Palin, Sotomayor Tighten Focus On Women In Politics

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Sarah Palin's recent announcement that she's stepping down as governor of Alaska and the upcoming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor have thrust the issue of women in politics back into the spotlight. Political commentator Gebe Martinez, of Politico, and political analyst and blogger Pamela Gentry, of Black Entertainment Television, discuss Palin and Sotomayor, and news that First Lady Michelle Obama wants to revamp her role.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, our Friday features in Faith Matters. Leaders of the Episcopal Church in America are meeting this weekend, and they are grappling again with whether and how gay men and women can serve the church. And The Barbershop guys on the week's news. That's a little later but first, our weekly Political Chat. President Obama spent most of the week overseas but here at home, women are making headlines.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced just before the Fourth of July weekend that she's stepping down from her post with 18 months left in her term; first lady Michelle Obama searches for a more substantive role; and next week, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor begins her confirmation hearings. We wanted to talk about all this. So we have called Gebe Martinez, a political commentator and contributor at politico.com, and Pamela Gentry, senior political analyst and blogger for Black Entertainment Television. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. PAMELA GENTRY (Political Blogger, Black Entertainment Television): Thank you.

Ms. GEBE MARTINEZ (Political Contributor, Politico.com): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: I think we'll go back before we go forward. So let's go to Sarah Palin. A week ago, she announced that she's resigning her seat at the end of the month, didn't give any clues about what her political future will hold, kind of a bombshell, I would say, on a holiday weekend. Let's just play a short clip. Here it is.

Representative SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): A good point guard, here's what she does. She drives through a full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her head up because she needs to keep her eye on the basket. And she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win. And that is what I'm doing.

MARTIN: Pam Gentry, is that what she's doing?

Ms. GENTRY: I have no idea what the analogy means because I don't know what she's keeping her eye on. And I don't know what winning would mean for her. This looks like a losing move to me. The reason that she is where she is now is she's the governor of Alaska. That puts her on the national scene. Why she's leaving the post - in that rambling statement, I got absolutely no clues.

MARTIN: Hmm. Gebe, what do you think?

Ms. MARTINEZ: I think that she finds being governor of Alaska a tough job. And she likes being a candidate more than she likes doing her job. And the analogy to me was that she was passing the ball because she knew she wasn't going to be able to score right away. I think that she had so many personal issues. She doesn't like the personal media attention, the Vanity Fair piece that just published, that was very critical of her - I think her personally, from what people have been saying. And she really wanted to be able to go out, raise money, make appearances and public commentary on her own terms.

Not talk to the media if she didn't have to. Not face ethics committees if she didn't want to. And try to get all that behind her, thinking perhaps that she could regroup and run again. But I'm not sure that she has positioned herself for another national campaign.

MARTIN: Maybe she's positioned herself for a talk show.

Ms. GENTRY: That might be it.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Yes, that's a rumor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Have you noticed the divide on reaction to this? I've been looking at the columnists all week. I don't see a gender divide per se. I think that a lot of women - particularly if you cover politics, if you're very involved in politics, per se, people tend to be very critical - like, what is she doing? But there are some like - but mainly on the conservative side like Bill Crystal, like Roger Stone, like Bill Bennett who say - oh maybe she's crazy like a fox. Bill Bennett, for example, on his radio show said that calls were all coming in, you know, 5 to 1 in her favor. People were saying, you know, bravo you. Pam, what do you think?

Ms. GENTRY: This is the same analogy that I've heard used to say that she's becoming a Facebook candidate, in the sense that she's decided she's going to Twitter her way to a grassroots campaign. And she's going to come in 2012. And she's going to run for president. That's all great and good. But who wins with only a small percentage of any party? And I don't think…

MARTIN: A talk show host.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GENTRY: Exactly. So I think that she doesn't have the broad appeal in the Republican Party. And as you said, the gender issue is strong here, too. Because I think that women, who you really need to win in any election now, are going to be offended that she quit, that she has set a bad example for women in politics. And I don't think they would reward her for that behavior.

MARTIN: Well, women lean Democratic. So the question is, are they not digging her because they're women or because they think she sets a bad example? In fact, there was a columnist for the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus, who said, you know, I'm not going to lie about this. I feel that this sets a poor example for what women can do. Or is it because women tend to lean Democratic at this stage?

Ms. GENTRY: No, but think about…

MARTIN: Gebe?

Ms. MARTINEZ: No, but think about - think about the year that she ran. If Hillary Clinton had not been a candidate last year and Sarah Palin was the only thing that stood out as a female candidate, she would have set back the cause of women candidates for, you know, another election cycle or two. Yes, she got out the conservative voters who might have stayed home, but conservative voters don't win elections. And I think that you ultimately have to show credibility.

I mean, we were talking about even how some of her conservative defenders were saying, well, she's crazy as a fox. But think about it. Those same people were just lavishing praise on her up until that statement that she made. And when I heard that announcement I thought, poor John McCain, he must be feeling really embarrassed right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I don't know, I mean is it just - I just have to play devil's advocate here just because, you know, rambling and all this - Mark Sanford anyone? She's not the only politician who's not handled a press conference particularly well.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Right, right.

MARTIN: And I just wonder, is there a particular interest in scrutiny of her delivery and her decision-making because she's a woman, or is it just because she's a newcomer on the scene, she's from Alaska, and not many people know her?

Ms. GENTRY: I think it's a combination. But really, if you just go with Senator Ensign on top of Governor Sanford and then you add Sarah Palin on July 4th, I think the Republicans have all that they can handle at this moment.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly Political Chat with Pam Gentry of BET, and Gebe Martinez, a contributor to Politico. And we're talking about the week's news in politics, with a particular focus on women who are making waves.

Gebe, next week Sonia Sotomayor finally begins these confirmation hearings. So much scrutiny so far. Is she an affirmative-action baby? Is she biased, you know, toward Latinos? But with the Democratic majority in the Senate, is there really any doubt that she'll be confirmed?

Ms. MARTINEZ: There's very little doubt that she'll be confirmed. The only thing - and everyone always holds out the caveat, you know, barring some unforeseen development, you know, during the hearings but…

MARTIN: But what? She has an extensive judicial record…

Ms. MARTINEZ: Well, and you know, the ABA, the American Bar Association, just gave her like the highest rating they could in terms of her qualifications. There was a lot of talk recently about a Supreme Court case that overturned her opinion at the lower court. When the Supreme Court ruling came out in that case, and I'm talking about the New Haven, Connecticut, firefighters' case that everyone is familiar with, it actually underscored the fact that she is judicially mainstream.

She has always considered herself a centrist on the court, whatever that means. Yes, she is a Hispanic. And she has not shied away from the fact that she's going to have her own life experience as the context for her views. But she has been telling the senators as she has been meeting with them on the Hill that she will always judge a case based on the facts and the precendent.

MARTIN: Pam, the hearings as they proceed, are there any particular things we should be looking for as markers to see whether this is - how this is going? Are there any particular highlights?

Ms. GENTRY: The conversations I've had with folks on the Hill, they expect the Republicans on the committee to try and go through some of their litmus test questions with her and see how she responds. But I think they all understand, they do not have the stomach to really browbeat her or challenge her to the sense that she looks as if she's being abused there because they're going to vote for her. And the reason is, she is qualified for this job.

They have nothing on her merit per se that they can go against her. But they also right now are in a very sticky situation with the Hispanic vote. The Republican Party does not want to look as if they're simply going after her because she is a minority.

MARTIN: Gebe, you covered this issue extensively. How is the Republican Party viewed among Latinos at this point? I mean Latinos have been a swing vote in a number of elections. In Rudy Giuliani's race for mayor in New York, Latinos were the swing vote, gave him the edge. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's race for governor in California, Latinos were the swing vote that gave him the edge.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Right.

MARTIN: So Latinos have demonstrated that they're willing to vote for both political parties.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: So why is there a particular concern right now?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Because the Republicans have done absolutely nothing since last year, when McCain lost, to even try to reach out to the Hispanics. I'll give you one real good example. When President Obama gave his first address to Congress - if that had been President Bush, the Democrats would have been very aggressively targeting the Hispanic media, sending them press releases, responding to the president's address.

The Republicans did not have any kind of an operation that night because they're not even organized. So that's on the organizational level. And then, of course, on the policy level there's still this big immigration debate that has not yet been settled. And until the Republicans decide that they're going to change their tone on that, the Hispanic community is not going to be listening to them.

MARTIN: Okay, let's switch gears now. Let's talk about first lady Michelle Obama. She's made news in recent weeks, saying that she's looking to have a more substantive role as first lady, that she's not having the impact that she desired so far. Which is very interesting because she's got these approval ratings that are through the roof, I should say. And I just want to talk - we talked about this earlier in the week, author and regular contributor to our Moms segment, Leslie Morgan Steiner was talking about Mrs. Obama's desired role change. This is what she said.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Executive, The Washington Post): She got unfairly stereotyped kind of as an angry black woman. And I think that she had to correct for that by signaling, particularly to white voters, that she was a really safe choice, and that her husband is a really safe choice. But for a woman of such substance to be so constrained by traditional, and traditionally white, gender roles has been a real disappointment so far.

MARTIN: I'm just very interested in hearing each of your take on this because you both cover politics, the politics of the West Wing and the policy, but you also do cover...

Ms. MARTINEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: ...the East Wing and what role the first lady plays in enhancing sort of the policy. Gebe, so what's your take on this?

Ms. MARTINEZ: My take on this has been very interesting because I interviewed her extensively before the election. And she really did plan to have a aggressive agenda because she said, you know, this is an opportunity. If he's lucky enough to win and I'm lucky enough to be the first lady, there's some things that I think I can really have an impact on. But she seems to have gotten into the first lady role, as other first ladies prior to her.

This is an extremely intelligent woman. I mean, she probably has a lot of ideas and things that she could be doing that aren't politically required, but that are socially and policy driven that need to be done. And as the first lady, she could probably get them done.

Ms. GENTRY: I would say real quickly is that I think where she could and has tiptoed around the, you know, the one issue she would like to get into is health care. And I think that she…

Ms. MARTINEZ: Well, she's a former hospital executive.

Ms. GENTRY: Yes, yes. And maybe that's why she hasn't, because of that certain special interest out there, and people might criticize her for that. But she really could, if the White House wanted to use her, go out and talk to mothers and children about, you know, the health-care legislation.

MARTIN: Do you think she's played it too safe?

Ms. GENTRY: I do. But one thing that she's doing that is not measurable is that she is working and helping the self-esteem of minorities and women and children by being there. And I remember during the campaign, she used - one of her best lines in her speeches was: Don't look at me as a future first lady, look at me as a product of a public school education. And that helped teachers, that helped middle-class people think about - open up to the Obama candidacy because of the way she talked about that. At some point, she'll have to decide to use that capital that she has.

MARTIN: Gebe Martinez is a political commentator and contributor to politico.com. Pamela Gentry is a senior political analyst and blogger for Black Entertainment Television, BET. Both were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much.

Ms. GENTRY: It was a pleasure.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Nice to be here.

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