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Fewer women in Legislature mirrors trend nationwide (Legislative Preview)

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The 84th General Assembly that convenes today will see a slight decline in the number of women representing Iowans compared with two years ago.

There will be fewer 20-somethings, too, although the number of lawmakers who have hit the 50 mark is fewer.

Retirees, businesspeople and farmers also will be in plentiful supply.

To be sure, the biggest change in this year's session will be the number of Republicans walking the halls.

The GOP will add 16 members to their number in the House, enough to capture the majority. And at least five more Republicans will join the state Senate, with one race in the upper chamber yet to be decided.

A Polk County Senate district will be decided Jan. 18.

More than anything else, it's that partisan shift resulting from the Nov. 2 election that will drive the debate over the next four months.

But the demographic makeup of Iowa's lawmakers - their ages, genders and occupations - doesn't go unnoticed.

And, at least with respect to women, the decline, however small, is yet another sign of the need to step up recruiting, said the leader of a new organization aimed at boosting gender equity in the Legislature.

"We've got to get women thinking, ‘Yes, women can do this job. And you don't have to wait until you have your master's degree, your law degree and your mother in the perfect nursing home,' " said Maggie Tinsman, a former state senator from Bettendorf.

Tinsman is a founder of a bi-partisan group, formed last fall, that has set a goal of having equal numbers men and women in the Statehouse and Iowa's congressional delegation by 2020.

To start, the group wants 20 new women on the ballot in 2012.

The group's goal is ambitious.

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The Iowa Legislature will count 32 women this year, the smallest number since 2005. In 2009, there were 34 women.

The decline from two years ago mirrors a nationwide trend, according to preliminary figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It reported last week that the share of women in state legislatures across the country is falling from 25 percent to 24 percent.

In Iowa, women now hold 21 percent of the seats.

The number of African-Americans, meanwhile, also has declined slightly, from six to five, over the past two years.

All are in the House.

"The opportunity definitely exists out there. That's not the prolbem," said state Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, an African-American going into her second term. "We've got to do some serious recruitment."

She added there also should be a push to add Hispanic lawmakers.

In terms of age, Iowa's legislative body will have fewer people under the age of 30 than it did two years ago, when there were seven 20-somethings.

Now, there now will be five.

At the same time, there will be four more members who are under 50 than there was in 2009 and five fewer who are over that age line.

The average age of the Iowa legislator this year is 52.8.

Ed Tibbetts is a reporter for The Quad-City Times, a Lee Enterprises newspaper.

 

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