Panel encourages women to run for public office

AMHERST – In 1992, American voters sent more women than ever before to the U.S. Senate after questions were raised about the dominance of males during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.

This year could be another Year of the Woman. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and as another Supreme Court drama unfolds, an unusual number of women are running for public office around the country and in New Hampshire. For those women who have thought about running but are holding back, three female elected officials have a message:

Just do it.

They spoke at a forum in the Amherst Town Library called Women Run!, organized by the Southern New Hampshire Branch of the American Association of University Women and the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation.

“You will not be sorry,” said state Rep. Shannon Chandley (Amherst-D), one of the panelists. “If you win, you will love it, and people will support you.”

With Chandley on the panel were Shannon Barnes, who chairs the Merrimack School Board and is the 2018 president of the N.H. School Boards Association, and Laura Dudziak, a first-term member of the Milford Board of Selectmen.

Barnes built on Chandley’s idea.

“Do it with conviction. Do it with purpose. Do the work,” she said.

When asked why she ran for the local office, she said, for one, it gives her a chance to “drive out people who are not good for the job.”

When she ran for school board, the PFOAs water pollutants were a big issue in Merrimack, and the local water board did not have acceptable answers. It was vitally important,” she said, because the school board has a responsibility for children’s “developing brains and organs.”

Dudziak, an Amherst attorney, had never run for public office when she won election to the Milford Board of Selectmen.

“We need many more women, so we can focus on issues affecting women,” she said.

All of them said women often say they don’t feel they are qualified. “Seldom does a man say that,” Chandley said.

Responding to questions from the audience, the panelists talked about time commitments and how they fit public service around family and work responsibilities.

“You have to have a flexible employer,” and “it’s good optics for them,” said Barnes.

In the audience of about 25 women, Liz Overholt, of Amherst, who is town treasurer and whose late husband served as a selectman, advised women to go to meetings and get themselves known and learn what the job is about.

Chandley is running for state Senate and said the time commitment for a state representative can vary with the choice of committee, but being a state Senator is close to a full-time job.

Moderator Sarah Mattson Dustin, of the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, provided data on women in government: Less than one-third of N.H. House members are women, and women are less likely to run for office, but they are more likely to win when they do run.

“It’s incumbent on us,” she said, “when we meet smart, capable people, we have to ask them to run.”

Twenty-one women who were encouraged by the Women Run! program were on the primary ballot in September, she said, and 20 of them moved forward.

The women also talked about their struggles.

Criticism on social media has become a factor since she first ran for the House years ago, Chandley said, and she tries not to take it personally, “but it still hurts,” and she refuses to be impolite.

Barnes said she was the one woman in a five-member school board when she started, and now there is only one man.

“I had to be aggressive to get my areas of concern addressed,” she said.

Lisa Nash, of Bedford, who is running for state representative in House District 41, and Rosemary Rung, of Merrimack, a candidate for House District 21, were in the audience and seemed excited to be running and asked questions of the panelists.

Both are Democrats. According to the Women’s Foundation, women candidates in the state are twice as likely to be Democrats.

Asked why she is running for the Senate, Chandley, who is the ranking member of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the Senate has a 17-7 men-to-women ratio, and a more diverse body would give better representation.

“You’re one of 24,” so your vote carries more weight,” she said. “I want to make sure our district is well represented” on issues such as the opioid crisis and education.

The basic reason for serving, she said is that you have a chance to vote on legislation.

Using a hypothetical situation about an attempt to raise acceptable levels of chemical pollutants in water, she said being on the Legislature gives her an opportunity to do research, weigh all the ramifications and listen to experts.

“The legislation we pass affects each of us every day.”

The AAUW partnered with the N.H. Women’s Foundation to bring the program to Amherst. The Women’s Foundation is New Hampshire’s only statewide, nonpartisan program focused on inspiring more women to run for state and local office.

In 2018, 335 New Hampshire women ran in primary elections for county, state and federal offices, compared to 306 in 2016.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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