SPRINGFIELD, NJ - The Springfield Democratic Party held its first Women’s Leadership Forum in honor of Women’s History Month Sunday afternoon. Moderator Erica DuBois, a newly elected Springfield Township Committeewoman had the idea for the forum after marching with her daughter at the Women’s March the day after the Inauguration in January.
“Women have been reaching out since the March asking 'What can we do?'" DuBois said. "I thought we would bring women together with women elected officials to see how we can affect change.”
The panel of six included mayors, a New Jersey Assemblywoman, a council president, a township committeewoman and the Union County Clerk.
Garwood Council President Sara Todisco, a 2006 Arthur L. Johnson High School graduate, was appointed to a seat on the council just one year after her graduation from Northeastern University. She has since been elected twice and is running for her third term. She said she grew up thinking women were equal. A school teacher, she now wonders why the overwhelming number of teachers are women but the administrators are mostly men.
The first speaker was Mayor Christine Dansereau of Roselle. She is the first woman mayor of Roselle. Her personal story was compelling with a loving but financially difficult childhood. She urged the women in attendance not to wait for a knock on the door.
“Women bring a different kind of voice," Dansereau said. "They are into building bridges and connecting people.”
New Jersey Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter of Paterson is the director of psychiatric services at a hospital and has two teenage children but still found time to run for office. She was chosen to run on the Democrat line when the seat became open. She had never run for office but was chosen over eight men who also wanted to run. Her motto is “We can make transactions but we want to be transformational.”
Colleen Mahr is in her fourth term as Mayor of Fanwood. She is the second longest serving female mayor in New Jersey.
"There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey and seventy woman mayors," Mahr said. "Of those seventy, only 35 were directly elected at the polls which is terrible.” The remaining 35 serve in towns rotate mayors among council members. Mahr was first asked to run when she was expecting her first child. Her first thought was to decline, but she reconsidered.
“If I don’t do this. I will always wonder if I could have done it,” Mahr said she thought at the time. She now has three boys. She offered this advice, “Be respectful, have ears, you don’t always have to talk. Be visible and you have to have really thick skin.”
Joanne Rajoppi the Union County Clerk is third generation Springfield but has lived in Union for the last thirty years. She said she didn’t know discrimination until she ran for office. Her first victory was board of education in Springfield at a time when the town was very divided. She next ran for township committee and won by the biggest plurality ever.
"It hasn’t been all fun and games," Rajoppi said. "Many men feel women were weak, malleable, manipulative and tokens. This is not a happy business sometimes, but we are strong and we are good negotiators.”
Questions were taken from the audience. The first question was "Is it easier or harder for a woman to get elected now since the last election?" Joanne Rajoppi answered and said, "It will be easier. There is a great reaction that will take place. Women are a beacon for having integrity.”
The second question was about what issues will be important for the next election cycle. Mahr said, “The governor's race is significant. So is health care, but don’t lose sight of what is happening on the local level. How are we funding our public school? Are property taxes at a tipping point?"
As part of DuBois's summary was "This is about women supporting women and the men in this room could not have been more supportive. We have a diverse community and all voices are not heard. We want to be a voice for them." There are hopes this will become an annual event.
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