State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout suggested on Thursday that Wisconsin would see less sexual harassment with a woman in the governor's mansion, but argued voters should judge candidates based on their character and qualifications rather than their gender. 

The Alma Democrat fielded questions from audience members and WisPolitics president Jeff Mayers during an event in Madison. 

The question about running to potentially be the state's first woman governor came after Vinehout was asked by an audience member about a claim by former state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, that Roys is "the only pro-choice woman" in the gubernatorial race. 

"I'm pro-choice, too," Vinehout said.

As the former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, Roys' abortion-rights bona fides aren't in question. But over the years, Vinehout has faced questions about her stance on the issue.

In Vinehout's first campaign for the state Senate in 2006, she earned the endorsement of Planned Parenthood despite having previously worked with the anti-abortion group Democrats for Life. But Planned Parenthood made the unprecedented choice in 2009 to rescind its endorsement after she authored an amendment that would have allowed pharmacists to refuse to fill certain prescriptions, including contraceptives, based on their religious beliefs.

Vinehout was also the only Senate Democrat to vote in 2009 against confirming three pro-abortion rights appointees to the UW Hospital Board of Authority and the state Medical Examining Board.

She has also taken criticism for a 2004 article by the National Catholic Reporter, which reported that she planned to "soft-peddle" her anti-abortion views in order to run for office. Vinehout has since said her comments were taken out of context and that she has never labeled herself as "pro-life." 

A Vinehout staffer told the pro-abortion rights website Rewire last summer that the senator has "always been pro-choice since her younger years" and that she has always voted "to make abortion legal, safe and accessible."

During Thursday's WisPolitics event, Vinehout noted that there are two women in the Democratic field besides herself and Roys, although neither has campaign staff on the payroll.

Vinehout was then asked what it would mean for Wisconsin to elect its first woman governor.

"Well, what I think it means, at least what research tells us, is that we’d have a lot less sexual harassment," Vinehout said.

She went on to say that, in general, having a woman at the head of an organization can make a difference in the amount of sexual harassment that occurs within it — but then said her initial answer "was supposed to be a joke."

"Is it?" asked WisPolitics' Mayers. 

"Well, it’s true. But think about it: If your boss is female, are you really going to ogle the lower-level staff when they walk away from you? You’re going to think twice," Vinehout said. "Who’s on top makes a difference when — well, I shouldn’t say that, either. Maybe we'd better go onto a new topic."

After some laughter subsided, Vinehout offered an example within the state Senate, where 50 percent of elected Democrats are women.

In 2007, then-Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit, was removed from her leadership post as the result of a challenge by Sen. Russ Decker, D-Weston. Robson at the time blamed the "coup" in part on sexism, a charge Vinehout supported on Thursday.

"That was malarkey," Vinehout said. "It was, frankly, it was sexism."

Vinehout said the conflict was a turning point in her own career as she saw a colleague she supported lose a leadership position "because a bunch of guys didn't think she was 'muscular' enough." 

"So have things changed? Yes," Vinehout said. "Having (Senate Minority Leader) Jennifer (Shilling, D-La Crosse) in charge makes a really big difference. Having more women in the caucus makes a huge difference."

Vinehout also praised a change in leadership at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin from the 2014 gubernatorial election to the current one, when asked about the sprawling field of Democrats seeking to challenge Gov. Scott Walker this year. 

After earning 4 percent of the primary vote in the 2012 recall election against Walker, Vinehout considered another bid in 2014. As she considered the 2014 campaign, her work was derailed after a car accident. During her consideration, then-DPW chairman Mike Tate said he believed Mary Burke — the eventual nominee — would be the frontrunner in a primary.

"The great thing about this race is you don’t have folks that have high positions with their thumb on the scale, and you go back to the race where the accident was, it was a real different environment in leadership in the Democratic Party," Vinehout said.

Current DPW chairwoman Martha Laning was first elected to the post in 2015, after Tate did not seek another term. Laning was re-elected last year

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