Gender Bender

By

FLINT, MICHIGAN

It's nearly 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, and inside a cavernous
auditorium at Mott Community College the air is thick with
testosterone. Stout men in work boots and jeans file in, many of
them fresh off the assembly line at the nearby General Motors truck
plant, swelling the crowd to around 300 people. This is the heart
of automobile country: Baseball hats advertise the GM product line,
while T-shirts promote two loyalties--nation ("LET FREEDOM RING")
and union ("FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS CROSS PICKET LINES"). Off to
one side, a group of middle-aged women hovers over a set of
Crock-Pots; toward the back, a group of retirees pins campaign
buttons on one another's shirts.This is not an unusual sight in Michigan politics. When the United
Auto Workers (UAW) put out a call for bodies, the bodies show
up--particularly when the occasion is a rally for the Democratic
gubernatorial nominee. But today's guest isn't your typical UAW
candidate. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan's 43-year- old attorney
general, wasn't the UAW's first choice for governor. In the
Democratic primary, the union endorsed its longtime favorite,
outgoing House Minority Whip David Bonior. And, in general, male
blue-collar voters have not been strong supporters of women seeking
public office, particularly executive positions. In one recent
survey conducted by Celinda Lake, just 42 percent of
non-college-educated men said they were comfortable with a woman
serving as governor. A major reason, Lake says, is that "they tend
to have the most questions about whether women are tough enough or
competent enough to handle executive leadership."

But you'd never know it talking to the UAW members awaiting
Granholm's arrival. "She's a smart lady," says Tommy Butler, a
57-year-old retired machine operator, "and she's tough." Ralph
Lupu, 46, explains that his big issue is Medicare: "She's going to
fight for changes to hold down prescription costs. She's a decisive
person." Tony Robinson, a 27-year-old UAW safety representative,
says he's followed Granholm's career for years. "When she was
attorney general," he says with an approving nod, "she never backed
down from a fight."

When Granholm finally takes the podium, the room's lousy acoustics
make it difficult to hear her clearly. But Granholm, a former
federal prosecutor, has no problems connecting with her audience.
Stepping out from behind the podium and pacing the stage in her
dark business suit, she engages members of the crowd as if they
were on a jury, eyeing them one at a time. The speech itself is
mostly boilerplate--"You stand up for me, and I will stand up for
you"--but she delivers the lines crisply and confidently,
occasionally pumping her fists in the air for emphasis. When
Granholm finishes her speech, the audience cheers loudly; when she
steps down from the podium, about 40 people mob her for autographs
and pictures. "Rank and file love Jennifer," declares local UAW
retiree chair Ron Perkins, emerging from the scrum. Peter Plummer,
another retiree, is right behind him, wearing a huge grin. "I got
an autograph," he says. "And a hug."

Reactions like these are one reason polls show Granholm with a
twelve-point lead over the Republican nominee, Lieutenant Governor
Dick Posthumus ("Dead Man Running," the saying goes). It's a big
margin but not all that surprising given her extraordinary
performance in the primaries. Though Granholm had never even run
for public office until four years ago, in August she clobbered two
of Michigan's best-known Democrats: Bonior and former Governor
James Blanchard. The election was supposed to be close, but
Granholm won with 48 percent of the vote, 20 points more than the
runner-up. That impressed a lot of people--and not just in
Michigan. The New York Times called her "Jenni the giant-slayer."
The Baltimore Sun's Paul West dubbed her "the 'it' candidate of
2002.'" A lot can happen in the next five weeks, but given
Granholm's strength in the Detroit suburbs--home to the swing
voters who made Republican John Engler governor for three
consecutive terms--the Granholm campaign has acquired a certain air
of inevitability. As Detroit Metro Times columnist Jack Lessenberry
recently observed, "If Jennifer Granholm murders a Cub Scout with a
machete sometime before Nov. 5, she won't be elected governor.
Otherwise, this election is essentially over."

If so, on November 6, Granholm will instantly become a figure of
national importance--not just because Michigan is such a critical
state on the electoral map but because her combination of
intelligence, charisma, and centrist politics make her an ideal
spokesperson for Democratic politics in the early twenty-first
century. Political observers routinely liken her instinctive
campaign abilities to Bill Clinton's; one Michigan operative
recently paid her an even higher compliment, calling her the
"Michael Jordan" of state politics. Indeed, if you hear one lament
about Granholm from her fellow Democrats, it's this: Because she
was born in Canada, she can never become president.

But even if Granholm can't become president herself, her popularity
suggests that a woman like her could--because the most remarkable
thing about her campaign is not the fact that she's winning, but
the way she's winning. Unlike most successful women candidates,
Granholm isn't running as a conciliator or as a feminist or a
"soccer mom." Granholm's essential pitch to Michigan voters is that
she's a hard-nosed, decisive leader capable of steering the state
through hard times. Her campaign, in other words, is exactly the
kind she would be running if she were a man. And that's not the
sort of campaign women have traditionally run. At least not until
now.

It was not that long ago that the very idea of women leaving the
home to serve in public office was highly controversial. In 1958
Coya Knutson, the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota,
opened her local newspaper to see the headline "COYA COME HOME."
Under it was a letter, purportedly written by her husband, that
read, "I have informed my wife ... I do not want her to file for
reelection to Congress. ... I want to have the happy home that we
enjoyed for many years prior to her election." Though her husband
later denied authorship, the letter galvanized opinion against
Knutson, and she lost her reelection bid by 1,400 votes.

After the '50s, as feminism reconciled most Americans to the idea of
women as workplace equals, these notions disappeared from polite
political conversation. But the old stereotypes lingered, as many a
female politician has since learned firsthand. In the 1970s, before
Pat Schroeder could become a twelve-term representative and
distinguished expert on military policy, she had to answer to
critics who wondered about her ability to balance motherhood and a
career. (Eventually Schroeder gave her critics a now-famous reply:
"I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.") Even after she'd
been in office for years, the press often seemed more interested in
Schroeder's attire than in her views on disarmament. "The clothes
questions never stopped," she recalls. "If I wore a cape, it was
'Why didn't I wear a coat?' If I wore a coat, it was 'What happened
to the cape?'" When Schroeder tearfully withdrew from the 1988
presidential race, critics pounced on it as just more proof that
women were too emotional for high public office.

A lot has changed since then, of course. Just as women have climbed
the hierarchies of business, science, and academia, so their
numbers are increasing in American government. But while female
candidates have made significant strides in state legislatures
(where they make up 23 percent of officeholders) and the U.S.
Congress (where they hold a less impressive but improving 14
percent of seats), they have lagged conspicuously when it comes to
races for executive office. The first woman won election to
Congress in 1916, but it wasn't until 1974 that a state elected a
woman governor running in her own right--that is, somebody who
wasn't running to fill a seat held by her deceased husband or
father. And while five women serve as governor right now, they make
up almost half of the women who have ever been elected to that post
in their own right--twelve in total.

Why the added difficulty? The answer has to do with the nature of
the office and the style of campaigns that female candidates have
typically run. Frequently, women who have won political office have
done so not by rejecting common perceptions of femininity so much
as turning them to their advantage. Some--Jean Carnahan, the
senator from Missouri, being only the latest example-- have
ascended to office via birthright or marriage, taking up seats once
occupied by fathers or husbands. Others have promoted themselves as
soccer moms who could bring to Washington a special sensitivity to
the difficulties of domestic life. Even those who have carved out
strong, aggressive stances often did so by promoting themselves
primarily as feminists--e.g., Barbara Boxer, whose candidacy was
largely about bringing a focus on "women's issues" to the Senate.

Perhaps no single campaign has better epitomized this modern
approach to female campaigning than the one Patty Murray ran for a
U.S. Senate seat in 1992. Calling herself "a mom in tennis shoes,"
she told Washington-state voters that her experience as a homemaker
meant she understood the challenges of home life in ways few
officials in the nation's capital could. "I tell people I am a mom
caring for two kids and two aging parents with health problems,"
Murray explained to Time magazine back in 1992. Referring to the
Clarence Thomas hearings, she said, "When I saw what the Senate
looked like, I was astounded. I didn't see anyone there like me. I
turned to my family and said, 'I know where I can make a
difference.'" When Murray won, a headline in the Seattle Post-
Intelligencer captured the prevailing sentiment: "A WIN FOR WOMEN'S
ISSUES: FEMALE LAWMAKERS BRING OWN AGENDAS."

But the Murray strategy can be as limiting in some situations as it
is energizing in others. Specifically, it fails miserably when
running for governor or president, because the qualities that
voters typically covet in a chief executive--decisiveness, a
commanding presence, even an ability to intimidate--are not ones
they associate with traditional femininity. "The position of being
a legislator works in some ways with the public's view of what a
woman is good at," says Deborah Walsh, head of the Center for
American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "But chief
executive is ... getting people to a new idea of what woman are--as
the final decision-maker, as the person where the buck stops."
Indeed, when the Barbara Lee Foundation commissioned a study of
voter attitudes toward women last year, its report, Keys to the
Governor's Office, concluded, "Lack of toughness is the most
difficult stereotype for women candidates to overcome, and one of
the most difficult to define."

Evelyn Gandy, the former lieutenant governor of Mississippi,
discovered this the hard way. As Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis
recount in their book Madame President, when Gandy ran for governor
in 1979 her male opponent ran an ad arguing, "One of the most
important responsibilities of the governor is commander of the
state national guard." Just in case the point wasn't clear enough,
the ad showed the candidate riding in a tank, firing off a few
rounds. Gandy lost. A few years later Geraldine Ferraro, the
Democratic nominee for vice president, encountered the same bias
when she appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 1984. Knowing
foreign affairs would be a major topic of discussion, she prepared
for a debate about the nuances of containment and deterrence. What
she got instead was a blunt inquiry questioning her mettle: "Are you
strong enough to push the button?" In theory, somebody like Ferraro
should have had no problem answering that question. Before getting
elected to Congress, after all, Ferraro had been a hard-nosed
prosecutor in Queens. But while Ferraro needed to convince
Americans that she was tough enough to be commander in chief, she
also needed to be careful that she didn't seem too tough. As it
was, many Americans already agreed with the assessment indiscreetly
offered by Barbara Bush shortly before her husband's vice
presidential debate with Ferraro: "I can't say it, but it rhymes
with 'rich.'"

For female candidates, then, it's been a classic catch-22: A woman
who promotes herself as a compassionate conciliator is seen as too
"soft" to wield executive authority; but one who promotes herself
as tough and independent runs headlong into the old stereotypes
about how women are supposed to behave. One need only think of
Hillary Clinton, who during her husband's 1992 campaign ricocheted
back and forth between showing off her intellect and boasting of
her cookie-baking skills. As Lake notes, "Nobody ever called a man
shrill or bitchy. "

But in 2002, something seems different. Ten women won their parties'
gubernatorial primaries this year, with at least half positioned to
win in November. And what is remarkable about their candidacies is
not just how successful they've been but how little they resemble
the feminized campaigns of yesteryear. A good example is Janet
Napolitano, the Democratic nominee for governor in Arizona.
Napolitano, like Granholm, is currently her state's attorney
general, and her record in that office is the centerpiece of her
campaign. Her website describes her as "a tough prosecutor who won't
bend with the political winds." Below that, it highlights her
successful prosecution of drug dealers, corporate polluters, and
one organized-crime hit man-while adding, as a footnote, that she
"is also a serious sports fan and is known to provide anyone who
asks, her 'learned opinion' on subjects dealing with the
Diamondbacks, the Suns, the Cardinals, the Lumberjacks, the Wildcats
or the Sun Devils." Like any Democrat, her focus appeals to women
more than men-but not because it's particularly heavy on women's
issues. This is a campaign about health care, crime, and the
economy, not abortion or affirmative action. As for questions about
her gender, Napolitano recently told the Los Angeles Times that she
never gets them-except when reporters from national newspapers call.
Polls show her in a dead heat with her Republican opponent.

In Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius is running an even more unorthodox
campaign. Sebelius made her name in Kansas politics as a highly
successful, two-term insurance commissioner, so it's not surprising
that she's making health care a major focus of her campaign. But
she has also been pitching herself as the law- and-order candidate.
One TV ad begins by reminding voters, "Our safety, our
security-every day it's a governor's concern." Then it trumpets the
"Sebelius crime plan": doubling mandatory sentences for sexual
predators, coordinating with law enforcement to protect Kansas from
terrorism, and cracking down on drug dealers. Kansas is an
overwhelmingly Republican state, but apparently the state's voters
are buying the pitch: Polls show Democrat Sebelius leading
comfortably.

And then there's Granholm. Slim and about five feet seven inches,
she has blue eyes, meticulously coiffed short blond hair, and
chiseled facial features straight out of a Barbie doll catalog.
It's no stretch to say Granholm has the look of a movie star-and,
for all her polite demurring about physical appearance, Granholm
clearly considered the notion herself at one point. After
graduating from high school, she moved to Hollywood with the hope of
launching an acting career. Alas, except for an appearance on
television's "The Dating Game"--she was the one interviewing the
three anonymous bachelors--the closest she ever came to film
celebrity was leading tours at Universal Studios. So after three
years in Southern California, it was off to college, where she
fared much better. In 1984 she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from
Berkeley, a political science degree in one hand and a ticket to
Harvard Law School in the other.

The 1980s were not exactly a time of intense political activism at
Harvard. But a growing interest in international human rights,
kindled by a college year abroad spent working on behalf of Soviet
refuseniks, drew her to the lone cause on campus: urging Harvard to
divest from holdings in apartheid South Africa. Granholm's
dedication to the cause stood out--at one point, the divestment
activists were staging rallies every day--but so did her ability to
be an activist leader without putting off other people,
particularly men. "She has an extraordinary common touch about
her," says Jamin Raskin, a classmate who now teaches law at
American University. "She took progressive positions on things but
was totally unthreatening to people."

Granholm has no soul-searching answers for why Harvard Law (or any
other part of her biography) convinced her to go into public
service. But her stint there had at least one crucial impact on her
future political career. It was Harvard that introduced Granholm to
her future husband, Dan Mulhern. A devout Catholic who shared
Granholm's interest in divestment, and activism more generally,
Mulhern seemed destined for a high-profile career in public
service. (According to an article in the Detroit Free Press, as a
child he told people he planned to be "pope or president" someday.)
But soon after he lured Granholm to his home state of Michigan, it
became apparent that she, not he, was the one with vast political
potential.

The man who recognized it was one of the most powerful figures in
Michigan politics: Ed McNamara, executive of Wayne County, which
encompasses Detroit and a few suburbs. McNamara had plucked
Granholm from the U.S. Attorney's office when he needed somebody to
serve as the county's corporation counsel. Although not a
particularly high-profile job, it came with heavy responsibility:
in effect, overseeing the state's second-largest staff of public
attorneys. Her performance as counsel impressed McNamara and his
cronies, not just because she was a good lawyer but because she
seemed like a natural leader. So when McNamara once again began
looking for somebody to promote--this time, as the state party's
nominee for attorney general--he again turned to Granholm.

McNamara surmised that Michigan, like the rest of the nation, was
changing: Voters, younger ones in particular, had become
comfortable with the idea of professional women and might just see
a fresh face like Granholm's as an antidote to business-as-usual
state politics. McNamara's intuition ultimately proved correct: In
a year when the top of the Republican ticket, incumbent governor
John Engler, won by a 24-point margin, Granholm narrowly beat a
better- known Republican. Granholm was the only Democrat to win
statewide office that day, making her the state's most powerful
Democratic official and fueling speculation that she'd run for
governor when term limits forced Engler out in 2002. Granholm did
little to dampen such discussion. On the contrary, she embarked
upon a series of high-profile crusades--taking on everybody from
Internet porn purveyors to price-gouging health care
conglomerates--that firmly established her reputation as somebody
who fights on behalf of middle-class Michigan families. Although
she described her gubernatorial bid as "too soon for my liking,"
given that she'd just become attorney general, nobody in politics
was surprised to see her run.

Granholm has her critics. In the general election, Posthumus and his
supporters have picked up the charge that Granholm's Democratic
primary opponents used against her over and again: that she's all
style and no substance. Granholm's advisers bristle at the
accusation, pointing out the obvious (a nice smile doesn't get you
Phi Beta Kappa at Berkeley) and citing the newly released "Securing
Michigan's Future," a 79-page document chock-full of policy papers
promising standard Democratic fare: improving access to
prescription drugs, attracting high-tech jobs, demanding corporate
responsibility and so on. But under close scrutiny that document,
the fullest available explanation of Granholm's platform, actually
validates some of the criticisms. Particularly compared with
Engler--who introduced comprehensive, even radical, overhauls of
both the state's welfare and education systems-- Granholm's
imagination seems relatively limited. For example, her solution to
the state's Medicaid crisis (like every other state, Michigan's
costs are exploding) is to promise "thoughtful planning" and to
"convene a Medicaid task force of the best strategic health care,
financial, and legal minds." Granholm also talks about attracting
more federal matching dollars to Michigan--a nice idea, but not a
real solution given that Medicaid funding from Washington actually
seems to be shrinking these days.

Granholm may be keeping her proposals small because she's ahead in
the polls and wants to play it safe. (At one point she told the
Detroit Free Press, "I would like to give people bushels of
specific proposals, except that's not what the political experts
say I should be doing.") Or it may be that there's no money for
major programs right now. Or she may simply have come up through
the ranks so quickly that she hasn't yet had time to figure out
who, exactly, she is politically. Whatever the explanation, the
noteworthy thing is how little the attacks over substance have hurt
her campaign. Her advisers have responded by subtly changing the
subject-making sure the election isn't about ideas as much as it is
about leadership ability and character, where her record as
attorney general speaks for itself. The word that keeps coming up
over and over again in Granholm's campaign rhetoric is the one that
so clearly connected with the UAW workers in Flint: "fight." On her
website, position papers proclaim that Granholm will "fight"
profiteering drug companies and special interests. In speeches,
Granholm touts her willingness to "fight" for Michigan families
inundated by predatory purveyors of filth on the Internet. And in
interviews, she talks about her determination to "fight" for
Michigan's fair share of federal funds.

Granholm's decision to emphasize her career as a crusading attorney
is in some ways most interesting because of what it means she's not
emphasizing-- namely, her roles as wife and mother. Early on, say
campaign advisers, the Granholm team tested a presentation that put
forth a more feminized, soccer-mom- style image. But it didn't work
particularly well. "Everybody is interested in some basic family
information, whether it's a male candidate or a female candidate,"
says one Granholm adviser. "But what we found out is that people
didn't want to have their noses rubbed into the fact that, because
she was a woman and had a family, she's going to somehow understand
these issues better."

Sure enough, when I tagged along with Granholm's campaign one recent
morning, her domestic side revealed itself just once in the course
of three hours. We were on board her campaign bus, passing through
Northville, the affluent Detroit suburb she calls home, when
suddenly a parade of children dressed as Mayflower-style pilgrims
marched out from around the corner. While none of Granholm's three
kids--ages five, eleven, and 13--were in this particular
procession, some of their friends apparently were. So as the bus
idled at a traffic light and as the black-and-white clad moppets
tramped by, Granholm wrinkled her nose, broke into a wide grin, and
cooed to her staff about the familiar faces in the crowd.

It was precisely the reaction you'd expect from a 43-year-old
suburban mom-- which was precisely what made it so unusual.
Granholm had spent the morning giving a major public address on
state finance issues, courting local officials in meetings, and, in
between, talking with me. We'd discussed the state of the Michigan
economy and her ideas for developing a new high-tech corridor
outside Detroit that focuses on homeland security innovation; we
went over her ideas for alleviating overcrowding in the state's
emergency rooms. Education, the environment, crime--you name it, it
came up. But conspicuously lacking was extended discussion about
domestic violence, affirmative action, or any other "women's
issue." Not once had Granholm invoked her femininity as a reason
that women, or men for that matter, should support her.

Toward the end of our interview, I asked Granholm to name her
political heroes. Most of her list--Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther
King, Gandhi--was predictable, the stuff of ninth-grade civics
presentations. The one exception was the only woman Granholm
mentioned, Margaret Thatcher. It was not lost on Granholm that
Thatcher was probably the modern female politician who most
transcended gender stereotypes. "She took no guff and got it done,"
Granholm explained. Presumably it was also not lost on her that
Thatcher made it to the top.

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