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Women’s Work: Election 2018

Women are on the ballot in record numbers this November, stepping into the political fray with zeal and enthusiasm, and running in tough districts against long odds. The Hudson Valley is a proving ground for a few of the current generation of energized and ambitious Democratic women.

Prior to the Democratic Rural Conference, the New York State Federation of Democratic Women met at the Desmond Hotel in Albany. The meeting hosted four women running for NYS Senate: Jen Metzger, Pat Strong, Joan Seaman and Joyce St. George. NYS Fed. of DW Pres. Donna Schick; VPs Liliam Stettner, Lena Bishop, Margherita Rossi; and Treasurer Kathy P. Green.

Fears for her children’s future led Tistrya Houghtling to seek political office. “I want my daughters to have the same rights and opportunities as my son and the right to decide what happens to their bodies,” says Houghtling, who won the Democratic primary for New York’s 107th Assembly District in September. “I want my biracial son to be safe walking down the street as a black male. I want clean air for them to breathe and clean water for them to drink.”

Houghtling is not alone. Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, despite her popular vote victory, and the direction the country has taken under President Trump have galvanized an army of female political candidates locally and across the country. The #MeToo movement, combined with the election of a president who has mocked women and praised neo-Nazis, is spurring them on.

Trump’s disparaging and sexualized remarks about women, the many allegations of sexual misconduct against him, his failure to condemn violence by white supremacists, and an administration filled with white men have impelled women, and particularly women of color, to seek office in record numbers. Women’s rights rallies and marches across the country have demonstrated huge grassroots support for the values these candidates represent.

This year, more women than ever before ran in major-party gubernatorial, US Senate, and House primaries—and won them. So far, 256 female candidates for Congress, or nearly half of the 524 who ran, have advanced to the general election. They include about 50 African-American women. Thirteen women have been nominated by their parties to run for governor. If elected in Georgia, Stacey Abrams would become the first black female governor. In Idaho, Paulette Jordan has a chance to become that state’s first Native American governor. Running unopposed, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan is set to become the first Muslim congresswoman.

The election of these women would have far-reaching effects on their keys areas of focus, including health care, education, reproductive rights, and gun control.

“A record number of Democratic women are running this year and beyond, because they’re frustrated and want to do something for their communities,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of the women’s political advocacy group Emily’s List, which says it has fielded 36,000 inquiries from women interested in running for office since the 2016 election. “They’re running to replace Republicans who do nothing but push dangerous policies and coddle their out-of-control president,” says Schriock. “When these women win in November, they’re going to bring positive, progressive change to Washington and statehouses across the country.”

In the Bronx, the stunning primary victory of House candidate Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez—a young woman of color, socialist, and onetime bartender with scant political experience—over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley symbolized the upending of politics as usual. Two high-profile actresses also joined the fray, using their celebrity as a springboard into politics, as have a long line of male celebrities, including Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, and yes, Donald Trump. “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon lost the primary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but managed to win more than a third of the vote. Diane Neal of “Law & Order” is running as an independent against Democratic candidate Antonio Delgado and Republican John Faso in the 19th Congressional District.

Along with Hillary Clinton, these candidates are the spiritual descendants of Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law School professor who challenged Cuomo in 2014, winning more than a third of the vote on a shoestring budget. She ran for New York attorney general in this year’s primary, campaigning while eight-months pregnant, but lost to another woman, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, the first black woman to win a major-party nomination for statewide office in New York. Heavily favored in the general election, James is poised to make more history as the first black woman to hold statewide elected office in New York and the first woman to be elected attorney general in the state.

Brett Kavanaugh’s charged confirmation hearing and his subsequent nomination to the Supreme Court have added fuel to the fire and may end up sealing some political legacies, just as Clarence Thomas’s elevation to the Supreme Court after Anita Hill’s testimony led to a doubling of women in Congress in 1992, which was dubbed “The Year of the Woman.” Among them was California’s Dianne Feinstein, now the longest-serving female senator and also record-holder for most votes out of any candidate nationwide in the Senate election of 2012.

We spoke to local female candidates about why they decided to run and what they hope to accomplish.

Jen Metzger, Democratic candidate for the 42nd Senate District

A 17-year resident of Rosendale, Jen Metzger is the mother of three sons. She has worked in local government for a decade as chair of the Rosendale Environmental Commission and deputy town supervisor, and is currently serving her second term on the town council. She is cofounder and director of the energy-reform group Citizens for Local Power.

The recent retirement of longtime Republican Senator John Bonacic in the 42nd state Senate District has created an unexpected power vacuum. In one of 10 two-woman state Senate battles this year, Metzger and Republican Annie Rabbitt, county clerk in Orange County, are battling it out for the seat.

As a mother, a local elected representative, and director of Citizens for Local Power, an organization that fights for fair utility rates and a clean-energy economy, I understand firsthand the challenges we’re facing in the Hudson Valley and Catskills, and frankly, our state government is failing us.

This is a critical time. At the federal level, we’re going backward on so many issues—on women’s health and reproductive rights, on protections of our air and water, on public education, on workers’ rights. Our state government needs to step up, protect us from this assault, and move us forward.

Women’s issues are everyone’s issues. Women’s rights are human rights. We’re not living up to our democratic principles when women are paid less than men for equivalent work, or when women don’t have control over decisions about their own health, their own bodies. 

More than a third of female-headed households in New York live in poverty. Child care can consume a third or more of a woman’s income. Most women in my district are paid less than 82 percent of what men make for equivalent work, and the disparities are even greater between white men and black and Latino women. These gender and race injustices affect everyone. Families suffer and our communities suffer when a sizable portion of the population faces obstacles to full and fair participation in the economy.

Pat Strong, Democratic candidate for the 46th Senate District

Pat Strong has lived in Ulster County since 1983, working as a newspaper reporter and editor and as a consultant for the US Department of Energy. As a contractor for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, she has helped local businesses, government, and homeowners make their buildings more energy-efficient. In 2009, Strong cofounded the Business Alliance of Kingston, and for five years, she has produced Made in Kingston, an expo of locally made art and other creative goods.

In 2012, Republican George Amedore lost the 46th state Senate District to Democratic sheep farmer Cecilia Tkazyk by just 18 votes, but came back to beat her in 2014. Strong’s long history in the local business community makes this race also a bit of a toss-up.

The New York State Senate is 80 percent male. That seems absurd in 2018. Women bring a different perspective, and it should be the goal of every US legislative body to accurately reflect the people being served.

My experiences as a woman, mother, small-business owner, and community volunteer in the arts have all played a role in my decision to run. I’m not wealthy, and, like many small-business people, I have struggled to pay taxes and provide health insurance to my employees. My children went to public schools, so I’m very concerned with ensuring that our schools get the fair and equitable funding they deserve. And I am convinced that not only does art enrich our lives, it’s an economic driver in upstate communities that are experiencing an influx of New York City transplants who are bringing their arts businesses with them.

The #MeToo movement has brought many women’s traumatic experiences into the light of day, where they can be seen for what they are—violations of the law and a danger to progress in a civil society. Although we’ve just witnessed reprehensible behavior among Republican senators and the American president on this issue, it seems that we as a society are moving closer to zero tolerance for acts of sexual violence.

Diane Neal, independent candidate for the 19th Congressional District

In 2015, after a debilitating car accident in Los Angeles, Diane Neal moved from New York City to the Ulster County town of Hurley. An avid flyfisher, she had been coming to the area for decades to fish. Neal is best known for playing assistant district attorney Casey Novak on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” She dropped out of college to pursue a career in modeling and then turned to acting, but returned to school in 2009. Last May, she graduated from the Harvard Extension School with an associate degree.

According to recent polls, Democrat Antonio Delgado is leading Republican incumbent John Faso 43 percent to 36 percent in the 19th Congressional District. It is unclear what percentage of the vote Neal will garner, but she is unlikely to change the race’s trajectory.

What has really ignited me is the deepening factionalism and hyper-partisanship that the loss of Hillary and the accession of Trump has exacerbated, and my desire to find another way forward. The Kavanaugh hearing and his subsequent confirmation have only made more clear the divide between us as a population.

With Hillary’s loss, I felt a pang of sadness for what could have been and an understanding that there need to be more women in elected office. Most people do not understand things that they have not experienced, and that is true for many of the men in government. They can’t legislate well for women if they have no empathy for the challenges all women face on a daily basis, most of which are underaddressed or not addressed at all.

Hillary will always have a special place for many of us. She blazed a trail through unknown territory and over decades when the world was changing rapidly. Both her successes and failures have provided innumerable valuable lessons for all of us who have followed her path to any degree.

Tistrya Houghtling, Democratic candidate for the 107th Assembly District

Tistrya Houghtling was born and raised in New Lebanon, where she now serves as town clerk. After a career organizing events across the country, she returned to her hometown eight years ago to raise her three children. Houghtling served as deputy court clerk and court clerk before mounting a successful bid for town clerk.

Houghtling is hoping to replace Republican Jake Ashby, who earned his seat in a special election and has been in office for only four months. In a district that leans to the right, this will be a steep climb for the Democrat.

I am running to ensure that our government is for the people, by the people, and of the people—so women and working-class people have proper representation and all voices are heard.

It was hard as a mother of three young children to make the decision to sacrifice time with them, but the stakes are just too high right now. Women are vastly underrepresented in our government, and it is time that we had a voice at the table.

A woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, pay equity, women’s health and reproductive rights, redefining how we treat victims of sexual assault to ensure that they are safe and not blamed when they come forward are all important issues for me. Women should be comfortable reporting when they are a victim of assault and should not be asked questions like what they were wearing. We also need to make sure that our young people understand consent and respect for all people.

I felt that our country was on the right track to bring true equality to women and girls, but recently has taken a U-turn and started quickly heading in the wrong direction. Women for too long have remained silent, and with the #MeToo movement, women have once again found their voices.

Our current president has led a constant attack on women, with their voices and stories not being heard or believed and their bodies being objectified and disrespected. I’m standing up for women in this current state of politics.

Karen Smythe , Democratic candidate for the 41st Senate District

Dutchess County native Karen Smythe grew up in Poughkeepsie and now lives in Red Hook. After working in marketing, she became the fourth generation of her family to run their construction business, C. B. Strain & Son. She also has served on the board of Bardavon and the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum and as a trustee of Vassar College.

Smythe is challenging Republican incumbent Sue Serino of Hyde Park. The race has put party-line divisions on issues such as health care, gun rights, and abortion in the spotlight. Smythe may gain an edge from her family ties: She is the sister-in-law of Governor Cuomo’s campaign chairman and former top aide, William Mulrow.

What has transpired in this country since 2016 has truly motivated me to get involved and take action by running for elected office.

Knowing that my opponent, the current senator, opposes protecting Roe v. Wade, access to contraception, and legislation to protect domestic-violence victims from gun violence gave me further incentive to get into the race to give people a real choice in November.

I will also advocate for more protections against sexual harassment in both the private and public sectors and for pay equality. 

My personal experiences are why I believe that I can be effective and help improve people’s lives. While raising a family here in Dutchess County, I ran a local mechanical-contracting firm. My parents are both in their 80s, and I work hard to ensure that they can have what they need to age gracefully. I know how important it is to support good economic development, have good public schools, and ensure that families are safe in their community and seniors are able to find fulfillment and comfort as they age.

Joyce St. George, Democratic candidate for the 51st Senate District

Joyce St. George has lived in the 51st state Senate District for more than 30 years. Trained as a corruption investigator in the New York attorney general’s office and an expert witness on sexual assault in the Queens district attorney’s office, she and her husband have conducted workshops on crisis and conflict management for police departments, government agencies, and major corporations from their Kingston office. St. George has been a chair of the board at Margaretville Hospital and the Mountainside Residential Care Facility and has taught communications courses at Columbia University and New York University.

St. George is vying to replace Republican incumbent James Seward, who has held the seat for 32 years, in solid Republican territory. Her campaign is very much a long shot but represents a concerted effort to build an opposition movement to the old-boy politics that have dominated the area for decades.

I had no plans to run, but after the 2016 election of Trump, I became more interested in political dynamics. Friends asked me to run and I declined, until one suggested I review my opponent’s record. I did, and then I called my friend who is a member of the Democratic Committee in Delaware County and said I would run.

My senator voted against legislation to take guns from individuals convicted of domestic violence, against gay marriage twice, and against gays adopting children. He blocked legislation that would have codified Roe v. Wade in New York State and protected reproductive and contraceptive rights.

I believe many issues are interconnected: poverty, education, lack of jobs and economic development, environmental pollution, social justice, and women’s rights. We can’t solve one problem that challenges women without looking at the impact of others.  

My resolve was pretty well-fueled before Kavanaugh. My opponent has given me all the impetus I’ve needed to run. However, as a former expert witness in sexual assault for the Queens district attorney’s office and an experienced rape counselor, I’ve been disgusted by the entire Kavanaugh affair, on many levels. I now speak about the Kavanaugh incident at rallies throughout the state.

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