It was the normal early morning chaos at the Lillis-Hilferty household in New Orleans.
Nine-month-old Teddy, sitting in a high chair, was tossing as many Cheerios onto the floor as he was plopping into his mouth.
Claire Marie, nearly 3, was watching "Sesame Street," half-playing with a doll and half-talking with her mother, state Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, who had just donned a tan jacket over a black-and-white dress and was leaving for Baton Rouge. She needed to be there for a 10 a.m. committee meeting.
Michael Lillis, her husband, casually dressed in a polo shirt and shorts, was trying to keep order as she rushed to get ready.
Hilferty kissed them goodbye, one by one. But Claire Marie had other ideas, in the way that little girls do. She led her mother into another room. She had an important matter to discuss: her upcoming birthday party.
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Two minutes later, the plans settled, Hilferty kissed her daughter again, slipped through a sliding glass door and climbed into her SUV to drive to the State Capitol, where she represents the lakefront neighborhoods in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, straddling the 17th Street Canal, that constitute District 94 in the state House.
Hilferty, 33, a Republican, is only the fourth legislator in the 207-year history of the Louisiana Legislature to give birth while in office and only the second one to become a mother during one of the Legislature’s 60-day or 90-day sessions.
There likely will be more, as societal norms evolve and more and more women run for office.
“You can have a young family and a career,” Hilferty said while the speedometer hit 80 mph as she raced home at the end of a recent day’s legislative session. “I don’t think I’m that much different than the families and moms in District 94. A lot of them are two-income households. I can’t say I’ve seen any direct comments about me being a young mother.”
In all, 23 of Louisiana’s 144 legislators today are women, down from a high of 25 in 2005, according to Trin Johnson, who heads the Louisiana Legislative Women’s Caucus.
That means Louisiana lags behind most other states, with women holding only 16 percent of the legislative seats, ranking 44th among the states, according to an analysis by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics in New Jersey.
In the U.S. Congress, women hold a record high 24 percent of the 535 seats. They also hold 29 percent of legislative seats across the country.
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The #MeToo movement and anger over President Donald Trump and what were seen as his sexist comments fueled a big jump in the number of women who ran and were elected in 2018, according to Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Rutgers center.
“Voters have expectations of what traditional elected officials look like,” Sinzdak said. “Some of that status quo has been disrupted in the past couple of years. Once one breaks through, it makes it easier for others to follow in their footsteps.”
A women’s group allied with the Louisiana Democratic Party is making a push to elect more women in this fall’s legislative elections. Republicans are recruiting candidates through their women’s clubs.
“We’re working against hundreds of years of societal and systematic barriers to being able to have a seat at the table and even have the possibility of being in the state Legislature,” said Melanie Oubre, the executive director of Emerge Louisiana, which was founded in 2017 to train and recruit female Democratic candidates.
“It’s a foreign concept to a lot of women in Louisiana," she said. "They haven’t been in the conversations or been in the rooms. Even with all the new recruitment groups, men still get asked to run more than women. We have an image of what our leaders are because that’s what they’ve looked like. It’s going to be an uphill battle.”
Louisiana has had one female governor, Kathleen Blanco, from 2004-08, and New Orleans now has its first female mayor, LaToya Cantrell.
The first woman to be a member of the Louisiana Legislature was Doris Lindsey Holland from St. Helena Parish, who in 1936 was elected to succeed her husband, Thomas, who died while in office. As recently as 1975, only 1 percent of Louisiana legislators were women. In all, 82 women have served in the Legislature, compared to more than 2,000 men who have served in the House alone since 1880, available records show.
Hilferty is soft-spoken but firm when she needs to be, interrupting the governor’s executive counsel, Matthew Block, at a recent legislative hearing on proposed changes to the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program to ask for specifics.
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She has aligned with the moderate Republicans who will sometimes vote with Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat. She sponsored one bill passed by the Legislature that created a task force to study how to improve operations at New Orleans’ beleaguered Sewerage & Water Board and another that created a task force to study how to improve the state’s early childhood education program.
“I think prior to having kids, you’re maybe not aware of how much brain development occurs before age 3,” Hilferty said. “I saw it with Claire Marie. You say something one time, and she makes a connection.”
She is sponsoring a bill this year that would license non-hospital birthing centers. Rebekah Gee, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, recently called Hilferty during her morning commute to thank her for pushing the bill.
On other key issues, Hilferty has a 100 percent anti-abortion voting record, according to Louisiana Right to Life. She voted in 2018 for the bipartisan renewal of .45 percent of the expiring 1 percent sales tax that ended the state’s fiscal problems and voted with almost all other Republicans to elect Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, as the House speaker over the governor’s choice, Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans.
Hilferty is running for re-election this fall, with one male Republican and one female Democrat challenging her.
She grew up near Lake Pontchartrain in Metairie and graduated from Dominican High School in New Orleans. After attending Loyola University, she began work as a commercial real estate broker in Jefferson Parish. She and her husband Michael, an attorney who practices independently, moved to Lake Vista in New Orleans, and she became president of the neighborhood property owners’ association.
In 2015, she attended a neighborhood crime prevention meeting one evening.
“Our former representative (Nick Lorusso) was there and made a joke that the state was broke,” Hilferty said. “I thought: 'How can you make a joke?' That made me start looking at the race. I thought we needed more proactive leadership.
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“I’ve always been engaged — whether it’s school leadership or neighborhood associations. This was kind of a logical step.”
Jefferson Parish’s top political consultant, Greg Buisson, agreed to run her campaign, and Hilferty proved to be an active campaigner. She promoted the need for better results from spending on crime, infrastructure and creating jobs and investment.
Hilferty thumped Lorusso, winning 56 percent of the vote. Just as Lorusso was, she is the only Republican legislator who lives in New Orleans.
Hilferty discovered that she was pregnant six weeks before the election.
“I didn’t deliberately try to hide it,” she said.
It was a different era, 26 years earlier, when Suzanne Krieger became pregnant while serving as a state representative from Slidell.
Krieger kept quiet, fearful of possible repercussions.
“A lot of people at that point didn’t think women should be serving in the Legislature and then have a baby in office,” she said in a recent interview, adding that these people thought “maybe you should be staying at home.”
Her daughter Adele was born in November 1993 — the first baby born to a sitting legislator in Louisiana.
In January 1994, Krieger attended her first legislative committee hearing, out of session, with Adele.
“I took her up to my seat and put the baby bottles on my nameplate,” Krieger said, relishing the memory. “All my colleagues on Appropriations came over to see me. They asked: 'Where did this baby come from? You must have adopted it.' ”
As she explained that she had gained only 16 pounds during her pregnancy, the other legislators oohed and aahed over Adele. Krieger was so excited that she drove over to the Governor’s Mansion, uninvited.
“Gov. (Edwin) Edwards was very gracious,” she said. “He invited us in and rocked her. She had a great day.”
Krieger had less success requesting a modification in the ladies’ room at the State Capitol that would create space for her to change Adele’s diapers there. It didn’t happen.
“I had to drive back and forth 90 miles to my home in Slidell so I could take care of Adele,” Krieger said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
Adele graduated from Loyola law school on Saturday.
Then-Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock holds the distinction of being the first legislator to give birth while the Legislature was in session. That occurred in 2006 when she gave birth to her son, Torey Bullock Jr.
In an email, Jefferson-Bullock, then a Democrat from New Orleans and now a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said Torey is a thriving seventh-grader.
State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, welcomes the new era.
When she worked for Pan American Life Insurance Co. in New Orleans in the 1970s, Mizell had to provide her employer with a statement that she was taking birth control. “They didn’t want me to get pregnant and take off time from work,” she said.
Mizell won election to the state Senate in 2015 from Washington Parish and now heads the Legislative Women’s Caucus.
“Women can make the choice to stay at home with their children, or run for office or start a business,” Mizell enthused outside of the Senate chamber on Thursday. “It’s all part of the options we have now. Isn’t it great?”
Claire Marie Lillis, Hilferty’s daughter, was born in May 2016, while the Legislature was in session. Hilferty took two weeks off — she did not receive her legislative pay during that period — and then brought her newborn onto the House floor.
“She’s very excited to see you guys,” Hilferty said into the House microphone and laughed as she cradled Claire Marie, who was half-asleep and unaware of the fuss as her mother’s colleagues crowded around and snapped photos with their phones.
“Nothing against y’all’s bills, but this is the best thing that’s happened all session,” Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, said to the others.
Hilferty gave birth via a Caesarean section, which meant that she could not drive for eight weeks. She and Michael rented an apartment in Baton Rouge for the remainder of the legislative session. One legislative colleague drove her to and from the Capitol, and another yielded his prime parking spot to her.
An aide to the House speaker let Hilferty nurse and pump milk in her office. (The Capitol does not have a room for that.) Hilferty brought a little ice chest to the Capitol to keep the bottled milk fresh.
Now, Hilferty mostly drives back and forth daily between New Orleans and Baton Rouge when the Legislature is in session.
“If we work late, I’ll stay in Baton Rouge,” she said. “Claire Marie is usually OK with it. She recently realized that Mommy has two jobs. Last night, I arrived at 9:30 p.m. Claire Marie was in her pajamas and waiting for me, playing with Michael.”
Their mothers provide care for the children during the workday. Helping matters is that Hilferty and Lillis both have flexible work hours.
Hilferty sometimes takes her children to neighborhood association meetings, and she plans to campaign with them this fall.
“It’s certainly a balancing act,” she said. “My family and kids will come first. I try to make a conscious effort to carve out time for them and make sure I’m fulfilling my legislative duties. To do that, you peel back the other pieces of your life, movies or whatever. You let that fall by the wayside. I don’t think that’s unusual for parents.”
She paused to laugh. “I don’t have the cleanest house,” she added.