The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
What does it take to get elected, and then re-elected for public office? Five North Country women mayors, past and continuing, shared their experiences when they were honored at a recent Women's History Round Table at Partridge Knoll. The theme was "Her Honor, the Mayor."
The five women are: Ruth F. Garner, mayor of Potsdam from 1977-81, and again from 1993 to the present who is running for a fifth term in Nov. 2001. Ruth Blankman Barbour, mayor of Canton from 1974-80; Marilyn I. Mintener, elected to three terms as mayor of Canton from 1984-91, after serving as both deputy mayor and acting mayor; Dierdre "Dede" K. Scozzafava, mayor of Gouverneur from 1993-98 when she resigned to assume her responsibilities as the newly elected representative for the 112th Assembly District of NY; and Margaret J. Elliott, mayor of Prospect, a small Adirondack town, from 1964-68, and a resident of Canton since 1984.
Moderated by Marie Regan, the Mayor's Round Table was co-sponsored by St. Lawrence County Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, St. Lawrence-Jefferson League of Women Voters, the Town Historian's Office of Canton, and the SUNY Potsdam Women's Studies Institute.
Some of the mayors were trail blazers, in the days when women in the North Country just did not run for office. When Margaret Elliott was elected in 1966, the local paper trumpeted: "First Woman Mayor in the 76 years of Prospect, NY." She received a letter from then Senator Robert Kennedy congratulating her on this historic break through. Ruth Garner was elected as village trustee in 1973, a historic first for Potsdam. Ruth Blankman was probably the first woman trustee on the Canton Village board when she was elected in 1974. Her election in 1975 was a double "first:" a woman and a Democrat elected as mayor of Canton.
Dede Scozzafava reminded those in attendance that there is a rich tradition in the North Country of women breaking political ground. The first woman to be elected to the New York State Senate was Rhoda Fox Graves, from Gouverneur, who had also served in the NYS Assembly, although she was not the first woman to do so. Dede had the privilege of serving for four years as Village of Gouverneur trustee, with mayor Laura Slade.
How did they do it? Each one had been actively involved in the community in various ways, and had shown leadership qualities, by taking responsibility and serving as chair or president of local organizations.
All five agreed that at the local level, party politics was not a deciding factor. What mattered was working for the good of the community. But, as Ruth Garner pointed out, in New York State it helps to get on the ballot if one has a party affiliation. Some financial help for campaign expenses from the party was usually available. Dede Scozzafava observed that money from a political party puts the candidate under some obligation to vote the party line, which could be contrary to one's own values and beliefs.
The support of family members was important. When Margaret Elliott was considering the request that she run for mayor, after having served as acting mayor for nearly two years, she spoke with her husband by phone. He was in Japan on company business at the time. He assured her that he had no doubt at all that she would continue to do a good job. When Ruth Blankman fielded a telephone call asking her to run for mayor, she tossed the question to her husband, who responded heartily, "Why not?" Ruth Garner's son John took time from his college studies to help run her first campaign.
Ruth Garner recalled that one year when both she and Ruth Blankman were running for office in their towns, their husbands collaborated to make up political buttons saying, "Don't be Ruthless!"
Dede Scozzafava recalled that having a supportive husband and parents had been her survival kit during her first term in the NYS Assembly. Marilyn Mintener, who continues an active role in the Democratic Party, says her husband, Brad, is with her "every step of the way."
What did you need to run for local elected office? These five mayors said you had to like people, and want to serve the community in a more meaningful way. You did not enter the local political arena for the money, but for the satisfaction of seeing something good get started in the community. They mentioned "shoe leather" as being an important campaign tool. You had to get out, meet your potential constituents, and listen to their concerns and complaints.
You needed to develop a thick skin and retain a sense of humor to tolerate the inevitable criticism. Any one of the mayor's decisions or positions, based on an evaluation of the information available, is bound to displease someone. Any pronouncement attributed to the mayor may upset some people.
The family in which you grow up plays an important role in giving someone the confidence to try to run for office. Dede Scozzafava recalls that her mother always gave her the sense that there was nothing she couldn't do, if she put her mind to it. Marilyn Mintener grew up in a family that always had a strong sense of responsibility for the community. Ruth Garner grew up in a family that encouraged discussion of local and national issues. From an early age, she learned to express her views, provided she had thought them through, and had been willing to consider different views of the same topic.
What particular abilities or experience did they have? They had raised, or were still raising a family. Their children learned to endure taunts and negative remarks their schoolmates had heard their parents make about "her honor, the mayor". They managed to live within the family budget. They each had worked in businesses that required dealing with the public.
Mayor Ruth Garner emphasized that a woman in office did not need to think and act as a man would. The perspective of a woman is different, and her approach to solving a problem might be different; but these differences could enrich the decision making process. Marilyn Mintener added that women, who tend to be more nurturing and caring, establish different priorities, and should be in politics.
They had the courage to, as Ruth Blankman Barbour (1921-2013), put it, "Go for it!" They learned from others in the office, from other helpful resources such as the Conference of Mayors. They listened, sifted the information, and then made decisions. They learned that what they had in mind could not always be achieved just then. It required some compromises.
Each felt their tenure in office had resulted in tangible improvements in their villages, such as: a much needed traffic light at a dangerous intersection in the small village of Prospect, which is still called "Margaret's light"; improvements to the water and sewage systems in Gouverneur; the installation of the Victorian street lamps along Main Street in Canton, which sparked a general "sprucing up" of downtown buildings and store fronts; the annexation of property which now holds the co-generator plant and the Comfort Inn, both of which have increased the tax base for the Village of Canton, and the development of the Partridge Run Golf Course and the Nature Trail; the building of a second bridge and the by-pass in Potsdam to facilitate the flow of traffic.
Despite the bumps and rough spots during their tenure, each seemed to get considerable satisfaction from their respective terms as mayor. On another occasion, Ruth Blankman Barbour described her time as mayor as, "one of the greatest adventures of my life. I enjoyed every minute of it."
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