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Gunild Pak

Making a difference: U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison; Texas State Representative Harryette Ehrhardt; Texas State Senator Jane Nelson

Making a difference:  U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison; Texas State Representative Harryette Ehrhardt; Texas State Senator Jane Nelson
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Published by Today's Dallas Woman
A decade after the Year of the Woman was declared in American politics, women are still the rising stars in the American political landscape. United States Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, said that she has seen a 180 degrees turn around in the political climate, reception and acceptance of women in politics since she first entered politics. She said: “When I first started my work in the Legislature back in 1972, there weren’t very many women. We had to work hard to convince people that we could lead. It used to be a huge disadvantage. Women have paid their dues, and now, it is an advantage to be a woman."

In Texas, women are prominent in government leadership roles. Three of these women include Senator Hutchison, State Representative Harryette Ehrhardt, and State Senator Jane Nelson. These women have found increasing support in their quests to serve their constituents. Hutchison said: “Dallas has been very supportive of me. There are women in all levels of government. Dallas has given us a chance to serve, to do what we say we are going to do. People see that we go the extra mile.”

All three leaders gain inspiration from the ability to help their fellow citizens. Hutchison said, “to pass a law and see it actually work and the people it actually helps,” gives her inspiration. Recently, Hutchison worked on legislation that will help young people in advanced placement programs succeed and be able to compete on a national level. Hutchison said, “I want government to do what it should do. It should be efficient and small and do services that government should provide. I work for lower taxes.”

Hutchison said her biggest challenge is time. She said, “There are so many things to do and to do them well, there is just not enough time to do it.” Despite this challenge, Hutchison said she has been able to keep her promises. She has worked for homemakers IRA, and the clean up of the colonias along the Texas border, improving living conditions and cleaning up the water in an area where disease, tuberculosis, and hepatitis were rampant. Looking back at her career in public service, Hutchison said she would not change a thing.

Dallas is a wonderful city according to the Senator, “The people are public minded. The citizens work to make a better quality of life.” Hutchison said: “Women are a part of every area of leadership and life in Dallas. Dallas rewards people who give their time to public service. They receive appreciation and elevated leadership. Women in Dallas are involved in education, business, civic positions, and politics.”

Over the span of her career in the Dallas political scene, State Senator Harryette Ehrhardt said that she has seen a big change in perception about women in politics. She said the number of women on the city council and school boards has increased dramatically. Where once women leaders in Dallas were listed under their husbands names, they are now listed under their own names, “Now we are there because of what we are, and not because we are somebody’s wife.”

Ehrhardt quoted Governor Ann Richards, “The jokes are different now that I’m governor.” Indeed, Ehrhardt has found that women in leadership go about the business of making changes, “It is not only our right, but our responsibility.” Where she has found the good old boy establishment in politics often approaching government as sport, women have chosen to take the responsibility of public service seriously by leading with compassion and striving for consensus. She said the greatest preparation for being a legislator is being a mother. Having five children of her own, Ehrhardt said she learned the skills she needed for leadership by managing her family and raising her kids.

Ehrhardt said it is a great honor to serve in public office. She said, “Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by the sheer delight it is to be able to make a difference in people’s lives. Not many people have the opportunity to do that. We, in this office, try to save one starfish at a time. But we are also able to set policies to save a whole flocks of starfish.” One of Ehrhardt’s biggest challenges over the years has been addressing the difficult issue of providing affordable housing and health insurance for public school employees. “There is a lot of resistance against it,” she said, “Those in need are not politically strong. There was not a huge human cry to the legislature for assistance.” She said that politicians keep score by votes. Representing the needy population does not get votes, nor do these struggling individuals give money. A lot of money goes through the old system, which did not serve this population. Ehrhardt said, “I believe it is bad public policy.”

Under accomplishments, Ehrhardt lists her work in housing, health insurance, advocacy for the poor, and educating the poor and employees about what rights they have and what provisions they are entitled under the law. She said that her office has shown advocates for the poor that they have to be empowered in not just talking to each other but talking to those that do not agree with them. Ehrhardt advised: “Go to the enemy first.” Ehrhardt also lists her service to the gay community of Dallas as part of her accomplishments in office. She said she watched the gay community grow from a meek ineffective group to an articulate and effective organized group and said, “I am proud of being a small part of helping that to happen during my watch.” Ehrhardt said, “We now have openly gay women in government, and city council members who happen to be gay. People have begun to tolerate diversity and learned to embrace it.”

In retrospect, Ehrhardt said: “I wish that I had started sooner. But I did not have the experience to do what have done before. So I am not sure it would have worked.” Indeed, Ehrhardt said she wished women in general had started serving in politics sooner. “In the 1920s, women did not vote. We basically asked our husbands and sons how to vote. It is not enough to give the people the right to govern. Accepting responsibility is something someone learns to do,” she said.

Ehrhardt believes women bring to the table the art of compromise, the importance of inclusiveness. “They work harder,” she said, “Being an elected official is not a sport to me. It is not a matter of winning, but a matter of EVERYBODY winning.”

Ehrhardt will be running for judge in the next election. As a judge, Ehrhardt wants to help women. She said, “Clients who come are more likely to have serious problems. Women hold the family together while the father is in jail. The system isn’t always sensitive to that.” Ehrhardt wants to reduce the red tape and help streamline the process. She wants to increase access to programs designed specifically for these women, and decrease the administrative costs. Ehrhardt said she is often accused of being a bleeding heart liberal, but she sees her views as just being practical and more fiscally responsible. “If you had a hole in your roof, you would fix it,” she said.

Ehrhardt finds it irresponsible to treat people in poverty poorly. She said: “Why do we let this happen to them? Why do we spend less on preventative measures and more on correctional facilities? We play like we can punish the people out of being poor. One in four Texas children live in poverty. Our statistics are crazy. Why is that good business? It is much more expensive in the long run.”

Ehrhardt took action to find out what it is like to be poor. In her investigation, she accompanied two women living under the poverty line who allowed her to follow them in their daily lives. Ehrhardt found that it takes a lot of time to be poor, filling out forms, finding help and resources. She said, “It is a myth that poor people will be getting more than they deserve.” According to Ehrhardt, because it is so difficult to get funding, a poor person will report on abusers of the system.

“My great model in life was my grandmother,” said Ehrhardt, “She said that those who have been endowed with resources have a huge debt. It is our obligation to use what God has given us and give it back.”

As a Texas state senator, Jane Nelson has also seen a shift in the numbers of women in leadership. She said: “There are more women candidates and women officeholders today than there were when I first ran for the State Board of Education in 1988. Back then, there were not very many women running for office on the state level. Through the years it has been very gratifying to watch more and more women running for -- AND WINNING -- office at all levels of government.”

“The most inspiring part of being a Senator is watching legislation that I have worked to pass make a positive difference in someone's life,” Nelson said, “I am particularly heartened when I see students who have improved their performances or women who have broken the cycle of family violence.”

The challenges that Nelson has faced while in office include the balance of civic responsibility to maintaining roads, proper education, and government services while protecting the taxpayer from too great a financial burden. Nelson said: “Here in North Texas, our biggest changes have come from population growth and the challenges that accompany it. Growth affects every issue in this community. Our transportation needs have grown tremendously. We are making more and more room in our classrooms to educate a growing and diverse student population. Practically every service need in the Dallas area has increased dramatically over the past decade. Of course, growth has been one of our biggest assets, too, as new businesses move in and add to our economy.”

On her list of accomplishments as a state senator, Nelson lists the re-writing of the Texas Education Code, dedicating lottery funds to education, and securing financial relief measures for struggling local school districts experiencing enrollment growth. She also fought for literacy programs and HMO reform laws. She authored the Texas Medical Privacy Act to protect the privacy of patients’ records. And Nelson worked to improve access to breast cancer screenings, reduction of tobacco use by teen-agers, and prevention of prescription errors in pharmacies. She has fought against crime by creating laws to protect consumers from telemarketing scams, increase penalties for arsonists and vandals, and reduce alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Nelson said she is best known for her work on a series of laws, which protect victims of domestic violence. Looking back on her career in office, Nelson said she would have changed the scope of her agenda. She said, “During my first session in the Legislature I wanted to solve all of our problems in education, health, crime and other areas. In retrospect, I should have narrowed my focus to a few attainable goals and devoted the majority of my time and energy to those issues.”

Nelson said there is more work for women to do in government. “Women still need to be more active participants in the process,” she said, “We need more women to run for office, serve on boards and commissions, volunteer their time and do whatever they can to be a part of improving our community.”

Will 2002 prove to be another Year of the Woman? According to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, it very well may be: “This is a great time to be a woman in the United States and Texas. Texas has always been open for women to do what they want to do. In this state, you are judged on merit. Texas has given me a chance to succeed.”

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Feminism , Government/Politics
 
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