Looking for a female Veep?

There's no shortage of women qualified to be the next vice president.


Sarah Wildman
November 15, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Back in 1984, when Walter Mondale was interviewing potential vice presidential candidates, he announced that he intended to share the Democratic ticket with a woman. But, he said, memorably, "there are certain realities" he had to face, namely that women "wouldn't have the same range of experience" as men -- nor could anyone expect that they would.

When Mondale chose Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, she was one of only 24 women in the House. Today, there are 56. And while Nancy Landon Kassebaum and Paula Hawkins were the only female senators in 1984, today there are nine.

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Fifteen years and four elections later, Ferraro remains the only woman ever to have graced the presidential ticket for a major party. But the picture -- and the VP pipeline -- has changed. The buzz created by Elizabeth Dole's short-lived grass-roots presidential campaign and the rise of politicians like Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is helping fuel speculation that the leading presidential candidates may tap women as their running mates in 2000.

So great are the gains made by women in American politics since Ferraro's rise and fall in '84 that Mondale's caveat about the "range of experience" no longer applies. Many of the female names mentioned as vice presidential contenders have as much political experience as their male counterparts -- and some have more.

"There is a significantly greater pool of qualified women to pick from than there was in 1984," said Ellen Malcolm, director of EMILY's List, an organization that helps elect pro-choice, Democratic women.

With more well-qualified women available, the parties won't have to settle for someone unknown to the public.

"No one can afford a Geraldine Ferraro -- or a Dan Quayle for that matter," says Rich Galen, Republican strategist and a former Quayle press secretary. No one is going to "pluck someone out of obscurity."

Normally, the two major considerations in selecting vice presidential candidates are the number of electoral votes the candidate will bring, and how he or she meshes with the presidential candidate's policies. But sometimes additional factors enter the calculation, such as a candidate's appeal to particular demographic segments, name recognition, issue expertise and access to funding networks.

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Salon News asked Washington strategists, lobbyists, pollsters and staffers to assess a short list of women whose names are most often floated as vice presidential contenders.

1) Elizabeth Dole

By all accounts, Dole is the female front-runner. With her name recognition and a large network of women donors, Dole could help a Republican running mate close the gender gap. Working against her is her lack of experience in elected public office, though some dismiss that. "She has a lifetime of public service" behind her, says Republican strategist Ladonna Lee. "She's an accomplished lawyer [and] cabinet member, and she ran the Red Cross."

2) Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

There isn't much of a pause when wonky Washingtonians put together the words "Democrat," "woman" and "vice president" -- Feinstein is at the top of every list. The two-time senator from populous California and former San Francisco mayor has "proven her mettle up and down the political system," says Marie Wilson, a founder of the nonpartisan White House Project, an organization that seeks to get women elected to the presidency and other key offices. "She's knowledgeable about foreign policy, has worked across party lines and her name is known." Working against her: At 65, she may be "too old," says one strategist.

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3) Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, R-N.J.

The rumor mill went into overdrive after Whitman dropped out of the race for a Senate seat earlier this year -- was she underfunded, as she said; did she have health problems; or was she seeking to get tapped as George W. Bush's veep? Though her name keeps popping up, "it would take a major act of courage to appoint Whitman because of her aggressive stand on abortion rights," notes Eleanor Clift, contributing editor at Newsweek and author of "Madame President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling." Even scarier to conservative Republicans is the outspoken stance Whitman has taken against the Christian Coalition. And though some believe a Bush-Whitman ticket would be strong, pulling in a good chunck of Democrats, the majority of Republican commentators don't think it will ever happen.

4) Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas

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The Constitution won't permit Hutchison to be on the same ticket as Bush, since they both represent Texas. But many believe Hutchison is a top Republican candidate. "She would be the archtypical woman," gushes strategist Galen, "the person who would fit the mold of someone who would be a terrific VP nominee: smart, understands politics from the ground up, strong." She's also more conservative than Whitman; some believe that Hutchison will eventually run to head the ticket.

5) Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Shaheen is described by EMILY's List's Malcolm as the "real sleeper candidate." Shaheen was the first Democratic governor elected in New Hampshire in over a decade and the first woman ever to hold the office. She also helped deliver a Democratic majority to the state Senate for the first time in 60 years. Enormously popular in her home state, Shaheen recently threw her support to Gore. In the primary election, this endorsement could tip the state in Gore's favor. But despite its influential primary, New Hampshire is a diminutive New England state with only a handful of electoral votes.

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6) Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine

The first Greek-American woman elected to the Senate, Snowe is highly respected across party lines. But Snowe lacks the support of conservative Republicans, who dismiss her as too moderate. "Olympia Snowe has never seen an abortion she didn't like," sneers Sheila
Moloney of the Eagle Forum. Snowe has worked her way from the Maine Legislature to the House of Representatives to the Senate. But it may be Maine's lack of electoral votes that keeps her from higher office.

7) Gov. Jane Dee Hull, R-Ariz.

The leading member of Arizona's so-called "Fab Five" -- the secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction are also women -- Hull has been lauded for her progressive education initiatives. But like New Hampshire and Maine, Arizona lacks the electoral votes to make Hull an obvious running mate.

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8) Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash.

One of the few self-proclaimed soccer moms in Congress, Dunn serves as the deputy majority whip and as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Dunn is respected by her party, but has little national visibility. And as with Whitman and Snowe, her stance on abortion -- liberal by conservative standards -- may alienate her from the Republican base.

9) Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The "mom in tennis shoes" who ran for office and won, Murray is the vice chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "She is very out-front on educational issues," says Roslyn O'Connell, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "I think she's a very appealing candidate, youthful, [but] a proven politician." But Murray's low name recognition nationally is a strike against her.

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10) Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

Mikulski is from a "working-class Democratic base," says EMILY's List's Malcolm, and she remains close to her roots, "showing that she really gets what their lives are about. She's a community organizer turned senator. And she's feisty and funny and smart." Mikulski's commitment to women's health care is admired, but some fear she may be "too liberal" for a centrist Democratic Party ticket.

On the horizon

Many observers have their eyes trained on three rising stars in the House as future vice presidential material: Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif.; and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. In her party, Pelosi, who has focused on health care and human rights, has "terrific respect," says Marie Wilson, but "not a lot of name recognition" nationally. Sanchez is seen as an up-and-comer. "She's a real pistol!" says NWCP's O'Connell. Plus, as a Latina, she appeals to the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. Lowey's name recognition increased exponentially when she was edged out of the Senate race by Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is widely recognized for increasing funding for breast cancer research and for her commitment to providing foreign aid to Israel.

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- Maryland's lieutenant governor and the most likely Kennedy to carry on the family's political torch -- and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu are also floated as potential future candidates.


Sarah Wildman

Sarah Wildman is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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