In terms of making political history and diversifying, the last calendar year could be one to remember for Long Beach. In June, the city voted Mayor Robert Garcia, its youngest, first Latino, and first openly gay mayor, into office. Just months after that, the Long Beach Police Department swore in its first Latino Police Chief in 29-year veteran of the force Robert Luna. Long Beach City Council is already one of the most diverse governing bodies of its kind in the country, and when Patrick O'Donnell left his seat as the Fourth District's councilman in December, Long Beach became the only large city in the country without a white male council member or mayor.
And while it wouldn’t be a first for the city, if Herlinda Chico wins tonight against Daryl Supernaw in the special election to fill the open Fourth District City Council, the city council will again have a female majority, a rarity in any era.
According to records obtained from the City Clerk’s office, the first time women held a majority on the council, and the only time since 1977, occurred in the early part of this century when Councilwomen Laura Richardson, Bonnie Lowenthal, Tonia Uranga, Rae Gabelich, Gerry Schipske and current Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal shared the council chambers. The records, which only date back to July 1977, also demonstrated a trend of more elected female official being voted into office after the year 2000.
Out of the 48 council members voted into office since 1977, only 14 have been female. And of those 14 women voted into office, nine held office after the year 2000. In a phone interview this week, Chico recounted her first taste of seeing women in politics when she attended a campaign function for Kathleen Brown, sister of Governor Jerry Brown, as she sought the state treasurers chair that she eventually won in 1990.
The fourth-district hopeful said that she’s seen an evolution of women in politics, and being around it at such a young age was inspiring for young girl coming from a civically-engaged family.
“I’ve been around this for a long time and I’ve always tried to support and promote women in leadership and elected seats,” Chico said. “I think that women do offer a different perspective and a different voice and I think that it’s a needed and necessary voice at the table.”
The first all-female city council in the State was detailed in an LA Times article in 1992 after the city of Pacifica voted in an all-women council. Record keeping regarding the genders of elected city council members nationwide is sketchy at best, but according to the Times researcher the last known all-women city council prior to the Pacifica vote was in 1889 in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.
Despite the progress made since then, including the city being on the verge of potentially having its second female-majority in the last decade, the number of women serving as council members is disproportionate to actual population figures. According to a study released in August by California Women Lead, a California non-profit that aims to help women attain successful lives and political careers, women represent just over 50 percent of the state’s demographic but hold only 28 percent of available council seats.
The report showed that 61 cities in the state have women majority council, but conversely, 71 cities have councils with no women serving on them. Forty percent of cities in California have only one women serving on their councils, including Los Angeles. And Riverside, the 12th largest city in the state, has zero.
“This report shows that women serving in city government is trending a bit higher than women serving in the Legislature or on county boards of supervisors, but is far from representing the total number of women who live in California,” said Rachel Michelin, executive director of California Women Lead. “There is much work to be done to empower and inspire more women to consider serving on city councils throughout the state.”
Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, who endorsed Chico for the open Fourth District seat, said that there are a multitude of things that could discourage a woman for running for elected positions, some of which she faced during her campaign for the Third District. Price said that women are asked questions about being a wife, being a mother and how they can balance that out with the duties of an elected office while her male counterparts are not even if they have families themselves.
“It’s incredibly grueling,” Price said. “If you have a job as woman, and you’re a mother, and you run for office, you get criticized for not having your priorities in the right place. If you don’t have a job and you’re a stay at home mom and you run for office you get criticized for not having real-world experience. It’s almost this vicious cycle that keeps women out of politics.”
However, the current culture in this city and the diversity already present on the council, one that she said represents Long Beach and led her to choose the city as a place where she wanted her children to grow up, is one that Price said she’s proud to be a part of. She added that seeing women in elected positions is empowering for young girls as it reaffirms that they can truly be whatever they want to be, and as an elected official, she serves as an example to those potential future councilwomen.
“I think the most important thing obviously is that you have the best and most effective leader, and not necessarily their gender,” Price said. “But I do think that in the profession of politics, it is traditionally rare to see women run for office and retain political position. To see that tide turning makes me very proud and it makes me realize how far we’ve come as a society.”
So who empowered Chico?
Coming from a matriarchal family, she said it was the norm for women to be in positions of power and have leadership roles. When it comes to politics, she pointed to former California Inspector General Laura Chick and former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Gloria Molina as women who stood out to her as examples.
“You had these women who were really starting to make a name for themselves because they were strong, they were knowledgeable and they were known for making tough decisions,” Chico said. “It was women like that that I saw, not that I necessarily agreed with all of their views, but I was able to reference that they are in elected office and they are strong and they’re good at it. I think they inspired a lot of people, especially young Latinas like myself.”