Oftentimes, the women who gain access to New Jersey's behind-the-scenes political gatherings aren't wearing much in the way ofclothes. That, at least, is the impression James McGreevey impartsin his memoir, The Confession. Strip clubs, he explains, play anintegral part in the Garden State's power culture. "We used toorder beer after beer at Cheeques," McGreevey writes, "watching thedancers twirl on their poles while debating everything from localpolicy initiatives and tax ratables to the merits of siliconebreast enhancement." Presumably this ritual didn't hold much appealfor the gay future governor. Still, for the sake of politicalambition, McGreevey didn't dare forgo it. Strip clubs, he writes,are the "fraternal lodges" of New Jersey politicians, places where"lasting and productive connections" are forged.
New Jersey is one of the country's most reliably liberal states. Ithas favored the Democratic candidate in the last four presidentialelections and hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1972. Yetits political culture is also among the country's most sexist. Itranks in the bottom third of states in proportion of legislatorswho are women, while its congressional delegation contains nofemales. And New Jersey isn't the only state with deep-bluepolitical tendencies and a virtually all-male power structure.Massachusetts and Rhode Island don't have any women in theircongressional delegations, either, and Pennsylvania has one of thelowest percentages of female state legislators outside the South.In Rhode Island, female delegates make up a paltry 19.5 percent ofthe legislature--placing the state behind such liberal bastions asKansas, Nebraska, and Idaho.
Indeed, if many left-leaning Northeastern states have provedsurprisingly inhospitable to female politicians, the reverse istrue of many conservative Western states. In 1999, women held thetop five statewide offices in Arizona, which is also the only statewhere female governors have served back-to-back. Meanwhile,Colorado has the fifth-highest percentage of female legislators inthe country and is one of only six states where a woman serves asspeaker of the state Senate.
Why do so many liberal states lag behind conservative states infemale representation? It's a puzzling question with a simpleanswer: machines. Northeastern states may be some of the mostliberal in the country, but they are also the most likely to havepolitical cultures shaped by bosses. In New Jersey, county chairmen(and they are pretty much all men) still decide who will receiveofficial party support in primaries and reap financial backing."Those decisions are generally made behind closed doors," saysDebbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women andPolitics at Rutgers University. "It makes it harder for women, andoutsiders in general, to get involved."
McGreevey's methodical rise through the state's political rankssheds light on the phenomenon. As he writes in The Confession, hepaid numerous visits to the powerful county bosses to beg for theirsupport and unleashed charm offensives on their closest allies. Hepatiently listened to a political operative's description of hisfiftieth birthday party, which had taken place in a whorehouse inthe Dominican Republic, and, on another occasion, enlisted theowner of an Irish bar he patronized to plead his case to a powerfulboss. Other glimpses of the Northeast's frat-like political culturehave occasionally spilled into public view: In 2000, during anall-night budget session in Massachusetts, legislators chanted"Toga! Toga!" and rumors circulated that a freshman member who hadfallen asleep woke up to find his leg shaved. The House speakerlater compared the evening to a "keg party."
In the West, political conventions are very different. ClaudineSchneider, who represented Rhode Island in Congress for ten yearsbefore relocating to Colorado, offers this comparison: "You don'thave the old boys' club inner circle here, which is almostinstitutionalized on the East Coast. Here, it is wide open spaces.If you can build a constituency, you can run." And women have: Notonly were Western states the first to grant women suffrage, theywere also the first to send a congresswoman to D.C. and to elect afemale governor.
The part-time political culture of the West--where elected officecan seem more like a hobby than a job--also tends to favor women.As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in the late '80s, when heinvestigated why Colorado's state legislature had the highestpercentage of female delegates in the country, the Coloradolegislature only meets part-time (which makes it morefamily-friendly) and doesn't pay much (which may dissuade some malebreadwinners from running). "While men tend to get involved inpolitics as a premeditated career option," says Walsh, "women oftenrun because they want to fix something."
In the Northeast, bosses long had an interest in making governmentservice a profitable profession. As a result, many legislatures paya sizable salary--and demand a full-time commitment. "In apart-time legislature, service can be an extension ofvolunteerism," says Jennifer Mann, a Democratic state legislatorfrom Allentown, Pennsylvania. "In a place like Pennsylvania, youdon't fall into a political career by happenstance. It's notsomething you add to your life--it really replaces what you used todo."
The machine culture of many liberal states helps explain another oddphenomenon: why so many of the women who have succeeded at highlevels of state politics in the Northeast--think governorsChristine Todd Whitman (New Jersey), Jane Swift (Massachusetts),and Jodi Rell (Connecticut)--have been liberal Republicans.Schneider, who is pro-choice, was an environmental activist beforeshe ran for Congress and probably would have been a more naturalideological fit in the Democratic Party. "But, when I looked atRhode Island's Democratic politicians, all I saw were whiteCatholic males," she says. "And I thought, 'Whatever party theincumbents are, I am not.'" If the majority party appearedunreceptive to women, the state GOP welcomed her with open arms.Republicans in the Northeast are often so outmatched that they arehappy to have just about anyone run. And, in Schneider's case,attempting to depose an incumbent with sky-high approval ratingsdid seem like a fool's errand. But, after a failed first attempt,she snagged the seat and was sworn into Congress at the age of 31.
That's not the only time allowing a woman to embark on a kamikazemission ended up paying off handsomely for the GOP. Whitmanchallenged Senator Bill Bradley in 1990 because no one else wantedto take on the giant of New Jersey politics. After unexpectedlycoming within a few points of toppling him, she emerged as theobvious choice to run for governor three years later.
Beyond Whitman, there are signs that women are finally beginning tocircumvent the New Jersey machine. Two state senators, Nia Gill andLoretta Weinberg, have managed to serve as Democrats whilesimultaneously cutting ties to county bosses. Gill ran without thesupport of the Essex County organization in 2003 and stunned partyofficials when she eked out a victory against their anointedcandidate. Weinberg landed in the Senate only after a bitter publicfight with the Bergen County boss, who wanted to install the localsheriff instead. Both women champion independent legislativeagendas, which is one reason they have feuded so publicly with thechairmen. "When women exercise discretionary power, an uproarensues," says Gill.
Because they won't play by the traditional rules of New Jerseypolitics, and because they have an incentive to expose the foiblesof the old boys' network, women like Gill and Weinberg are a threatto the long-term dominance of the machines. And so, while it isn'tlikely that New Jersey female politicians will match the level ofrepresentation that women have achieved in a state like Arizonaanytime soon, they may be accomplishing something even moreimportant: hastening the day when the bosses--and their strip-clubpolitical culture--are finally things of the past.
By Alexandra Starr