that they could complain.

The worst thing about sexism is not the emphasis on appearance, although that's bad. It's not the suggestion of inherent incompetence, although that's worse. The kicker is that the victim can't talk about it, at least not with any hope of winning. Silence is in the nature of the beast; it's what sexism thrives on.

Sexism "is the one thing you want to talk about, but you can't," says Messinger. "You're perceived to be crying wolf, to be taking an unfair advantage." As councilwoman and public advocate candidate Kathryn Freed puts it, "I'm a woman candidate, but I'm not asking for anything special"—like for voters and reporters to be wary of gender bias—"because I know the only thing special I'm going to get is a hard time." Whiny and weak are part of the sexist lexicon. Why risk being called them?

The conventional wisdom among seasoned women pols: Just grin and bear it. (It worked for Hillary, several of them point out. Her stoic refusal to address blatantly sexist coverage in the press and her silent suffering of bullying by Rick Lazio and NBC political personality Tim Russert during a televised debate, it is widely believed, helped her win the race.)

Or be punished, especially by the press. In a male-dominated "media meat market" where politics are "totally controlled by media access and polls," according to Messinger, and where tabloid culture prefers the personal to public policy, complaining can be risky. She should know.

Her efforts to counter sexism head-on in her mayoral campaign, venturing the S-word in public condemnations of Giuliani, got her labeled as "confused" by at least one journalist. Her calling the mayor sexist was couched as aggression, even viciousness, by some reporters, rather than as self-defense. She once approached a reporter in private about what she felt was his biased coverage. "All I did was further damage my relationship with him."

But politicians, no matter their gender, are not really supposed to speak for themselves. Certainly not when it comes to sensitive issues where they could come off sounding defensive. Yet the colleagues, party leaders, and political insiders who normally rant and rave to reporters and donors on behalf of embattled candidates are less available for women. Most of them are men.

Even the city's veteran women politicians say they are still outsiders to the "boys' club." In a town where party politics, traditionally a man's world, is as entrenched as it gets—less party-driven states like Washington and Utah have better records on women in office—not being included can seriously limit a career. Benefits of membership: access to boardrooms, bank accounts, and the invaluable stamp of legitimacy.

"Look at how many times Mark Green has run for things and lost, for God's sake! Peter Vallone's another guy who lost and can run again!" exclaims Barnard College political scientist Ester Fuchs, who says she'll advise media billionaire Michael Bloomberg should he officially run. "And they can all raise money to run again! Imagine Ruth Messinger trying to raise money to run again. Everyone would laugh in her face!" In fact, many of her brethren did the first time around.

In the party that is New York politics, women are still pouring the coffee. They're discreetly raising money for candidates, but are not out front as media reps. As staff members to elected officials, they're more likely to handle constituent complaints than do the kind of legislative or governmental work that can set up a future run for office. Women with a penchant for public service find it easier to operate in the lower-profile world of nonprofits than to run for office. And those who want to run will find it easier to win legislative positions than executive ones.

Then there's "sexism in other areas that falls over into politics," according to consultant Norman Adler. Women still lag in business stature and income, which means both candidates and donors have less to work with. More women are headed for law, a major route into politics, according to recent reports, but traditionally they've been underrepresented.

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