Political primaries in Arkansas have become somewhat ho-hum, now that we have a two-party system. Most of the interesting races will be in November.
Nevertheless, one historic change will take place on May 20, which is also when the state’s judicial elections will be held. The Arkansas Supreme Court will have a female majority for the first time.
The high court already has three female justices out of seven, and Karen Baker is unopposed for re-election to Position 6. Associate Justice Cliff Hoofman is stepping down, and the only candidate seeking his Position 7 is Court of Appeals Judge Rhonda Wood of Conway. Two male candidates are contending for the Position 2 seat that will be vacated by Justice Donald Corbin.
That means the scales of justice will tip to the female gender, at least in terms of numbers. That’s rather remarkable, considering that Arkansas didn’t elect its first female justice until 1997, when Annabelle Clinton Imber, now retired, won a seat.
This year’s election may result in a positive change in the number of women holding political office in Arkansas. Of the 413 candidates for state and district positions filing through the Secretary of State’s Office, 108 are women. A majority, 58, are nonpartisan candidates for judicial offices or prosecutors’ positions. Of the remaining, 29 are Republicans, 20 are Democrats and one is a Libertarian.
Actually, the percentage of women running for public office at the district and state levels, about 25, is well short of the gender equality found in our society. But the ratio of female candidates is helped somewhat by a 34 percent share of those seeking nonpartisan offices.
That flies in the face of a recent news release distributed by the nonpartisan Arkansas Policy Foundation, which credits term limits with the increase in the number of female members of the General Assembly. Arkansas has had term limits for constitutional officers and legislators since the passage of Amendment 73 in 1992.
Later, the foundation put out another news release that appeared to credit term limits for reducing the number of lawyers in the General Assembly, which apparently is seen as a good thing by the organization’s leaders.
It just so happens that a proposed amendment will be on general election ballots this fall that would, among other things, extend term limits so that a legislator could serve a total of 16 years in either the House or Senate, or both.
The foundation gives undeserved credit to term limits while ignoring the fact that the number of women in political office nationally has been increasing, regardless of term limits, over the past 30 years or so.
How else would you explain a majority state Supreme Court? Judicial positions in Arkansas are not term-limited. In fact, once a judge is elected, he or she hardly ever faces opposition for re-election.
Further, the number of female members of the U.S. Senate, where there are no term limits has increased five-fold since 1992 — from four to 20. And the number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives, also without term limits, has tripled — from 32 to 99 in the same period.
The changes are even more dramatic if you go back another 10 years, before the term limits movement began, and that’s strictly because more and more women have been entering politics, which is a good thing for our society, regardless of party.
Arkansas has a proud history of women in politics. The first woman to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate was Hattie Caraway of Jonesboro, first appointed to fill the unexpired term of her husband Thaddeus when he died in 1931. At that time it wasn’t unusual for the widow of a congressman to be appointed to complete a term, but Caraway surprised everyone by deciding to run. And she won, not just once but twice before finally losing in the Democratic primary of 1944 to a young J. William Fulbright.
However, since then we’ve only elected one female to the House and one to the Senate — the same person, Blanche Lambert Lincoln.
At present we have no females among our congressional delegation and no females filling the seven term-limited state constitutional offices. That’s because state Treasurer Martha Shoffner, the fifth woman to be elected to a state office, resigned in disgrace last year to face federal extortion charges.
We do have 10 women running for federal and statewide offices this year, though few are considered top contenders.
The number of female candidates this year gives Arkansas a chance to reverse a decline in the number of women in the Legislature.
While the Arkansas Policy Foundation is correct that the number of women in the Legislature has more than doubled since 1992 — from nine to 23, the total reached 31 of the 135 seats in 2009, then started falling backward.
Did term limits have something to do with that? Probably not. Democrats lost two Senate seats and four House seats that had been occupied by women, while Republicans surged to a majority in both houses. The GOP actually wound up with 10 women in the House, a loss of one seat.
So let’s give credit where it’s due — to the women who realize that their voices should be heard in government and the courts. May their numbers increase.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.