Female county commissioners scarce as hen’s teeth

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Since 1889, when it was split off from La Plata County, Montezuma County has been governed by 63 commissioners, many of them serving two or three terms.

But only one of the 63 was a woman.

Helen McClellan served one four-year term, from 1992 until 1996, and was then defeated when she ran for re-election.

Even given the county’s conservative bent, this seems remarkably one-sided, or downright sexist, in a nation where pioneering “suffragettes” won women the right to vote in the early part of the last century, and in which their daughters and granddaughters have fought for equal rights ever since.

Of course, a number of Montezuma County women have been elected to the county clerk’s and treasurer’s offices, but those positions are more clerical, with their duties largely prescribed by the state and their decision-making powers limited.

Even among the boards that govern the county’s municipalities, women are generally in the minority. Cheryl Baker, Cortez’s first-ever female mayor, is the only woman currently serving on the city council.

So why is it that the majority of the county’s population has been mostly content to let the male minority call the shots while they, in those infamous words of Hillary Clinton, have stayed home and baked cookies? Have women just not been interested in running? Do they lack the money to mount a campaign (a commission race can cost up to $10,000)?

Officials of the three local political parties have different ideas.

“I would guess it’s the prevalence of what you might call the cowboy mentality that dictates who would even be considered or acceptable,” speculated Earl Rohrbaugh, co-chair of the county’s Democratic Central Committee. “When you say Helen McClellan and have no (female) names to put beside hers, it’s pretty well a male playground.

“I think it’s kind of role stereotyping,” he said, “because the county commission represents a different kind of constituency than the clerical offices do.”

So while women traditionally have been seen as capable of collecting tax money, handing out license plates and recording deeds and marriages, he explained, only men were to be trusted with the larger powers involved in the commissioners’ role.

“It seems to me when you get to the commissioners, out here more so than Front Range communities, you’re dealing with land issues, rural taxation, lots of things like that,” Rohrbaugh added.

But Bob Gaddis, chairman of the Montezuma County Republican Central Committee, said he had “no idea” why there’s been such a dearth of women on the commission.

“Maybe not a lot of them ran,” he said.

Gaddis declined to comment on whether women may have been discouraged in the past from running for the highest office in county government, but said “that certainly isn’t the case now.”

In fact, he said, the county Republicans are already actively recruiting potential candidates, including one woman interested in the commission..

“There’s a good possibility” the Republicans will run a female commission candidate, he said. “We’re trying — I don’t think either sex has a corner on brains.”

It wasn’t until 1920 that women were granted the right to vote in this country, he pointed out, so there was no question of one serving on the commission during its early years.

But these days, Gaddis said, it just makes good sense to use women’s considerable abilities and talents in governing the county — or the nation.

“We’ve come a ways and we’re still working on it,” he said, “but quite frankly, one of the strengths of this country now versus these terrorist/jihadist types is that we utilize the brain power and intellect and initiative of women, whereas they keep them under a blanket.

“So we’ve got twice as many brains working as they do on a per-capita basis.”

Although Gaddis refused to name names until the party makes an announcement early next year, Republican Bobbie Black, a Mancos rancher, has been widely mentioned as a possible GOP candidate for the seat now held by Kelly Wilson in the Mancos-McElmo Canyon district.

And two other women have been mentioned as possible commission candidates as well. Mayor Baker is seriously contemplating entering the race for Kent Lindsay’s seat in the Cortez district, and there have been widespread rumors about Ann Brown, who worked for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell when he was a Democrat, also making a bid for Wilson’s seat. Both incumbents are term-limited.

But Baker is still on the fence about running, explaining during a recent gathering at the Magpie coffee house that in large part her decision depends on who runs for the city-council election in the spring. The seats of the mayor and three other council members are up for election in April, and Baker may run for re-election to the council.

But if sufficient other council candidates “reflect the changing demographics in Cortez,” she said, she may instead make a run for the county commission.

“It would be the next logical thing for me to do – give the county commissioners something to think about,” she said.

“It feels like we have three Republicans on the commission (now),” she added. Wilson has been twice elected on the Democratic ticket but almost always votes with the two Republican commissioners.

Baker said during a recent interview that she doesn’t believe female commission candidates have been discriminated against in the past, but “they’ve just not been encouraged,” largely because women have historically had so little of the necessary experience and background to be qualified for the job.

“When you go up against a male candidate, that’s where they’re going to hit you the hardest – either you’re from out of the area, or you don’t have any experience,” said Baker, who has lived in the county for more than 20 years.

“I think you have to have a training ground,” she said, “and Leadership Montezuma has begun laying a foundation for that.” Leadership Montezuma holds yearly classes that familiarize local citizens with the processes and different entities involved in county decision-making.

“That’s why you may see two female candidates in the upcoming election,” she added. “It may appear to be out of the blue, but in reality I think the groundwork has been laid over the last five years.”

Baker said she’d talked to Brown, Wilson’s sister, about her running for the seat now held by him, but Brown told her that an illness in the family would probably preclude that possibility. Brown is considered by many one of the most politically astute and experienced people in the county.

Graham Johnson, co-chair of the local Green Party, believes the county’s attitude about women in politics simply lags behind attitudes in other places.

“I think that this is a traditional, conservative part of the country, and men expect to wield power and so that’s what happens,” he said, “and that the changes that are occurring in other parts of the country and the world will eventually get here.”

But Johnson made a distinction between political and social conservative attitudes. “Although (this area) is both, I think it’s the social conservatism that prevents women from running and being elected.”

And he sees this gradually changing.

“I think that since it was fairly recently that Helen McClellan was on the commission, it’s already starting to happen, and we now have female mayors in both Cortez and Dolores. So little by little, it’s changing. Especially as women show that they are every bit as capable as men at making leadership decisions, it will become less of an issue what sex a person is.”

He said it was unlikely that the local Green Party chapter, formed just three years ago, would field a candidate for the county commission next year.

“If there is a person interested in running on the Green Party ticket, the Green Party would support them,” he said, “but I don’t think a Green candidate has a snowball’s chance of winning a countywide race at this point.

“There’s a parallel there between women not being commissioners and the Green Party not even being in the race,” he added. “I think just as there are more women in local offices, the same path will be followed by the Green Party in terms of getting involved at the lower levels before getting elected to the more influential elected offices.”

Johnson pointed to the numerous women both in the U.S. and in other countries who have attained positions of power, such as Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Great Britain; Golda Meier, former prime minister of Israel; Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who also made a bid for the presidency; and Sen. Hillary Clinton, wife of a former president.

“When the right female candidate appears, they can get support,” he said.

And 2004 just could be that time for Montezuma County, the year when the nearly total male domination of the county commission changes, albeit slightly. At least the voters may have that choice.

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From December 2003.