It has taken a long time for a woman to be elected to a major parishwide office in Jefferson Parish. So long, in fact, that by the time Cynthia Lee-Sheng won an at-large Parish Council seat recently without drawing any opposition, women holding major offices had become so commonplace elsewhere that she didn’t even realize she had made the history books until someone pointed it out to her.
Nor was Lee-Sheng’s achievement the only first for women to come out of this election season in Jefferson.
Her Metairie-based District 5 seat will be filled by Jennifer Van Vrancken, who cruised to victory in the Oct. 24 primary. That means two women will serve simultaneously on the Parish Council for the first time.
Both women said gender was not central to their campaigns, nor was it their reason for getting into politics, but they said they hope their success will send a message to other women thinking about following in their footsteps.
“It’s a signal that … what resonates with people is the willingness to serve, to work hard and to listen,” Van Vrancken said. “What people really want is just someone who wants to represent them well.”
On one hand, women holding prominent political jobs in the area are nothing new. Mary Landrieu was a U.S. senator for three terms. Two area parishes have female presidents. For a time, six of the seven members of the New Orleans City Council were women, and women still hold a four-member majority on it.
Even within Jefferson Parish itself, women have made gains. The mayor of Harahan is a woman, Tina Miceli. A total of eight women sit on city and town councils in Kenner, Harahan, Jean Lafitte and Grand Isle.
At the same time, it is still difficult for a woman to gain political office in Louisiana, where the percentage of state legislators who are women is the lowest in the country.
Jefferson — particularly its Parish Council, which oversees the parish’s unincorporated areas — has been no exception.
At least 17 women have run for the Parish Council since 1983, which is as far back as the Secretary of State’s Office’s online election records date. Only four have won: Anne Marie Vandenweghe, the council’s first female member, whose sole term ran from 1992 to 1996; Jennifer Sneed, who served from 2004 until she moved to New Orleans in 2008; Lee-Sheng; and Van Vrancken.
Vandenweghe represented a district that included Harahan, parts of Metairie and parts of Kenner, while the rest have served in what is today considered District 5, based in Metairie.
Only Lee-Sheng has managed to claim one of the council’s two at-large spots. As for the other major elected parishwide offices — president, sheriff, assessor, clerk of court and coroner — none has yet been held by a woman.
University of New Orleans political science professor Christine Day cited a couple of possible reasons for the difficulty women have had running for seats on the Jefferson Parish Council.
She said research shows female candidates are more likely to win in urban, Democratic areas, such as New Orleans, than in suburban, mostly Republican areas, such as Jefferson Parish. Studies show that Republican voters frequently perceive female candidates — even ones who belong to the GOP — as liberal-leaning simply because of their gender, a stereotype that can hurt their chances of winning.
“Even when a Republican woman runs, she (can be) seen as, ‘Well, she’s my party, but she’s still liberal,’ ” said Day, whose academic specialties include the topic of women in politics.
Neither Lee-Sheng nor Van Vrancken, both Republicans, said they encountered such attitudes on the campaign trail.
Day said that was likely due to their impressive professional qualifications, as well as their name recognition.
Lee-Sheng, 48, is a forensic accountant by profession — and she is the daughter of legendary former Jefferson Sheriff Harry Lee. The fact that no one signed up to run against her for an at-large seat is indicative of her stature in the parish.
For her part, Van Vrancken, 44, is a lawyer, a former local TV news reporter and the former chief aide to outgoing Parish President John Young. Voters were so convinced that she was the right person for the office she sought that they gave her a 65 percent to 35 percent margin over opponent Mike Thomas, who had endorsements from Sheriff Newell Normand and Assessor Tom Capella, both popular politicians in their own right.
It remains to be seen whether Jefferson will ever have a majority-female council such as the one in New Orleans, but for now, Day agreed with Lee-Sheng and Van Vrancken about the message their victories this year sent.
“Women are more accepted as just being politicians and not being seen as ‘women politicians,’ ” Day said. “And I think this is going to (happen) more.”