EDITORIAL: 30% is not enough

BLAME THE DELAYED VOTE count for distracting attention from the real story of the Election of 2019. The shaky introduction of early voting was newsworthy, but that told us about the mechanics of the democratic process, not what the results reveal about the future.

That’s changed over the last couple of weeks as a picture emerged of who was taking the oath of office. Start with the fact that seven women are now supervisors in Columbia County. If that’s not a record, it’s got to be close.

Do you recall ever answering a test question from kindergarten through 12th grade that asked how local government functions? If not, here’s some of what you missed. This county has 18 towns and one city. The voters in each town and in each of the five wards of the City of Hudson elect a supervisor. In the towns, supervisors chair their Town Boards and act as general administrators.

And all supervisors serve on the County Board of Supervisors, the legislative and governing body for the whole county, which meets in Hudson. Individually, supervisors have a say in how much you pay in town taxes and where that money goes (potholes, snowplowing, animal control, etc.); together, as the Board of Supervisors, they decide how much county residents will pay in county taxes to support services provided by the county (the jail, for example).

Supervisors cast “weighted votes” in matters before the Board of Supervisors, with the number of votes they cast determined by the population of the town they represent. By any reckoning, the supervisors in this county have a lot of power. Now, about those women.

Perhaps Patsy Leader, the newly elected supervisor of the Town of Kinderhook said it best at the recent town organization meeting: “It’s refreshing to have more women than men.” She was a town councilwoman before last November’s election and she now sets the agenda for the town—the first woman to do so in that town. She also controls the single largest bloc of votes on the Board of Supervisors, because the Town of Kinderhook is the most populous town in the county.

As 7 of the 23 members of the Board of Supervisors, women now hold 30% of the seats, which would seem to pose only a distant challenge to the long tradition of male dominance on the board. A closer look at the election results suggests otherwise. In seven other towns, the supervisor’s term was not up for election, so there’s no way to know how many more seats female candidates might have won. And in six towns the male supervisor had no opponent. Looking ahead, this election could encourage more women to challenge male officeholders now that the odds are looking better.

Incumbent Chatham Supervisor Maria Lull was defeated by a male opponent. Observers might argue that the Chatham race was special because other local issues affected the outcome. But that race might be the exception that proves the rule. In the other supervisor races around the county, either a woman defeated a male opponent (Ms. Leader and Tistrya Houghtaling in New Lebanon) or two women were competing (Brenda Adams in Canaan and Jeanne Mettler in Copake). And in three other races women candidates had no opponent.

The message from this election is that there are more opportunities than ever for women seeking elected office.

Six of the seven women supervisors who now hold office are Democrats. Figures for the county put the Democratic rolls a few thousand voters ahead of the GOP. Republicans can still win here only when they draw support from minor parties and the large number of people who don’t enroll in any party.

But this emergence of qualified women running for, and now obtaining, public office is about more than partisan advantage. It reminds us that the good-old-boy system of politics nationwide has left us in a mess and we need new people with different ideas and ways to settle our differences. It says that men need to support women in politics just as women have traditionally supported men. Together we need to re-imagine the networks that promote people, basing them on promise and performance, not gender stereotypes.

Here’s one last data point. In the most recent estimates the Census Bureau reported slightly more men in this county than women. But when you look at age groups, the estimates show that at 65 years and older there are many more women than men. Now think about who votes. Change is here. The ballots don’t lie.

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