On Aug.18, 1920, the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
Today women hold 41.5% of the seats in the Washington State Legislature but only 14% of the seats on the four local city councils and the two county commissions.
To better understand why so few women serve in the Tri-Cities, the Observer sought records from the cities of Richland, Pasco, Kennewick and West Richland, and from Benton County and Franklin County as well as the Benton County Election Office, the Franklin County Election Office and the Washington State Archive.
The Observer talked to current city council members Kate Moran and Gail Brown of West Richland and to former city council members Carol Moser of Richland and Rebecca Francik of Pasco.
They all agreed that raising money was one of the issues that prevents more women for running for local office. Plus, they all said they believe that women underrate their experiences and qualifications.
Seven members serve on the Richland City Council and the members elect a mayor after each election. Since the city was incorporated in 1958, 72 people have served on the Richland City Council. Only 13 of those were women, and they served 71 of the 434 council member years. Currently, one woman, Sandra Kent, sits on the council.
In the City of Richland, which provided more complete records than the other jurisdictions, six of the 13 (46%) women who have served there were first appointed and avoided campaigning and fundraising. Only 11 of the 59 men were appointed (19%).
Carol Moser was appointed to the Council in 1995 and served almost 10 years until she resigned to accept an appointment from Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2006 to serve on the Washington State Transportation Commission.
Most people on the council serve until they resign. Only eight men (13%) who have run again have lost their post in a re-election, but five women (38%) have.
Moser explained the difference. “While councilmen often run unopposed, councilwomen usually have opponents in their elections. Women are viewed as weaker candidates.”
She said that she ran in 1995 when she became concerned about the lack of parks in South Richland. At the time, that side of the Yakima River had only one large park, Claybell Park. She worked to add Badger Mountain Park to the area.
From 1996 to 2000, three women served on the Richland City Council at the same time. According to Moser, the three referred to themselves as MazurMoserMunn as their names were read in the roll call. Rita Mazur served 14 years starting in 1995. Wanda Munn served four years starting in 1995.
Moser said, “You know it’s still a good old boy system when you see that only one woman has been mayor in 68 years.” Pat Merrill was mayor from 1958 to 1962.
Since the Council-Manager form of government was adopted in 1954, only six women have served on the Kennewick City Council and for only 30 of the 462 Council member years. No women have served on the council since 2013. One woman, Paula Drew Lockwood, served as mayor from 1990 to 1992.
The Observer obtained records for Pasco that went back to 1977. During that time seven women served on the council for 46 of the 301 council member years. Of that seven, two serve today.
Rebecca Francik was appointed to the Pasco Council in 1996 to replace Joyce DeFelice who was appointed in 1989. DeFelice resigned to become the district director for then-Congressman Doc Hastings.
In 2005 DeFelice, using her maiden name Olson, ran for re-election to the council, defeating incumbent Eileen Crawford 3190 to 3188. In 2010, Olson, who had served several terms as mayor, resigned to marry her high-school sweetheart who lived out of state.
Francik recalled, “On my first council everyone was expected to pick up their packets, read them, research and bring their A game to council meetings. It was an analytical group.”
“As a woman and the mother of seven children, I had a different perspective than the men on the council. I had spent many hours at the swimming pool with my seven children, and I knew why residents were complaining that there was no shade there.” Francik added, “I don’t think this area appreciates the different experiences that women bring to the councils.”
Francik remembers she first worked with Pasco City Council when she proposed having the City of Pasco annex her neighborhood. Almost a third of the houses in her area had failing sewer systems and homeowners wanted to connect to the Pasco sewer system.
Francik lost re-election in 2017 to David Milne.
West Richland has a strong-mayor system of government. There are seven council members and an elected mayor. The Observer was able to obtain West Richland records back to 1986. The city clerk directed the Observer to the minutes at the Washington State Archives and the online Benton County Election records.
From 1986 until the present, 11 women have served on the West Richland City Council and voters have elected two mayors. Kate Moran first ran in 2017 and lost. After that election, she was appointed to the West Richland Planning Commission. In 2019, she was elected to the council.
She said she ran when she discovered how hard it was to obtain information from West Richland.
“The difficulty was not deliberate lack of transparency,” she noted, “but rather poor accessibility.” She added “Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of electronic record keeping and communication.”
Gail Brown has served longer, 23 years, than any other member of a local council except Bob Thompson in Richland, who has served 26 years.
Brown said she ran because she was “mad about potholes.”
She noted that she went to the city council to complain and found herself spending more and more time there. Soon she was elected to serve on the council. She said that she has continued to serve because of her interest in protecting the older residential sections of West Richland.
Brown noted that as West Richland has grown, it has become more and more expensive to run for a seat on the city council.
Brown recalled a particularly memorable vote to appoint a replacement member on the council in 2006. The council called a special meeting to decide which of two candidates, Maggie Valcich or Merle Johnson, members would choose.
“This vote really demonstrated the difference between men and women on the council,” she remembered.
Brown, Julie Jones and Nancy Aldrich supported Valcich. The men on the council supported Johnson. After going into executive session on and off for almost three hours, Mayor Dale Jackson broke the tie and the council appointed Johnson.
Benton and Franklin County Commissions
Since 1905, only three women have served on the three-member Benton County Commission and for only 16 commission years out of 345. Kathy Utz served from 1976 to 1980. Deborah “Debbie” Reis served from 1982 to 1986. Sandi Strawn served from 1988 to 1996.
Reis ran for Mason County Commission in 2008 but lost in the primary. Currently she serves as chair of the Mason County Board of Equalization.
The Observer was able to obtain records back to 1990 for the Franklin County Commission. No women currently serve on the Franklin County Commission.
Since 1990, only two women have served on the commission. Sue Miller was elected in 1992, 1996 and 2000. She served as chair in 2001. Neva Corkrum was elected in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. She was defeated by Brad Peck in 2008.