A new coalition of legislators moves into the Capitol next year with the potential to change the dynamics of the 2013 session. They are female, suburban and willing to buck the dogma of their colleagues on the left and the right.
“I’m hoping to refocus on fiscal issues, especially for women,” said Republican Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, the House assistant minority leader. “I personally feel some of the emphasis on social issues clouded or drowned out our fiscal focus.”
“We as women have an eye toward understanding what’s important,” said Terri Bonoff, who returns as the DFL state senator representing Minnetonka. “We need to be fiscally prudent to structure ourselves for a 21st century environment.”
The political action committee Voices of Conservative Women was ahead of the curve when it formed in 2009 to endorse and work for women candidates strictly on the pocketbook issues of taxes, jobs and business growth. In 2012, despite spending only $36,000, Voices and its independent expenditure operation, Women Pac, helped elect 21 of its 30 endorsed candidates.
“I don’t think anywhere in the country is there a women’s organization that has sustained two-thirds win rate, left or right,” according to Jennifer DeJournett, president of Voices. “It’s a testament of the strong candidates.”
DeJournett herself was a successful candidate, winning a seat on the Three Rivers Park Board. Challenged in a primary, she’s a believer that primaries develop a candidate with broader appeal. “When you’re forced to compete in primary, you hear the temperament of the electorate,” she said. “You’re forced to go out of your box.”
This election cycle, Voices worked only on behalf of Republican women candidates, who must ask for endorsement. DeJournett says she hopes to expand the membership of the Voices board and that the past election victories will result in DFL and independent candidates asking for support.
“We have no litmus test on social issues,” she stresses. “If someone asks for our support, we would give them the full respect and review.”
In return, in 2012, the candidate received a personal and customized form of voter outreach, unusual for PACs and independent expenditures that rely on template, “insert candidate’s name here” messages. The basics of the Voices strategy are reaching out to the women voters, calling for a specific woman in the household, and following up with a hand-written postcard. And no negative messages, says DeJournett. “Women don’t want to hear other candidates being torn down.”
Both Bonoff and Loon welcome an expansion of a group like Voices of Conservative Women. “I think that’s up to the leadership, but they are unique by focusing on women candidates who are united around fiscal and economic issues,” said Loon. “I would certainly hope they would look at a broad spectrum.”
Bonoff says she knows the Voices brand is successful. “I have won and run on that platform,” she said. “I think it’s fiscally smart; the labels liberal and conservative are outdated.
Loon says the Voices’ message, like her message and the message of DFL women who ran as fiscal conservatives, appeals to a diversity of voters. “A lot of pundits say Republicans have a problem with women, especially suburban women,” she said. “I’m one of them. I think I can speak to women and to folks and find some commonality.”
Commonality helped Loon and Bonoff last session when they worked on legislation to help low-income parents with child-caring skills. Bonoff mentions Loon along with Republican Sen. Julie Rosen and Michelle Benson as colleagues with whom she has worked across the aisle on issues like the stadium and government reform.
Finding common ground on the next state budget will be trickier. Bonoff, for example, endorses tax reform but is opposed to raising income taxes. She wants health-care spending to fund outcomes, not procedures. She’ll look at expanding the tax base, but “I’m not for taxing business-to-business services.” More liberal members of her caucus, now in the majority, will prod her to move to the left.
Loon talks of providing “better value for the taxpayer,” not making government smaller. She says she ran for office to promote a strong jobs climate as the starting point for policy decisions. She said legislators must ask, “are you able to find a good job, do you have good schools, can you have the life you want to have in Minnesota?”
Despite the Republican’s minority status, Loon and others like her will hear from legislators with a more stringent take on budget issues.
But Loon, Bonoff, and the other women winners from the suburbs will not be ignored. They represent a coveted group of voters — moderate women who were key to winning elections this year. If, as center-left and center-right legislators, they forge partnerships on the state budget, education, jobs and health care, they will emerge as a distinctive and powerful political bloc.