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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington politicians say Kamala Harris should only be the start of women in high office

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 7, 2020

Vice president-elect Kamala Harris donned suffragette white for a speech Saturday in Wilmington, Del.  (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Vice president-elect Kamala Harris donned suffragette white for a speech Saturday in Wilmington, Del. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – After Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, was in complete shock.

At the time, Dhingra was a prosecutor with no political experience. Motivated by Clinton’s loss, Dhingra decided to run for office just a few months later, and she won. She became the first Sikh elected to any state legislature.

When Dhingra found out Sen. Kamala Harris was the 2020 vice presidential pick, she was pleasantly surprised. As a woman of color, prosecutor and politician, Dhingra said she sees a lot of herself in vice president-elect Harris.

“This is really what America is all about,” Dhingra said. “This is the American Dream.”

After a close election that left many Americans wondering for days who would be elected president, Harris made history Saturday by being elected the first woman, Black person and South Asian American person elected to vice president. For women politicians in Spokane, Harris is inspiring, surprising and, to some, disappointing.

“It has been so rewarding as a former elected official, woman of color and mom to see someone who looks like me and has shared experience as me running for one of the highest offices,” said former state representative Kristine Reeves, a former chair of the Spokane County Democratic Party.

After 2016, Spokane County Democratic Party Chair Nicole Bishop said she was extremely disheartened.

“It really replicated that you could work twice as hard and still not shatter that ceiling,” Bishop said.

Diana Wilhite, former Spokane Valley mayor and councilwoman, does not support Harris or her policies but wants to see more women in politics.

Wilhite, who now focuses on mentoring younger generations interested in politics, knows the challenges many women face when running for office.

“I don’t think men take us as seriously,” Wilhite said.

Before a woman even decides to run, she has to know it’s the right time in her life, Wilhite said. Because many women are considered the primary caregiver, they struggle to decide when to run.

Gretchen McDevitt, former Spokane County Republican Party board member and Spokane organizer, said she doesn’t think about gender. She just wants the best candidate for the job. She does not think Harris is that person. But she agrees that women face certain challenges in politics.

As a group, women are told to be less aggressive, more compassionate, she said. They have different things to think about before running, such as child care.

Despite this, McDevitt said there should always be an equal number of men and women in politics as women bring something different to an organization or a position.

Women of color often experience these struggles even more, Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said she knows she can’t be too assertive or she’ll be labeled “loud and angry.” She also knows how important it is for her to create a space for other women of color because no one created the space for her.

“I feel the weight more than maybe more political folks,” Wilkerson said. “I have an entire culture on my back that I’m carrying and representing along with all the other residents.”

While Reeves is hopeful that Harris’s vice presidency will inspire other women of color, she knows there’s a lot more work to do. How close the race was is disheartening, Reeves said. She called the results a “gut punch” when she realized how many Americans voted for someone who “has made it his mission to disparage me as a woman and as a person of color.”

Reeves said the country has a history of systemic racism it needs to grapple with, and electing one Black woman to vice president won’t solve it.

“The question isn’t, ‘Is Kamala going to carry the weight of the nation and build the country that we believe we are?’ ” Reeves said. “The question is, ‘Are we going to carry the weight of the nation and build the country that we believe we are?’ ”

Dhingra also said she was concerned with the divide in the country. The country needs to have an honest conversation about its ideals, Dhingra said, and Harris is a great example of the values Americans strive for.

Still, Dhingra is hopeful more women will join the political conversation.

One month after the 2016 election, Dhingra walked into a Democratic Party meeting. It was packed with many women getting involved in politics for the first time.

“There were a lot of women like me who were all there for the first time because they needed to do something,” she said.

Dhingra said she expects the same after this election, but whether the women are inspired or frustrated remains to be seen.

Perhaps the most important part for Wilkerson is how her grandchildren are feeling. Harris helps them dream, she said.

“Just knowing there’s a pathway forward, not only for me, but for everyone who comes behind, is what we need right now,” she said.

For Wilhite, more women in politics is essential. She has a challenge for all young women and girls: think about running for president.

“You, too, can do that,” she said. “You can be president.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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