Bridging the gender gap in Kentucky politics
Since childhood, 29-year-old Candace Klein has planned on running for governor of Kentucky.
The upbeat Newport, Ky.-native officially declared her gubernatorial candidacy eight years ago, then a 22-year-old junior at Northern Kentucky University.
The aspiring leader called a press conference on campus and, with only one reporter in the audience, announced plans to run in 2027. The headline that ran in the student newspaper the next day: “What a precocious young woman.”
In the meantime, the overachiever was on target to graduate with a quadruple major in four years and already was applying to law schools.
“When I was 5, that was when I first announced to my mom,” says Klein, now an attorney in Northern Kentucky, representing small businesses and corporate clients in civil cases.
Klein’s first foray into politics came in college, where she spent three years as a student advocate with Team 2000, a group created by the NKU student government association, lobbying state lawmakers on post-secondary education issues. After spending several weeks in Frankfort, Klein was more energized than ever, realizing her desire to pursue a life of public service was more than just a childhood fantasy.
After launching a 25-year campaign, Klein received a mix of encouraging words, condescending pats on the head and blank stares.
“For the first few years, people would giggle,” she says. “Recently, the reaction has changed from a laugh to a viable goal people respect. I think that’s because people see I’ve been sticking to that plan since 2002.”
But Klein realizes pursuing a political career will not be easy, a road made all the more difficult due to the simple fact that she is a woman in Kentucky, a state that ranks shamefully low when it comes to electing women to public office.
Although Kentucky was the third state to elect a female governor— Martha Layne Collins — in 1983, the historic election did not exactly spur momentum in the bluegrass, where the number of female politicians lags well behind other states.
Kentucky ranks 45th among states in terms of women in the state legislature. Only 15 percent of the General Assembly is female, well below the national average of 24 percent in state legislatures around the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The commonwealth also is among 19 states without a single female member of Congress.
But in recent years, an increasing number of ambitious women like Klein have set out to buck this long-standing, patriarchal political trend. In response, seasoned female politicians and a handful of activist groups have joined forces to help more women infiltrate boys’ clubs in all levels of government — from small-town city halls to Frankfort and beyond.
Although any real campaigning for governor is still years away, Klein already is working to sharpen her campaign skills and enhance her political acumen with the help of one such group — Emerge Kentucky.
In February, Klein joined Emerge Kentucky’s first 25-member class, embarking on a seven-month training program.
“Now that my eyes have been opened to the swaths of exceptional women that I would have never known about if not for Emerge, I’m much more confident” she says. “I have been showered with support from other women around the state. And of course, the goal is to win, but I want to make sure the real goal is public service.”
A nonprofit dedicated to encouraging and training Democratic women to run for public office, Emerge Kentucky was founded in 2009 as part of a national movement.
Spearheaded by former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairwoman Jennifer Moore and political strategist Kathy Groob, the state chapter is Emerge America’s ninth affiliate, and the first in the South, making it a beacon in the national movement to address the under-representation of women in elected office at every level.
Helping the organization along is a 14-member board of directors and an advisory board that’s a who’s who of women in Kentucky politics, including former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, state Auditor Crit Luallen, First Lady Jane Beshear, state Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, and former state Rep. Eleanor Jordan.
Despite a stable of well-known women helping the cause, Emerge Kentucky has a long way to go in reaching its goal of leading the South in a national movement to groom female politicians.
“We haven’t done a good enough job of identifying, recruiting and training women to run for office,” Moore says. “It’s not that we don’t have qualified women in Kentucky, we absolutely do. We haven’t reached out to them at the levels that we should be. When I stepped down as chair (of the Democratic Party), one of my goals was to change that.”
In Kentucky’s General Assembly, only 15 out of 100 state House members are women, with only six women serving in the 38-seat state Senate. In terms of the percentage of women in the state legislature, only Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma fare worse than Kentucky.
“In the South, there’s the entrenched establishment, especially. The political families are still old, white, Southern males, and women don’t have the power circles that men often have to tap into money and leadership,” says Groob, who served as a city councilwoman in Fort Mitchell, Ky., before making two unsuccessful bids for the state Senate. “They have to get in and fight harder. That’s why we need these programs to get them thinking about it, get them trained, and get them ready early.”
One political arena in which Kentucky women have been successful is in races for county clerk and treasurer. Statewide, women hold 78 percent of those positions, according to the Kentucky Commission on Women, although they typically are viewed as apolitical, entry-level offices with little competition.
“Most of that campaigning isn’t going to involve television ads or even direct mail,” says former state Senate candidate Virginia Woodward, who serves on Emerge’s advisory board. “For county clerk, it’s more walking to meet voters and (making) personal appearances.”
When it comes to running for higher-level political positions, where campaigning gets more expensive and political connections matter more, there is a huge drop in female representation. In Kentucky, only 18 percent of mayors and 25 percent of city commissioners or council members are female.
Hoping to get women better prepared for politics and campaigning, Emerge’s seven months of seminars feature daylong classes one Saturday each month. The intensive curriculum includes training in public speaking, campaign strategy, working with the media and fundraising techniques. The women also have opportunities to meet with strategists, pollsters and elected officials who offer insights on how to navigate the tricky world of politics
“They have to be able to tap into donors,” Groob says. “Whether we like it or not, the fundraising is a huge factor of whether you’ll be competitive.”
Emerge organizers admit it’s been difficult generating interest in rural parts of the state, but they are hopeful the next class will reflect more of the commonwealth’s geographic diversity. Their current class is made up mostly of women from the state’s golden triangle between Louisville, Lexington and Covington.
In an effort to achieve that goal, Groob has spent the past few months visiting rural counties to recruit candidates. Once the first class graduates, Emerge will form an alumni association and dispatch those former students to recruit as well.
And while Emerge is gaining traction drafting promising female Democrats across the state, there is no organized effort to recruit and train Republican women — a group considerably more under-represented in government than their Democratic sisters.
The number of female Republicans holding office in Kentucky closely mirrors sparse numbers on the federal level: There are 17 Republican women in the U.S. House of Representatives and four in the U.S. Senate, compared to 61 and 14 Democratic women respectively.
It’s a trend that trickles down to the state level, and not just in the bluegrass. Among the total number of female state legislators across the country, only 29 percent are members of the GOP.
Democrats argue their party’s agenda is friendlier to women and therefore more welcoming to female candidates, but local Republican leaders say political philosophy is not to blame.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the party; women are becoming more involved all over. I don’t know why Democrats make that charge, but I got more involved because I wanted to see change in a conservative direction,” says Shellie May, chairwoman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, the first female leader of the local GOP in 28 years.
May also is quick to note the popularity and success of some high-profile Republican ladies, including former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson and Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw.
“I do think we need more women in public office. I encourage all women in all parties quite frankly,” May says. “And the ship is turning. We have a large number of women running in the city and state this election year.”
Currently, the only state organization even remotely aimed at encouraging Republican women to run for office is the Kentucky Women’s Roundtable, a small-scale, informal, invitation-only program. The group offers three events per year and serves as a social and political network among Republican women, says Gail Russell, the group’s president.
“I don’t want to say it’s a loosey-goosey program, but it’s not a formal organization,” Russell says. “We offer networking and training to women, and take trips to Frankfort and Washington, D.C. when we can.”
But local Republicans cannot argue with Kentucky’s numbers: Only 11 percent of state House Republicans are women, whereas women on the other side of the political aisle make up 17 percent.
The numbers aren’t much better in Metro government either. On the Louisville Metro Council, there are eight women in the Democratic caucus and no Republican women on the council.
Since former council members Julie Raque Adams and Ellen Call left the council in 2009 to start a public affairs consulting firm together, the GOP caucus has been uniformly white and male, which bothers Adams, but she says that has nothing to do with their party’s political perspective.
“I think public policy is best made when there are all different perspectives at the table,” says Adams, who is running for the 32nd District House seat this fall. “I’d love to see more Republican women run for council, and I talk to younger ladies who are interested. Nobody has made the leap yet, and maybe we need something like Emerge Kentucky to nurture and handhold the conservative women who are interested.”
Standing at the pulpit inside First Virginia Avenue Missionary Baptist Church and surrounded by state lawmakers, Gov. Steve Beshear praised former state Sen. Georgia Davis Powers as a great Kentuckian, one who fought for the disadvantaged and inspired a generation.
The crowd has packed the pews of the west Louisville congregation to honor the civil rights icon, a Democrat who, in 1968, became the first woman and first African-American to serve in the state Senate.
The governor is here to dedicate a 7-mile stretch of Interstate 264 to the former state senator from Louisville. Running from the I-64 junction to Dixie Highway through her old district, the trail has been renamed the Georgia Davis Powers Expressway.
“Sen. Powers tore down barriers that had been carefully constructed to keep her and her opinions — and those like her — out of sight and out of mind,” Beshear told the crowd last month. “And she did much to advance the causes of African-Americans and women, as well as earn the respect of her colleagues, at a time when neither one of those groups was particularly welcome in the world of politics.
“Kentucky is not the same state that it was when (Sen. Powers) came to the state Senate in 1968, however, there is still a lot of work to do and more hurdles to overcome.”
Given the volatile political climate of the time, Powers’ election was a major feat for both women and minorities. But since then, there’s been little progress, particularly for minority women: Among the 21 women in the state legislature, none are African-American. The highest state office occupied by an African-American woman is held by Judge Denise Clayton, who, in 2007, became the first black woman to serve on the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
Compared to other branches of government, Kentucky’s judiciary has a considerably smaller gender gap, with women making up 40 percent of district judges, 28 percent of circuit judges and half of the judges sitting on the court of appeals, according to the Kentucky Commission on Women.
That said, the state’s judiciary is far from perfect, again due to a lack of minority representation, particularly women of color. In the commonwealth, there are 144 judges in the circuit court and 116 judges in district court, but only three — Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine, District Judge Sadiqa Reynolds and District Judge Erica Lee Williams — are minority women.
“When you think about African-American women elected officials in the state, I don’t think there are that many,” Judge Williams says. “We have our staples, of course … but I’ll be excited when we can’t name them all. That’s when we’ve made substantial progress.”
Despite coming in fifth in Louisville’s Democratic primary for mayor, Shannon White does not regret running for office. Her one complaint is the fact that women’s groups would not take a risk in supporting a female candidate in the race.
Specifically, White was disheartened when the Metropolitan Louisville Women’s Political Caucus endorsed Greg Fischer.
“Shame on MLWPC, who instead of choosing a champion for women in Louisville, they choose a businessman who is popular in the polls and a longtime member of the deeply entrenched old boys network,” White wrote to supporters back in April.
In response to White’s charge, the organization argued that while it respected her positions on the campaign trail and the great work she has done for women in the past, the caucus made the endorsement based on experience, viability and support for women’s issues, not simply on gender.
Several high-profile female politicians also endorsed male candidates, much to the chagrin of White.
“In the mayoral primary, Rep. Joni Jenkins, Rep. Mary Lou Marzian and Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh all supported men,” White says. “And it’s shocking that trailblazing women did that considering they know firsthand the struggles women face in politics. And it seemed like the ladder was being pulled up.”
Early on in the mayoral race, one local television news cameraman posed an arguably sexist question, asking White if she had time to run a campaign while raising three boys. Meanwhile, no one ever bothered to ask Democratic mayoral candidate and Councilman David Tandy, D-4, how we would manage, even though his children are much younger. And while that line of questioning dismayed some political observers, it didn’t serve as a rallying point for female voters.
“I thought (the candidates) were all treated fairly in the mayor’s race,” says Vicky Markell, vice president of the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan group that hosted a mayoral forum during the primary.
While groups that promote diversity sometimes endorse candidates based on identity alone, critics argue such blind support can undermine a candidate’s legitimacy, favoring generalizations over qualifications.
“I would find it discriminatory if an organization said it was only going to endorse one gender over the other … endorsements should be judged on an individual case,” Markell says. “In my experience, when I look at candidates, I’d like it to be a woman … but in the mayor’s race, I voted for a man, as obviously many women in Jefferson County did.”
White hasn’t decided if she’ll run for office again, and says she’s skeptical that the statistics for women in elected office will change anytime soon.
“Maybe I wasn’t the best candidate or you didn’t think I could win, but at least give me props for jumping in the race and taking the risk,” White says. “And for that risk-taking to continue with other women, it means women’s groups and powerful women need to be more supportive and do the same.”
Standing at the bottom of a long wooden staircase, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd, is dressed in a well-fitted tuxedo. The two-term congressman is attending a charity dance later tonight, but first he is speaking to Emerge Kentucky’s inaugural class at the Highlands home of Lane and Garrett Adams, prominent Democratic contributors.
“I used to think politics would be better if it was only women, but then I began to serve with Michelle Bachman,” says Yarmuth, poking fun at his conservative colleague from Minnesota. “Then I learned it takes the right kind of woman, and that’s what Emerge Kentucky is all about.”
After chatting with the congressman from Louisville, Candace Klein steps outside to mingle with fellow Emerge classmates and other elected officials in attendance.
Although some classmates already are seeking public office, Klein has made no decision about what office she’ll seek first. However, she fully realizes she needs to build an impressive political résumé before making a bid for governor in 17 years.
Klein expects there will be obstacles in her political career, a pursuit likely made more difficult because she is a woman. But given the personal hardships she has faced and overcome, the aspiring politician is looking forward to the professional challenges.
Born to a teenage mother who was working two jobs and an absentee father she met only a handful of times, Klein lived on public assistance the first five years of her life. Despite facing serious hardships of their own, Klein’s family often volunteered in the local soup kitchen.
“My mother and I were constantly volunteering. She said we have to give back because we were taking so much. And as I was growing up, I was shown the gifts Kentucky had given to me. Then I got interested in public policy,” Klein says. “Since I was 5 years old, I wanted to create those same opportunities.”
After graduating college, Klein was trying to decide between law schools in Boston and San Diego. But those plans were temporarily halted after an annual check-up at the doctor. At age 23, Klein was diagnosed with Stage 2 ovarian cancer and told she likely would never have children.
The devastating revelation resulted in three surgeries, six months of chemotherapy and four months of radiation treatment.
Now in remission for five years, cancer did not deter Klein’s political goals. In fact, she is more committed than ever to making her 2027 gubernatorial run a reality.
That said, she admits there are times when her ambition has impacted her personal life.
“Today’s young women are juggling different tasks and being strong, but we’re still women,” Klein says. “There are times my feelings still get hurt, there are times I still feel weak.”
Last year, Klein was in a relationship she thought was getting serious. One morning at breakfast, her boyfriend asked how she could balance running for office and raising a family, suggesting a woman couldn’t do both.
“We’re no longer dating,” she says. “I began to question, ‘Am I going to be able to enter a relationship and have these ambitions?’ Now on a first date I bring it up and say, ‘This is what I’m doing with my life.’ It’s easier being upfront about it.”