Update: Rick Berg has conceded, making it 20 women in senate.
It looks like we finnaly have ourselves a true “year of the woman” as the 2012 election draws to a close. An historic 19 female senators will be sworn in this January—20 if Rick Berg of North Dakota finally concedes—many of them supporting women’s issues like the right to choose, access to health care, affordable contraception, pay equity, and paid parental leave.
On the surface, the control of the senate doesn’t seem much changed. After all, Democrats lost the Nebraska seat, but gained seats in Massachusetts and Indiana, leaving the map mostly untouched. But a closer look shows that it was a clear win for women, both as politicians and as voters, based on final results.
Nebraska was the sole GOP pickup, with state Senator Deb Fischer beating Sen. Bob Kerrey. However, Fischer, an extreme anti-choice “no exceptions” politician is replacing Democrat Ben Nelson, who was also anti-choice for all practical purposes, and who had to be courted vigorously into a final vote yea with his party on the Affordable Care Act. We can expect Fischer, whose win was one of the few highlights from an otherwise dismal night for the national GOP, to be quickly embraced as a rising star in the senate, and likely the face of any continuing opposition to Obamacare in that chamber. Fischer was the only female Republican to win her senate race.
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Democratic female senators had much better results. Every female incumbent Democrat won reelection, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who was expected to be the most vulnerable senator in the 2012 cycle. Senator Debbie Stabenow was in a tight race in Michigan, but still won by a comfortable margin. Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Dianne Feinstein, and Maria Cantwell all easily won their bids.
While two Republican female senators retired, more female Democrats will be welcomed into the senate in January, all with strong records as champions for women and women’s issues like health and economic security. Senators-elect Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren, Mazie Hirono, and Heidi Heitkamp (again pending Rick Berg’s concession) all support reproductive health and contraceptive coverage, with Warren and Heitkamp both replacing senators who were inconsistant on reproductive rights.
Of the potentially 20 female senators for 2013, only four are Republicans: Nebraska’s Fischer, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
With Democrats continuing to hold a slim lead in the senate, having a group of 15 strong, progressive females could make for a powerful voting block heading into the 2013 legislative session. Considering many of these successes represent the desires of women voters, who represent not only the majority of the voting population but provided the edge that brought these senate candidates and the White House their victories, it’s a power these women must immediately seize.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the longest serving woman in Congress, announced Monday that she will not seek re-election in 2016.
At a press conference announcing her decision, Mikulski said she had asked herself, “Do I spend time my raising money, or do I spend my time raising hell?”
Elected to the House in 1976 and the Senate in 1986, she was the first female Democratic senator elected in her own right, not preceded by a husband or a father.
“Barbara Mikulski is among the fiercest advocates for women and families that Washington has ever seen,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, in a statement. The then newly formed EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice women candidates for office, helped get Mikulski elected in 1986.
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As the first female chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski worked to pass a continuing resolution at the end of 2013 that avoided a government shutdown. In December, she helped broker an omnibus spending bill that fended off Republican attacks on reproductive health care and included some improvements like abortion coverage equity for Peace Corps volunteers.
“She’s always upheld the values and principles of fairness,” Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, told Rewire. “She was always equal to the task, always true to her advocacy, particularly for working women and men in the state of Maryland.”
Mikulski has been known to mentor and inspire other female legislators. “I will never forget the encouragement she gave me when I first considered running for Senate,” said Barbara Boxer (D-CA), another long-serving female senator who will not seek re-election in 2016, in a statement. “Every woman in the Senate has stories of Senator Mikulski reaching out to us, mentoring us and helping us along the way.”
Mikulski hosted monthly dinners for female senators, and she became famous for protesting for the right to wear pants on the Senate floor. She fought for equal pay for women, inserted language into the Affordable Care Act addressing preventive care for women, and was known as a tough advocate for liberal and progressive values who also emphasized building consensus with Republican colleagues.
“What’s not to love?” Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, told Rewire in an email. “Sen. Mikulski was on the forefront of the fight to #bringbackourgirls, expand access to early childhood and higher education, and ensure that all pantsuit wearers have a fair shot.”
Voters in 42 states on Election Day will decide an assortment of ballot measures, also known as initiatives or issues, that cover various largely polarizing political issues. Voters in five states—Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota—will decide ballot measures to increase those states’ minimum wage.
Each measure would increase the minimum wage above the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but how far above that threshold and the timeline for the increases vary by state.
Illinois is the only state of the five where the ballot measure is not legally binding. The ballot measure would only advise the state legislature to take action and increase the minimum wage. The Minimum Wage Increase Question would potentially lead lawmakers to increase the minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 per hour.
Only two states, Alaska and South Dakota, include language on the ballot measures that would mandate an annual increase in the minimum wage to adjust for inflation. South Dakota is the only state in which the measure also addresses workers whose wages are made through gratuity or tips.
Each measure was placed on the ballot through a ballot initiative process, with the exception of Illinois. In order for the measures to qualify to be placed on the ballot, activists in the four states gathered and verified a total of more than 200,000 signatures.
There are organized campaigns and political action committees actively working to support the measures in each state, but there is no similar organized opposition to the minimum wage measures. While there is a partisan divide between supporters and opponents, Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate in both Alaska and Arkansas have voiced their support for boosting low wages.
Alaska Ballot Measure 3
In Alaska, Ballot Measure 3 would increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.75 per hour to $8.75 per hour beginning January 1. The minimum wage would be increased again to $9.75 per hour a year later. The state’s minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation or increased by $1 over the federal minimum wage—whichever is higher.
Republicans in the state house last spring introduced and passed HB 384, which would have increased the minimum wage to $9 per hour on July 1, and to $10 per hour in 2015. Even though the bill would have increased the minimum wage by more than the ballot measure, Democrats opposed it because they claimed Republicans would simply repeal the law the next year as they had done before.
Alaskan Republicans passed a bill in 2002 to mandate that the state’s minimum wage increase with inflation. That same year Democrats had successfully placed a measure on the ballot to increase the minimum wage. Once the legislation was passed, the measure was by law forced to be removed from the ballot. The next year, Republicans passed legislation to remove the inflation adjustment from the minimum wage.
When the legislative session was adjourned in April, HB 384 died in the state Senate Finance Committee.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D) has come out in favor of raising the state’s minimum wage, and has also co-sponsored legislation to increase the federal minimum wage. Begich’s Republican opponent Dan Sullivan initially opposed the minimum wage increase, but later changed course to support the measure.
A Public Policy Polling poll found that 58 percent of Alaskans surveyed support the measure to increase the minimum wage.
Arkansas Issue 5
The $6.25 per hour minimum wage in Arkansas is lower than the federal minimum wage, but is superseded by federal law. Issue 5 would increase the state’s minimum wage to $7.50 per hour on January 1. It would also increase the minimum wage twice more, to $8 per hour on January 1, 2016 and to $8.50 per hour on January 1, 2017.
The ballot measure survived a court challenge, as the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a ruling Monday that it could remain on the ballot. Little Rock businessman Jackson T. Stephens challenged the measure on the grounds that the deadline to submit signatures was not met and that signatures submitted by supporters were invalid.
Pryor and other Arkansas Democrats have made increasing the minimum wage a focal point of the campaign. Pryor criticized Cotton for his lack of support for measure. Cotton, who voted against increasing the federal minimum wage, announced his support for the measure, effectively blunting Pryor’s criticism.
Nebraska Initiative 425
Nebraska’s Initiative 425 would increase the state’s hourly minimum wage to $9 per hour over two years. The minimum wage would be increased from $7.25 per hour to $8.00 per hour on January 1, and then increase to $9.00 per hour at the start of 2016.
If passed, it will be the first time the state’s minimum wage was higher than the federal minimum wage.
Opponents this fall held a press conference and outlined their opposition to Initiative 425. They claim it would increase costs for small business and do little to help the working poor. The press conference was organized by the Platte Institute for Economic Research, a conservative think tank headquartered in Omaha that promotes right-wing economic policies.
Measure 18 would increase the minimum wage in South Dakota from $7.25 to $8.50 per hour beginning January 1. It would also mandate an increase in the minimum wage each year to adjust for inflation. Workers who earn wages through tips would also see a wage increase, as the measure would increase their hourly pay from $2.13 to $4.25 per hour.
One in six employed South Dakota workers would likely see an increase in their wages if the minimum wage were raised, according to an analysis by the South Dakota Budget and Policy Institute. The analysis also found that one in seven children in the state have at least one parent that would be affected by the minimum wage increase.
“Fears of negative economic impacts have proved exaggerated in the past when the minimum wage was increased,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote.
Measure 18 appears to have significant support from South Dakota voters, as 60 percent of likely voters said they support the minimum wage increase, according to a recent SurveyUSA poll. Twenty-eight percent oppose the increase and 13 percent are undecided.