It has been a couple of years now since we first started beating the drum to get more women to run for public office. The initial thinking was that they’re better at compromise. Now, we see two local women here in eastern Missouri lining up to lead two very different cities that border one another. What ModerateMoms wonders motivates these women? And how do they expect to govern differently from their male counterparts?
Nancy Spewak of Ladue has spent her whole life in this suburb that feels a lot like ,”Mayberry.” Its small town facade is a little deceiving in that its strength lies not in the scope of its size but in its tradition and character. Spewak has served for almost 8 years on the City Council where she represents Ward 3. She is now running unopposed to fill a vacancy created by the current Mayor’s resignation.
I really love the story of Spewak’s initial entrance into civic service which began when she was asked to be on the committee that organizes Ladue’s Dogwood Parade. The Dogwood is the state tree in Missouri. This unique neighborhood parade was an annual tradition that brought families together from the public and private schools, from different subdivisions and from different walks of life. Kids and their familes walked, rode bikes or in one family’s case, rode on the antique fire engine that had been passed down over the years.
Spewak has four sons who have been educated in the public schools. She is a successful businesswoman who started a staging business just as the real estate boom was starting. A key connection with an established, prominent realtor led to repeat referrals and soon enough, Property Enhancements was off and running. Interestingly enough, Spewak says she first learned of Michelle Harris, who is running for Mayor of Clayton, when Harris’s husband hired Spewak’s firm to stage his father-in-law’s home.
Now she’s getting ready to replace, not one, but both of the fire stations without any additional taxes. She also has plans to reach out to new homeowners and residents to make sure they feel as at home here as the many Ladue residents who were born here. If you haven’t met Nancy Spewak, be sure to. She has a definite ‘can-do’ attitude and her enthusiasm for this town is infectious.
Right next door, Alderwoman Michelle Harris is in a relatively tight three way race for Mayor of Clayton. Clayton is an interesting place in that its base population of 15,000 residents swells dramatically each day as employees who live across the region come to work in Clayton. Her 20 years working for Fortune 500 companies, while raising two children, did not dissuade Michelle Harris from serving when asked. Whether it was the Cub Scout den she organized and led for five years or the boys lacrosse program that she co-founded, Michelle Harris can’t help but bubble to the top it seems in every task she takes on. She has served on many boards and commissions and helped raise 2 million dollars for public/private investment in Clayton through the Clayton Century Foundation.
Interestingly, both of these Moms for Mayor share a similar vision. Each said separately that they are focussed on collaboration within each of their municipalities but also with surrounding areas and institutions, each of them defies the concept that women do not understand business or finance as well as men and both Spewak and Harris are interested in boosting their local economies by encouraging residents to buy local.
So, where does the confidence come from to make that transition to public service? And more than confidence, where do these Moms hone their leadership skills once they have decided to run for political office? Harris says she got her training from the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life. A non-partisan institute, Sue Shear has classes that teach women the ins and outs of transitioning to life in the public eye. I talked to Dayna M. Stock, who is a manager at the Institute about what kinds of training is available to these women. She said, “One thing that I learned in all of my years here is that women feel like, if they take on a challenge like this, they want to take a class. They want to make sure they’re really prepared. One course offered at Sue Shear is “Pipeline to Local Office,” which is most relevant to women Mayors; the other is a course for women seeking higher office. It’s a course where they can learn the basics of how to put together a campaign for public office, meet role models, hear stories about what worked and what didn’t. We give them a blue print but also the confidence that they now know what they need to do and they can go out and do it. We also have programs for women considering a run for State Representative or other higher office.”
“One thing that I would stress,” Stock went on to say, “is that we don’t talk at all about issues or each candidate’s individual positions or how to frame your message to appeal to certain groups. We focus on the skill set required. It’s anybody’s guess what another attendee’s political leanings are. Sometimes people reveal why they’re there but others do not. And very rarely, we have two women coming at the same time who are running for the same office. We once had two women running for at-large seats in Webster Groves. In that case, there were three candidates for two seats and both of the women who attended our program won. In some of Missouri’s bigger cities, like St. Louis and Kansas City, you might declare your party but with most municiple elections, Boards of Alderman, School Boards, Fire Districts and City Council, you typically have non-partisan races.”
We talked very briefly about the suspicion inherent in the general population right now when it comes to politics, party and principle. And the perception that you have to take a side. Or the ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mentality. Stock says it’s been a challenge for the Institute, too. “Our goal is to get more women involved in the political process,” she said, “They can be Republican, Democrat, Green or Independent. We just know how important it is for women to say that they’re not comfortable with the direction things are going in.” We just know how important it is for women to have a voice.”
Michelle Harris, who took two courses, says the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life provided her with “a great foundation upon which to run a campaign.”