Jumping into the Race
It may be the year 2016, yet even now, the political arena is still primarily dominated by men. But that’s something that three dynamic local women are working hard to change because they believe that the skills and talents women can bring to the table can have a hugely positive effect on our state and local governments.
“If a woman is interested in politics, she should start paying attention to issues,” Cumberland County Recorder of Deeds Tammy Shearer said. “Especially issues that affect her, her family, and community.”
Shearer, who is married and currently resides in Hampden Township, where she and her husband own their own professional photography business, Camera Box, recalls that her enjoyment of working within local government really began in the sixth grade.
“I always felt it was important for me to keep on top of issues that affected me and the student body … This perspective still applies to me today. I never dreamed of being president of the United States—community awareness and involvement has always been my key focus.”
Upon her move to Cumberland County, Shearer met State Rep. Hal Mowery, whose respect for those he served impressed her greatly. She also credits now State Sen. Pat Vance as a positive influence on her political career.
“Pat Vance won the representative seat vacated by Hal, and she has become a mentor to me since that time,” Shearer said.
Early in her political career, Shearer said she managed some local political campaigns and, in the course of doing so, learned more about local government and the political process.
“I soon realized that I have the personal interest in our community and its system of government, the strong work ethic and acumen of a small business owner, and the genuine respect for others that is needed in public service.”
So in 2013, she decided the time was right to run for a county row office.
Shearer has always been actively involved in community organizations as a volunteer and also as a leader.
“My interest in seeking a fulltime role in the local political arena was nurtured not only through my involvement in local campaigns, but also through the leadership roles and experiences that I embraced within these community organizations,” Shearer said.
One of her proudest accomplishments in the Recorder’s Office, she said, is due to the daily efforts of her current staff.
“I restructured job responsibilities that resulted in the elimination of two fulltime positions that became vacant through attrition. This act has saved taxpayers over $121,000 in just one year.”
She truly enjoys her work and is quick to share her pride in being a part of “this large group of exceptional people,” she said.
“Our Cumberland County employees have definitely been ‘undersold’ to the public … they are caring, quality people that work hard every day to protect and improve life for the people in our community,” Shearer asserted.
For State Rep. Mauree Gingrich, the journey to her current position within the political arena was evolutionary.
With a deep interest in the issues facing her community, this Palmyra resident and mother of four recalls always being involved in community leadership positions, typically focusing on what her children were involved with as they were growing up and especially on the issues faced by her and other families in her community.
“Back in the ’80s when it became so evident that drugs were playing a big role in our high schools, I really became aware that this was going to be a problem,” she said.
And because she cared about and wanted to help foster a healthy and productive community, Gingrich became involved with an organization made up primarily of parents whose focus was “on drugs and what we could do to control or manage what was going on related to drugs.”
Because of her interest in that organization, she became involved in what law enforcement in her community was doing to address the issue.
“We had a police chief who was great with the kids, but some kind of controversy developed and there was talk about him leaving our area—I didn’t want that to happen, so I thought, ‘What can I do to help in this situation?’”
What she did was not only attend a borough council meeting, but also become an active participant.
“I had a lot of questions, but I presented them in a respectful manner and I was well received,” Gingrich said. “I became fascinated by what was actually happening in our local government and found it so interesting, I just kept going to meetings.”
When a spot on the Civil Service Commission became available, Gingrich’s name was suggested as a replacement. After consulting with and receiving the support of her family, she decided she wanted to serve.
“While not an elected position, it was a good fit for me,” she said. “I accepted that appointment, and then when a member of the borough council passed and his seat became available, and after once again discussing it with my family, I took that step. In fact, my husband said at the time that he couldn’t think of anyone he’d like more making tax decisions than me.”
Gingrich can’t say enough about how important local government is to the success of a community and as a stepping stone for women interested in a political career.
“It all starts in local government, where you put your garbage, out so to speak—that’s vital,” said Gingrich. “I mentor a lot of young women and try to stimulate an interest in public service. I encourage them to look at commissions, task forces—all the things vital to where you live. It’s a part of you, your life, your family, and your local business economy.”
Having successfully served for 12 years in that position, and seeing her networking opportunities and experiences grow by leaps and bounds, Gingrich discovered that when a seat opened up in the State House of Representatives, vacated by her predecessor who was also a great encouragement to her, she was interested in running.
“Lots of people encouraged me, asking me if it was something I would consider,” she said.
But was it the right time?
“Typically, even when women think we’re confident, we’re not; we can always find a reason [to think] that it’s not the right time, we’re not ready, it’s not the right place … and that can hold us back.”
As part of her decision-making process, Gingrich decided she needed to talk to a woman who had done the job, so she contacted Vance.
“We arranged a sit-down to discuss the job, woman to woman—but ironically, our meeting was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001,” said Gingrich.
As the events of that morning unfolded, Vance still agreed to meet with Gingrich, even though she had been evacuated from the capital building and had to meet elsewhere.
“She said, ‘Let’s do it; I don’t know when we can meet again after what has happened,’” Gingrich said. “She was wonderful. She told me the absolute truth about the job from a female perspective.
“I got the answers I needed from her, and because it was such an eventful date for our country, I felt like it was a message, that I had to make the decision to run for myself, for my state and for my country. It was all the confirmation I needed.”
Gingrich has been in office now for 14 years and said that overall it’s been a very positive experience working as a woman in state government.
“Because of my professional experiences and the fact that I wasn’t a younger woman just starting out when I was elected, I think I was able to build credibility more quickly than younger women perhaps,” she said. “And although I’ve seen it improve during my years in office, stereotypes do live on.
“But the younger male representatives coming in do behave differently; they don’t pat you on the head like some of the good old boys. They really listen to what you have to say and don’t dismiss you.”
On the whole, Gingrich is pleased with what she’s been able to accomplish so far.
“I’ve had 15 bills signed into law,” she said. “Women in politics is important because you have to be able to build fences, to coalesce people, and women do that very well. The main thing is that you have to be able to take off one hat, set it down, and put on another hat and deal then with that issue exclusively. You have to be able to juggle—women are equipped to do that.”
Sen. Pat Vance has always been interested in local politics, especially issues that directly impact the community. Vance, a Harrisburg native, married mother of one and grandmother of three, and nurse by trade, recalls how she got involved in politics.
“We bought an old farmhouse, and so I was spending some time in the deeds office in connection with that,” Vance recalled. “Plus, I was already volunteering in the community at the time. I found out that the gentleman who was working as recorder of deeds wasn’t going to run again. Since it was something I found interesting, I thought I’d give it a try.”
She ran for the recorder of deeds and was successful, becoming the first woman ever to be elected to the position. (Coincidentally, Shearer was the second woman to hold the position.)
“I liked the job, so when the sitting House member left, I thought I might enjoy that as well,” said Vance. “So I decided to run.”
She was successfully elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and in 2005 was elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate. Of course, working in the House and now the Senate is very different from her start as recorder of deeds.
“It was very hard to be controversial as a recorder of deeds. But every vote you make as a senator, someone likes and someone doesn’t like what you do,” she said. “It’s important to do your homework, listen to the people you represent, and do what you believe to be the right thing.”
As a woman working in a primarily male-dominated arena, Vance explained that she has never wanted “special opportunities for women, just equal. My main focus tends to be on healthcare issues, because I think we tend to go back to what we did in a former life. Even before I was involved in politics, I was interested in healthcare issues.”
Vance makes every effort to meet with those she represents and enjoys getting out in the community, interacting with her constituents.
“I read all the emails I get, and anyone can make an appointment with me and I’ll be glad to speak with them,” noted Vance.
But Vance prides herself on being a straight-talker and prefers those kinds of interactions.
“I don’t like people who posture or tell you whatever you want to hear,” she said. “The best compliment I get is when people say I don’t always agree with you, but I know you’re going to tell me the truth. The reputations of some state workers have suffered because of posturing—people deserve an honest answer.”
Although she is rarely home more than one or two nights a week, Vance genuinely likes her job.
“I’m never bored, and just when I think I’ve heard of everything, I hear of something new,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen—you have to be willing to learn something new every day.”
Since becoming a senator, Vance has authored 25 laws (and authored 18 laws while serving the House), but she’s quick to give credit to her staff for assisting in those successes.
“I have a tremendous staff; some of them came with me from the House,” she said. “I know their abilities and understand how we can work together successfully.”
One accomplishment in particular stands out for Vance as something she’s extremely proud of.
“When I was in the House, a young woman came to see me who had been battered by her husband,” she said. “She had documentation from her doctor, had a child, had left her husband, and had applied for insurance—and was turned down by the then three largest insurance companies. They said, ‘We won’t insure you because you’re a victim of domestic violence.’”
Vance knew something had to be done, so she worked with the speaker of the House, who agreed a change needed to be made and agreed to meet with and try to convince the chairman of the insurance companies to do so.
“I knew we needed to expose the issue to the public, so I went up to the newsroom and asked them to please cover this meeting,” Vance said. “I honestly believed that with cameras there, they couldn’t possibly vote no.”
It worked, and as was discovered later, there had been more than 100 insurance companies in Pennsylvania that were using domestic violence as an underwriting clause to not insure women.
“That no longer happens,” Vance said.
Currently, Pennsylvania ranks 45th when it comes to the number of women in state government.
“That’s no compliment,” Vance said.
And that makes her work as a mentor for other women entering the political arena, including State Rep. Mauree Gingrich and Cumberland County Recorder of Deeds Tammy Shearer, even more important.
“Once you establish a reputation of getting things done, and you gain a good knowledge about issues, it gets easier,” she said. “You have to prove yourself and work a little harder—sometimes it seems like they’re waiting to see if you fall. So you work twice as hard to prove that’s not going to be the case.” BW