Partisan split on gender pay equity sure to be election issue in Colorado

DENVER — There has been a lot of discussion today — online and offline, on Capitol Hill and under the gold dome in Denver — about what the government can do to end the stubbornly persistent gender gap in pay facing American women, who nevertheless now make up larger-than-ever majority percentages of household breadwinners.

The U.S. Senate is poised to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act tonight. Even if this year the bill makes it past another likely Republican filibuster, it will fall dead of neglect at the doorstep of the Republican-controlled House.

But pay fairness is a topic that President Obama has made a top priority. The first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Act of 2009, which made it easier for women to sue employers who discriminated against them by paying them less than their male counterparts. And today he signed executive orders that will force businesses that contract with the government to publish wage data with reference to gender and race.

The always-charged conversation around gender pay inequity is especially charged this year, a midterm election year in which Republicans have a shot at winning a majority in the U.S. Senate and are looking to set the stage for victories in the 2016 presidential election. But Republicans have struggled to win over women, who now cast the majority of votes in the United States. Mostly, Republicans have failed to moderate enduring hardline positions on key policy areas such as reproductive health, domestic abuse and pay equity that alienate women in droves.

The national problem plays out intensely in Colorado, where the state’s growing majority women voter bloc casts the votes that win elections — and where, as the Denver Post reported earlier this month, women earn only 78 percent of what men make.

Colorado’s delegation in Washington splits along party lines on pay equity. All of the state’s Republican representatives — Mike Coffman, Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton voted against last year’s Paycheck Fairness Act. The Democrats — Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis — voted for it.

As an election issue, those Republican votes won’t matter in the solidly red 5th Congressional District represented by Doug Lamborn, but they may well matter in the swing districts held by Mike Coffman (CD-6) and Scott Tipton (CD-3).

Cory Gardner (CD-4) is not running for reelection to the House. He’s running for the U.S. Senate, which is a statewide race, so his votes against closing the pay gap play directly into a narrative his opponents are promoting that he is a leading advocate for the kind of policies women see as discriminatory, oppressive or pandering, and want to come to an end.

For Gardner, it’s not just his hardline record in Washington that’s a problem — on issues like abortion and so-called “forcible rape.” In 2008, he was one of only six members of the 65-member Colorado House to vote against HB 1276, a bipartisan bill aimed at ending workplace discrimination against nursing mothers.

“Gardner messed with moms. There’s no doubt he’ll hear about it as the race unfolds,” says Cece Martinez, a non-partisan voter and working mom in Denver who’s proud to have nursed three kids while holding down a 40-hour-a-week job.

Republicans say they oppose gender anti-discrimination laws because they fear burdening employers with “job killing” regulations. If there is a pay gap, the thinking goes, the free market is better suited to solve the problem than the government.

But some hardliners insist there is no gender pay gap — a position popularized by author Christina Hoff Sommers, who has long taken provocative positions against contemporary feminist lines of thought. Sommers wrote a now-often-quoted piece for the Daily Beast in February in which she targeted President Obama’s comments in his State of the Union address. He repeated a well-worn and mostly accepted figure that “women make 77 cents to every dollar a man earns” in the United States. (Hanna Rosin at Slate makes a solid case that it’s closer to 81 percent.)

At the bottom of her essay, Sommers quoted a “neo-conservaive” American Enterprise Institute blog post that found a gender pay gap in White House salaries. Because a majority of top positions in the administration are held by men (they hold more than double the number of cabinet positions), the findings comport with her argument that women get paid less because they study fields where pay is lower and work in jobs that pay less.

But that argument has been attacked as false by writers around the Web. At Forbes, Lisa Maatz cites a study by the the American Association of University Women, where researchers took into account choice of occupations and college majors, hours worked and parenthood, and yet found a persisting unexplained 7 percent pay gap.