Sunday, May 4, 2008

What it takes for a woman to succeed in politics today – in Ulster County

Janine Fallon – Mower shared her experiences as a woman in politics at our April 22, 2008 AAUW branch meeting. Here is much of what she had to say:

Experience and Perspective - Cautions and Ingredients

As many of you know, in 2007 I ran as a Republican for Woodstock Town Board. I’m sorry to say that I lost but I’m very happy to report that I garnered 950 votes, losing to the next highest vote getter by 150 votes.

My first experience running for office was in 2002 when I ran for the Woodstock Library Board. It was pretty simple, I had to collect 25 signatures from registered voters; I ran unopposed; wrote a letter or two to the local papers outlining reasons why I wanted to sit on the library board and breezed into elected office. When I ran again in 2005 there was some opposition, and I am happy to say I won my re-election and subsequently served as president of the library board for 3 years.

My first exposure to politics was in the 1970’s when my mom ran for town justice in the town of Woodstock. She had been a court clerk for a number of years and felt that she could do the job as well as any man. Mom had been a registered Democrat and active in local politics back in the days when Woodstock was a Republican stronghold. She switched parties, I suspect, to improve her chances for the job of town court clerk. With 10 years or so of job experience, she gained the support of the Republican party to run for the seat. Something odd happened on the way to Election Day. Though she had a number of well known Republicans working for her, come election day, she was defeated by a new comer, a Democrat. He gained the nickname of Let ‘Em Skid Sid- and kept the seat for at least 20 years.

Mom took the loss hard- This would be my first caution to those considering a run for office- be prepared to lose.

In spite of my mom’s defeat, those were the day’s in Woodstock. We had the first female Republican town supervisor- Val Cadden, Val was hard working, precise in her budget numbers, ran the town with heart, and also had vision for the future. She initiated the installation of our wastewater sewer system. We had the best Ulster County legislative representative you could want in Marion Umhey- who coined the phrase ‘people-tician.’

And, I must give Kudos to her running mate- Republican Lud Baumgarten. They worked tirelessly for their constituents.

I would be remiss if I left out Carol Harder, a well-loved local woman married to water and highway superintendent. Carol served as a Republican town council woman and demonstrated what a politician needs – crossover appeal.

Caution number two- be prepared to work your tail off to get elected- and if you win- be prepared to work your tail off to stay in office.

I want to highlight an ingredient needed if a woman is considering running for office. Try very hard to gain experience working on other candidates campaigns.

As was typical of a young woman my age, I was involved in many of these campaigns, on the periphery while working and raising our family.

The system is not set up for a novice to run successfully. Sure, there are always exceptions- but in 2008-the laws are tricky and hard to navigate around without someone with experience helping you with your campaign.

Example of tricky rules- The Ulster County Independent Party nominated me, but my name was tossed off the ballot because the Independent Party Chair failed to file petition on time. The Republican Election commissioner, or his staff, didn’t watch for mistakes on my behalf and we didn’t know enough to watch for supporter error.

Independence Party – Common Ground My supporters and I worked our butts off to collect 300 signatures needed to have an alternate slot on the ballot. Due to my campaign chairs diligence (my hubby) I achieved the spot on the ballot.

My Husband – we celebrate our 34th anniversary this weekend. He was on the Onteora school board when we first met. As a young bride of 20, I couldn’t understand why someone would want to be involved in a volunteer leadership role. However, over the years I observed the process from the sidelines and helped him with his second school board campaign. Something in me began to take a keen interest in the process of governance.

There is another ingredient I’d like to highlight- any woman thinking about running for office must consider this. And, in my opinion, it happens in both parties - the system is set up such that the party leaders demand loyalty.

Be careful how you show your loyalty. Some men referred to women on the county legislature as …a little light in the loafers, but they are our county legislators, intimating that they could count on the women to vote however the party bosses wanted. In my opinion, that’s loyalty difficult to maintain.

When my husband ran for Supervisor in the Town of Woodstock, we were known as the renegade Republicans. As he was preparing to leave office after two terms, we felt the best person for the job was a woman. She was a registered Democrat. Long story short- we bucked the system and paid the price. The candidate we were backing prevailed and served four stormy years.

This is the third caution- Any one running for office will be faced with choices at times - run with the party pack- or stick to your own personal convictions. Candidates must be comfortable in their own skin.

Our backing a Democrat for town supervisor was an indication of the significant change in party enrollment that has occurred in Woodstock and other towns across the country. It also began an era of candidate party switching to be in the majority party. It’s not a new concept- after all, it’s what my mom did back in 1972.

You need a score card these days in Woodstock – our Democratic friend became a NE. The person who ran against her was a Republican, who became an Independent Party candidate, and finally a Democrat.

I had to reflect carefully when I decided to run. I was advised to change to NE or even become a Democrat and run two years later. People thought I was crazy to run as a Republican in Woodstock and expect to win.

No, it just didn’t seem right to pretend I was something that I wasn’t

I present a fourth concept prospective candidates must consider. Can you withstand others’ criticism of your party? If you run for public office- there is a good chance, in the current political climate, that you will be held accountable for other peoples actions, even in Albany or Washington DC .

I wonder how many good candidates sit at their kitchen tables refusing to take part in managing their towns, villages or counties because they don’t want to spend time defending actions taken by others - politicians, who seem removed from the responsibilities we bear.

I believe that one of the reasons we have trouble finding people to participate in local politics- forget running for office- is the way we communicate with each other. “We live in a world filled with sarcasm and unfeeling cynicism” Frank MacEwan- Mist Filled Path

It’s no secret in my house that I was interested in running for office at least 10 years before 2007 election cycle. I had a vision for Woodstock, so I served six years on the now infamous comprehensive plan committee (1998 – 2004) until it was decommissioned by the Wilber administration

This is another ingredient a candidate needs - vision – ideas- a message. Know your issues inside and out; be able to talk to the points instantly and incessantly. Be ready to hit a curve ball thrown at you in a conversation, and be prepared to return the conversation to your message.

It’s been an interesting exercise for me to reflect on what changed in my community or my life that led me to toss my hat in the ring for town board last summer.

First, it was now or never. The community of Woodstock has changed. Even though I am a long time resident and well known business woman, as new people move in, I become less well known.

Second, the Bush years are on the wane. To say the least, he is a very unpopular president in Woodstock. I have heard the terms hated and loathed. It seemed the best time to try to navigate around everyone’s disappointment with this Bush’s administration.

I can relate two experiences regarding the atmosphere I faced.

When I told a local man who frequents our flea market that I was running for office, he asked what party? Republican. He responded, “I’ll never support you unless you renounce George Bush.”

A woman who knew my husband’s family quite well said, “Oh Janine, I can’t support you; you are in his party.” I say, “look in my eyes. Don’t tell me all you can see is George Bush when you look in my eyes.” “yes,” she said. “that’s all I can see.”

The resolution to the two conversations couldn’t have been more different. The woman who saw George Bush when she looked in my eyes is now barely able to look me in the eye when we meet in CVS. I stood my ground with the gentleman, explaining my campaign was about local issues. He and his wife became ardent supporters and worked on my campaign.

The third thing that changed- my activity and the people I met while on the library board and in the Woodstock Our Town group. Woodstock Our Town is a group formed to facilitate civil discourse at town board meetings; I was the Republican in the group, invited to join to add diversity. As I grew through the Our Town experience of promoting consensus between disagreeing factions, I decided it would benefit the town to have an elected board member who shared the civility philosophy.

I would not have been able to mount a campaign in Woodstock without the hard work support and dedication of my husband John, my daughter Colleen, her husband Jason and about 30 other hard working people who pitched in with different tasks.

Even my granddaughter Grace attended a candidate night for moral support at 2 months old.

Why the 950 vote number so significant? I ran a campaign focused on local issues, not national issues. I spent a lot of time counseling Woodstockers in the tradition of voting the person not the party. There are approximately 750 registered Republicans in Woodstock vs 2500 registered Democrats. In the final analysis, I had crossover appeal, the message vote the person not the party got thru. Nevertheless, I wasn’t able to reach enough newcomers to convert them from party line voters.

My experience running for local office was both positive and negative. The positive, I have made new acquaintances. People are able to see me as the person I am, not that I, or my ideas, are substandard because I am an enrolled Republican.

I’m a member and supporter of the Woodstock Time Exchange. I was invited to join the AAUW. I continue to work on issues within the scope of the Woodstock Our Town group- especially affordability of housing.

I am more aware of how many people don’t take part in electing the people who run our governments. It feels like a segment of the population of the USA has become lazy – or are so disillusioned that they are paralyzed.

I confess I am still working to move past my own semi paralysis. I can still hear someone I worked with on the library board say, “You know, Janine, the best person for the job isn’t always the one who gets elected.”

I do look forward to working on a Get Out the Vote movement this summer. I look forward to encouraging people who have been complacent- to become informed and return to voting in the presidential election.

I am willing to work in this area because the trend toward low voter turnout and fewer people running for office means we run the risk of missing out on new exciting ideas and solutions to our local, regional, national, and world wide problems.

Will I run again? It’s hard to say. Many people expect me to run, as though a loss, received with your held high, on the first time out, is a badge of courage and honor.

I’m taking it all one day- one local issue at a time.

Janine Fallon - Mower

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