November 30, 1992 12:00 PM

For women the answer was usually no, as in “No, you can’t go to this school,” “No, you can’t get this job,” and, of course, “No, you can’t beat a man for political office.” But on Election Day, 1992, U.S. voters said a resounding Yes! to women in politics. These are women who refused to take no for an answer. They worked a little harder, set their sights a little higher and proved the naysayers wrong. Here, in the Year of the Woman, are some of the Women of the Year.

In Atlanta, a reformer earns her badge

Just before Election Day, Jackie Barrett received a form letter from the Georgia Sheriffs Association reminding all candidates that the winners should show up for a group picture the next week dressed in a coat and tie. “Well,” announced Barrett after she won, “I just don’t happen to own a coat and tie.” But she wasn’t going to miss that photo op for anything—not after making history as the first female African-American sheriff in the U.S.—even if she did show up in a suit and gold necklace.

Barrett, 42, who will oversee a $28 million budget and 900 deputies and civilian employees in her new job as sheriff of Fulton County (which includes Atlanta), resoundingly defeated her Republican opponent after a grueling nine-month campaign, and after the sheriffs office had been wracked by scandal. Her predecessor, Richard Lankford, had been suspended in 1989 after his indictment for extortion and tax evasion (his conviction was overturned, but the case remains open). “Morale was horrible,” says Barrett, who had worked for Lankford in the mid-’80s. “Deputies kept asking me to think about running, so I knew I had a good shot at it.”

Last March, Barrett took a leave from her job as director of the Fulton County Public Safety Training Center, working with peace officers, and began to campaign. The first order of business, she says, was persuading voters to toss out their “mental picture of a sheriff—somebody who’s 6′ tall with a pot belly and big cigar in his mouth” and “replace it with competence, administrative ability and leadership skills.”

All of which Barrett, with 16 years of law-enforcement experience, seems to have in good measure. The daughter of a waiter and a secretary to the president of Johnson C. Smith University, a black Presbyterian school in Charlotte, N.C., Jackie Harrison studied criminal justice at Beaver College near Philadelphia (then a women’s school) because it “was just slightly daring.” (She is separated from her husband, Edwin Barrett, whom she met in high school. They have two children, Kimberly, 19, and Alan, 15.)

Jackie Barrett’s widowed mother, Ocie, thinks her daughter is in “a bit of a strange career.” But victory is sweet for the new sheriff. “You know the thing that means the most to me?” she says. “It’s letters I’ve gotten from women saying that if I’m brave enough to run for office, maybe they can too. I think that means more to me than anything.

Beating the odds and winning a judgeship

Catherine “Kitty” Kimball was late entering the race for a seat on Louisiana’s State Supreme Court—that was the first shock to local politicos. The second was that she didn’t work her way up through intermediate slate courts before going for the Big One. And the third? Kitty Kimball won, becoming the first woman on the supreme court in a state where the good-ol’-boy network tried its darndest to keep her out. “One judge told me that it was not my turn,” says Kimball, 47, who was a district court judge for 10 years. “My question [to him] was: ‘When do you ever think it will be my turn?

Voters said “Right now” by a 60-percent margin, and Kimball is getting ready for the big move from idyllic New Roads (pop. 6,000) to New Orleans. She just has to work out the details of a commuter relationship with her husband of 25 years, Clyde, 50, a former state legislator who is now deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge.

Kimball, who grew up in Alexandria, La., the daughter of a stockbroker and a special-ed teacher, graduated from law school at Louisiana State University in 1970. She had two of her three children while in law school and has one grandson. After years of working for the state as a lawyer, in 1982 she was elected to Louisiana’s 18th Judicial District bench.

In June, Kimball began to get calls from lawyers suggesting that she run against Appellate Judge Dan LeBlanc for a recently vacated supreme court seat. “I’m really happy where I am,” she answered at first. Then she changed her mind. “The more I thought about it, the more it became important to me,” she says. When she announced her candidacy, she caused a minor commotion in the Baton Rouge legal community. “The word was more or less put out that everyone was supposed to support LeBlanc,” says one attorney. Kimball, undaunted, got up at 3:30 every morning and spread a campaign message emphasizing that she understood the everyday problems of the voters. And though she acknowledges that some infighting took place during the campaign, she has a modest assessment of her triumph. “It was the right time for my message,” she says. “It was the right lime for my gender—and it was the right time for the race.”

Meek, and ready to inherit her place in Congress

When Carrie Meek was growing up the 12th child of black Tallahassee, Fla., sharecroppers, her parents kept telling her that someday she would he able to do whatever she wanted—that the wall of segregation that kept her from the buses, schools and services she needed would someday come crashing down. “Those were rough days,” recalls Meek, 66. “But my mother said, ‘This isn’t going to last forever. It’s unfair and unequal.’ ” Mom was right. Now Carrie Meek, the newly elected Congresswoman from Florida’s 17th District, one of the poorest in Miami, is going to Washington.

Meek grew up in a neighborhood called Black Bottom near, but on the wrong side of, the railroad tracks. But “as poor as we were,” she says, “my mother always fed the hobos who came by. I got a sense of compassion for others from my childhood.” She graduated from then all-black Florida A&M University in 1946, but when she applied to graduate school, she was barred as a black from all Florida universities. So at 21, she headed to the University of Michigan, where she got her master’s in public health and physical education, then taught for 10 years at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. “Teaching is really my first love,” she says. “Politics is second.” Now divorced, Meek was married twice and has three children and two grandchildren.

In 1961, while working for the still segregated Miami-Dade Community College, Meek fought hard for change. “I would get right in it, stir up as much as I could,” she says gleefully. After a year of her stirring, the college integrated. By l979 an admiring local community recruited her to run for the state legislature. After serving three years as a representative, she was elected in 1982 as the first black woman in Florida’s Senate. She has continued to hold her constituents trust. Says Lenny Cohen, manager of a food stand at a Liberty City flea market: “If she promises to do something. she’ll do it, or if she can’t, she’ll just say so. We always vote for her.” They did again in September. Running against two men in the Democratic primary, she won the nomination for Congress with 83 percent of the vote, then ran unopposed on Nov. 3.

Some people might think of this freshman Congresswoman as “a nice little old lady,” she says. To them, she issues a warning: “Don’t cross me! I have a high energy level, and I’m raring to go.” And just what will Meek do when she gets to Washington? “I’m going to be raising hell, just like I always did,” she says. “But in a nice grandmotherly way.”

From personal crisis to political triumph

On Sept. 5, 1991, Nydia Velazquez tried to take her own life. She swallowed 21 sleeping pills, washed them down with vodka and left a note, in Spanish, that said in part: “Accuse me of even thing: of weakness, or fragility, or poor self-esteem…. But loneliness eats you up like the slow dripping of water, destroying you, little by little.” She was found, collapsed, by a friend who had been concerned when she didn’t show up for work, and Velazquez went into therapy. A little over a year later, during an already brutal campaign for the congressional seat in the recently redrawn, heavily Hispanic 12th District of New York City, Velazquez’s suicide attempt, as well as an earlier one the same year, were revealed anonymously to the press. Says Velazquez: “When the newspaper accounts came out, I felt like I’d been raped. There are human beings that don’t care about human pain when they have a political goal. But they didn’t expect me to come on so strong. It backfired on them.”

On Nov. 3, Nydia Velazquez, 39. trounced her Republican opponent with 77 percent of the vote, thus becoming the first Puerto Rican woman sent to Congress. This after a difficult primary in which she defeated not only nine-term Democratic incumbent Stephen Solarz (who outspent her by some $2 million) but four other Hispanic candidates.

Velazquez, who grew up one of nine children in rural Yabucoa, P.R., was the first in her family to complete college, at the University of Puerto Rico. She received her master’s in political science from New York University in 1976. Now single, she was briefly married during the ’70s. In 1982 she moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and became politically active in the Puerto Rican community there, working on voter-registration drives. In 1984 she became the first Hispanic woman to serve on New York’s city council. In March she decided to run for Congress—without asking the permission of elected officials in her party. “They didn’t like that,” she admits. But that didn’t stop her from running a grass-roots campaign based on her understanding of “the pain and struggle of this community.”

Though some critics consider her headstrong, Nydia Velazquez just doesn’t care: “When I want to accomplish something, I go for it. When I feel injustice has been done, I speak out. That’s my style, and I won’t change. I don’t belong to anyone but my people.”

Definitely cut out to be attorney general

One day during the bruising campaign for Indiana attorney general, Pam Carter, the Democratic candidate, received a phone call from an outraged Republican in rural White County. He reported that her GOP opponent, attorney Timothy Book-walter, was toting a life-size cardboard cutout of Carter around the state—a not-so-subtle reminder that Carter is black. “This guy comes here with that cutout and assumes because we’re rednecks, we’re also racists,” the caller growled. “Well, I’m a redneck but I’m not a racist, and I’m voting for you.” Pam Carter, 43, smiles. “I figured after that call, I’d win. The voters of Indiana had moved beyond the politics of race and gender.”

Indeed they had. Carter has just been elected the first black female attorney general in the nation. This in spite of Bookwalter’s nasty TV and newspaper ads accusing Carter of, among other things, skipping out on a $20,000 law-school loan—which she insists she is paying back. Carter, a Catholic who once wrote the Pope asking to be an altar boy (the pontiff said no), hit back hard, portraying her opponent as an unprincipled ambulance chaser. Her biggest concern was that her children, Michael, 15, and Marcya, 10, had to watch Mom get beaten up every night on TV. “They understood,” she says. “I told them what kind of guy [Bookwalter] was.”

Carter grew up in Indianapolis, the daughter of a businessman and a public school teacher. She attended parochial schools, and in 1971 graduated from the University of Detroit, where she met her husband, Michael, 42, now a financial consultant. In 1965, during a civil rights march in Chicago, Carter met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “He told me to be courageous in any pursuit,” she recalls. “I’ve never forgotten those words.” After earning her law degree at Indiana University, she became a top litigation lawyer for the United Auto Workers and was hired in 1987 by Indiana Secretary of State—now Governor—Evan Bayh, who endorsed her candidacy for attorney general this year.

When Carter starts work in January, she will face a big case: opposing Mike Tyson’s appeal of his rape conviction. The former boxing champ’s lawyer in the Indiana Court of Appeals will be famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. “That couldn’t be as tough as this campaign,” she says. “Could it?”

A California math teacher administers a difficult lesson

When Democratic leaders in Long Beach, Calif., persuaded 61-year-old math teacher Betty Karnette to run against seven-term Republican State Assemblyman Gerald Felando, considered a shoo-in, not even her opponent bothered to lake her seriously. “I guess I was supposed to be a sacrificial lamb,” says Karnette. “But I didn’t feel that way.” She won the election with a 10 percent margin over Felando.

As the race began, Karnette set to work raising money from teachers’ groups, recruiting volunteers and pounding the pavement. She would gel up at 5:30 every morning and work on her campaign before heading off to teach. In the afternoons she attended meetings and functions and tried to lake a quick nap—seemingly her only concession to age. Evenings, she knocked on doors and handed out flyers. “People asked me two questions: ‘Are you an incumbent?’ and ‘Are you pro-choice?’ ” she says. No, and yes, she would answer—and thereby found a base of support.

Born in Paducah, Ky., to a truck-driver father and a bookkeeper mother, the former Betty Petty has been politically active since high school. She dropped out of college when she ran out of money and moved to Chicago. There she met her husband, Dick Karnette, 67, a library researcher, whom she married in 1955 after they both moved to Long Beach. (They have one daughter, Mary, 36.) In 1961, she completed her college degree at California Slate University Long Beach and spent the next 30 years teaching high school.

Karnette knows she will miss teaching when she enters the assembly. And she worries, too, that once in office, she will get frustrated by governmental gridlock. “But I’ll learn,” she says. “I trust my judgment.”

ELIZABETH GLEICK with bureau reports

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