Duty calls: Volunteering was start to public office for several women legislators

2012-01-08T23:30:00Z Duty calls: Volunteering was start to public office for several women legislatorsBy JOAN BARRON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
January 08, 2012 11:30 pm  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Like many other women who run for elected office, Rosie Berger’s entry into politics was preceded by volunteer work.

As a business owner, it was important for Berger to be involved in her community of Big Horn.

In 2002, she participated in the Leadership Wyoming training program, enhanced her skills and learned more about the cultures, businesses and people across the state.

“I am a strong proponent of volunteer work. Start with what you are trained in and share your expertise. Then you can branch out and volunteer in an area you are unfamiliar with, but believe in the project,” Berger said.

When a seat opened in the Wyoming House, Berger ran for election and won.

A Republican, she is now co-chairman of the state’s Joint Appropriations Committee. She was recently elected chairwoman of the Council of State Governments-West.

Berger also is a founder of the Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus, a networking organization that encourages more women to run for the state House and Senate. And she is a spokeswoman for the Leap Into Leadership training program primarily for women.

The caucus is entering its sixth year of operation, while the leadership program is entering its fifth year.

Women such as Berger are hoping to help and to inspire other women to run for public office.

Currently only 15 percent of the 90 legislative seats are held by women — the lowest ratio in years. One woman serves in the Senate and 13 in the House.

Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, was raised in a politically oriented family and lively discussions were common around their dinner table.

Her father and mentor is former state Rep. Dick Wallis, a former Joint Appropriations Committee chairman.

Wallis said her parents challenged their children to find solutions to problems rather than just complain.

“We were always encouraged to be engaged and felt like we were empowered to go out and figure out ways to change things that were wrong,” she said.

Over the years, Wallis said she learned how to pick her battles and look for places where she could make a difference.

“Running for office seemed like an opportunity to make a difference,” said Wallis, a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, also had a relative in the Legislature who served as a role model. Her cousin, the late Lynn Dickey of Sheridan, also served in the state House.

“It was something I watched her doing and wanted to do someday when the timing was right,” Throne said. “And I’ve been a political junkie ever since I can remember.

“When I decided to run, it was a confluence of personal, professional and political timing,” she added. “I tell people they have to seize the opportunity when it comes along.”

Throne is the House Minority Leader. She said she believes in diversity in the Legislature. An attorney, she is the only working mother in the Legislature with children still living at home.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said she was involved in her community as a parent whose son went to the alternative high school. She was chairwoman of the parent-faculty group.

The University of Wyoming professor also was a member of the board for the Safe Project and was involved in social justice issues.

Connolly said Sue Iberra, chairwoman of the Albany County School District Board, asked her to run when Jane Warren of Laramie decided not to seek re-election.

“I felt it was time for me to step up.

“Wyoming is a small enough state that if you see something that could be done better, you have an obligation to do it. We live in a state where that can happen,” Connolly said.

The women lawmakers speak highly of the legislative caucus.

An informal organization, it allows women legislators to connect with each other.

It is easier for a woman to approach another woman to talk about a bill or to invite her to lunch than it is to approach a man, Connolly said.

“It’s not like we think alike about issues. You will find some of the most conservative people in the Legislature are women,” she said.

The women’s caucus members also encourage other women regardless of political party to consider running for elective office so more women’s voices can be heard.

Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, said she never considered running for elected office while earning a spot on the Children’s Resource Center Board. CRC is part of the pre-school system for developmentally disabled children.

Facing serious financial problems, the officers formed an association involving 14 similar resource centers, all nonprofits.

Harvey became the association’s lobbyist.

“I lobbied for three years, and every year I loved the process and the people and the fact that a mom from Lovell, Wyoming, could go down there and make a difference,” Harvey said.

“It left me feeling awestruck and feeling the process does work for the people, and I had a yearning to become a part of that,” she added.

Harvey ran for the House and won and has never regretted her decision.

She is now chairwoman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

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