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4-in-10 governor appointments are women

Gov. Jack Dalrymple prompted cries of sexism when he named just one woman to a new 14-member task force on property tax reform this month.

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But a review of Dalrymple’s full track record of appointments to North Dakota’s various commissions and committees shows he’s close to hitting the 50-50 gender split.

Of the nearly 400 such appointments Dalrymple has made, four of every 10 were women, according to an analysis by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

In an interview, Dalrymple took that statistic as evidence that he hasn’t doubled down on a men’s club since taking office in late 2010, as some advocates for women in North Dakota politics charged last week.

But he also pointed to the composition of his 17-member Cabinet — of which five are women — and the five female members of his eight-person senior staff, who “advise me every day on how to run the state of North Dakota.”

Of the three vacancies left by departing elected officials, Dalrymple chose two women to take over.

“If you think in terms of what really makes a difference in terms of the real direction of the state, you’ve got a nice clear, pattern there that we have been able to appoint some very capable women,” the governor said.

While some of Dalrymple’s critics give the governor credit for his full history of appointments, they also stress the importance of looking at the makeup of each commission, board and task force individually.

“We have to be constantly watching,” said Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women’s Network. “The minute we take our eye off the prize of equality, parity in representation … falls away.”

Several lopsided boards

There are nearly 150 task forces and boards, commissions, committees and councils in North Dakota, each established over the years with a set number of members, many of whom are appointed by the governor. They advise and brainstorm solutions for specific issues; they regulate and license businesses; and a few craft policy on their own.

The governor’s new Task Force on Property Tax Reform isn’t the only lopsided group in the bunch.

There’s the Game and Fish Advisory Board, composed of eight men and no women. The same is true for the State Water Commission. Of the 22 current members on the state’s Economic Development Foundation, only three are women — about 13 percent.

And although there are more male-heavy boards and commissions in North Dakota, it goes both ways.

There are no men on the five-member Dietetic Practice Board, which regulates and registers dietitians and nutritionists in North Dakota. Women hold 20 of the 24 seats on the Interagency Coordinating Council, which handles issues for children with disabilities.

North Dakota governors past and present have appointed about 970 seats on all of the state’s councils, and 360 are held by women — 37 percent. Of the 390 or so appointments Dalrymple has made so far, 41 percent were women.

According to 2012 census data, 49.2 percent of North Dakotans are female.

The Forum’s review of board and commission membership only counted voting members who were appointed by the governor. Its analysis of Dalrymple’s appointments did not include those appointed by prior governors whom Dalrymple reappointed.

Stromme said there are some task forces and commissions — handling male- or female-dominated industries — for which a gender imbalance may not only make sense, but may be unavoidable.

“But when you’re talking about property taxes? That pool is diverse,” she said.

Hamstrung by laws

North Dakota law states the makeup of boards and commissions “should be gender balanced to the extent possible and to the extent that appointees are qualified to serve on those boards.”

“If not otherwise provided by law,” the law reads. And that’s often the rub, Dalrymple said.

For many boards, state law requires certain elected officials to serve. And in many cases, the governor has to choose an appointee from an industry group’s short list of two or three candidates, which may not include any women.

For instance, four of the 14 members on Dalrymple’s new property tax task force are elected officials — none of whom are women — including the governor himself. Another four were chosen by municipal groups, Dalrymple said.

The next three members were meant to be “people who deal with property tax on a daily basis,” he said. That’s where the task force’s lone woman, McKenzie County Auditor Linda Svihovec, came in.

And then there were three.

“Would it have been possible to locate another woman? Yeah, possibly so,” the governor said. “I would like to see more women representing people in state government. I think it would be a good thing.”

Dalrymple said the biggest factor in increasing female representation in state government is having more women apply for board and commission openings.

Stromme suggested the governor bring someone on board his staff to diversify their recruiting pool for those openings. She also said she thinks the state needs to improve how it publicizes requests for applications.

“The more diversity we have and the more input we have … the better the solutions will be,” she said.

An ambition gap

It’s hard to say how Dalrymple’s track record with appointments compares to other states.

There’s a lack of solid, comparable information, said Katherine Scheurer, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota who focuses on women in politics.

But consider this: Women hold less than 19 percent of the 535 seats in Congress, and just five states are run by female governors. About a third of the members President Barack Obama has appointed to Cabinet-level positions are women – including two recently departed department heads who haven’t yet been permanently replaced.

In North Dakota, women hold 17 percent of the state Legislature’s 141 seats – among the worst ratios in the country.

Whether it’s running for office or applying for a board opening, Scheurer and Stromme said a big part of the problem is a gap in political ambition.

“Women tend to wait to be asked, and don’t stand up quickly as they can,” Stromme said. “We want to encourage women to take the control of that and actually raise their hand and do it.”

Stromme said she doesn’t think sexism is a big factor in the underrepresentation of women in politics, in North Dakota or nationally.

“I don’t believe that’s the primary piece of the puzzle. But it is a piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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