04 Apr Four men join the Maryland Women’s Caucus
By: Ovetta Wiggins, The Washington Post
Del. Erek L. Barron, a freshman in the Maryland General Assembly, was still adjusting to his new legislative schedule when he realized that he had double-booked meetings.
Barron planned to slip into the state women’s caucus, pay his dues and make a quick and quiet exit so he could get to a meeting with the House speaker.
“No, no — come in,” said one of the officers who spotted Barron, grabbed his arm and told him that he had to introduce himself.
It was then that Barron (D-Prince George’s) realized he was the only guy in the room.
That day in late January, Barron made Maryland history, becoming one of four male lawmakers — all freshmen — who this year joined Women Legislators of Maryland, the nation’s oldest state women’s caucus. He and the three others, two from Montgomery and another from Prince George’s, are believed to be the only such members currently serving on a state legislative women’s caucus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“I had no idea,” Barron said of the historic nature of his membership.
The Women Legislators of Maryland was founded in 1972. Its mission is fighting for equity for women, curtailing poverty, providing affordable health care and ending violence against women. Currently, its members number 57 women, plus the four men.
Del. Will Smith (D-Montgomery) said it was the organization’s agenda that spurred him to join the group. And maybe a little naivete.
“The funny thing is, we didn’t arrange it,” Smith said of the men. “We’re all freshmen. I guess we didn’t know any better.”
Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George’s), president of the caucus, said she was surprised that the men decided to join. But pleasantly so.
She did ask them something she had never asked the women: “Why?”
“They said, ‘We live in an open society, and we want to see how we can help,’ ” she said.
Since its founding 43 years ago, the caucus been open to male lawmakers to become associate, non-voting members. Their annual dues are $200.
“Men would always kid, ‘Can I join?’ ” said Marsha Wise, who has served as executive director of the caucus for the past 20 years.
Wise always said yes, but no one had ever taken her up on the offer.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said women in the U.S. Congress invited men to join their group — which was called the Congresswomen’s Caucus and founded in 1977 — and changed the name of the organization in 1981 to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. After the House of Representatives voted to stop funding staff and offices for caucus organizations, the caucus became a women-only group.
“It’s a value-added,” Walsh said, “if you can have support for those issues” through the coed membership.
The four men of the Maryland caucus are among the 69 new lawmakers who make up one of the largest freshman classes the General Assembly has had in 20 years. They are also part of one of the largest membership turnovers the caucus has experienced.
“I think they bring a fresh perspective,” Wise said of the newcomers. “You get some new ideas and somehow the same problems, but maybe fresh looks.”
Smith said he became a member of the caucus to show his support for the organization and its goals. He has attended several meetings, including a breakfast with the governor.
“They have welcomed us with open arms,” he said.
Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s) likened his involvement to whites becoming members of the NAACP. Tarlau is also one of two white delegates who are members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Tarlau said he joined both groups because he supports their causes. Plus, he said, he wants to serve his constituency well.
“My district is 70 percent African American,” he said, so “there was a real reason for me to get involved” in the Legislative Black Caucus.
He said he is interested in and campaigned on issues affecting his community, including improving schools and raising the living wage. “Their concerns are things I should understand and advocate for,” he said.
Del. Andrew Platt (D-Montgomery) said he had very personal reasons for joining the women’s caucus: His mother worked a minimum-wage job, got laid off, lost her health insurance and had a stroke.
“There is all this talk about pay equity and restoring the middle class,” Platt said. “All these things affect women, and I think we need to have a broader discussion about women policy issues.”
He said he wants to be part of that discussion. “I really just want to listen,” he said of participating in the caucus, “and see where we can provide some value.”
This session, the top priority of the women’s caucus is human trafficking. There are also bills that deal with home-birth safety, domestic violence and sexual assault on campus.
Barron, formerly an attorney on Capitol Hill for then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D), worked closely with Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) on a bill that would require Maryland universities to do a survey on campus sexual assaults, which many hope would help the schools figure out how to deal with the issue.
Barron said his participation in the women’s caucus is a way for him to stay involved in issues that he has worked on in the past.
“I come from a family of strong women,” he said. He’s an only child, but his mother is one seven children — all girls.