Springfield Democratic Club Presented the Women’s Leadership Forum

Springfield Township Committeewoman Erica DuBois moderating the panel Credits: Ellen Dickson
Mayor Colleen Mahr and Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi Credits: Ellen Dickson
Bonnie Stewart of Westfield and Union County Freeholder Chair Bruce Bergen Credits: Ellen Dickson
Margaret Bandrowski, former Springfield Township Committeewoman and Deputy Mayor Credits: Ellen Dickson
David Harnet, candidate for New Jersey Assembly Credits: Ellen Dickson
Materials at the Forum Credits: Ellen Dickson

SPRINGFIELD, NJ - The Springfield Democratic Party had a nice turnout at the Chisholm Community Center Sunday afternoon for their first Women’s Leadership Forum done in honor of Women’s History Month.  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. She said, “Women have been reaching out since the March asking what can we do?  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, Council President, Township Committeewoman and the Union County Clerk. 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 to not wait for a knock on the door. She volunteered that “Women bring a different kind of voice. They are into building bridges and connecting people.”

Council President Sara Todisco of Garwood graduated from High School in 2006. A year after graduating she had a seat on Council.  She has been elected twice and is running for her third term. She grew up thinking women were equal but now as a school teacher she wonders why the overwhelming number of teachers are women but the administrators are mostly men.

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New Jersey Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter of Patterson is 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.  She recited the following statistics,”There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey and seventy woman mayors. Of those seventy, only thirty five were directly elected at the polls which is terrible.”  Some towns rotate mayors amongst council members. When Mahr was asked to run she was expecting her first child.  Her first thought was to decline then she decided, “If I don’t do this I will always wonder if I could have done it.”  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.  But “ hasn’t been all fun and games. 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.”  A 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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