Former Gov. Mike Foster, who never minced words, famously noted that Louisiana was at the top of every bad list and at the bottom of every good one. Foster’s truism was so apt that one often hears the state’s progress or declension measured as steps up or down this list or that. One of the lists Foster may have been referring to when he coined that phrase is maintained by Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics. Rutgers’ list tracks gender equality, focusing on the number of women each state elects to public office. On this list Louisiana is at the very bottom, ranking 50th among the states. Today in Louisiana, all seven statewide elected officials and the two U.S. senators are men. The Louisiana Senate boasts a mere four women while the House has 13, amounting to 10.3 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively, of those bodies. To place these numbers in comparative perspective, the national average for state senates is 24.2 percent, and for the lower houses, 25 percent. Some states elect more women than that. In Colorado, for example, women make up fully 42 percent of all legislators. But what about local governments? Do women win more seats there? The answer is no, at least not in Lafayette. Currently, there are no women serving on the Lafayette City-Parish Council, nor has a woman ever been elected to represent a district since the parish and city were consolidated in 1996.
But this year may be different. Many of the signs sprouting on lawns and property across the parish feature women running for council seats. This phenomenon is so unusual that a recent article in The Independent was titled “Is this the ‘Year of the Woman’ for LCG?” noting that only six women have ever, in the history of the LCG, even run for a seat on the council much less won one. That meager historical total is being exceeded this year alone, as seven women (and perhaps more) will be vying for elected office in six of the nine council districts. And, in what might be the year of the woman, no candidate is attracting more attention than Carol Ross, the 69-year-old president of Edge Communications and a candidate for the District 8 seat being vacated by Keith Patin. Ross’ bid for office has raised the profile of all the council races, while sending a chill down the backs of council watchers who fear what her candidacy might mean for city-parish governance.
This initial reaction to the Ross candidacy is perhaps understandable because it points to a painful reality: In recent years the council has failed to resolve several important issues, which include the structural problems raised by the city-parish charter, the constitutional issues related to the governance of Lafayette Utilities System and, finally, infrastructure related primarily to economic development in southwest Lafayette. As the council has floundered, some have suggested that cityparish government might be fatally flawed, incapable of addressing and resolving its most important questions. Yet council watchers should be reminded that change can be for the better as well as for the worse. And while the future is uncertain, the current all-male council has not crafted a legacy of consensus and achievement. So what would Carol Ross and the other female candidates bring to the council?
I sat down with Ross recently and asked her about her candidacy. Perhaps it’s a campaign position, but Ross quickly disclaims any Tea Party label with regard to local politics, claiming that she is only associated with the Tea Party “at the federal level because I believe that is out of control.”
As to why she’s running: “I got tired of being on the outside and trying to effect change when nobody was listening. I kept trying to get people to run, and people [finally] said, why don’t you run?” In regard to the fear that some have expressed that she will add to the divisiveness already prevalent on the council, Ross says flatly, “It’s not true. [For example], I supported fiber to the home, [and] people who would call me an obstructionist don’t know my record. If they try to pigeonhole me, they’ll be mistaken.
When we hit bottom in the 1980s, we lost 22 percent of our economy. So we knew we had to diversify.” Continuing, she adds, “The tech companies are the kind of people you want, [but] you have to be realistic. You have to see return on investment.”
And on the issue of preserving the Johnston Street Horse Farm acreage for a public park, Ross states that she was “one of the early adopters.”
I talked to a council insider with knowledge of both Ross’ past history and the challenges facing the council. This person discounted fears of the “Ross effect” on the council, in part because District 8, where Ross is running, joins with districts 3, 4, 6, and 7 to make up the board of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, the governing authority for LUS. Given that Ross is already on record as supporting autonomy for the city of Lafayette, her election to the District 8 seat is unlikely to change the balance of power on that crucial board. And the insider agreed with Ross’ statement that she’s not an automatic “no” on every issue. In his view, Ross presents an “interesting mix of philosophies. For example, she “supports autonomy for the city of Lafayette,” while not supporting new taxes and funding programs like Tax Increment Financing districts, better known as TIFs, and Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILOTs. “It’s a mixture. You’ve got your tea party [ideas]; but on the Lafayette Charter and LUS, I think she understands those issues in a wider frame.”
Despite Ross’ disavowal of Tea Party membership, and the insider’s perception of her possessing a “mix of philosophies,” there is a good bit of evidence suggesting that Ross has had ties with the local Tea Party organization, which may gainsay the reasonableness demonstrated in my interview with her. However, leaving that aside for the moment, there is no guarantee Ross or any of the women running for Lafayette City-Parish Council will be successful. Charlotte Clavier in District 2, Ursula Anderson in District 3, Monique Koll in District 5 and Sevie Zeller in District 6 are probably long shots. But Nannette Cook in District 7 and either Ross or Liz Webb Hebert in District 8 have a good chance of breaking into the boy’s club. Studies indicate that women who run for office are as likely to win as men. They just don’t run as frequently. Explanations for the reticence of women in this regard abound, but most focus on societal roles and expectations that cause women to see themselves as caregivers not leaders. And let’s face it: it’s brutal asking your friends and neighbors for money to fund a campaign. Nobody relishes that, women least of all. But, when women overcome these barriers, they are at least as successful as men. Still, if any of the women running for the council should succeed, they’ll have their work cut out for them. It will be no small task transforming the council into an effective and productive legislative body working for the good of all in Lafayette — city and parish.
[Correction: The print version of this story has Charlotte Clavier as a candidate in District 1; she is challenging incumbent Jay Castille in District 2. The IND regrets the error.]