When South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley called the state government in Columbia "a fraternity party," she wasn't far from the mark.
No other states Senate is without women members, nor has been since Arkansas' in 1999. Haley, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, is one of just 17 women in the 124-member state House. According to the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, women comprise 10 percent of South Carolina's General Assembly, the lowest rate in the nation.
With Haley the favorite to be elected governor in November, the frat party could start winding down.
As a legislator, Haley has introduced legislative term limits, to no avail. But as governor, she might marshal public support for her plan to limit senators to two four-year terms and representatives to four two-year terms. That would in turn create more opportunities for newcomers to run for office.
Speaking to a women's business group in April, Haley told a questioner that the reason the state has the fewest female lawmakers is because so few women run for office in the first place.
Maybe that is because newcomers know their chances of winning against an entrenched incumbent are slim.
Lawmakers draw their own districts every decade, but a political impasse led to a three-judge panel drawing the districts largely from scratch in 2002. Still, with just minor modifications from the Assembly in 2003, the panel's districts have proven so safe that when the state Senate was last up for election in 2008, only three contests out of 46 were won with less than 55 percent of the vote, and two-thirds of the winners in the state Senate and House had no major-party competition.
Haley herself was elected to the state House in 2004 after mounting a long-shot primary challenge against the chamber's longest- serving member.
Such safe districts make it difficult for newcomers, including women, to break into the Assembly -- a critical segment of the political pipeline that leads to the governorship, Congress and the presidency.
Half of South Carolina's all-male congresisonal delegation served in the Assembly, including Republican Rep. Gresham Barrett, who was an early favorite for the GOP nomination for governor before he was upset by Haley.
Meanwhile, South Carolina has never had a female governor nor a female U.S. senator. Voters called home the state's last female House member, Democrat Elizabeth Patterson, in 1992.
Term limits aren't a cure-all for the scarcity of female lawmkers in South Carolina. Several state legislatures with and without term limits, from Maine to Kansas, have relatively large percentages of female members.
But, if term limits alone don't encourage more women to run for office in South Carolina, perhaps Haley's example will.
This article appears in the June 19, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.
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