Wave of new women Dems hope to impact legislative agenda

Julie Kushner, Democrat, prevailed Tuesday in her bid to represent Danbury in the state Senate

Female candidates helped boost Democratic clout in the General Assembly during the midterm election and now they’d like to see the issues they campaigned on — issues like paid family and medical leave  — at the top of the agenda in the next legislative session.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven said the issues female candidates in Connecticut ran — and won — on “will be coming to the forefront” of the next legislative session in January.  In addition to paid leave, women candidates campaigned for stronger protections against sexual harassment, raising the minimum wage, and protecting reproductive rights.

“We were supportive of those issues during the last session, but we didn’t have the votes to get them passed,” Looney said.

Now Democratic legislative leaders do have healthy majorities. Women candidates helped Looney boost his numbers from 18 to a possible 24 seats in the state Senate, where the Democratic caucus next year will be 42 percent female. There will only be one female Republican state senator.

“We were confident we would win some seats, but not as many as we have,” Looney said.

What happened here in Connecticut was not unique. Female voters and candidates fueled Democratic wins across the nation, helping the party flip six state legislative chambers and wrest control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans in Congress.

In Connecticut, women candidates bolstered Democratic gains in the state House and Senate, where female challengers – many with little or no political experience — ousted a number of Republicans, including some powerful GOP lawmakers who had served for years.

Alexandra Bergstein

For instance, Alexandra Bergstein, a corporate lawyer, defeated Republican state Sen. Scott Frantz, claiming a seat that covers Greenwich and parts of Stamford and New Canaan that has not been represented by a Democrat since 1930.

State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Mary Daugherty Abrams, a retired teacher who ran on her support for stronger gun laws, health care for all, and protection of a woman’s right to an abortion.

And, first time Democratic candidate and former union official Julie Kushner ousted Republican state Sen. Mike McLachlan from the 24th District, flipping a GOP seat that Democrats have not won since 1992.

“People want paid family leave, affordable health care and a good education system,” said Kushner.

Kushner will represent the Danbury area in the legislature. U.S. Rep.-elect Jahana Hayes will also represent Danbury since it’s part of the  5th Congressional district. When the two  campaigned together, Kushner said, “there was a lot of excitement” among voters about the women candidates.

It’s hard to tell how many women voted in Connecticut on Tuesday, but national election day exit polls indicated there was a surge of female voters in the midterm and a majority of those them, about 59 percent, voted for Democratic candidates.

Concern about President Donald Trump’s policies and behavior motivated many of the women who voted for Democrats, polls showed.

“You could definitely feel that,” Kushner said. “There were a lot of people who said ‘I would never vote for a Republican.'”

While the Democratic leadership in the state House and Senate will continue to be held exclusively by white males next year, Kushner said “I believe you will see women take responsibility for major pieces of legislation.”

State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, who won a tough re-election race Tuesday, said veteran women legislators and those who are newly elected “are already planning and organizing.”

Flexer was disappointed that her legislation to toughen protections against sexual harassment failed in the last session of the general assembly..

“Now it’s all different,” she said. “There have never been 10 women in the Senate before and now there are 10 just in the Democratic caucus.”

Nick Balletto, chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said “I think the whole discussion now will change,” because women who had never run for political office won “very difficult and virtually impossible seats to win.”

“Any discussion of a ‘blue wave’ was energized by women,” he said.

In the state House, Democrats increased their majority from 80 to at least 90, with a few races unresolved.

Christine Palm

Seven of those new Democrats are women, including Christine Palm, D-Haddam, who defeated Republican incumbent Robert Siegris.

To Palm, the so-called “women’s issues” of paid family and medical leave, increases in the minimum wage, and health care are economic issues with broad impact and appeal.

“You can see them as strictly women’s issues or you can see them as economic drivers to enhance working families,” she said. “I see them as both.”

As far the new influx of women in the general assembly, Palm said, “the critical mass of  women will make coalition-building easier.”

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