Governor Promotes Women
Paving the road for women in the political arena is second nature for Gov. Christine Gregoire, especially because the one she traveled was filled with potholes.
As a young clerk/typist for the state corrections department, Gregoire remembers telling her boss she wanted to move up to parole officer. His response was curt: “I already have a token. If I need another one I’ll let you know.” When she was appointed director of the Department of Ecology in 1988, “there were rumblings about how I got there.” In 1992, she was told she wasn’t tough enough for the job of attorney general. Several years later, as a candidate for governor, she was told she was “too tough.”
Those obstacles and double standards were – and some would say, still are – prevalent for women in politics, and they motivated Gregoire to seek higher office, bringing her passion for women’s rights and children’s issues to Olympia. “I grew up in a time when if you were a female and went to college you were either going to be a teacher or a nurse,’’ Gregoire says. “It was a difficult road for women.”
Whether it’s traveling to Morocco to advise women seeking office for the first time, speaking to elementary school students in Seattle, brokering a controversial agreement over a woman’s right to contraception, or discussing her bout with breast cancer to health organizations, Gregoire has spent most of her adult life setting an example of success for women, men and youngsters of all ages.
After a speech at an elementary school one day, a 9-year-old boy came up to Gregoire and said, “I want to be just like you when I grow up.” Her 27-year-old daughter, Courtney, says it was a refreshing turn-of-the table to see young boys viewing women as role models. “It really said a lot about my mom.
“She often encouraged us when we were young that we
could do whatever we wanted to do,’’ says Courtney, a Harvard
law school graduate who works as an attorney in Washington, D.C.
Her political career has never interfered with the family’s close ties, Courtney says, adding that her mother always consulted the family before making any decisions about running for office. “Around the dinner table, our opinions mattered and she taught us to feel free to speak up about things,’’ Courtney says. “For me, I realize how amazingly she managed to put family first every single day and yet had a very successful career. She used to cook on Sundays so we could have meals together during the week. It was a big priority to her.’’
Throughout her career, Gregoire has rewritten the history books for women in politics. She was the state’s first female attorney general and went on to serve three terms. When she was elected governor in 2004, it marked the first time in American history that three women (Gregoire, and U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray) held the most powerful elected offices in any state.
The face of Washington’s government reflects Gregoire’s desire to include women and minorities in her job searches. She says she has helped advance women in politics, not because they are women, but because she believes those she has appointed are the right people for the job. To honor her record number of women appointees to commissions, her cabinet and her staff, Gregoire was given the “High-Heeled Heroine” award by the Center for Women & Democracy during an International Women’s Day celebration in March.
On a scale of one to 10, Gregoire’s track record on women’s issues is a 20, says Seattle political consultant Cathy Allen, co-founder of the Center for Women & Democracy. “She’s one of the best things to happen to Washington state and women.’’
Since taking office, she has appointed or reappointed 1,122 people – 486 of them women – to executive commissioner positions. That’s the highest in the country, according to Gayatri Eassey, Gregoire’s special assistant for boards and commissions. Her cabinet is 42 percent women and her staff is 60 percent women.
One of those appointees is Karen Lee, who left a lucrative job in the private sector to serve as the state’s employment security commissioner in 2005 after being discovered by Gregoire’s search committee. She says Gregoire “goes the extra mile” to make sure women and minorities are included in the pool of candidates, as opposed to taking the easy way and asking colleagues for recommendations. “She gives non-traditional people a chance,’’ says Lee. “I was not in any of the inner circles but she was willing to use an open process and allowed me to be able to be seen and noticed.”
After meeting with Lee, who had been a high-level manager for Puget Sound Energy, Gregoire asked her: “Why haven’t I met you before?” A graduate of West Point Military Academy and the University of Washington School of Law, Lee previously was an attorney with Preston Gates & Ellis in Seattle.
In addition to promoting women to government positions, Gregoire serves as a mentor to women seeking public office. “Having climbed the ladder herself, she wants to make sure that not only is the ladder still there for the rest of us, but she is reaching down her hand to help us through the tricky parts,’’ says Darcy Burner, who is running for Congress in Washington’s 8th district.
She says Gregoire has been instrumental in her campaign. During a fundraiser for Burner in September, the governor held an impromptu auction, generating two tie bids of $3,500 each for a private dinner at the governor’s mansion. The auction was an example of how Gregoire goes out of her way to promote women in politics, even if her actions are perceived as controversial. The auction drew immediate criticism from Republicans who said Gregoire violated a law that bars state employees from using state facilities for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election. While Gregoire maintained she did not violate state law, she agreed a week later to change the venue to a restaurant to avoid any question of impropriety.
Gregoire is viewed as a humble person who doesn’t
shy away from taking controversial positions. “She’s strong
as an ox and yet has a heart,’’ says political consultant
Gregoire received a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and sociology from the University of Washington. She met her husband, Mike, in 1971 when they both worked for the state Department of Social and Health Services. She went on to receive her law degree in 1977 from Gonzaga University, where she was among only 12 women in a class of 300. In 2003, Gregoire was diagnosed with breast cancer and has since made a full recovery.
When her youngest daughter graduated from high school, Gregoire knew it was time to take on the governor’s race, which she won by a slim 129-vote margin. She had been asked to run eight years earlier but decided to wait until Michelle was out of school.
“I went through a lot of soul-searching and I decided it was important to be home until my girls were out of high school. When a teenager wants to talk, they want to talk now, not five minutes from now. This job is 24 hours a day, seven days a week and demands your full-time attention.’’
Gregoire says that being a woman does influence her political agenda. “As a mom, I’ve dedicated my life to children’s issues, whether it’s child abuse, or sex predators over the Internet, teenage smoking or health care.”
Earlier this summer, Gregoire took a leadership role in crafting rules that protect women’s access to prescribed emergency contraception and other prescriptions written by their doctors. It was a controversial topic, but one she felt she needed to address. “She’s been stellar on this issue,’’ says Karen Cooper, executive director of NARAL in Washington. “She stepped in from the beginning.”
Gregoire’s reach goes beyond politics. She has helped women in business by doubling the lending authority of a program that makes low-interest loans to women and minority-owned businesses. The Linked Deposit Program’s lending authority increased to $100 million in 2005.
She also has made education – from early learning programs to increasing teacher salaries to expanding higher education enrollment – a top priority. This year she created, with strong bi-partisan support, the new Department of Early Learning, and she worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private companies to create Thrive by Five, a partnership geared toward making Washington a leader in early education.
Being an inspiration to women was a natural evolution for Gregoire, her daughter says. “It wasn’t that she wore it on her sleeve, she just did it by being a model to others.” She says her mother taught her that “you can have a wonderful family life and a successful career. Sometimes it means you have to turn down some good opportunities, but you can have it all.”
©2006 Caliope Publishing Company
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