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DA candidates spar over work, family and gender

The race for top prosecutor over the seven counties between assistant district attorneys Jim Moore and Ashley Welch has grown increasingly heated as it heads into the homestretch.

The latest development: a twist on the gender stereotypes that typically saddle male and female candidates.

Moore has taken offense to comments his opponent made at a recent candidate forum held in Cantonon Sept. 28. He claims Welch insinuated that he wasn’t cut out for the job because he has kids.

At the forum, Welch said the job of a district attorney “never stops,” and that’s a task she is up to.

“I was not blessed to be able to have children. All I’ve got is my husband and my dog. I don’t have distractions,” said Welch, 36, at the forum. “When I go to work, you get every piece of me. When I’m at home, a lot of times, you get every bit of me.”

Moore saw that as a shot at him.

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“I don’t consider my children a distraction and I don’t think most working parents consider their children a distraction,” said Moore, who has three kids — ages 16, 25 and 26.

Both Moore and Welch currently serve as assistant prosecutors and have been co-workers for years. Welch said Moore is taking her comments completely out of context.

“I didn’t make that comment directed towards anybody. That is not what I meant. I am not passive aggressive. If I was directing that comment at him it would have been very clear,” Welch said. “I don’t dance around things. I just come right out there and say it — and that’s not what I said.”

During her closing remarks at the forum, Welch intended to show what a hard worker she was, saying that she “never really puts work down.” 

She said she wasn’t making a reference toward Moore, but instead was attempting to answer a question she’s heard over and over on the campaign trail for the past year. People often asked if she had kids, and in so many words, would she be up to the rigors of a high-power legal career or would her kids get in the way?

When she told people she didn’t have kids, that led to the next obvious question.

“I would be out campaigning and people would ask ‘Well, are you going to have children?’” Welch said.

Some would simply be interested, but some would once again be wondering in the back of their mind, will her performance be compromised as DA if she goes on maternity leave with a newborn baby?

When Welch answered that she didn’t plan to have kids, that didn’t sit well with some people either, who were taken aback a woman would choose their career over a family.

What they didn’t know, however, was that Welch was unable to have children. 

“It is a sensitive subject and incredibly personal. One of the things I learned very quickly when I filed for office is all of a sudden personal stuff becomes public,” Welch said. Nonetheless, “The more I heard it, the more it hurt.”

Welch couldn’t escape the stereotypes. Either she was a career-first woman who rejected having kids. Or, she would be juggling babies while running court.

“I didn’t know that mentality was out there, but I have had to deal with it firsthand,” Welch said. “I have so many friends with young children who are career women, I thought it was a non-issue. It was incredibly offensive to me.”

Welch said Moore is intentionally misinterpreting her comments for his own campaign fodder.

“To turn that around blows my mind. I have an enormous amount of respect for other peoples’ families and children,” Welch said.

Welch said Moore is grasping for something to criticize her for, as retaliation for her bringing up the issue of a governor’s warrant Moore mishandled (see article on page 8).

“He is trying to divert from the real issue,” Welch said. “He is using that as an excuse to deflect from it.”

Still, Jon Jicha, who was in the audience at the forum, said Welch’s comments rubbed him the wrong way, too.

“Does this mean all of us who have similar quote unquote ‘distractions’ cannot function effectively in our workplace?” said Jicha, a supporter of Moore. “Is she a better candidate because she limits her domestic environment to a husband and a dog?”

Jicha said the undertone of Welch’s message — “I don’t have the distraction of children” — is that Moore, who does have children, won’t be on his game to the same degree she would.

“This is the most prejudicial statement by a political candidate I’ve heard in decades,” Jicha said.

But Welch again said her statement was an explanation to voters of her own life status.

“I was making a statement about me. I am my career,” Welch said. “I never referenced his children. I know his children and respect his children.”

Jicha said Welch is trying to retroactively “mitigate” how her statement came across, but he questioned how the public would react if a man without kids had bragged about being free from the distraction of children, especially if his political opponent was a women with kids. 

If it wouldn’t be OK for a man to say that about a woman’s kids, why is it OK for a woman to say that about a man’s kids, he asked.

Society’s expectations toward women and family in the workplace are “really complicated,” according to Dr. Kathleen Brennan, the head of the anthropology and sociology department at Western Carolina University.

In America, work and family are considered separate, compartmentalized domains that you have to choose between or juggle. For a woman to excel at her career, she’s expected to sacrifice her children. Or to adequately nurture her children, she must sacrifice her career.

“By bringing home a paycheck, a man is taking care of his family, while taking care of your family doesn’t mean the same thing for a woman,” Brennan said.

Brennan said these perceptions and cultural expectations have changed toward women in the workplace in recent decades but have not completed their evolution.

Younger generations are more likely to share the responsibilities at home. And that shift, more than anything else, will melt away gender role stereotypes.

“As men become more responsible for house and family to mirror the responsibility that women have taken on the in the workplace, then a lot of this will go away,” Brennan said.

It is illegal under employment laws to ask about someone’s family status in a job interview — whether they are married, have kids, are pregnant, etc. And that’s a stride in and of itself.

But in this case, the employer conducting the job interview is tens of thousands of voters, each with their own personal bias coming into play as they size up who’s best equipped for the job.

“It is unfortunate she felt like she had to share the information that she is not able to have children in order to be considered a viable candidate,” Brennan said.


Other aspirations?

Meanwhile, Moore made a comment of his own at the recent candidate forum that could have been perceived as a shot against Welch.

Moore said in his closing remarks that he doesn’t want to run for another office down the road.

“This isn’t a stepping stone for me. This is a job I want to hold for a long time,” Moore said.

Moore was referencing, in not so many words, Welch’s bid last year for a Superior Court judge appointment.

“This is not my second choice,” Moore said in an interview later.

Welch denied that she had any goal beyond a prosecutor. She said it has been her dream in life — ever since she was 13 years old in fact, when she shadowed an assistant district attorney for a semester as a school project.

Serving as a prosecutor is all she’s done since graduating from law school, and even doing unpaid summer internships during college.

As for the Superior Court judge appointment last year, Welch said she only applied after growing concerned that no viable candidates had put their name in the hat for a vacancy on the bench. 

“I was watching people put in for it and I saw their trial experience and my trial experience,” Welch said. At the time, she had three separate child rape cases pending.

“My heart was absolutely broken,” Welch said. “I had a vested interest in what happened in our courtrooms.”

The Superior Court judge appointment ultimately went to Bill Coward, a respected and experienced attorney in the district. But Coward hadn’t applied at the time Welch put her name in the hat.

“If he or someone like that had expressed interest from the beginning, I would have never applied for it. It is not something I ever saw myself asking for,” Welch said. “I never intended to do anything else other than prosecute.”

As to Moore’s comment at the forum, Welch said it doesn’t apply to her.

“I don’t have higher political aspirations. There may be people that have higher aspirations for me, but that is not on my radar,” Welch said.

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