Women Working Behind the Scenes in Idaho Politics 

Even when they're not elected to the legislature, they have influence

Judy Gowen, campaign manager for Congressman Raul Labrador: "I like competition and this is the ultimate."

Jessica Murri

Judy Gowen, campaign manager for Congressman Raul Labrador: "I like competition and this is the ultimate."

Shawn Keough is used to being the only female in the room. If you're going to be a woman in Idaho politics, you better be used to it. Keough, a Republican state senator for District 1--which encompasses Bonner and Boundary counties in Northern Idaho--is currently running for her 10th term in office.

Sitting alongside her in the Idaho Senate are 29 men—and five women.

Keough is in her element there. With a long career as executive director of the Associated Logging Contractors, she's not fazed by a lack of fellow females in the Senate Chamber.

"Logging and forestry is also a male-dominated industry," Keough said. "The Senate isn't really any different."

She sees her role in the Statehouse as an important one because she brings another viewpoint.

"I can't remember the whole thing with Venus and Mars, but having different perspectives is really important," she said. "Especially if we want to represent Idaho better. Women are underrepresented."

Keough hasn't gotten through her 18 years in the Idaho Legislature without gritting her teeth, however. She took a lot of criticism for running her campaign with young children at home. Once in the Statehouse, in 1996, her presence raised some eyebrows.

"The strongest comment was, 'How does your husband allow you to do this, or put up with this?'" she said. "My husband was actually asked by another legislator once, 'How come you let her come here?'"

With short, cropped hair and a knack for stirring up her party, Keough raised an eyebrow right back.

"I usually try to laugh at myself and affirm that I understand the concern," she said.

This is where Keough assures her presumptuous colleagues that her husband is a teacher and her boys all go to school and come home together. She calls every night.

"I am not a wealthy person," she said. "I have always had to work to make ends meet and help provide for my family. I share that responsibility with my husband, so staying home was never something I could ever do."

Women make up only 17 percent of the Idaho Senate and 30 percent of the state's House of Representatives—not far from the breakdown of the United States Congress, which is 20 percent female in the Senate and 18 percent in the House of Representatives. Despite that, Keough says she is still surrounded by women. Whether they're lobbyists, administrators or campaign managers, women are working the system from the outside in—with more influence than Idaho voters may realize.

In one seat or the other

Taped next to China Gum's packed wall calendar hang several drawings from her kids. A family photo sits on her desk next to a handful of DoTERRA essential oils and a framed certificate of appreciation from the Republican Party.

Gum is the president of Inside Baseball Public Affairs, a consultancy and think-tank for statewide and national policymakers. Gum hasn't hired a man to work for her.

Gum isn't the only one trending toward hiring women, though. She said women are running campaigns for Holli Woodings, running for secretary of state; A.J. Balukoff, running for governor; and congressional candidates Jim Risch, Raul Labrador and Bryan Smith.

"As far as top of the ticket, that's incredible," she said. "Women get things done. Women are really good at getting in there and executing."

Gum likes to see women running these campaigns because she said they're doing more than handing out bumper stickers and posting yard signs. Even if they're not running for office themselves, she said they're having an influence.

"Here's what I think is so awesome about women running campaigns. When we run campaigns, we put together the platform. We help politicians communicate their message, and once they're elected, voters hold them accountable for the promises that they made while running for office," she said.

She added that the relationship between the campaign manager and the legislator doesn't end once the campaign is over. When Gum ran Labrador's campaign in 2010, she remembers him calling her once he got to Congress and asking her to look up past speeches, making sure he was holding true to the promises he made.

When it came to writing those platforms, Gum used inspiration from her own life and issues that influence her—her perspectives seeped into Labrador's campaign. She said having the ear of a congressman doesn't hurt, either.

In this election, it's Judy Gowen that has Labrador's ear. The 25-year-old dresses sharp, in a black blazer and a jeweled statement necklace—smartphone in hand, paper coffee cup nearby.

"I like competition and this is the ultimate," she told Boise Weekly. She works 12-hour days helping to re-elect Labrador, including traveling the state on a four-day bus tour with the congressman.

Gowen discovered politics at a young age. In high school, she used to tell her friends she'd be the first female president. She moved to Florida after graduating from Boise State University and started volunteering for the Mitt Romney campaign in 2011.

Within a year, she was hired as the director of operations for Romney's statewide campaign in Florida. After that, she went on to the Republican National Committee, then came back to Idaho to work as the political director for Meridian Republican Sen. Russ Fulcher's unsuccessful primary run against incumbent Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. Now, she's working for Labrador. She doesn't doubt she has some sway.

"Going back to Russ Fulcher, it was basically China and I running that whole campaign and we were able to secure four of the biggest counties that Governor Otter had a hold on for so long," Gowen said. "That's a clear example of how two women running the show made a big, big difference."

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