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Potential seen for bias factor in Democrats' Pa. primary

Women, blacks have fared poorly in state elections

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Associated Press / April 1, 2008

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Voters in Pennsylvania rarely elect black and female candidates.

But they'll have to choose one or the other in the April 22 Democratic presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

There's no consensus explanation among political operatives and scholars for the political glass ceiling in this state, which currently has only one black and one woman in its 21-member congressional delegation and has never had a black or female governor.

Some chalk it up to the parties' failure to recruit more women and blacks, and a tendency to favor incumbents over untested upstarts. Some theories hold that juggling young families and political careers deters women from seeking full-time office or voters from choosing them. Some believe the concentration of blacks in urban areas works against black candidates for statewide office, who must seek votes in predominantly white rural counties.

Pennsylvania's voting-age population is more than 50 percent female and about 10 percent black, but neither group has comparable representation among top state and federal elective offices. Only 15 percent of the 253 seats in the Legislature are filled by women, leaving Pennsylvania 43d nationally.

The state Democratic Party chairman, T.J. Rooney, said he sees no "inherent bias" against black or female candidates. "The challenge that confronts candidates of any stripe is being able to put together the money and the organization," he said.

But racial bias is still a reality in much of the state, said J. Whyatt Mondesire, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Outside Philadelphia and its suburbs, he pointed out, few minorities hold positions of power in county party organizations.

Governor Ed Rendell, who backs Clinton, seemed to agree in February when he said some white Pennsylvanians would probably vote against Obama because he is black. Rendell said racial bias may have contributed 5 percentage points to his own 22-percentage-point victory in 2006 over Republican Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star who is the only black Pennsylvanian ever to run for governor for a major party.

When criticized for his remarks, Rendell added that Clinton faces similar obstacles because of her gender. Rendell said both Clinton and Obama have done a good job overcoming stereotypes and Obama could benefit from his "ability to bring new voters into the electoral pool."

Driven by the contest between Clinton and Obama, Democratic registration in the state has soared to more than 4 million, the first time by any party.

US Representative Chaka Fattah, who backs Obama, said Pennsylvanians' previous reluctance to vote for black candidates will not necessarily hurt Obama. "What you have to do is show you can identify with the issues and concerns of the people you are seeking support from," said Fattah, Pennsylvania's only black congressman.

Like blacks, women also say party organizations could do more to promote their candidacies.

Barbara Hafer, a former auditor general and treasurer, is the only woman to run for Pennsylvania governor on a major party ticket. As the Republican nominee, she was soundly defeated by the incumbent governor, Robert P. Casey, in 1990.

Hafer was not recruited to be a candidate. "You have to do it on your own, with your own family and friends," she said. "You cannot rely on party leadership."

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