Representing just 18% of candidates for first selectman this year, four Danbury-area women talk politics

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Tara Carr, Pat Del Monaco, Julia Pemberton and Jean Speck form a unique fraternity in western Connecticut.

In this year’s municipal elections, they are the only four women to run for the highest elected office at the local level in the greater Danbury area. These women represent only 18% of the total candidate candidates for mayor and the first elected.

Three – Del Monaco, Pemberton and Speck – are incumbents approved by local Democratic committees. Carr is the only one approved by a local Republican committee. She is also a newcomer to politics.

Of the 14 municipalities examined by the News Times for this story, only three have women as top bosses. The municipalities examined are: Danbury, Ridgefield, New Fairfield, Redding, Bethel, Newtown, Sherman, Kent, New Milford, Brookfield, Bridgewater, Roxbury, Washington and Southbury.

Twelve of the 14 are holding their first mayor’s or selection race this year, but only a third of them have a woman in the contest: Brookfield, Kent, New Fairfield and Redding.

Carr runs to Brookfield, Del Monaco to New Fairfield, Pemberton to Redding and Speck in Kent.

These numbers are not an anomaly, although this year marks a drop in the number of nominations and representation.

In the last four cycles of municipal elections, these cities have seen single-digit numbers of candidates in their first races for mayor or mayor. In 2019, there were only five women running in the area. In 2017, they were seven, and in 2015 and 2013, they were six.

During interviews, most candidates said they were surprised by the figures.

“It’s really low,” said Kent First Selectman Jean Speck.

Others did not find the numbers so surprising.

“In our little corner of the country, I think it’s pretty big, and I’m proud of these girls for stepping up,” said Tara Carr, the Republican candidate for Brookfield running against incumbent Steve Dunn and the petitioner candidate. Austin Monteiro.

“While I’m disappointed with the numbers, I’m not surprised by the numbers,” said Patricia Russo, executive director of The Campaign School at Yale, a non-partisan leadership program that aims to help women get elected. .

Russo highlighted the pandemic.

“I’m not surprised,” she said, “because women were hit so disproportionately so deeply and so badly a year and a half ago when it all started. Women lost their jobs or were made redundant, then schools closed and they lost custody of their children. They’ve lost teachers, haven’t they? So all of a sudden they’re homeschooling.

As a result, The Campaign School noted a slight drop in the number of women running for office this year, Russo said. But already, they are starting to see increased interest in next year’s elections. Specifically, Russo noted a slight increase in young women and women of color.

“It’s such a breath of fresh air, and it just reflects who we are now as a company. We really look like America. We are a reflection of our country, which is phenomenal for me, ”she said. “I am encouraged by the numbers I see for next year.”

Russo also observed a slight increase in the number of Republican women showing interest.

She called this year a “blip”.

“I think in two years we will have a very different conversation.”

Half a century of women in power

In November 1969, a Clinton woman became the state’s first female selectman. Marge Scully, a Democrat, won by just 37 votes.

Two years earlier, Ann Uccello had been elected mayor of Hartford, but Scully made history as the first woman elected to the highest office in a Connecticut town.

Scully’s bold step would soon be followed by other women across the state, including Barbara Wagner, who was voted Weston’s first female selectman in 1973.

A New York Times article 1972 captured the tension between avant-garde political aspirations and the traditional roles of local women at the time.

“For years, women served coffee, operated postage meters and campaigned for minor political posts,” it read. “But in unusual numbers in Fairfield County this fall, they are running for high political office and in four cities are running for the highest elected office.”

Two young girls from Weston, Julia and Jean, would see a classmate’s mother become the new first selectman the following fall. Julia watched Wagner pass through the town parades, waving from the car.

A decade later, as Jean was finishing high school, she saw her boyfriend’s mother, Helen Speck, snag first place in 1983.

This image of strong female leadership has remained etched in the girls.

Now, decades later, Julia Pemberton is running for her fifth term as Redding’s first selectman in the November election. Jean Speck, who married his high school sweetheart, is running for his second term in Kent.

Redding and New Fairfield both had large and significant proportions of women as heads of local government.

In the last five rounds of municipal elections, New Fairfield has been the only city of 14 examined by the News-Times to have two women vying for the first selectman at the same time. The 2019 election was the only time a man ran against a female candidate. This year, Del Monaco is running unopposed.

In Redding, Pemberton said women have held the reins for the majority of the past 40 years.

Standing strong in a field (still) dominated by men

Although Connecticut has its female pioneers, political representation continues to skew men. Women make up about a third of the state legislature, the highest percentage the state has ever seen. Currently, there are nine women in the Senate of the 36 member states: one Republican and eight Democrats.

Still, Del Monaco, Speck and Carr say the gender disparity in politics was not new to them. All three had previously worked in male-dominated fields.

“At some point you stop seeing yourself as a woman or a woman engineer or a candidate,” said Del Monaco, who was a chemical engineer. “You just need to know the issues, take a stand and communicate the issue to people. “

Carr, who served 25 years in the military, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, was often the only woman around, she said. As a Republican, Carr’s candidacy is perhaps even more outlier, as her party typically has fewer female candidates than Democrats.

However, the idea of ​​”potentially returning to a male dominated profession is not new to me,” she said.

Carr echoed Del Monaco’s thinking on gender and work: “I never saw myself as a female soldier,” she said. “It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t or couldn’t do something because I was a woman. It was my job to be a soldier first, not to be a female soldier.

Speck has worked in public health and said she was encouraged by advances in gender equity among leadership roles in this area. This year, she faces three male candidates.

Qualities of a leader

While the women who run for the first selectman may have different policies, platforms, and experiences, they share the belief that representation matters.

“Women can bring a different lens,” Speck said. “We have to have people of all genders. Non-binary people should take leadership positions because everyone brings something different to the table. “

Laura Smits, president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, said the more people see themselves, the more they think they too can be in those leadership positions.

Smits did not see the low percentages of local female candidates as a “harbinger of bad news,” but rather as a symptom of having 169 different municipalities, or “fiefdoms” as she described them, in Connecticut, each with a constantly evolving policy.

In 2021, candidates found the old adage “all politics is local” to be true. Voters care more about a candidate’s ability to lead and get things done than their gender.

“They saw you as a person and what did you say you could do for them,” Pemberton said of the local residents’ strong history of voting for women.

The group reported few local instances of sexist comments on their candidacy. Still, Speck said she hopes to one day change the title “selectman” to a more inclusive term.

Instead of dwelling on being a woman in a world still dominated by men, each spoke of role models – from greats like Amelia Earhart, Madeleine Albright and Ella Grasso, to more intimate heroes like mothers, fathers, sisters and in-laws – that propels them forward.

“What I say to all the girls is ‘You can be whatever you want to be,’” said Del Monaco. It was a message his mathematician mother gave him growing up. Del Monaco took it to heart.

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