By Matt Brown The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi visited Sonoma State University Thursday to tout a political platform focused on improving pay and benefits for women, changes Pelosi said were needed to ensure American economic prosperity in the decades to come.
During a speech at a forum hosted by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Pelosi, a San Francisco-based Democrat and former House speaker, laid out a package of Democratic proposals to overhaul paid sick and family medical leave, increase access to affordable child care and push equal pay for women.
The average pay for women is currently 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, Pelosi noted.
"The best thing that we can do for our economy is unleash the power of women," Pelosi said in her address before an audience of about 500, three-fourths of which were women, including local business and political leaders.
"We have the legislation to do it. We need a drumbeat across the country that says 'When women succeed, America succeeds.'"
Democrats are wielding the legislative package in their attempt to maintain their majority in the Senate and ultimately win back control of the House of Representatives.
The message, though welcomed Thursday in liberal-leaning Sonoma County, has little chance of making headway in the Republican-controlled House this fall, analysts said.
Still, it could help rally the Democratic base to the polls for the Nov. 4 mid-term election.
"In a political context, the minority in the House has next to no influence on what gets enacted," said David McCuan, a Sonoma State political science professor. "Pushes like this give Democrats a reason to come out and vote. It also sends a message to the president not to make too many compromises."
Pelosi acknowledged that the agenda would not be able to pass in the House without a Democratic majority.
Analysts have given Democrats less than a 5 percent chance of picking up the 17 net seats needed to take back the House.
"Popular support is everything," Pelosi said in a brief interview after the forum, held at the Student Center Ballroom. "If people are saying we want affordable child care, if we want to raise the minimum wage, we can do it."
Sharing the stage with Pelosi, female leaders in government and business from across the North Bay shared their experiences rising to the top in sectors still dominated by men.
Socorro Shiels, superintendent of the Santa Rosa City School District, said she makes less than many of her male counterparts. She said that women need to help girls succeed.
"One of the things that allowed me to take bold steps was mentorship and camaraderie of other women," she said. "We need to mentor young women so that they can be successful as well."
Jeri Gill, CEO of Sustainable Napa County, a nonprofit organization, said she is constantly changing the way she defines success. One day it may be completing a complicated sustainable energy proposal and the next day it may be finding a bra that fits, she said to laughter from the audience.
"I celebrate the small victories," she said.
Pelosi, who in 2007 became the first female Speaker of the House, addressed questions on a wide range of topics, including women's reproductive rights, campaign finance reform and U.S. support for Israel.
Asked if she would support Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, she said: "I hope she's ready. That would be exciting."
She mentioned a bill put forth by Democrats meant to counter the so-called Hobby Lobby decision, a recent Supreme Court ruling that said closely held or family owned corporations could object, on the grounds of religious freedom, to covering birth control in employee medical plans.
"We have a bill. It's known as the 'Not My Boss's Business Act,'" she said. "It is a central part of our fuller agenda."
Asked about the U.S.'s role in global women's issues, including female genital mutilation, forced marriage and violence against women, Pelosi said American female leaders can be an example for oppressed women in other parts of the world.
"This really burns me up. People think it's OK to engage in violence against women, to tell women when and how they can have children," she said. "We're all in this together. Women here have an interest in empowering women everywhere."
Many in the audience said they were inspired by Pelosi's message, but acknowledged that Sonoma County, unlike other parts of the country, is fertile ground for such an agenda.
"I'm a huge fan of Nancy Pelosi. It was wonderful to hear her speak," said Tessa Kraft, a loan accountant at American Ag Credit.
"It's a little like preaching to the choir in Sonoma County."
Erin Carlstrom, a Santa Rosa City Council member and former candidate for state Assembly, said it is encouraging to have such discussions about women's issues, but cautioned that more needs to be done to achieve gender equality, including electing more women to public office.
"I'm just thrilled that these issues have risen to the congressional level," she said. "It's an acknowledgment that sexism is alive and well in America. If we had more women in office, we wouldn't need to have these discussions."